By Dr. Miriam Diez-Bosch and Dr. Oscar Mateos
The countries of East and West Africa, lying primarily in the Sub-Saharan region, are home to a complex mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, and a predominantly youthful population. While the region has considerable human and natural resources, problems of poverty, corruption, and a lack of educational and employment opportunities for young people, results in frustration and social instability. This is readily exploited by local and transnational criminal and jihadist groups. Although there have been severe religious freedom violations committed by jihadist armed groups, positive steps have been taken by local governments and, to a lesser extent, members of other religions, to tackle religious discrimination and promote interfaith dialogue. The Catholic Church, furthermore, has become an important political actor participating in conflict resolution efforts.
Jihadism in the region
In many countries, attacks by armed groups are often arbitrary, profit-oriented, rooted in cycles of intercommunal violence, and indifferent to the religious identity of their victims, with attacks being made on Muslims and Christians alike. Increasingly, however, as the country reports indicate, a number of countries are being profoundly affected by Islamist extremism, predominantly in the regions of West Africa and the Horn of Africa. During the period under review, several jihadist groups continued to be active including: Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS – Daesh), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and Al-Shabaab.
Boko Haram has carried out attacks principally around Lake Chad, which borders the countries of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. This terrorist group has been responsible for atrocities perpetrated against security forces and civilians, which include killings, kidnappings and looting, and the burning of entire villages. Boko Haram has expanded its activities in northern Cameroon, in one instance killing 18 and injuring 11 civilians taking shelter in a displacement camp in the Far North region. In Niger, the terrorists targeted Christians, forcing them to leave the area or face death (see country report). Some countries in the Lake Chad region have deployed a Multinational Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram, but the terrorist organisation has proved resilient.
Other important armed extremist groups operating in this region are affiliates of the transnational Islamist group Islamic State (IS) and JNIM, a coalition of individual Islamist extremist entities including the transnational Al-Qaeda (AQ), known locally as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In Mali and Niger, IS militants operate under the title of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Both JNIM and ISGS groups, committed to overthrowing the state and implementing Islamic law, carry out ambushes and attacks against soldiers and civilians, and even peacekeepers (in the case of Mali). Understanding the jihadist violence is made more complex as a result of it being intertwined with intercommunal violence where ethnic groups, for example in Mali, have been accused of sheltering jihadists and attacked for so doing (see country report).
The IS terrorist group recently established itself in the Democratic Republic of Congo, claiming its first attack in Beni in 2019, and declaring that the country was the Central African province of the Islamic State (ISCAP). Local Islamist armed groups have also pledged alliance to IS in northern Mozambique. As the Mozambique country report indicates, recent years have seen an increase in attacks in this area since local militias emerged at the end of 2017. The jihadists have committed savage acts of violence, killing soldiers, beheading dozens of civilians on several occasions – often men and boys who refuse to join their ranks – abducting women and children, and looting and burning villages.
In the Horn of Africa, Al-Shabaab has terrorized the population in Somalia, killing civilians and soldiers, and attacking government buildings and hotels. Of particular note was the brutal murder of the Mayor of Mogadishu by an Al-Shabaab female suicide bomber in 2019. Militants have also seized Christians accused of proselytizing and kidnapped children for ransom or recruitment as child soldiers. The lack of religious freedom in the country has forced Christians to worship in secret fearing that, if they were identified, they could be abducted or killed. Al-Shabaab has also carried out terrorist strikes on and around the Kenya-Somalia border, seeking to identify and kill non-Muslims.
In addition to the aforementioned jihadist groups, authorities in Mali, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, have reported the presence of smaller locally-based armed groups. These militants often have links to criminal gangs and their motivation is as much the profits generated from illegal resource exploitation as Islamist extremism. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, approximately 134 different armed groups are active including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). These Islamist militants attack targets mainly in the Kivu province where state and non-state actors compete for so-called “blood minerals”, the spoils of mining for precious minerals and heavy metals. In Mozambique, the native Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) insurgency, located in the northern Cabo Delgado province, threatens billion dollar international investments in natural gas projects. ASWJ pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019, declaring its intent to establish a “caliphate” in the country.
Discrimination on the basis of religion
Apart from the issues of severe violence related to Islamist extremism, in the period under review the country reports revealed cases of discrimination against, as well as persecution of, religious groups.
Incidents of discrimination were recorded in Senegal, Malawi and Liberia, where Muslim women were not allowed to wear the veil in schools or workplaces (see country reports). However, there have also been cases in which authorities have taken measures to address concerns. In South Africa, for example, the school schedule was adapted to accommodate Eid, and Muslim women are now allowed to wear the veil in the military.
More worrying trends concerning persecution were recorded, including attacks by state and non-state actors targeting places of worship and religious leaders. Incidents were reported in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan (see the country reports). In the latter, Sudanese authorities confiscated Church properties and security forces entered mosques during protests, violating the sanctity of places of worship.
