The Role of Religion in Africa’s Development

It is of paramount importance to note that in Africa, religion shows no sign of disappearing or diminishing in public, as development theorists have generally supposed. The European Union has normally excluded consideration of the religious dimension in formulating development policies towards Africa.
Religion refers to a belief in the existence of an invisible world, distinct but not separate from the visible one, which is home to spiritual beings that are deemed to have effective powers over the material world.
For people who hold this point of view, the invisible world is an integral part of the world, which cannot be reduced to its visible or material form only. For them, the material world is linked to the spirit world, through the human spirit that is believed to be inherent in every person.
Hence, regular traffic is believed to take place between the human and the spirit worlds.
Thus, in such a holistic perception of the world, it follows that people’s social relations extend into the invisible sphere. In the same way, as they try to maintain good relations with their relatives, neighbours and friends for their own benefit, individuals and communities invest in their relations with spiritual entities to enhance the quality of their lives. In fact, people all over the world enter into various forms of active communication with the spirit world to derive information or other resources from it with a view to furthering their material welfare or interests.
Gerrie ter Haar, professor of Religion, Human Rights and Social Change at the Institute of Social Studies in Hague and Stephen Ellis, senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, carried out a research titled, ‘Religion and Development in Africa’ that was commissioned by the Secretariat of the Commission for Africa, published on February 13, 2006. They unanimously agreed on the importance of religion in establishing an everlasting African Christian community without violating traditional values and beliefs of the motherland.
They believed that religion cannot be regarded as a force destined to retreat from public in any society that aspires to a high degree of technological achievement or of sophistication. Since then, it has been increasingly easy to find evidence of the dynamic role of religion in the public sphere in many parts of the world.
Thus, religion and African traditional beliefs work in unison for the continent’s development.
Political set ups among African governments also show significance of religion in the development of their respective governments, as they (Gerrie ter Haar and Stephen Ellis) agreed during the research on religions in Africa’s development.
Gerrie and Steven argue, “Examples of momentous political change in which religious forces and institutions have played a significant role include Poland, South Africa and the Philippines. They have also marked indelibly, history of the United States.
“The political role of religion has been the subject of worldwide debate. Regarding sub-Saharan Africa, religion played a role in deadly political and social conflicts even before, most obviously in Sudan and Nigeria. Conflict in motherland has been believed to be an impediment to Africa’s development They said, “Since then, the sub-continent has sometimes been viewed as a new theatre of the ‘war on terror’ proclaimed by the US government. Violent conflict, whether or not connected to religion, is generally recognised as an impediment to development.”
However, the role of religion in political conflict should not obscure its possible role as a significant factor in the development process. And in Africa, religion now forms arguably the most important connection with the rest of the world. The potential role of religion as an agent of development in this vast area has not escaped some leading European donor institutions. The Commission for Africa convened by the government of the United Kingdom gave substantial attention to the role of religion in its (2005) report entitled, “Our Common Interest”.
The Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe (ACCZ) also highlighted significance of indigenous apostolic churches in embracing development throughout Africa.
Bishop Divas Chakwenya, a member of the ACCZ and secretary of National Affairs Commission, contends that development in Africa merely comes to pass when African governments work in unison with their respective religious organisations.
Bishop Chakwenya said, “The main aim of ACCZ is for peace, unity and development to prevail throughout Africa.
“As bishops, we have spiritual mandate to pray for and choose our leaders since this is in line with Deuteronomy 17 verse 14. And development in Africa [will] come to pass since we are teaching our members to vote for visionary leaders, who desist from puppetries and trampling over the economy of this continent for their own interests’ sake, while people are suffering,” said Bishop Chakwenya.
There are, in any case, eminently practical reasons for including religion within a broad concept of development, since religion provides a powerful motivation for many people to act in the ways they do. It equips many of Southern Africa’s people with the moral guidance and the will to improve their lives. Whether one regards religious belief as itself ‘true’ or ‘untrue’ is hardly the point here.
