Thank you for inviting me to address you on this important occasion, the World Humanist Day, and for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the intersection between religious politics and humanism in Africa. Africa is a huge continent with diverse socio-cultural and political realities. But the continent is too often conflated and treated like a village that can be explained or understood at the snap of a finger. Scholars have presented and represented Africa in stereotypic forms as if Africans believe the same thing and behave the same way. I will draw instances from Kenya and Nigeria in exploring the complicated entanglement of religion, politics, and humanism in the region.
The post-colonial African dispensation has yielded a contentious dichotomy between the state as a res publica, literally meaning a public property or thing, and the state as a res religionis, a religious property or thing. These properties have been in contention as Africans grapple with everyday challenges.
The contention is global and local, national and transnational. So what transpires in Africa is only a specific, microcosm of the macro quest by the imperialistic religions of Christianity and Islam to conquer and dominate the world. Africans have unwittingly been drawn into this vicious tussle and quest to annex, and control other peoples and their estate. It is in situating the religious tension and contention that one can gain insight into the opposition and contradiction that underlie the prospects and possibilities of humanism in the region.
In principle, the post-colonial African state is a res publica, that is public property, but in practice, it is not. This disconnect is due to the overbearing influence of religion. In practice, African states contend with strands of competing forms of res religionis, the Christian, Islamic, and traditional religious formations. Foremost scholar, Ali Mazrui describes this situation as " A Triple Heritage" stressing the various cultural influences that have impacted post-colonial African states. This heritage is not an apolitical encounter because these religions are imperialistic and they seek to control cities and spheres of influence. Christianity and Islam do not only seek to convert and proselytize Africans, they do not aim only to replace and substitute African indigenous religious beliefs. Christianity and Islam have political agendas and they try to replace indigenous state formations with cities governed by Christian and Islamic laws. These two transnational religions campaign and battle to enthrone their specific politics. Christians strive to enthrone political Christianity that privileges Christianity, while Muslims try to foist political Islam that enforces sharia law. Incidentally, the secular current is conflated with western civilization and tradition. Given the fact that the secular encounter is predicated on the diminution of religion and religious politics, the secular tradition qualifies as a distinct encounter within the discourses on these encounters and deserves to be treated as the fourth aspect of the African Heritage corpus.
To achieve independence the crafters of the constitutions minimized their religious intent. In most states, they prohibited state religion and guaranteed religious neutrality in state affairs. In some cases, it was enshrined that the state is secular and protective of the rights to freedom of religion or belief. With the benefit of a hindsight, the secular provisions were ideal codifications enshrined by these statesmen and women in an attempt to forge acceptable constitutions and state formations. The secular principles did not reflect the yearning and aspirations of the people and politicians who would have wanted their religions to become state religions. Incidentally, this political objective was impossible and impractical at the circumstance. Instead, due to political expediency, they cobbled together a largely secular-leaning constitution to realize independence.
At Independence, African states had four main traditions to contend with indigenous, Christian, Islamic, and secular. And state builders have been preoccupied with trying to craft effective forms of government from these traditions.
Following independence, the struggle to build and manage state institutions, driven by parochial religious and sectarian interests, started as the various traditions and influences tried to covertly and overtly overrun and determine state affairs and management. There has been tension and opposition between the de facto and the de jure political situations in these countries as state actors align, dis-align, and realign with these traditions.
