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What Secularism Means to Africa

Thursday 6 December 2018, by siawi3


What Secularism Means to Africa

by Catholics for Choice

August 2017

What Secularism Means to Africa:
What it has been,
what it hasn’t been
and what it could mean for human rights

Why This Meeting Matters . . . . . 2
Final Declaration . . . . . . . . . . 4
ParticipantBiographies . . . . . . . . . .5
DiscussionSummary . . . . . . . . . . .13
ConferencePapers . . . . . . . . . . . . .25

Final Declaration

We believe in a secular society that:
- Actively defends and supports the separation of religion and state;
- Champions human and civil rights on behalf of all of its citizens, without exception;
- Recognizes and protects the inherent values and rights of each of its citizens;
- Defends and upholds freedom of speech;
- Respects religious, atheist and humanist groups and in which all are able to express their views equally;
- Does not oppress or give preferential treatment in any way to any group; and
- Does not favor one religion over another or force anyone to adhere to any particular religious belief.

We are committed to advancing a secular society:
- That advances principles of human rights, human dignity, nondiscrimination and rule of law;
- Where individuals experience freedom of religion and freedom from religion; and
- Where no one is compelled to adopt a religious belief for any reason.

We believe that secularism can benefit African societies by:
- Contributing towards nation building and social cohesion;
- Creating space for dissent and freedom of conscience;
- Making a distinction between political and religious powers and roles;
- Creatingtransparencyaround relationships between religion and government;
- Creating spaces for open discussion between people of all faiths and no faith;
- Fostering a community that lives at peace and rejects religious or nonreligious extremism; and
- Supporting the rights and autonomy of individuals.


Africa’s Secular Traditions: From its precolonial origins to today

With the second panelist, former Catholic seminarian and journalist Leo Igwe, we took a deeper dive into the precolonial origins of secularism in Africa and how it evolved, and in many ways weakened, in colonial and postcolonial governments across Africa.

Secularism derives from the Latin word saeculum, which means of this temporal age in the world, as opposed to the divinely eternal realm of God. In other words, anything “secular” has to do with earthly rather than spiritual affairs. In many of Africa’s indigenous societies, there was a separation of shrine and state, of priests and kings, of sacred and earthly affairs.

For instance, among the Igbos in today’s southeastern Nigeria, the office of the king, the Eze, was distinct from that of the priests long before Europe’s Enlightenment. The Ezes oversaw the day- to-day administration of the community, while the priests handled spiritual matters. The priests performed sacrifices and libations and consulted with the gods. They operated under the chiefs who consulted them whenever the need arose.

Similarly, in the north of modern-day Ghana, chiefs govern the Dagomba and these chiefs are seen as the owners of the land. Meanwhile, priests are seen as the owners of the gods. The owners of the land are the political heads and people go to them for political matters. Even today, for instance, a governor visiting the community will go to the chief. However, if rain has not fallen, the Dagomba will go to the priests who will offer a sacrifice for divine intervention.

When colonialism arrived in Africa, along with Islamic and Christian missionaries, these dynamics were disrupted, with important consequences for secularism in Africa today. Colonialists arbitrarily used laws to bring both chiefs and priests under their control and overruled indigenous forms of governance. Despite the supposed secular nature of the colonial state, there was a strong mix of colonial politics and colonial religion because colonial government officials relied heavily on missionary churches to bring local populations under their rule and to spread and normalize colonial culture. As Igwe described:
“[Africans] did not know who came to missionize and who came to politicize.”

Christian missionaries ran schools, hospitals and other essential services as part of and long after colonial rule. Africans serving in the colonial administration were educated by missionaries and traveled to Europe. As a result, a Westernized African elite arose that was faithful to and heavily influenced by the church. These elites often became postcolonial rulers.
Postcolonial nation building throughout Africa was supported by and intermixed with religious authority and influence.

As a result, although some postcolonial states, especially those previously under French rule, enshrined secular principles in their constitutions, the separation of the church from the state has not played out in practice. And in some cases, the drafters of these constitutions did not officially declare a secular state, because they conflated secularism with atheism.

As Igwe argued:
“The drafters of the [Nigerian] constitution could not officially enshrine secularity due to resistance from those who were against what many believed and still believe to be a Western ideology that will prohibit religion and make atheism a state religion.”

In some states with Muslim populations, exceptions were also made to accommodate the imposition of customary or Sharia law in marriage and family matters. Consequently, Christian and Islamic influence on indigenous traditions complicated efforts to establish firmly rooted secular states in postcolonial Africa. We discussed these challenges robustly.

Our group addressed one of the chief challenges of secularism in Africa—the prevalence of weak states. In many ways, secularism assumes and espouses a balance of power between the state and the church. However, in many postcolonial African countries, churches and faith- based institutions are predominant in the administration of essential services. They have reach into remote areas of Africa that neither colonial nor postcolonial authorities have been able to functionally govern. As one participant explained:
“There are gaps in services that people need at the local level, and in many cases the state is not providing them, but the church or the mosque is.
In many cases there is no balance between the state and religious institutions at the local level—one is functioning fairly well and the other is not functioning as well.”

This gap in many parts of Africa has meant that church institutions are more trusted and have more legitimacy than state institutions. One Kenyan participant described it in stark terms:
“There are parts of Kenya for example where you go and [the locals] only know the Catholic church because they have never seen the government. In fact, they will ask you—are you from Kenya? Because they think they are not part of Kenya.”

In some areas, the church undertakes state-like functions, while imposing its value system on those it services. This dynamic has also created a symbiotic relationship between political and church leaders. Because people are loyal to the church, church leaders in some cases recommend who should be elected.
We agreed that advancing a secular state is not only a matter of ensuring a balance or “wall of separation” between church and state at the central level, but at the local level as well. That does not mean that we undermine or disallow the sense of community that people get from their association with a particular religion (that may include faith-based community services).

