Ethno-Religious conflicts in Africa; foreign policy option

Africa is the second largest and most populated continent in the world with 54 sovereign states and over 3000 ethnic groups practicing about ten different religions including Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Traditional Religion, Buddhism, Baha’i, Judaism, Confucianism, and a minority irreligious groups. Colonialism, which lasted for two centuries did not only redefine Africa’s political geography, it influenced her ethno-religious believes leaving lasting faith crisis from which the continent is yet to wake. In this essay, I shall base my work on accounts from sub-Saharan Africa.

Conflict is the incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another. A conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur . . . one party is interfering, disrupting, obstructing, or in some other way making another party’s actions less effective (Pruitt and Rubin 1986).

Religion according to Karl Max “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.  A strong belief in a supernatural power that controls   human destiny. Meanwhile ethnicity “is generally characterized as a sense of group belonging, based on ideas of common origins, history, culture, language, experience and values” (Anderson 1983).

Ethnicity is a powerful ‘identity tool’ in the African society. It is a badge worn by every African (society), and could be a defining apparatus in regards to personal or group behavior. Meanwhile religion is a set of beliefs that shape behaviors and conduct. But religious beliefs are not confined to a certain ethnic group; in cases where it does (e.g. African Traditional Religion), it has to do with few modifications.

According to Kadayifci Orellana (2009), ethno-religious conflicts are those involving groups where religion is an integral part of social and cultural life, and religious institutions are representatives, possessing moral legitimacy and mobilizing potentials.

Map of Sub Saharan Africa
Map of Sub Saharan Africa


Generally, crisis across the sub-Saharan Africa is either influenced by religion, ethnicity, or in most cases both. Statistics reveal that 4 out of 5 African countries were sunk in a civil war within a decade of obtaining independence from colonial masters (Civil wars; The picture in Africa; The Economist). Most of these crisis had ethno-religious undertones. In the present day Africa, nothing seem to have changed; there is nearly any crisis in any community that isn’t as a result of ethnic or religious affiliations. Local land grab disputes which often result in massive arms clashes leading to destruction of lives and properties are mostly fought on ethnic bases. While socio-political crisis such as pre or post-election brawls have both religious and ethnic undertones.

The earliest record of religious crisis before contacts with the western world was that of the spread/invasion of Islamic jihadists from the northern Sahara. The influence of trade and other forms of relations with the Middle East through the Sahara desert triggered this 16th century invasion. One of the most outstanding invasions that comes to mind started in Gobir (a kingdom in the North of present day Nigeria) in 1804. It was led by Uthman Dan-Fodio, a Fulani by tribe, and pierced through from the southern Saharan kingdom of Sokoto (North-West Nigeria) and ended in Ilorin – North-Central Nigeria (Wikipedia: Sokoto Caliphate). This laid a firm foundation for segmentation of the pre-colonial African religious society, and subsequently religious aggression/domination and then large scale crisis.

Over the years, ethnicity and religion has been used as bases of grabbing political power, influence and control of economic resources in Africa. Islam and Christianity are the most populous religions in Africa; in recent times, more crisis has been brewed on ethno-religious grounds. Reasons being that when conflicting groups identify themselves along ethno-religious lines, religious identity can create sharp distinctions between parties, and increase group mobilization. Most religious groups waging wars in the continent began with an ethnic agenda before going wild into religion.

Causes of ethno-religious crisis include, marginalization and desanctification. Ethno-religious apparatus can, and has been used to chart socio-political causes. The first military coup d’état in Nigeria on 15th October 1966 led by Chukwuma Nzeogwu, an Igbo by tribe/ethnicity, was viewed then by major tribes in the country as an ‘Igbo coup’ due to the one-sided casualty figures. He was subsequently toppled by Yakubu Gowon, a Hausa by tribe/ethnicity.

Map of armed conflicts in Africa 1997-2011
Map of armed conflicts in Africa 1997-2011

This led to the killing of many Igbo tribes-men residing in northern Nigeria and subsequently the Nigerian civil war. The Boko Haram insurgency currently ravaging across northern Nigeria and some parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic is a typical example of a large scale crisis brewed by religious desanctification, which subsequently gained socio-political affiliates; the militants claimed their religious beliefs are being relegated and desanctified by the ‘secular’ Nigerian government and therefore wanted to calve out an Islamic caliphate from North-East Nigeria where the full tenets of Islamic Sharia will be upheld by all and sundry. The crisis led by this group has claimed lives in thousands, properties worth billions of Dollars have been destroyed, and left more than three million people internally displaced.

