In an article I wrote and delivered in 2013 entitled “Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith,” I recalled a time when religion constituted one of the strongest bonds that united recently independent African states and served as one of our greatest assets and hopes. During this period in the 1960s and 1970s, religion was understood from an indigenous African perspective as diverse methods of achieving a shared, positive goal rather than mutually exclusive, competitive threats to each other’s existence. This dynamic created what Robert Bellah called civil religion or a communal set of symbols, myths, and rituals that could be held in common by all citizens across religious lines. Unfortunately, as indigenous traditions became mischaracterized as “backward” or “demonic” this perspective on religion changed, and rather than binding all citizens together, religion slowly became a major fault line dividing society.
Even a cursory understanding of Africa’s triple religious heritage (Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religion) reveals a strong commitment in each religion to morals and principles that could easily serve the formation of a positive national or communal identity, so the issue is not with the introduction of Abrahamic religions themselves. Sociologist Peter Ekeh offers a useful distinction between two types of publics that have been operative in Africa: the primordial public rooted in indigenous perspectives and ways of life and the civic public rooted in the colonial experience. The post-independence era still engaged the primordial public—including in its orientation toward religion—but the civic public has now sadly eclipsed it.
I want to be clear that I am not advocating for all Africans to practice traditional religions, but rather that indigenous traditions can and should play a larger role in nation-building. Julius Nyerere’s concept of Ujamaa offers a good example of a set of social norms and values rooted in indigenous culture that supported the state of Tanzania but was perfectly in line with the tenets of Islam, Christianity, and indigenous tradition. Senegal is often held up as Africa’s most stable democracy and has had very successful presidents who were both Christian and Muslim. Additionally, many Senegalese attribute the stability of their society to the blessing left by the legacies of their many shaykhs, such as Amadou Bamba and Ibrahim Niasse, who found great success in articulating a system of spiritual cultivation that engendered positive political engagement as a natural by-product.
Practically all of Africa’s most celebrated leaders of the past, such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, or the shaykhs mentioned above were so effective because they successfully engaged the modern world from a firm rooting in indigenous culture, religious traditions, and systems of person-formation. Our current crisis stems from the generation of a deracinated public elite as a result of colonialism (à la Peter Ekeh) who were natural allies of colonial powers from outside even after nominal political independence. One need look no further than the tyrannical reign of Mobutu Sese Seko and the support his regime enjoyed from the West following the murder of Patrice Lumumba to see how this new civic public naturally produces a dysfunctional public order.
Part of the problem with the dominant order of the current civic public in Africa is that it is based on a number of Western assumptions that do not translate in an African context. For example, theorists assumed that a natural transition from ethnic to national identity would take place—despite the fact that colonialism had reified and exacerbated ethnic divisions and competition—and thus no robust structure has ever been developed to integrate ethnic and national identity, with Nyerere’s Ujamaa constituting a rare exception. One of the other biggest errors was the assumption of the related public/private and secular/religious dichotomies and the now debunked secularization theory that posited a transition from religious to secular traditions would gradually take place on its own. The end result has been that even more so than in the West, it is practically impossible to disentangle religion and politics in Africa, but rather than integrating them constructively as happened in traditional society, there is a completely unstructured and disordered interaction between them.
In many of my public lectures I have argued that the only solution to this problem is a reconceptualization of education and person-formation that relies heavily on robust comparative religious studies, cultural studies, and history to produce students and citizens who understand how the diverse religious and ethnic identities of their nation can have mutually beneficial interactions, have done so in the past, and should do so again in the future. This will equip them and the state to conceptualize a comprehensive national identity and civil religion that is accessible to all. It is no coincidence that the rapid degradation of positive civic engagement has followed the turn away from these very disciplines in the humanities on African university campuses and schools. We must stop conceptualizing tradition as an irrelevant ossified relic of the past and understand that it has always been a dynamic process of cultivating a specific set of values and ways of living rooted in past experience, always articulated anew in the present, and transmitted appropriately for future generations.
We must not repeat the fundamental error of the past 50 years of leaving indigenous traditions out of the process of nation-building, particularly when they possess the greatest potential for developing robust civic values and identity.