Religious Freedom and Society in Africa

Twenty-four academics and religious leaders gathered at the Fiesta Royale Hotel in Accra on March 9-11 to examine the issues of religion, society, and freedom in the context of Africa. The workshop was sponsored by the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the MacMillan Center and hosted by the Center for the Study of Christianity in Africa, Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana.

Religious institutions have participated in the general ferment and upheaval that have affected societies throughout Africa. Faith-based organizations have been impacted by political and economic instability while also leading interventions to improve the lives of citizens and offer security to threatened minorities. Despite political instability as well as falling confidence in public institutions, and mounting insecurity, religious organizations have, nevertheless, emerged as centers of outreach and signs of hope. Churches and church-sponsored academic institutions have mobilized to contribute to social stability by providing education and training to young people as future leaders. It is noteworthy that within a generation or so religious institutions in Africa came to shoulder responsibility for societies undergoing rapid change, while, in the contrasting case of Europe, it took the churches several centuries to adjust to changes that were a lot more gradual in their spread and effect. In this situation, following the sudden disarray of political and social institutions in Africa, the churches had little choice but to step in as the providers of security for people in need. Together these two issues of rapid social change and religious mobilization in the end helped to provide the means for critical engagement with pressing issues, thereby offering the framework for civic involvement. In time, national and international relief organizations thus came to collaborate in providing assistance to displaced populations, including victims of AIDS, war, and political upheaval.

Introducing the workshop’s theme, “Religious Freedom and Society in Africa,” Professor Lamin Sanneh, Professor of World Christianity and of History at Yale and the director of the Religious Freedom and Society in Africa project, noted that conversations about freedom have tended to strip the subject of any religious association, and, equally significantly, have been inclined to ignore society as necessary setting. Sanneh urged the workshop to bring religion and society back into the discussion of freedom and thus give the inquiry a more positive and a more open outlook. Freedom is a moral and spiritual idea with a claim on personal responsibility; it is not simply a negative slogan defining freedom as freedom from what is undesirable, or a call to individualism. Rather, political freedom is enhanced by religious liberty, for, as Tocqueville argued, “despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” When you are free, Tocqueville observes, you must believe; if you do not believe, you must obey without safeguard of a higher law. The conscience of the believer, therefore, makes for the consent of the free citizen. Conscience is beholden to divine sovereignty while consent gives substance to political sovereignty; together they are the motive force respectively of civic virtue and political freedom.

Professor Sanneh underscored the important place religion occupies in Africa, and specifically noted its role in social justice, in creating a sense of solidarity and collective obligation beyond the individual. In discussing the influence of religion on civil society, Professor Sanneh emphasized the questions of why and how scholars and writers often miss in their work the importance of religion as an institution of civil society. “For us in Africa,” he pointed out, “civil society is absolutely crucial.” Professor Sanneh’s remarks included an explanation of the work of Yale’s Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa. It was followed by observations from Michael Glerup, Executive Director of the project. In describing the project, Glerup noted key workshop research goals, which included exploring the most effective methods for obtaining information on local civil institutions; determining the degree and levels of participation in the life of civil society; identifying community structures that influence the individual behavior and conduct; and instituting an inquiry into the effects of political involvement on the functions of civil society in Africa.

Presiding at the workshop, Professor Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Professor of World Christianity and director of the Center for the Study of Christianity in Africa at Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana, spoke with appreciation of the workshop as a collaborative effort with Trinity Theological Seminary. But the workshop was not the first meeting in this collaborative endeavor whose trail goes back to the meeting convened in Accra in 2011, resulting in the publication of The Accra Charter of Religious Freedom and Citizenship. The present workshop brought together 24 professors, bishops, heads of theological seminaries, and leaders of Christians centers from Ghana, U.S, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Attendees included Professor John Azumah, Professor of World Christianity and Islam at the Columbia Theological Seminary, Apostle Prof. Opoku Onyinah, Chairman of the Ghana Peace Council, Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of the Diocese of Jos, and Rt. Rev. Dr. Robert Aboagye Mensah, past presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Ghana.

The workshop was divided into three periods. The first took place on the morning of March 10 and included introductions and welcomes, a discussion on values and character in higher education as well as an overview of the theme, Faith, Freedom and Society. In the second period the discussion was taken up with issues of church and society in the Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and in the final period on the morning of March 11 the workshop switched to exploring the theme of engagement – engaging the political class, engaging communities of faith as well as engaging emerging leaders. The session paid close attention to ways considered appropriate for the churches to contribute to a pluralist democratic society while maintaining a credible witness to the churches’ mission in the world.        

Rev. Robert Aboagye-Mensh Rev. Robert Aboagye-Mensah offered some reflections on the theme of the workshop by placing the subject in the wider context of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), which began its official work following the convening of the churches in April 1963 in Kampala, Uganda under the general theme of “The Church in a Changing Africa.” The AACC worked in collaboration with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the African Union (AU). Aboagye-Mensah described the work of the AACC along with its partner national Christian Councils. That work involved getting religious leaders to speak with one voice on political questions and giving urgent attention to ethnic and partisan polarity and division in society. National Christian Councils created partnerships with Muslim leaders to promote peace and mutual understanding. with the awareness that the public credibility of religious leaders is at stake on their unity of purpose.

An important initiative of the AACC launched at Kampala and is concerned with the churches’ relations with Muslims in Africa was established as the Islam in Africa Project (IAP). The discussions to establish the IAP began in 1959. The administrative center of the IAP was subsequently located in Ibadan, Nigeria, under the leadership of a General Advisor assisted by a continent-wide network of local Area Advisors supported by their respective church institutions. The IAP established a Study Centre in Ibadan where it offered courses and tutorials on Islam and Biblical Studies, and meanwhile working closely with Immanuel Theological Seminary and the Dominican Institute. The IAP later changed its name to the Program on Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (Procmura) just before relocating to Nairobi, Kenya. The work has expanded at its recently established center in Nairobi.

