States and Religions in West Africa: Problems and Perspectives

Chapter 3
States and Religions in West Africa: Problems and Perspectives


Fatou Kiné Camara


Behind the debates over future policy is a debate over history – a debate over the causes of our current situation. The battle for the past will determine the battle for the present. So it’s crucial to get the history straight.1


Geographically, West Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries distributed over an area of approximately five million km2 (the surface area of the 27 European Union member states comprises a total of 4.3 million km2): Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Togo. In two-thirds of these countries between 50 and 100 per cent of the population is Muslim: Mauritania (100 per cent),2 Senegal (94 per cent),3 Mali (90 per cent),4 The Gambia (90 per cent),5 Guinea (85 per cent),6 Niger (85 per cent),7 Sierra Leone (60 per cent),8 Burkina Faso (50 per cent),9 Guinea Bissau (50 per cent),10 Nigeria (50 per cent).11 In Côte d’Ivoire, it is the foreign workers who are overwhelmingly Muslim.12 There is a large number of Christians in West Africa, but they form the majority of the population in only three West African countries: Cape Verde,13 Benin (42.8 per cent)14 and Ghana (68.8 per cent).15 Small communities in West Africa follow other world religions such as Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Indigenous African religions are followed by a large segment of the population in Togo (51 per cent),16 Liberia (40 per cent),17 Burkina Faso (40 per cent)18 and Guinea-Bissau (40 per cent).19 However, what the statistics do not reveal is the syncretism that is an integral part of African beliefs. In Africa, a Christian or a Muslim is not only a Christian or a Muslim; he/she is also a follower of the indigenous faith whether or not he/she admits it openly. Senegal’s first president, famed poet L.S. Senghor, who was a Catholic raised by missionaries, testified as to the continued existence of indigenous faith in both Christian and Muslim Senegalese men and women. Senghor wrote the following in the preface of a book by P. Alexandre, entitled Les Africains:


As today a Moslem Head of State will consult the ‘sacred wood’, and offer in sacrifice an ox or a bull, I have seen a Christian woman, a practicing medical doctor, consult the sereer ‘Pangool’ (the snakes of the sacred wood). In truth, everywhere in Black Africa, the ‘revealed religions’ are rooted in the animism which still inspires poets and artists, I am well placed to know it and to say it.20


Indigenous faith still shapes the spiritual beliefs of the majority of African people. Religious tolerance is therefore the norm in Western Africa. Accordingly, 15 of the 16 West African countries are secular states who recognize freedom of religion. Mauritania is the only Islamic republic in the area.21 All the other West African states are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Secularity and neutrality of the state in all matters relating to religion is listed among the constitutional principles shared by all member states in art. 1 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, 2001. The Protocol defines secularity as:


freedom for each individual to practise, within the limits of existing laws, the religion of his/her choice everywhere on the national territory. The secularism shall extend to all parts of the State, but shall not deprive the State of the right to regulate, with due respect to human rights, the different religions practised on the national territory or to intervene when law and order break down as a result of any religious activity.


The ECOWAS’s definition of secularity is consistent with the fundamental principle enshrined in art. 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.


This definition shows that secularism is not anti-religious or akin to an atheistic state (meaning, one officially opposed to all religious beliefs and practices). Secularism guarantees all citizens equal rights regardless of their beliefs, whether they are atheists, agnostics or believers. A secular state recognizes and protects freedom of conscience and freedom of religion of all. Secularism is also a tool for democracy, because it guarantees the free discussion of any rule and of any societal programme without invoking a divine entity, and its human interpreters, to arbitrate (put an end to) debates. Under these principles, government in a secular state cannot interfere with religious affairs unless ‘law and order break down as a result of any religious activity’ (ECOWAS Protocol, 2001); conversely, religious authorities cannot dictate state policies. However, for political or economic purposes, the principles of secularism are being put aside in some West African countries with a strong Muslim majority. In the north of Nigeria, 12 states have installed the shari’a. In Senegal, the Code de la Famille (Family Law) has a chapter entitled ‘Muslim Law of Inheritance’ (Droit musulman des successions) without any corresponding chapter on Christian inheritance law or Animist/ Fetishist22 inheritance law. In Senegal, Mali and Niger, legal reforms promoting equal rights for women have been put aside because of pressures from Muslim associations. Thus the constitutional norm of secularism is under attack in West African countries.