Rather that there is a healthy limit between the religious and the political.
Reinforcing secularism in Africa will also require free debate about its universality and its role in allowing the space for safeguarding both traditional and contemporary values. While some African constitutions make mention of secularism, over time there has been an encroachment of religion in African politics, sometimes under the guise of “African values.” Now more than ever, religiosity and extremism of all faiths are on the rise. Our group agreed that African societies need a more robust battle of ideas to truly engender homegrown buy-in for secularism. And that means addressing thorny issues about how to balance respect for African values, without allowing it to be a pretext for imposing one set of beliefs upon others or for curtailing the universal rights for women, LGBT communities and other marginalized groups. African societies must also consider how to guarantee tolerance for the free exercise of traditional rituals like witchcraft, as well as new religions like Mormonism and evangelical movements gaining ground across Africa. These debates are necessary in order to promote truly pluralistic states not only on paper, but in practice.

Challenges to Secularism: When religion, culture and politics merge

The secular state faces unique challenges in Africa because of the complex interplay between indigenous and colonial cultures, religions and politics. Participants delved into these dynamics in interactive discussions around: the acculturalization of religion, the religionizing of culture and the religionizing of politics in contemporary Africa.

Culture has impacted religion and vice versa in Africa. For instance, Islam in
Africa certainly looks different than Islam elsewhere in the world. Conversely, some indigenous cultural practices like wedding customs have changed due to colonial religious influences. And in some countries what might have been patriarchal cultural practices like polygamy are now justified with religious pretexts. And certainly we have seen in many African countries how the introduction of colonial religions led to the spread of social norms and laws that further restrict women.

Our participants discussed the interplay between religion and politics. As mentioned earlier, because of the outsized role of churches in Africa and their ability to wield resources, a symbiotic relationship between political and church figures is prevalent. Politicians exploit their relationships with religious leaders to attain and hold on to power, while religious figures use their influence over politicians to impose their doctrines and beliefs on society. As one conference participant noted,
“Many of our leaders claim to be where they are because of their religious affiliations and the resources from which they benefitted. So if you went to a missionary school or relied on a missionary hospital, and you have a religious upbringing, as a leader you cannot divorce yourself from that.”

Some participants claimed that even those leaders who are not religious join a church and use religious language to gain the trust and ultimately votes of their constituencies. The expediency of these power relationships was summed up by one Ugandan participant in this way:
“In the African continent whoever is in power and politics, uses secular and religious arguments for their own convenient purposes.”

Some of us, however, conceded that not all religious influence is negative. In some cases, faith leaders have played positive roles in promoting social justice and inter- faith dialogue and reconciliation. However, they have also wielded undue influence over political leaders on matters of public health, such as vaccines, contraception and reproductive services. In some states, politicians have used religious pretexts to regulate what is taught in schools about science and sex.

It became clear that there must be a line between the free exercise of religious beliefs and civic engagement and undue influence by religious leaders on public policy. Participants underscored the importance of allowing religious authorities to express their views, so long as political leaders do not legislate based on those views. As Jon O’Brien highlighted:
“It’s really dangerous if anybody is silenced. Religious authorities should be allowed to speak and be heard. It’s absolutely critical for a democracy that everybody participate. But what religious figures do not have a right to do is to transfer their beliefs into laws that affect the rights of others who do not share their views or beliefs.”

As Ambassador Brookman-Amissah emphasized, political leaders must also separate their personal religious beliefs from their public policy role:
“[Political figures] may be and indeed have the right to be religious in their personal capacity, but in the exercise of state authority, including in the making of laws and policies, they should not be influenced by their religion or by any religious prescription.”

One Kenyan participant argued that this separation should exist not only in the function of public office, but across the public sphere:
“If I am a doctor, I should know that I am a doctor whose work is based on science. If I am a politician, there is a constitution that I should follow.”
Our group also deliberated how the interplay between religion, culture
and politics impacts gender and reproductive rights. Activist Fatou
Sow highlighted how patriarchy within traditional cultures, politics and religions— and the rise of religious fundamentalism— has curtailed women’s rights on the continent. Even when a country’s constitution may delineate certain rights, women often do not enjoy these liberties in practice due to patriarchal customs and carve outs for customary and Sharia law. These carve outs often apply to family issues that most impact women, like decisions about who to marry and when and how to have children.

We discussed how often African leaders seek to disguise intolerance—including on gender and LGBT rights—as religious belief or traditional “African values” when in reality they are seeking to restrict free will, conscience and autonomy. Secularism provides a useful frame in which to reject these repressive tactics. As Sow explained, a secular state rejects the imposition of one set of beliefs in the public space; it safeguards the right to think freely, believe freely and act freely with bodily autonomy and integrity:
“Secularism is the only way I can say my body is mine. We cannot pass a law against my body because of what is in the Bible, or in the Quran.”

Our participants also discussed the utility of promoting secular approaches to curb the rise of extremism on the continent. The last presenter, public policy advocate Kunle Olulode, told the cautionary tale of a case in Nigeria in which a journalist’s controversial comments about the Prophet during the infamous Miss World contest in Lagos set off an explosion of sectarian violence. As the incident underscored, the weakness of civil society left a void for extremist responses. Thus, not only politicians, but ordinary citizens and opinion shapers must promote secularist approaches to create the space for tolerance of diverse beliefs and peaceful free expression. In Africa, weak states have allowed for the ascendance of religious institutions; but so too the lack of strong civil society and free press has left a vacuum for fundamentalism to take hold.

See full text of this publication here