The Challenge of Secularism and Human Rights in Africa
By Leo Igwe
African countries have been facing various challenges since independence and one of these major dilemmas is defining the relationship between religion and politics. At independence, African countries inherited multiple faiths, political religions that seek to control state formation and structure. This challenge is evident in the controversies that have trailed the introduction and implementation of sharia law in places like Nigeria and Somalia, the violent reactions to religious differences in Sudan and Central African Republic, the ongoing campaign against islamic extremism in Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, Cameroon and in the North of Africa, the heated debates and fierce opposition to the enactment of legislations and policies that protect the human rights of persons particularly those human rights mechanisms that are deemed by some segments of the religious establishment as violations of the dictates and dogmas of their faiths.
Drawing from my experiences growing up in Nigeria and years of keenly following the use of religion for political ends or the use of politics religious ends in countries across the region, this piece highlights how mixing of religion and politics undermines secularism and the realization of Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB) and human rights broadly. I propose models, not a model of secularism because the situation of religion and politics in Africa is not homogenous and often differs from country to country, sometimes within countries to warrant recommending just a model of secularism that may apply to over 52 countries in the region.
On the ‘Taboo’ Word Called Secularism
Though overtly or covertly contained in the constitutions of various states across the region, the term secularism often evokes sentiments of opposition and hostility in political debates because of certain misconceptions. First of all, the term secularism is widely perceived as a western imperialist ideology, a neo colonialist device that is used to extend the sociocultural influence of the west to the rest of the world. Thus, as former colonies, countries within the region particularly those that for some reasons consider themselves as ideologically, culturally or religiously opposed to the West view the idea of secularism with suspicion. This is particularly the case in muslim dominated communities where some segments consider anything western as sinful, prohibited and haram. Another widespread misconception is that secularism is incipient atheism and that the campaign for a secular state is a campaign to make atheism the state religion. Thus religious folks think that a campaign for secularism is a campaign that is not in the interest of their faiths. These prevailing notions have constrained the secular space and hampered efforts to adopt and adapt models that protect human rights as illustrated in the following examples.
The Rights of LGBTI persons
The use of religion for political ends has been very visible and pronounced in the debate on the human rights of homosexuals. In Nigeria and Uganda for example, religious politicians and political religions have rallied against the recognition of the human rights of gay people using teachings that are contained in their scriptures and traditions as the bases of the arguments against the rights of homosexuals. Christian and Islamic religious leaders campaigned and mobilized in support of the anti gay marriage bill that was later passed into law in Nigeria and in Uganda, local Christian evangelical groups with the support of their counterpart organizations in the US campaigned in support of the anti homosexuality bill which was passed into law but was later repealed.
I attended in 2007 the public hearing organized by the Nigerian lawmakers to solicit public opinion on the anti same sex marriage bill that was then going through the legislative process. Religious leaders who were at the event spoke in support of the bill and implored the lawmakers to pass it into law without delay. I can still recall the contribution of an Islamic ‘scholar’ who attended the event. He said categorically that there was no debate on homosexuality under sharia law and by extension under Islam; that the penalty for homosexuality was death. He suggested that the few homosexuals in the country be rounded up and killed in order to protect the ‘heterosexual majority’. The model of secularism that is suitable for Nigeria must protect sexual minorities from being persecuted and executed as suggested by this Islamic scholar and other acclaimed spokespersons of Allah and the Ummah. This model of secularism must protect the rights of muslims who believe that gay people deserve dignified treatment despite the provisions in the Quran, Hadith or sharia law and those who are critical of Islam based phobia and Islamic homophobia. This model of secularism must be one that has both local and international dimensions because local religious groups that campaign to make their religious dogmas state policies sometimes receive enormous moral, material, and financial support from their evangelical counterparts in the US and Europe and their Islamic allies in Asia and the Middle East. This is not to infantilize the agency of Africans on this issue but to acknowledge that there is a transnational dimension to the religious politics of Christianity and Islam in Africa that deserves critical attention.
In addition, the international aspect of the model of secularism should ensure that Nigeria or any other African country where this religious politics applies does not cave into pressures, and champion or support the homophobic agenda of international organizations like the OIC and other religious or quasi-religious blocks that are used to undermine state protection of LGBT rights at the UN.
Furthermore, another issue that shows how mixing religion and politics undermines human rights is the enforcement of blasphemy laws. The existence of laws that criminalize ‘insulting religions’ is antithetical to democratic values and human rights protection. Blasphemy laws are incompatible with FORB. The recent case in Nigeria highlights the contradictions that are embedded in these legislations and the fact that blasphemy laws are the most lethal weapons against religious liberty. In June last year, a sharia court in Kano Northern Nigeria sentenced 9 members of the Tijjaniya sect to death and in January this year, a leader and preacher with this sect, Abdulazeez Dauda was also sentenced to death by hanging. These persons reportedly claimed at a religious gathering in honour of Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, the Senegalese founder of the Tijaniya sect, that “Niasse was bigger than Prophet Muhammad”. Sharia court judges in Kano interpreted this statement as an insult on prophet Muhammad and an offence that was punishable by death!
Nigeria needs a model of secularism that could protect the rights to free speech and FORB of all muslims of all sects including those who believe that prophet Muhammad is greater than the leaders of the sects and those who think that the leaders of their sects are greater than prophet Muhammad and those who think as a matter faith or fact that Muhammad is not by any measure a great prophet or a prophet. This model of secularism should serve as a bulwark against islamophobia and any attempt to muzzle free speech and express and deny the basic human rights of those who manifest religions and beliefs that could be interpreted as insulting Prophet Muhammad, or a defamation of Islam or any religion.
Lastly, the handling of witchcraft related abuses also shows how mixing religion and politics hampers effective protection of the rights of women and children. Witchcraft is a religious belief that some human beings have the power to harm others through magical means. Espousing such a notion is consistent with exercising FORB and freedom of expression. However beyond expressing such notions, believers take actions that deny alleged witches their rights to life and to freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. Religious groups have lobbied for the recognition of witchcraft as an offence. Accusations of witchcraft have led to serious human rights violations. African states have demonstrated limited political will in tackling egregious human rights abuses of persons suspected of engaging in witchcraft despite enabling provisions in the existing law because of concerns over offending African religious sentiments or concerns over losing the support of powerful religious establishments.
The recent case of a 4 year old girl in Nigeria who was reportedly accused of witchcraft and subsequently was abandoned by the family demonstrates the scale of the indifference of the state regarding the rights of persons suspected to be witches. The girl was picked up in a state where the child rights law that provides for the protection of children from accusations of witchcraft is in force. However the government has been reluctant in prosecuting witch hunting pastors and churches that fuel these accusations. In Malawi the government has been unable to enforce existing laws on witchcraft accusation that are often misinterpreted and used by local magistrates to sanction and penalize accused persons not their accusers. In Ghana, the government is shutting down the witch sanctuaries where accused persons seek refuge instead of adopting more proactive measures to tackle witchcraft accusations that turn innocent individuals into refugees in their own land.
The main issue is that state actors do not want to be seen tackling a belief that is widely perceived to reflect African values and tradition (whatever that means) or to be prosecuting an anti religion, anti god or atheistic agenda of secularism.
Nigeria, Malawi and Ghana need models of secularism that effectively legislate against witchcraft accusations and protect children and elderly women from related abuses. African countries need models of secularism that promote and protect FORB and at the same time sanction and penalize those who perpetrate human rights abuses in the name of religion or belief in witchcraft, in the name of Christianity, Islam or any religion, belief or ideology.