Although less frequent, cases of violent persecution have been recorded, notably retaliation by Muslims against Christian converts in Djibouti, Liberia and Uganda. These incidents have been particularly grave in Uganda where mobs beat and killed their victims because they had converted.
The Catholic Church as a political actor
During the period under review, in a number of countries the Catholic Church has played an important diplomatic and pastoral role in the political arena. Bishops have publicly intervened, making statements to the media or to the government regarding electoral processes, publicly criticising corruption, and denouncing violence by security forces, protestors, and armed extremist groups. Most importantly, however, in some countries the Church has played an active role in electoral observation, mediation, and conflict resolution.
In Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi (see the country reports), the Catholic Church supported democratic processes by deploying thousands of observers to prevent electoral intimidation and fraud. It found irregularities in each country, even questioning the election result in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the Church asserted the electoral process was marred by fraud and that the winner was Martin Fayulu, rather than Felix Tshisekedi, as claimed by the authorities.
The most active role that the Catholic Church has played politically has been its encouragement, support and mediation in peace talks. In the case of South Sudan’s 2013-2020 civil war, the Sudanese Council of Churches consistently called for forgiveness and reconciliation, while serving as a hub for coordinating peacebuilding events. The Catholic Saint Egidio community mediated successful ceasefire agreements on two occasions. Finally, in April 2019, Pope Francis invited the warring leaders of South Sudan to his residence for a two-day retreat in order to dialogue. The meeting, which made global headlines as the Pope was photographed kneeling to kiss the feet of President Kiir, provided a major impetus for the recommencement, and successful conclusion, of the peace process. Demonstrating the positive role of religion in the field of negotiation and peace-building, both parties to the conflict thanked the local Church and the Pope for their involvement.
In Cameroon too, the Catholic Church has continued to play a significant mediating role in the Cameroonian Civil War that broke out in 2016 between the Francophone and Anglophone communities. Peace talks that took place in July 2020 were held in the home of the Archbishop of Yaoundé. To date, according to Human Rights Watch, the violence has claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people. The hostilities are still ongoing, but the Catholic hierarchy continues to condemn the violence calling for dialogue between the parties.
Sign of positive coexistence between religious groups
Despite the number of disturbing incidents reported throughout the region, there are countries in which there are good interreligious relations and efforts to promote religious tolerance. In Burundi, for instance, the Catholic Church invited and hosted 47 religious leaders from a broad range of confessional backgrounds to participate in a workshop to increase the capacity of all religious communities to engage in conflict resolution and to live a peaceful coexistence. Additionally, as an example of peaceful coexistence, despite the disruptive presence of jihadists in Kenya, Catholic leaders collected donations for Muslims during the Christmas season and Muslim leaders did the same for Christians during religious celebrations such as Eid.
The impact of COVID-19 on religious freedom
As a result of social distancing regulations imposed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, places of worship remained closed for several months, including during Holy Week for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims, in the majority of the countries in the region.
The closure of places of worship has, in a few countries, been met with protests. In Comoros and Niger, worshippers gathered in mosques to protest against the closure, as until then no cases of the virus had been reported. In Mozambique and Gabon, tensions arose when the governments extended the closures of places of worship, despite reopening markets, schools and hotels (see the country reports).
In Liberia, Guinea Bissau and Zambia, there were periods when religious leaders decided to keep churches and mosques closed, despite government permission to reopen them. As the country reports for Mali and Senegal indicate, mosques reopened for Ramadan celebrations, but church leaders decided not to reopen places of worship as a result of the high number of recorded COVID-19 cases.
Situations that require special attention
As revealed in the country reports, jihadist groups further consolidated their presence, with the unstable Sahel region becoming a haven for the Islamic State and armed groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The impact of this fundamentalist presence is made more complex by intercommunal violence and ethno-political conflicts, with worrying consequences for religious groups. Specifically, the religious affiliation of believers is often used as a marker with which to categorise them as belonging to one particular group or another in the conflict, thus making them vulnerable to attacks, even though religion per se is not the main reason for the violence.
The multinational military missions deployed in West Africa have not been successful in fighting against Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. Furthermore, jihadists have also secured and established a presence in other areas: the Islamic State has declared six so-called “provinces of the caliphate” in Africa, and escalated its attacks in the northern region of Mozambique over the last two years. Similarly, Somalia has witnessed violent attacks from Al-Shabaab and it remains to be seen how seriously circumstances will deteriorate with the end of the AMISOM mission in December 2020.
Finally, a positive development occurred during the period under review with the change of regime in Sudan. The fall of Omar Al-Bashir, followed by the steps taken by the transitional government to promote religious coexistence, in clear contrast to the previous Islamist regime, ushered in a new era of religious freedom in the country. One of these steps was a public apology from the Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, Nasredin Mufreh, to Sudanese Christians “for the oppression and harm inflicted on your bodies, the destruction of your temples, the theft of your property, and the unjust arrest and prosecution of your servants and confiscation of church buildings.”
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