Long Read: Removing the Obstacles to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Africa

Religion-related tensions continue to arise in many African countries. They come in varying forms and degrees of intensity, and can be intra-religious or occur between religious communities.

Religion is either instrumentalised as a rallying point or is the raison d’étre of armed non state actors seeking to enforce an extremist interpretation of their creed or to gain material advantage. It is used by individuals or political parties as a bridge to power and rallying point.  In addition, some governments view religion, or certain religious or non-religious groups, as threats, exercising control through excessive registration requirements or more forcible means. 

Every country on the African continent is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with its expanded articulation of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), where the right to change or refuse one’s religion or belief as an act of conscience can be inferred from Article 8. However, in parts of the continent, human rights in general, and FoRB in particular, are challenged by arguments about cultural relativism and frequent but erroneous assertions that they are a Western construct. 

Thus, despite being parties to international and regional treaties, many African countries either do not give legal effect to them, or create exemptions for their implementation. This has further exacerbated their already poor profile on human rights protection.

Religion-related extremism

In several countries, FoRB violations are closely related to the activities of terrorist organisations and other armed non-state actors who pose a transnational threat, and who generally embrace an extreme and narrow interpretation of the religion they claim to espouse.

Events worldwide have illustrated that religion-related terrorist groups such as Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Fulani militia – who also appeal to ethnicity – thrive in ungoverned areas, or where the structures of governance are weak or have been weakened, including by corruption.  These groups also take advantage of local grievances, nurturing victim narratives in communities which, rightly or wrongly, perceive themselves as being marginalised by the centre.  They appear, at least initially, to provide a solution, only to expose their deeply repressive nature once they have gained ground and cemented their authority in an area.

Such groups have been able to advance largely due to a failure of governance.  While the security challenges they present must be addressed swiftly to prevent them from growing, mutating and advancing, this must be accompanied by initiatives that improve community relations, strengthen state institutions, and encourage social cohesion, unity and respect for diversity.

Interventions must be undertaken to reduce social hostilities by addressing local grievances, ensuring that the dissatisfaction that provides an entry point for extremism no longer exists.  This may include initiating development programmes that unite and improve the lives and prospects of members of the local community, which in turn will build their resilience to reject extreme ideologies. 

There must also be efforts made to re-integrate those who have been seduced by such ideologies. However, this must not be done at the expense of ensuring justice for the victims of this violence. Bespoke restorative justice programmes must be formulated that prioritise the rights of victims to restitution.

Key institutions of state will also need to be strengthened, with corruption addressed at every level.  In particular – and if necessary – security sector reform must be undertaken with a view towards rendering it representative of local and national demography to assist with intelligence gathering, to build trust, and to model inclusivity. Reform must also ensure the equitable distribution of national resources to combat the pattern replicated so often whereby the centre of political and/or commercial activities benefits disproportionately and to the detriment of the periphery.

Engagement with politicians at all levels to help them understand FoRB as a human right and to appreciate the importance of protecting this right for all citizens is also necessary. Such engagement should emphasise the role of FoRB in fostering unity and building consensus in ethnically and religiously diverse nations, and ensuring that all are treated equally by the state regardless of their creed.

Government repression and societal hostility

Most countries in Africa have enacted legislation recognising FoRB as a right conferred to all individuals, but the extent to which this legislation is enforced in practice varies greatly from country to country. Several countries have laws which prohibit religious discrimination. Some countries, particularly in Western and Southern Africa, have a high degree of religious tolerance, both as enforced by the government, and as reflected by societal attitudes. Others, however, have significant levels of religious discrimination, either practiced by government apparatuses, or the general public, or both.

Governmental repression generally arises either from (a), adherents of the majoritarian or dominant faith whose members are in political ascendancy and use religion or belief to gain or maintain power, or (b), from authorities who believe religion or belief are problematic, and should be “controlled.”

The societal, or horizontal, hostility generally reflects and amplifies governmental, or vertical, discrimination.

Symptoms of governmental hostility include the targeting of religions or beliefs that do not enjoy government sanction through:

  • The formulation and biased application of registration laws or other requirements.
  • Restrictions on the construction of houses of worship, and arbitrary seizures, closures or demolitions of existing building and properties citing zoning requirements, public health issues, unsafe construction, lack of permission to build.
  • Censoring religious output – teaching, preaching, documentation – on grounds such as quality control, counter extremism, etc.

In a few cases, the concerns articulated by governments may in fact be legitimate.  However, in most they are excuses utilised by repressive leaders as an instrument of general control of religious practices.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is a touchstone human right, often serving as a ‘litmus test’ for whether other rights are at risk of being abused. Since human rights are “interrelated, interdependent, indivisible and mutually reinforcing,” restrictions on FoRB generally forewarn of wider repression that will impact the rest of society. 

The situation in Eritrea, a country whose leadership is suspicious of all forms of faith, illustrates this phenomenon in a particularly stark manner.  In 2002 every religious community bar four (the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations and Sunni Islam) was forced to close and to submit to a registration process that is intrusive, stringent and ultimately inconclusive, since the final step requires the signature of the president, which has not been forthcoming so far. 

