This is part 1 of a 7 part series
“Laïcité”, or secularism in french.” This word is inscribed in the preamble of the constitutions of many so-called “francophone” African countries.
A term that has become highly sensitive in the political debates that regularly tear apart the political elite of the former colonial power, France, where it has been used for the past 20 years as a war banner, feverishly waved for reasons that are often dubious, generally aimed at stigmatising the Muslim community.
But African states, whether they proclaim themselves secular or not, have learned to deal with a mix of Catholicism, Islam, animist survivals and assumed agnostic modernity.
On the continent, religious people have never been excluded from the scene, regardless of their faith.
How far does their influence extend?
It is not by chance that, in the renewed tensions that have rekindled the military crisis in Casamance, in the peaceful country of Senegal, the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, which has been following the issue for a decade, has once again tried to bring its expertise and its help to mediate between the belligerents (the Senegalese State and the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance – MFDC) in order to ease tensions.
Whether Catholic or Muslim, how far does the influence of African religious leaders extend?
Can they, without fail, resolve social crises that have become critical or act as a buffer between the political class and military putschists, as in Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso?
Are they able to smooth out dissension on the eve of a presidential election as in the DRC?
How far does their capacity to reconcile bitter political rivals extend, or even to unravel seemingly intractable political and judicial cases – as the Mourides in Senegal did to obtain the early release of Karim Wade?
From basilicas to monumental mosques, from Nioro du Sahel to Yamoussoukro, via Touba, African religious dignitaries, while remaining on the margins of power, are interlocutors whose influence is all the more inescapable because – unlike that of the military – it stops at the entrance to the presidential palaces.
It is not likely that a bishop will chase an elected president out of power any time soon, armed only with his crozier and his mitre, or that an imam will run for president in order to impose the divine will on his fellow citizens.
We look back at the careers of six of these influential prelates and imams, one foot in religion, the other in the burning socio-political issues, who embody the complex relationship that politics has with religion in Africa.
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