Apostle Alfred Koduah, former General Secretary of the Church of Pentecost in Accra, introduced the work of his church and on the need to develop a relevant theology of power to deal with issues of accountability in the politics of nation building. He stressed the imperative of accepting responsibility for ourselves instead of blaming others. He referred to the statistics of religious affiliation in Ghana. In the 2010 census the figures were: Christians 71.2 percent, Muslims 17.6 percent. Koduah spoke of corruption in public life as a bane, and how competition for wealth and prestige has weakened ethical standards. He introduced his study of the issues in a publication, Who is Disturbing the Nation? (Accra: Advocate Publishing Ltd., 2008). Among the topics discussed in the book are corruption and ethnocentrism as impediments to national development, and family life as a pillar of society.

Rev. Ben Quarshie, Rector of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Akropong, Ghana, led the workshop in a discussion of the “Values and Character in Higher Education.” Speaking of the Ghanaian context, Quarshie noted the fast pace of the founding of private Universities in the country and the role they play in formation with respect to morals, values, and civic responsibility in shaping today’s students.

Discussion on South Sudan had to be postponed due to last a minute change of plans of Bishop Isaiah Majok Dau who was prevented from traveling in the wake of continued unrest in the country. He was participating in an official capacity in the National Day of Prayer convened by the President on the 10th of March. Most Rev. Benjamin A. Kwashi of Anglican Diocese of Jos, Nigeria, gave a presentation on the Church and Society on the Interfaith Frontier. He reflected on the urgent need to address the conflict and persistent mistrust that bedevil Christian-Muslim relations in north Nigeria. Desta Heliso of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology spoke on Religion, Freedom and Identity in Ethiopia. He noted that Ethiopia is threatened by attempts to use ethnic and religious identities to achieve political goals. “These are troubling times for the Horn of Africa in general and for Ethiopian society and state in particular.” He said the issue in Ethiopia is bound up with the “fusion of ethnic and religious identities with political and/or religious goals.” Considering the diversity of religious identities in Africa, he called for creating inter-religious (or intra-religious) initiatives focusing on disentangling religion and politics in the cause of peace and harmony. That would require special consideration of how in-depth theological scholarship can strengthen confidence in religious freedom as necessary for a pluralist society.

In his presentation of Theology, Culture and Public Values in the Kenyan context, Aloo Mojola, Director of the Institute for the Study of African Realities at the Africa International University in Nairobi, paid attention to political and ethnic issues in Kenya. He introduced a book, Fan into Flame ((Nairobi: Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd., 2016), the autobiography of Rev. John G. Gatũ, the 92-year old elder statesman of Kenya, whose life spans the colonial and nationalist periods. Gatũ was a close associate of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding president. The young Gatũ was conscripted into the colonial army in 1943, and after the end of the war marched in the Victory Parade in London in June, 1946, where he first met Kenyatta, who was then fresh from his studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Mojola discussed three issues currently facing Kenya: persistent corruption, tribalism that leads to exclusion, and inequality, which has created fissures and unrest in society. Given its place in the national life, the church has a role and a calling to stand against corruption, tribalism, and inequality.

At the last session the workshop took up the theme of engagement: “Engaging the Political Class”, “Engaging Communities of Faith” and “Engaging Emerging Leaders.” The workshop highlighted the necessity of critical dialogue that engages all faith-based institutions.

In the discussion on violence and political conflict the workshop was led by Professor Opoku Onyinah, the Chairman of the Ghana Peace Council, set up under the auspices of the government of Ghana and, without government funding, is maintained wholly by the financial support of national religious institutions and others. It is housed in rented remises. Preceded by the Peace Initiative created in 1975 by the Catholic bishop of Tamale, the Ghana Peace Council is comprised of a representative each of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Protestant Ghana Christian Council, the Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, and, on the Muslim side, of one representative each of the Ahmadiyya, the Sunni, and the Tijaniyya Sufi communities. A representative of African Traditional Religion is also included in the Peace Council. The President of Ghana nominates two members, and civic society groups and traditional chiefs are similarly represented. The chairman of the Council is elected by its members, and serves a four-year term. Apostle Onyinah’s discussion on the existence of the Ghana Peace Council is a timely reminder of the role of civil society in fostering the conditions for an inclusive and peaceful pluralist democracy. It is worth paying attention to. (For a brief discussion of the fundamental theological work of Apostle Onyinah see L. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 211-212.)

The workshop concluded with remarks by Professor Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Professor Lamin Sanneh and Michael Glerup, who all highlighted themes and issues discussed in the workshop. In his final comments, Professor Sanneh noted the importance of using African scholarship as a basis for creating agendas and research methodologies to study the subject. He referred to Aboagye-Mensah’s Mission and Democracy in Africa (1993) as an example of the kind of inquiry needed into religious freedom and civil society in Ghana. Attention was also drawn to the important role of Muslims in the National Peace Council of Ghana, which was established by the government with representation by all religious groups in the country. It shows that “African countries are not lagging in the work of religious pluralism.” Professor Sanneh called for an institutional mechanism to help with communication with different parts of the continent and the creation of a think tank to coordinate work on joint initiatives. There is need to establish an ad hoc committee to take on these and related tasks.    


Written by Tsedenya Simmie, Yale College 2019.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017