The Sudanese civil war of 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 was notorious for having long standing ethno-religious backgrounds. It was a war waged against the Muslim central government’s moves to impose Sharia Law on non-Muslim southerners on one hand, and the control of state resources found mostly in the South on the other hand. Other crisis motivated by ethno-religious sentiments in Africa include the Sierra Leone civil war of 1991-2002; the Liberian civil wars of 1989-1996/1999-2006; the Congo civil war of 1998-2003; the Central African Republic crisis of 2012 till date, and so many others.


Possible causes

The challenge of managing Africa’s ethno-religious plurality is a daunting task. Ethnic problems in Africa has posed a number of threats to the legitimacy of national governments and their ability to offer needed leadership adequate to meet demands of Africa’s socio-economic development.

After the 911 terrorist attacks in the USA, the world have changed significantly on several aspects. Specifically in terms of general approach to national security systems and the ‘new war’ on terrorism. The phenomenon has also inspired the rise of many terrorist organizations around the world, as well as an increased flow of illegal arms through the black market to various rebel groups. Africa has benefitted a fair share of terrorism in this guise, no thanks to her porous borders and weak security systems. Adding to the odds is the rise in militant rebel groups in Africa, fueled by ethnic and religious sentiments, and financed by rich interest groups.

The availability of arms and ammunition at the disposal of one rebel group invariably inspires the rise of another. The imminent rise in illegal trade of arms across international borders is a major setback to fighting the spread of violent extremist groups. It should be noted that disarming rebel groups at the end of any uprising (sponsored by an external force) has always been a huge problem to stopping the circulation of crisis to other circles. Obviously, after the Balkan wars, the circulation of AK-47 rifles and other types or arms in the black market has fueled patches of major conflicts and terrorist attacks in Europe; the Arab Spring has also led to the rise of rebel armed groups terrorizing Africa. The aftermath of the Arab spring left patches of rebel groups formerly supported by western forces with so much arms and ammunitions which they trade on the black market and in support of any uprising group toeing their part. These arms somehow find their way into rebel groups down the Sahara.

Mass illiteracy is one of the main reasons why Africans are more vulnerable to ethno-religious crisis. The UNESCO Institute for statistics reveal that Africa has the highest number of people below the literacy line in the world (Adult literacy rate; This factor alone accounts for a large scale downward spiral syndrome in African crisis studies. Due to illiteracy, many Africans are ready tools for religious or ethnic related revolts. An uneducated population is easily manipulated by ‘interest seeking’ individuals/cooperations who capitalize on their inability to access some basic knowledge or reason and act objectively. A collection of I literate youth groups found across sub-Saharan Africa act as standing battle forces.

Adding to illiteracy is poverty and inequality. The struggle for control of Africa’s rich resources, both by internal and external forces, have left the continent in ruins of crisis, poverty, backwardness and underdevelopment. Meanwhile, the various armed fronts caught in these violence are usually made up of poor/illiterate population, brainwashed by religious overlords or ethnic crown bearers. Most African societies caught in the crisis circle suffer more from poverty; both of the mind and materially. The ‘presumably’ poorest population on earth live within the African continent. When people are jobless, and hungry, they are easily motivated by religious beliefs or ethnic sentiments to wage wars, especially if victory in such wars promise economic prosperity, and emancipation.

The only possible way to manage ethno-religious intent for mayhem in Africa is to enlighten and empower the people in the best possible means. The resources it will cost to achieve even a 50% mark on this quest is much to recon with, but fact remains that determination in a purposeful intent on poverty alleviation through mass education, empowerment, and enlightenment of Africa and Africans is one measure anybody who cares should be taking.

Why People are Easily Influenced by Ethnicity and Religion

Ethnicity                                              Religion
Identity                                                 Belief
Protection                                            Defense
Pride                                                     Evangelism
Marginalization                                 Desanctification
Fate                                                       Faith

Africa foreign policy; the future

The crisis ravaging across Africa is deepening and sends a frightening wave of shock across the continent, and invites more crisis ‘fueled by love and anger’ from ethno-religious supporters. Most terrorist/militant groups in Africa has claimed strong ties and firm connection with their counterparts operating in the Middle-East;  recently, Boko Haram militants terrorizing North-Eastern Nigeria claimed close ties with ISIS (the most funded terrorist organization in history), and also confessed to have received supports from such quarters. The Al-Shabab militants terrorizing Kenya/Somalia is notorious for holding concrete allegiance to Al-Qaida. We also have the Al-Mourabitoun Islamist militants hosting attacks in Mali and the Islamic Maghreb which is also linked to Al-Qaida (Mali hotel attacks; Theguardian). With the support all these militant groups gather, Africa will be thrown into even more crisis in the nearest future.

