Africa’s rising religious violence

WOMEN comfort each other next to a tribute to a victim outside the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch on Saturday. Reuters

Violent religious extremism, whether Islam or Christian by organised groups have exploded to alarmingly new levels across the African continent. Africa is seeing more non-state organised groups of both Islam and Christian denominations, directing violence against the state, but also against those of their very own faiths, whom they differ with, against those of different faiths, and also randomly against ordinary citizens.

Lack of, poor quality, and limited democracy, which fuels corruption, mismanagement and ethnic or religious favouritism, and in turn cause widespread marginalisation, resentment and anger, is at the heart of almost all rising non-state violence of all forms in Africa. Boko Haram, the Islamist religious fundamentalists group, which operates in the Sahel region, the area between the Sahara desert in the north and the Sudan Savanna in the south, including areas such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, has left thousands dead, millions displaced and devastated local economies.

All these countries where Boko Haram are increasingly gaining a foothold are appallingly poorly governed – pushing the excluded into religious fundamentalism. Both leading presidential candidates in the 23 February 2019 Nigerian elections, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in 2015, and Atiku Abubakar, a fellow northern Muslim and former vice president promised to tackle Islamist violence. Improving the quality of democracy, is the best anti-d0de in the long-term to counter Boko Haram.

Somalia’s Al Shabaab with its foothold in East Africa is another of Africa’s deadly Islamic religious fundamentalist groups, carrying out suicide bombs against governments and civilians. Al Shabab joined the al-Qaida in 2012. It started off as a group fighting the Somali government. It has caused mayhem in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; and in the Horn of Africa, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Africa Union peacekeepers and the US military have helped the Somali government to fight the group. 

But Africa has also seen the rise of violent Christian fundamentalist groups, on similar levels to the Islamist groups. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is Africa’s oldest Christian fundamentalist group, started in 1987 in northern Uganda, by Joseph Kony to fight the autocratic Yoweri Museveni. The LRA was supported by the Sudan government in revenge for the Uganda’s backing of the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

In 2000, Uganda passed an amnesty law to allow LRA combatants to give up arms, in return for getting amnesty from prosecution. The law expired in May 2012, but was reinstated a year later following mobilisation by civil society organisations.

Attempts to strike a peace deal in 2008 between LRA and the Ugandan government collapsed. The conflict has now spilled into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. According to UNICEF, the LRA has abducted more than 30 000 children in Uganda, CAR, DRC and South Sudan, to use soldiers, sex slaves and servants. Violence unleashed by the LRA has displaced more over 3 million people.

The US Treasury Department has accused the LRA of “illicit diamonds trade, elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.” The International Criminal Court in 2005 issued an arrest warrant for Kony for crimes against humanity. Kony wants to established strict Christian fundamentalist government in Uganda. An African Union Regional Taskforce, consisting of troops from South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and Uganda, is dedicated to track down the LRA in the CAR.

More recently, new localised Christian militia groups have also sprung up in many African countries. In the Central African Republic, a Christian militia group, calling themselves the Defence Group for Christians, have launched attacks against Muslims. The CAR, which is 80% Christian and 20% Muslim, is trapped in a civil war since 2013 between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority, which left thousands death, and one-fifth of the population displaced.

In March 2012, the CAR President Francois Bozize, a Christian was overthrown by a Muslim militia coalition, known as Seleka, whose leader Michel Djotodia then became the first Muslim Prime Minister. Although Djotodia disbanded Seleka, many armed militants refused to go, and continued as a fighting group. In response to the overthrow of Bozize, Christians formed their own armed militia, called the “anti-balaka” or the “antimachete”, plunging the country into a cycle of violence.

The UN has repeatedly that CAR is on the verge of genocide. By 2014, CAR has been divided between the anti-Balaka controlling the south and west of the country; and the Seleka groups controlling the north and east. More than 1.5million people has been displaced in a country of 5million people.

In all the countries where there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism, they have either had leaders, such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni or Cameroon’s Paul Biya that have stayed in power for long, behaved autocratically and government in interests of themselves or their ethnic or religious groups, rather than in the widest interest of all people in their countries.

Even in cases where elections do take place, winners of these elections take all: appointments in the public sector, business licenses, to heads of universities. The current African continental strategy to deal with fighting religious terrorism is to create special multicountry military taskforces, secure industrial military aid and fight these groups with might. This should only be part of the strategy. The missing part is to tackle lack of citizen participation in society, economy and politics and the marginalization of whole communities, because of their ethnicity, religion or party affiliation.

Bringing inclusive democracy and development to all citizens in an African country – is certainly the most effective anti-dode to religious fundamentalism. Governing in the widest interest with an emphasis on social justice, that span across ethnicity, ideology and religion is crucial, genuine democracy, political will and better leadership at all levels, is a prerequisite to counter religious fundamentalist violence in Africa.

William Gumede is Executive Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).