To give a ‘cultural legitimacy’ to their attacks on secularity, most advocates of the implementation of shari’a law on African soil present secularism as a Western principle foreign to Africans. This chapter will therefore focus on the relations between state and Islam with the aim, first, of proving the falsity of the statement about the foreign nature of secularity. The second objective of this chapter is to expose the origins of the calls for establishing Muslim states in West Africa. Each West African state has unique features; this chapter does not dwell upon them. That is because the purpose of the study is to offer an historical perspective of current problems in state and religion interactions, one that sees West Africa as a whole geographic and geopolitical area and not as cut up pieces of a giant puzzle, and to put forward the mechanics behind the noted impact of Muslim ideology in certain West African states. Hopefully this approach will bring to light issues that are often masked when one particular state is the focus. Although this chapter does not study the influence of Christian lobbying on African governments, it does not mean to imply in any way that such lobbying does not exist or does not have a significant impact on state laws and state governance. On the contrary, one hopes that the approach put forward in this chapter regarding the relations between state and Islam can be applied to the study of relations between state and church. Both religions are imported ones; the first part of the chapter will show that the massive conversions to both religions have been helped, monitored and used by colonial authorities. The first section will also interrogate Africa’s history in order to establish that secularity, respect for all faiths and freedom of religion are indigenous to the African continent. This leads naturally to the second part of the chapter, which will address the following question: if one cannot impute religious intolerance to African culture or tradition, what are the sources of the current problems in states where secularism is threatened by the call for the implementation of shari’a law? The chapter also seeks to show that the case of Nigeria should not, because of its specificity, be viewed as an exception, but as a precedent to be heeded.


Religious Diversity in West Africa: An Historical Perspective


From the seventeenth century onwards, the influence of Islamic culture and its distribution centres in West Africa (e.g., Timbuktu) were in decline because of wars caused by the intensification of the transatlantic slave trade and invasions from North Africa. Concomitantly, warlords used Islam as a pretext for wars of conquest. None of these wars were to lead to the Islamization of the conquered territories. By the late nineteenth century, Islam in West Africa had penetrated only the royal courts and merchant elite; the masses remained attached to their ancestral faith and ancestral laws. The expansion of Islam and of the Islamic brotherhoods were to be a direct consequence of the colonial conquest.


The Cohabitation of Islam and Indigenous African Laws from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century

After the Muslim conquest in the Middle East and North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam spread into West Africa along the trans-Saharan trade routes. It was introduced into the royal courts by Berber merchants and Muslim scholars who gradually ingratiated themselves to their hosts. Members of the aristocracy and merchant elite converted to Islam, but the people in their overwhelming majority retained their indigenous African faith. Throughout the Middle Ages Islam remained the religion of rulers and traders, an Islam of chiefs and lords in the midst of a peasantry still committed to their ancestral religion.23 Christianity, which was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa in the fifteenth century by European missionaries, does not prosper in West Africa until the time of the colonial conquest (1890). Until then, indigenous law remained the operating law throughout West Africa. Even in areas with high Muslim density, as in Niani, the capital of the Empire of Mali, shari’a law was not applied. In its heyday in the thirteenth century, the Mali Empire covered most of West Africa. It included Guinea and Mali (the heart of the Empire), Senegal and the Gambia, a part of Mauritania, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. It extended west from the Atlantic coast to the Niger River bend in the east; from Timbuktu it extended south to the Hausa inland (in what is now North Nigeria). During his visit to that great West African Empire in the fourteenth century, the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta wrote about the fact that although the Mansa (emperor) and the people of the towns he stayed in were Muslims, shari’a law was totally disregarded.24


