In little more than a century, the landscape of religion in sub-Saharan Africa has changed dramatically. As of 1900, both Muslims and Christians were relatively small minorities in the region.
The vast majority of people practiced traditional African religions, while adherents of Christianity and Islam combined made up less than a quarter of the population, according to historical estimates from the World Religion Database.
Since then, however, the number of Muslims living between the Sahara Desert and the Cape of Good Hope has increased more than 20-fold, rising from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010. The number of Christians has grown even faster, soaring almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million. Sub-Saharan Africa now is home to about one-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) and more than one-in-seven of the world’s Muslims (15%).1
A recent forum on inter-faith alliance for Africa revealed that, while sub-Saharan Africa has almost twice as many Christians as Muslims, on the African continent as a whole the two faiths are roughly balanced, with 400 million to 500 million followers each. Since northern Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is heavily Christian, the great meeting place is in the middle, a 4,000-mile swath from Somalia in the east to Senegal in the west.
Many Africans are deeply committed to Islam or Christianity and yet continue to practice elements of traditional African religions. Still, it is difficult to claim that religion plays a very salutary role in the private and public lives of the approximately 820 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions.
Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa is clearly among the most religious places in the world. In many countries across the continent, roughly nine-in-ten people or more say religion is very important in their lives. By this key measure, even the least religiously inclined nations in the region score higher than the United States, which is among the most religious of the advanced industrial countries.
In general, traditional religion in Africa is characterized by belief in a supreme being who created and ordered the world but is often experienced as distant or unavailable to humans. Lesser divinities or spirits who are more accessible are sometimes believed to act as intermediaries. A number of traditional myths explain the creation and ordering of the world and provide explanations for contemporary social relationships and norms.
Ancestors, considered to be in the spirit world, are believed to be part of the human community. Believers hold that ancestors sometimes act as emissaries between living beings and the divine, helping to maintain social order and withdrawing their support if the living behave wrongly. Religious specialists, such as diviners and healers, are called upon to discern what infractions are at the root of misfortune and to prescribe the appropriate rituals or traditional medicines to set things right.
Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa experience their respective faiths in a very intense, immediate, personal way. For example, three-in-ten or more of the people in many countries say they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed the devil being driven out of a person or received a direct revelation from God.
Many of these intense religious experiences, including divine healings and exorcisms, are also characteristic of traditional African religions. Within Christianity, these kinds of experiences are particularly associated with Pentecostalism, which emphasizes such gifts of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues, giving or interpreting prophecy, receiving direct revelations from God, exorcising evil and healing through prayer. About a quarter of all Christians in four sub-Saharan countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria) now belong to Pentecostal denominations, as do at least one-in-ten Christians in eight other countries.
Morality implies a basic reference to the distinction of what is right from what is wrong. Various moralities differ as to the extent of what is right and what is wrong, or good and bad, and therefore, each community, nation or society may have its own morality, according to the local beliefs, whether social, political, religious or other.
The legal enforcement of morals means, in practice, the separation of crimes-from-sins. There are two main instruments to ensure the enforcement of morals: statutory legislation and judge-made law.
When the legislature adopts a statute regulating some aspect of morality, the enforcement of morals is seen as a matter of policy at the political level: no government is likely to adopt a law that does not satisfy the moral conscience of the population.
The actual enforcement of such a law can also be a matter of policy, either political or merely administrative. But when the legislature remains silent on some aspects of the legal enforcement of morals, the courts have often stepped in, and reaffirmed their right and duty as custos morum of the people.
In those cases, the legal enforcement of morals is not a matter of political policy but of mere interpretation of what is right and wrong, as assessed by expert witnesses and stated by a jury, subject to the revision of the higher courts. Their judgement and opinion will, therefore, constitute the yardstick that will be used to measure what society is or will be prepared to tolerate in the field of morality, and to what extent it is prepared to accept the legal enforcement of morals.
It is, therefore, the just duty of governments in Africa, as elsewhere, to promote compliance to laws, regulations, ethics, values and principles that predispose individuals and organizations to work justly, productively, effectively and efficiently.
Without the effective enforcement of laws, ordinances and regulations by the State, religious practices in Africa will continue to be of little or no effect, and will hardly translate to spiritual development of Africa’s abundant human capital.
Working in this light, and assiduously enforcing laws and implementing just policies, Africa can reclaim the chance of cultivating its human capital into moral autonomies that supply the building blocks for reconstructing the edifices of national character.
The kingdom of God is not gained only by prayer and fasting, miracles and healing – very important as these are. It also requires more ordinary, but no less useful, gifts such as Responsibility, Prudence, Industry, Emotional Resistance, Integrity, Intellectual Curiousity, and Courage.
True worship of God is, after all, a lifestyle on those narrow paths that are paved with these attributes. And, effective law enforcement is great trigger, reliable manure for true worship, as indeed governments are ordained by God.