In countries where Christians are in the majority, states become de facto Christian states while Muslim majority countries operate as de facto Islamic states. In rural areas, some mix with indigenous religious, Christian, or Islamic state formations, as the case apply. Like the indigenous religious beliefs, traditional state formations have been under intense assault from Christian, and Islamic state establishments that seek to supplant and annex these formations. Western Christian and eastern Islamic state configurations have slowly suppressed and subordinated the city of the indigenous God in most parts of Africa. The secular tradition survives in these state establishments and has been the target of this imperialist religious assault and appropriation. For stance, here in Kenya, we witnessed how both Christian and Islamic groups rallied against the registration of the Atheist In Kenya. They pressured state actors to reject the application, and when their efforts failed and the group was incorporated, they lobbied and got the organization deregistered. Religious organizations based their opposition on the notion that Kenya was a godly state and could not afford to recognize a godless organization. Many believers are not in agreement regarding which godly, indigenous, Christian, or Islamic godly state Kenya is. They allude to the provision in the preamble to the Kenyan constitution that says that......to back up their position. They ignored the section that guaranteed freedom of religion or belief and equality of all citizens before the law. Many believers were of the view that registering the AIK was like licensing devil's worship. Christians, not atheists believe in the existence of the devil; atheists and humanists are not devil worshippers. But in the Christian political universe, these prejudices and misconceptions are politicized and weaponized to exclude and delegitimize atheism and humanism.
Let us take a quick look at Nigeria where the situation is more charged and polarized. Since independence, the Christian and Islamic formations have been trying to overrun the country and turn Nigeria into an Islamic, Christian, or chrislamic state. The secular tradition has served to limit their incursions and put a wedge between religious politics and state management. In places where Muslims are in the majority, Islam is privileged and sharia law is enforced. Christianity is the de facto state religion in parts of Nigeria where Christians are in the majority. While Nigeria, constitutionally prohibits state religion, Christianity and Islam are the de facto state religions in Nigeria. Due to the prevailing religious and political situation, the constitutional and human rights of non-Muslims are not guaranteed in parts of Nigeria where political Islam rules. The rights and liberties of non-Christians are flagrantly violated in places where political Christianity reigns.
But in Nigeria, religion-based injustice and oppression, inequity and persecution are worse in Muslim-dominated areas where political Islam is in force. Let us take the case of Mubarak Bala to illustrate the dark and destructive impact of religious politics. Bala was born into a Muslim family in Kano in northern Nigeria. In 2014 he renounced Islam and in response the family took him to a state mental hospital in Kano where he was treated, sedated, and medicated for mental illness. There is nowhere in the medical literature where apostasy is identified as a form of mental illness. But a pathological interpretation of apostasy applies in Kano and other sections of Nigeria where political Islam rules. Apostates run so much risk including honor-based violence, severance of family ties, and death. Bala managed to escape from the hospital when the staff embarked on industrial action. But the Islamists in the region were unpleased and unappeased, they continued to monitor the activities of Bala especially his posts on social media platforms.
On April 28, 2020, officers from the Kano state police command arrested Mubarak Bala in Kaduna and whisked him to Kano following a petition from some Islamist lawyers. These lawyers complained that Bala made some posts on Facebook that insulted the prophet of Islam. The police held him incommunicado for months, and in February 2022, they arraigned him and in April a state court sentenced him to 24 years in prison. Bala*s arrest and outrageous sentencing happened and could only happen in a place like Kano because political Islam rules in the region. Kano has a sharia police unit and state institutions are Islamic or quasi-Islamic structures. There have been other cases of blasphemy-related attacks, killings, and violence in Kano, Niger, Kaduna, Bornu, Sokoto, Bauchi, and Abuja targeting Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Political Christianity and Islam are hostile to spreading humanist ideals and values, to the humanity, dignity, and equal rights of atheists and humanists including their rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech, and expression. The prospects of humanism in a Christian or Islamic state are dim when the state violates its secular character and neutrality and leans toward Christianity, Islam, or indigenous religion. Religious politics has no place for humanism, for a non-religious, nontheistic, and nonsupernaturalistic outlook based on ethical and responsible living in the Christian city of God or Islamic city of Allah.
For a better and brighter future for humanism and freethought, humanists must remain vigilant; they must work, and campaign to preserve the secular tradition. Humanists and atheists must ensure that post-colonial African states are neutral on religious matters, that state actors are unbiased for and against any religious or belief group.