Ibn Battuta stayed in the capital of the Empire of Mali for eight months, from 28 June 1352 to 27 February 1353. Secularity, or separation of religion and the law of the land, is clear in the description he gives of the place of Islam in the lives of the Muslim inhabitants of Walata. (Walata was situated in the south-eastern part of present day Mauritania, and it marked the northern boundary of the Empire of Mali). Battuta made the following statement:


The condition of these people is astonishing, and its manners are odd. As for the men, they are by no means jealous of their wives; none of them is named after his father; but each one attaches its genealogy to his maternal uncle. The heritage is collected by the sons of the sister of the deceased, to the exclusion of the deceased’s own children.


Right after he described rules that are entirely foreign to Muslim laws of inheritance and genealogy, he firmly states that these people with their strange customs are nonetheless Muslims who ‘make with exactitude the prayers prescribed by the religious law, study jurisprudence, theology, and learn the Qur’ān by heart’. Furthermore, Battuta also marvels at the following fact:


The women of Messoûfites do not show any feeling of prudishness in the presence of men and they do not veil their face; in spite of that, they do not fail to perform punctually their prayers.25


What Battuta is actually describing is a clear case of secularity: the law of the land is totally distinct from the laws issued by the religion the people follow. Although they were Muslims, the people of that West African empire retained their ancestral way of life and their ancestral laws. From the Muslim religion they took the cultrelated prescriptions, and discarded the Arabian Peninsula culture inspired norms. Battuta consequently marvels at the fact that women are neither segregated (they come and go freely without a veil) nor guarded from male companionship, as is the case in the Arab and Muslim culture he is familiar with. He is quick to condemn the following behaviour of local women:


In this country, women have friends and comrades from among men who are not relatives. Men, for their part, have women friends they pick outside their families. Often an individual comes home to find his wife with her male companion, but he does not disapprove this conduct nor does he get angry over it.26


Invited to a meal at the home of a Muslim man in Walata, he relates the following anecdote to illustrate the ‘scandalous’ type of freedom enjoyed by married women:


He (the host) was sitting on a carpet, while in the middle of the house there was a bed of rest, surmounted by a canopy, on which sat his wife, in conversation with a man seated at her side. I said to Abu Mohammed: ‘Who is this woman?’ – He answered ‘She’s my wife’ – ‘The individual who is with her, who is he?’ – ‘He’s her friend’ – ‘Are you happy with such a thing, you who lived in our countries, and who knows the precepts of the divine law?’ – ‘The society of women with men in this country, takes place in an appropriate manner, that is in a good and honourable spirit which does not inspire any ill suspicion. Our women, indeed, are not like those in your country’. I was surprised at his stupidity. I left his home never to return.27


From the earliest days of Islam’s implementation in West Africa, African Muslims had made a clear dichotomy between Islamic rules of worship and Islamic social and legal rules. In 1998, the Mande Charter of Kurugan Fuga (constitution of the Malian Empire), which had been transmitted orally from 1236, was recorded at a meeting with traditionalists in Kankan (in the Republic of Mali). In art. 1 of the Charter it is stated that the society is divided into these following social classes: 16 quiver carriers (the brotherhood of hunters), five classes of marabouts (Muslim leaders), four classes of nyamankalas (professionals in a particular craft organized in castes, that is, professional brotherhoods). Each of these groups had an activity and a specific role. While nyamankalas were returned to their secular role as the Crown’s historians and as lawmen and lawwomen (art. 2 of the Charter), art. 3 limited the role of Muslim leaders to the teaching of the Koran and the rules of worship. They had been afforded neither the power of interpreting the law of the land, nor the role of applying any shari’a law. This ancient African constitution actually made a clear separation between the spiritual and legal dimensions of Islam.