The power vacuum that followed the NATO intervention in Libya paved way for arms to circulate freely to various militant groups in the continent. There is therefore, an urgent need for collaboration between the foreign governments and Africa in areas such as; boarder control and surveillance; clampdown on illegal arms trade; clampdown on financial support for terrorists and terrorism; tracing sponsors of terrorism and blocking the channels; and training/equipping of anti-terror forces. African governments have been incapacitated by neocolonialism and systems infiltration, and as a result, need the help of ‘more sincere’ partners like Russia.

It is a known fact that wars are not won on the front lines alone; it is important to drive the process of negotiations going on behind the scenes. A reviewed African foreign relations should consider and also drive the non-combatant process of conflict resolution in Africa as this will greatly improve the pace of development and peace in the continent. ‘After the brawl has been settled by subduing the weaker fist, only strategic negotiations can calm tempers longer before any form of retaliation’.

Africa is portrayed as the poorest continent in every possible sense, despite the fact that she serves the economic need of virtually every single continent on earth, one way or the other. There is need to (if possible) revert to the old Soviet-African relations; I think that was the closest some African countries like Nigeria ever came to industrialization and self-determination. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the skeletal arrangements made for Africa’s industrialization also collapsed. At the moment, every country engaged with Africa is toeing the capitalist lane, which is not so ‘polite’ for a materially rich continent.

It is important to note that Africa is in dire need of self-determination, which is only achieved through human capital development. Foreign interests in Africa should focus on developing the African people through promotion of people oriented programs and support of indigenous development initiatives, bearing in mind that they (Africans) are the only people who can determine the safest path to the destiny of the continent – the African way.

Education is the bedrock of any society; there is urgent need to encourage education for self-reliance in Africa against the statuesque. It is important to collaborate with governments across the world which are considered pace setters in education. African governments should consider investing in self-determination based educational system in Africa through sustainable policy enhancement, structural analytic assistance, policy expert training and exchange of needed intelligence.


Whenever there is crisis, it is certain that there will be changes; sometimes, adapting to change itself is the greatest of all crisis. Virtually every society in history has gone through one form of crisis or the other. In recent African history, religion and ethnicity have been recurrent features in virtually all the devastating clashes that have occurred across the continent. These crises are either fueled by external or internal influences, or both, in various ways comprising of sponsorship – arms, money and logistics; motivation and love. The sponsors have remained visibly invisible. Yet, the solution to all these mayhem lies on enlightenment, dialogue, understanding, true freedom (noninterference), and effective diplomacy, all of these which have been denied Africa and Africans.

There is urgent need for strengthening of security systems to be able to cope with current security threat/challenges which involves adopting a modern approach to effective community policing, strengthening of inter-state boarders, training and retraining of security personnel, and a holistic review of Africa’s foreign policy. All these could be achieved by strengthening Africa’s relations within, and with the entire world, and adopting specific development partners like Russia.

It is important to state here that Africa is not a continent in turmoil; Africa just happens to be going through a process of development familiar to every other continent.

Few facts about Africa

  • Africa is the second largest and most populated continent in the world.
  • Africa has 54 sovereign states.
  • Over 3000 ethnic groups live in Africa.
  • Practicing about ten different religions including, Islam, Hindu, Traditional Religion, Buddhism, Baha’i, Judaism, Confucianism, and a minority irreligious groups.
  • In Ancient times, people from Southern Europe and Western Asia colonized North Africa, while people from Southeast Asia colonized Madagascar.
  • In the Middle Ages, North and East Africa was further colonized by people from Western Asia.
  • In the Modern Era, Western Europeans colonized all parts of the continent, culminating in the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. A wave of decolonization followed after World War II.


The above article is a presentation delivered by George Ogala (MSc. Student, department of Global Politics and International Law, UNN) At the First International Research and Practice Conference on 5th December 2015.

Theme: XXI CENTURY CONFLICTS AND CRISES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA: AFRICAN ELITES AND RUSSIA at the Nizhniy Novgorod State National Research University, Russia.


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