Meanwhile, repression on religious groups increased, with even members of permitted religious communities imprisoned without charge or trial. This eventually became comprehensive.  In 2016 Eritrean officials were deemed by a UN Commission of Inquiry to have been committing crimes against humanity since 1991, and the country has earned the unenviable reputation of being “the North Korea of Africa.”

Removing obstacles to FoRB

FoRB “is a bellwether human right… Where FoRB is under attack, often other basic rights are threatened too. In societies where freedom of religion or belief is respected, it is much harder for extremist views to take root.”[1] 

Given the persistent use by regional governments of the mantra ‘African solutions to African problems’, even when facing the mildest questioning, these governments may be more open to advancing FoRB if it is presented in the context of advancing policies formulated by the African Union (AU).

The AU’s Agenda 2063 is a strategic framework formulated to achieve “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”  It articulates Seven Aspirations which, if realised, would move Africa closer to achieving this vision by the year 2063, none of which can be realised in any meaningful sense if current religion-related issues persist.

Particularly significant are Aspiration 3, which includes “a universal culture of good governance, gender equality, and respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law;” Aspiration 4, which emphasises peace, security, and nurturing a culture of peace through education; and Aspiration 5, which speaks of a strong cultural identity, shared values and ethics, heritage, and respect for religious diversity. 

Thus, FoRB training should be added to peacebuilding and interfaith work undertaken by regional bodies such as the AU, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This training should emphasise that FoRB is a right applicable to all which should be protected not just as a social good but in accordance with international and regional laws that protect the rights of citizens. 

A means of overcoming the primordial sentiments aroused by religion or religious terminology would be to couch FoRB issues in civil rights terminology, emphasising equal citizenship, equality before the law, and rule of law, as articulated in Aspiration 3As part of nurturing a culture of peace through education – i.e., Aspiration 4 – endemic societal intolerance must also be tackled through civic education programmes that emphasise the benefits of FoRB in:

  • Reducing the prospects of violence, inter-communal tension and religious extremism and promoting peace and security for all. 
  • Positive economic outcomes, as supported by research suggesting a correlation between FoRB and economic growth.
  • Advancing democracy, given that pervasive religious discrimination prevents a nation from benefiting from the contributions of the brightest and best of its citizens, and instead gives rise to a religious favouritism that fosters nepotism, entitlement, and inefficiency, and entrenches corruption.[2]

Essential for all these recommendations, however, is the existence of the political will to respect human rights, and FoRB specifically, to combat corruption and mismanagement, and to advance justice and the rule of law.

Recent events in Sudan demonstrate that a significant political change can to a great extent bring with it the will to address some of the more pervasive obstacles to FoRB. The removal of the death penalty for apostasy, for example, is a significant development; however, in practice the crime remains on the statute books.  Thus, changes will need to be sustained over the transitional period and into the next democratic dispensation, and this will pose a bigger test.

There is also a need for governments to take immediate and effective action to address purveyors or inciters of religious hatred or violence. This should include the formulation of anti-hate speech and incitement legislation that conforms with international legal standards, being guided by UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, the Rabat Plan of Action, and the Fez Plan of action

Governments will also need to dismantle and reform structures and institutional and extra-legal practices and customs that underpin and contribute to religion-based discrimination in all its forms, including discriminatory or overly restrictive registration and other legislation, or a practice prevalent in Zanzibar whereby construction of houses of worship by minority faiths requires the permission of the local community. 

In particular, governments will need to summon the courage to repeal or amend blasphemy legislation, which is prevalent across the continent. As well as being a driver of religious extremism, blasphemy legislation is also incompatible with regional and international obligations to which most states are party, and has a ‘stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion.’[3] Moreover, governments must expressly guarantee the right of any individual to change his or her religion, or to espouse no religion whatsoever, and recognise the right to peaceably manifest and express a religious belief in a non-coercive manner.

Governments must also emphasise justice for victims of FoRB violations, ensuring that security operatives and others entrusted with maintaining law and order, upholding the rule of law and dispensing justice function without bias and are free from political interference.  Additionally, ensuring adequate remuneration for officers of the law and members of the armed forces will greatly assist in combatting corruption.

Finally, governments of countries with similar FoRB issues as Nigeria would benefit from adopting the recommendation from the Committee on Religion of Nigeria’s last Nation Conference for the creation of a Religious Equity Commission (RECOM), which should be mandated to:

  • Monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of religious discrimination and violation
  • Serve as a platform for the promotion of inter-faith unity, understanding and harmony
  • Serve as a watchdog and enforcer of religious rights for all persons, thereby creating confidence and trust in every citizen no matter their religious affiliations
  • Monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of hate sermons, teachings, publications, speeches, utterances and conducts capable of inciting religious crisis
  • Detect early warning signals that can trigger religious tension and nip them in the bud
  • Monitor cases of religious extremism (both in ideology and in practice) and formulate counter narratives (that are balanced and tolerant) to neutralize such extremisms
  • Create awareness of common ground of all religions and promote the practice and sharing of such commonalities.

By Reverend Yunusa Nmadu, Chief Executive of CSW Nigeria


[2] A summary guide to freedom of religion or belief around the world

[3] UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Dr Ahmad Shaheed https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22286&LangID=E