By David Makwerere
Is it really religion?
It is an agreed fact that Africa is a conflict-prone continent. Over the years, religion has emerged as a major factor in the perpetuation of violent conflict across the continent. Pertinent examples include the conflict between the predominantly Christian community in Southern Nigeria and the predominantly Islam community in northern Nigeria and South Sudan versus Sudan. Other troubled spots where religion is central to the ensuing conflicts include Mali, Chad, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The relationship between religion and conflict is very much contested if not blurred. I will agree that religion has played a central role in the escalation of some of the conflicts across the continent, but I will also contest the fact that the conflicts are primarily rooted in religious differences.
Other Drivers of conflict on the African continent
There is a colonial dimension (in as much as I don’t want to apportion all of Africa’s challenges to the residual effects of colonialism) to conflict and violence in Africa. The divide and rule tactics of the colonial masters left the continent fragmented and on the brink of conflict in many aspects. The colonizers deliberately alienated the local communities so they could exploit them. It must be borne in mind that most boundaries in Africa are a colonial inheritance.
Most of the boundaries distorted the traditional boundaries that existed well before the advent of colonialism. In this regard, whilst the conflict in Sudan (leading to the creation of Sudan and South Sudan) was largely viewed as a religious conflict between the Islamic community in the north versus the Christian community in the South. However the conflict was actually anchored on the demarcation of the border across the resource-rich Darfur region. Religion in this case was instrumental in escalating the conflict and not as a root cause of the conflict.
Others have apportioned climate change as a major driver of conflict as well. The same Darfur conflict is suspected to be linked to climate change i.e the expansion of the Sahara, declining sources of water, pasture and arable land (UNEP 2007). UN Secretary General Ban KI-Moon was recently quoted as saying ‘Almost invariably we discuss Darfur crisis in a convenient military and political short-hand, an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militia against black rebels and farmers look to its roots through the environment and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political cause, Darfur crisis began as an ecological crisis arising in part from climate change.
Another strong driver of conflict on the African continent is the issue of relative deprivation. The communities in the Niger Delta in Nigeria strongly feel that they are entitled to the oil riches in the region but they have been subjected to perennial poverty as a result of a combination of factors, chief among them corruption, poor governance and lack of accountability. Whilst the Niger Delta is in the southern part of Nigeria and the conflict probably with no links to the Boko Haram insurgencies, it is one of the longest running conflicts resulting from poor governance and corruption.
The Boko Haram insurgencies are inspired by religious fundamentalists. Whilst the conflict is in itself complex and in a way difficult to understand, it is also important to note that there are some underlying grievances driving the conflict. Given this background, religion becomes more of an ancillary cause to a conflict whose ontological and epistemological explanations are different. The causes point to growing socio-economic inequalities, corruption and conflicting values.
The same can be said of the troubled Horn of Africa Region where religious fundamentalists have instrumentalized historical grievances like boundary disputes, clash of cultural values and various other complaints to wage terrorist wars against established authorities and targeting innocent and defenceless citizens in most cases.
Other factors driving conflict on the continent also include external manipulation, lack of respect of human rights by incumbent African leaders, growing socio-economic inequalities etc.
So is religion vindicated from the conflicts across Africa?
It is important for peace practitioners to be able to thoroughly map the conflict terrain and understand the causes and drivers of conflict. It is also important to understand the different players, their positions, interests and needs. Religion has played a role and continues to play a critical role in the escalation of conflicts in many parts of Africa. However, it is grossly misleading to conclude that religion is a root cause in many of these African conflicts. Conflicts in Africa are a result of many unresolved structural issues both historical and contemporary. Players must understand the enduring colonial legacies, structural inequalities and poverty, unemployment, frustration among the youthful generation, poor governance as well as climate change as some of the major causes of conflict on the continent. These conditions have often created a platform for religious fundamentalists to wage violent conflicts across continents and within their respective communities.
David Makwerere is a PhD in Peacebuilding Candidate at Durban University of Technology and a lecturer in the Department of Peace and Governance at Bindura University in Zimbabwe. His research interests are in Peace, conflict, development and procedural and distributive justice at micro-levels