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Religious Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Future of the Secular State

Dr. Ludovic Lado and Ms. Tiffany Lynch examined the growing religious violence in Sub-Saharan Africa and the response from African states, as well as options for US-Africa engagement regarding the current situation with religious conflict.

Date & Time

Jun. 17, 2014
10:00am – 11:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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On Tuesday, June 17th the Africa Program at The Wilson Center held a public event to examine growing religious violence in Sub-Saharan Africa and the response from African states, as well as options for US-Africa engagement regarding the current situation with religious conflict. Discussants included Dr. Ludovic Lado, a current Southern Voices Scholar with the Africa Program and Director of the Institute of Human Rights and Dignity at the Center of Research and Action for Peace in Cote d’Ivoire, and Tiffany Lynch, Senior Policy Analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Dr. Monde Muyangwa, Director of the Africa Program at The Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.

Geography of religious violence

Dr. Ludovic Lado began by discussing the changing face of religious violence over time in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has been fairly stable in terms of the peaceful coexistence of religions. Despite minor religious conflicts, in the past decade there has been no major war fought on the basis of religion.  Until just two decades ago, political religious movements were not even a concern for the postcolonial, secular state in the African region, but things may be rapidly changing. Dr. Lado warned that religious violence is increasing on the continent and is going to become one of the major sources of instability in the future. If policymakers do not take this concern seriously, it may alter the dynamics of relationships between Christians and Muslims long-term.

Most countries plagued with or threatened by religious violence are those situated just below the Sahel, with a strong Muslim presence in their northern regions and Christian presence in the south. Besides the influence from North Africa, northern populations have expressed a general feeling of political and economic marginalization by Christians – or in some cases, Muslims – in the south, which tend to control the political and administrative apparatus of the state. The last decade has seen an upsurge in religious or interreligious tensions and sometimes violence in West, Central and East Africa. Whereas some tensions have been contained, others have escalated.

 As Dr. Lado explains, “The key impact on interreligious relations is that extremism from one religious group tends to breed extremism from other religious groups.” We see this happening in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and with al-Shaba’ab in Kenya and Somalia, especially when looking at the crackdowns on Somalis in Kenya. The nature of these conflicts can run along sectarian divides, leaving some groups repressed.

Types and Causes of Religious Violence

Ms. Tiffany Lynch continued the discussion and elaborated on the two different types of religious violence that exist today and underlying causes to this violence. The first form is communal violence, illustrated by current events taking place in Nigeria. While every country has its own definition of communal violence, one definition used by the Kenyan government states, “communal violence is defined as that violence that occurs between different communities who identify themselves based on religion, tribes, language, sect, race and others.” Since 1999, Muslims and Christians have been victims of communal violence in northern Nigeria, which expanded and intensified through the early 2000’s. More recently, there has been communal violence in the Central African Republic. While it didn’t start off as religious violence but rather a political rebellion, this illustrates how conflict can transform to include religious undertones when a particular community is engaged in violence against another along sectarian lines.

A second and more recent wave of religious violence – religious extremism – is more short-term and sudden. This has been perpetrated by religious extremist groups, such as Boko Haram and al-Shaba’ab. The goal of these groups is to advance a particular cause in the Islamic state, and they engage in violent activity in order to accomplish it, such as imposing a set of behavioral norms with punishments for disobedience. Even members of their own religious groups who are seen as not pious enough are punished.

Lynch posed that the main underlying cause of religious violence is the failure of a state. Religious extremism groups tend to thrive amidst state failure and are initially welcomed by the population because they are believed to be able to provide rule of law and stability. This support quickly dwindles, as impunity for religious violence leads to the formation of militias seeking to create their own justice. Such was the case for Boko Haram in Nigeria, which began as a resistance group in the northern region of the country. However, when an episode of violence led to retaliatory attacks, a cycle and escalation of violent conflict ensued between the Nigerian Army and Boko Haram, which continues today. According to the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedoms, the Nigerian government has failed to conduct any prosecutions for religious violence. Without a government actively responding to religious violence, communities are turning to religious institutions that often lead to extremism only furthering the violence.  

Additional causes of religious violence have been poor education among public schools and unemployment, leaving young men vulnerable to radicalization.


Religious violence is increasingly becoming a concern across sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the intersection of its two forms. Failure to stem one can lead to the emergence of the other.  While there may be several underlying factors to conflict or violence that do not have religious roots, the resulting divisions could forever alter Christian-Muslim and Muslim-Muslim relations.

Currently, an effective response to address religious violence from secular states is lacking. Countries like Nigeria have responded with impunity to rising religious violence while other countries like Kenya are rounding up ethnic Somalis in response to al-Shaba’ab. Political leaders currently don’t look at public support as their source of power. The failure of international leaders to understand African politics results in failed policies. “The ballot box is only part of the story,” stated Dr. Lado. Until there is a strengthening of peacebuilding institutions, citizens will continue to turn to militias and other illegitimate power sources to seek justice. 


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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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