Religion, whatever form it takes, constitutes a social and political reality and the question, then, is whether religious and spiritual resources produce a type of knowledge that is, or could be, relevant to development. One does not need to profess any religious belief, or to be religious in any sense, in order to explore this matter but it requires a broadly secular and sociological approach.
The traditional Hindu idea of humankind, for example, emphasises harmony with the living environment. This easily translates into a view that economic growth should be integral to the well-being of the environment as a whole. Similarly, Muslims believe that the ultimate aim of life is to return humanity to its creator in its original state of purity. In African traditional religions, the pursuit of balance and harmony in relations with the spirit world is paramount. Charismatic Christian’s developing countries believe that personal transformation (inner change) is essential to the transformation of society.
Most of these ideas help to shape people’s views of development and they stem from intellectual traditions associated with particular religions that have been formed by local histories. In Africa, local histories include recent experiences of colonialism and nationalism and often of authoritarianism and single-party rule as well. These were the historic vehicles for policies of development that, in the case of Africa, have almost invariably been conceived by their architects in a secular mode. Actual development practices have generally not conformed to ideas that are central to the continent’s various religious traditions.
It has been noted that conforming to religious notions will automatically lead to better outcomes or better practices in matters of development.
There is general agreement that the large number of armed conflicts in Africa is a serious obstacle to development. Insofar as conventional international approaches to conflict prevention and resolution take religion into account, they tend to focus on the institutional aspects of religion.
This particularly privileges the former mission churches, which, apart from having efficient bureaucracies, articulate a vision of the world in a language familiar to secular development experts, due to these churches’ continuing close relations with Europe.
Among Africans, religion is perceived primarily in terms of interaction with a spirit world. This aspect of religion is hardly considered by international organisations engaged in peacebuilding.
Conflict resolution will only become possible due to religious institutions’ corrective role.
By the same token, the end of armed conflict in Africa is often accompanied by religious rituals designed to cleanse fighters from the pollution of bloodshed. This is not always done through traditional means, but may also take an Islamic or Christian form. In Liberia, charismatic churches often provide a forum where former child soldiers can confess their crimes and, in a religious idiom, that recalls the symbolism of traditional initiation, can be reintegrated into society.
It is interesting to note that the same idiom of being born again is central to both traditional initiation societies and charismatic Christianity. A rather different example of the use of religion in resolving conflict concerns South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was led by an Anglican archbishop and was closely associated with the country’s faith communities.
The work of the TRC was based on the idea that long-term reconciliation depends crucially on religious notions of reconciliation and healing, even in the absence of formal justice. Although the TRC has been criticised in South Africa itself, its ultimate success or failure will only become apparent with the passage of time. In the meantime, however, the TRC model has been widely imitated. Truth commissions have subsequently been created in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where they have had a mixed record, and have been mooted in many other countries.
Almost invariably, traditional peacemakers in Africa base whatever authority they have on some form of spiritual legitimacy. There have been attempts to identify traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution and harness them to international diplomatic initiatives. Nevertheless, international efforts at peacemaking and peacebuilding in Africa have rarely involved such authorities for purposes of peace and reconciliation to any significant degree. Still less attention has been given to the fact that traditional peacemakers may at the same time be organisers of war, such as the officials who initiate young men into a sodality and give them medicine believed to make them strong in battle by providing them with spiritual power.
Throughout Africa, the power attributed to religious experts is considered morally ambivalent, in the sense that their supposed spiritual power can be used both to harm and to heal. People who are believed to possess spiritual power can be organisers of violence as well as potentially helping to resolve conflict.
This is one reason why traditional peacemaking techniques cannot be regarded by diplomats or international conflict resolution activists simply as an adjunct to a peace process that is conducted primarily through conventional diplomatic and political channels. It is commendable for diplomats, whether from the European Union or any other putative peacemaker, to include the most prominent religious figures in their religious authorities, including both traditional spiritual authorities and leaders of the new religious movements that are flourishing in Africa.


May 2013
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