The emperors of Mali were all Muslims, but religious freedom was the rule throughout the empire. Islam, however, did play a role in some imperial courts. In the empire of Ghana (third to eleventh century AD) the rulers were not Muslim, but members of the aristocracy were. This divisive factor led to the contestation of the legitimacy of the matrilineal system of transfer of political power.28 In Mali, as well, Islamic law clashed with the indigenous law for the succession to the throne.29 Islam also served to legitimize military coups, as was the case in the Songhai empire (fourteenth to sixteenth century AD). The Songhai kingdom began its rise as a great power during the reign of Sonni Ali Ber (1464–1492), an enlightened ruler who did not allow Muslim leaders to dictate the policy of the empire. They later had their revenge by helping the usurper Askia Muhamad (1493–1528) put a new dynasty on the throne of the Songhai empire, the Askia dynasty. The Askia rulers remained highly subservient to the power of Muslim religious leaders.30


Still the indigenous African faith remained dominant. Even the Muslim Fulani Empire of Macina (1810–1861) was forced to adapt the rules of shari’a to the sociocultural realities of Africa. Hampate Bâ reports a telling anecdote:


It is told that an Ardo (a nobleman in the Peul community) one day found himself in the presence of a Peul woman who was about to receive a few whacks with a rope. He asked who had decided to mistreat a noble woman so. He was answered that it was according to Qur’ān law. The Ardo pointed his spear towards the executioner and said: ‘if you raise your hand on this woman, I’ll send you to sleep at the village of the small flat-roofs’ (the cemetery). Then he ordered his men to deliver the convict and he declared to the Muslim clerics who were attending the scene: ‘Avoid from now on to cross my path and tell your Qur’ān that I won’t obey him as long as it doesn’t give noble women the respect that is their due’.31


Ki-Zerbo asserts that in that Muslim theocracy it was forbidden to beat women. When women were condemned to be whipped, the punishment was performed not on their bodies but upon the roof of their homes. That everyone could witness it was considered shameful enough for the condemned woman.32 However, the introduction of Islam on the African continent influenced African customs and laws. The following account of the new laws established by the king of Kano (Nigeria) after his conversion to Islam is quite telling:


According to the Chronicle of Kano (composed in 1890 on the basis of ancient sources and published by Palmer), in the second half of the fourteenth century, 40 Wangara from Mali brought Islam to Kano and converted the sovereign (sarki), who built a mosque and made it mandatory to observe the five prayers, then drove the head of the pagans away telling him to go lead the blind. Towards 1400, the sarki brought in helmets and chainmail armour. At the end of the fifteenth century, according to the Chronicle of Kano, sarki Muhammad Rimfa launched 12 basic reforms, among which were the confinement of women (Kulle), the appointment of eunuchs in state positions, the public celebration of the two major Muslim holidays, etc.33


Islamic law was used to impose rules that did not exist under indigenous law, hence the need to drive away the holders of ‘pagan’ law. Nevertheless, pagan law was so much part of the African way of life that Muslim leaders had to accept it and make room for it. Thus syncretism became the main feature of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. It is this very accommodating nature of Islam in black Africa34 that was used as the basis for ‘jihads’ against ‘bad’ (tolerant) Muslim people and pagans alike.


A Surge in ‘Jihad’ (Holy War) from the Seventeenth Century to the Late Nineteenth Century

Between the seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries African states were wrecked as a direct consequence of the intensification of the transatlantic slave trade, causing Africa to sink deeper into political chaos. At the same time, the renowned centres of Islamic culture and knowledge fell into decline (for example, Timbuktu after the town is raided by the invading Moroccan army in 1591). Warlords looking to create theocratic Islamic empires through the sword emerged.


In 1725, the Muslim scholar Karamoko Alfa Diallo sets up a theocratic Muslim state in Fouta Djallon (Guinea); in 1776, the ruling dynasty in Fouta-Toro (Senegal River valley) is overthrown by an army of Toucouleur Muslims led by Souleymane Baal in a movement called the tooroodo revolution. The revolution installs the almamiyat (Almamy is the title of the king of Fouta who had to be a Muslim scholar and a great marabout