Religioscope – If we look at the religious map of Africa as it evolved during the 20th century, we can see that it has changed enormously between the beginning and the end of the century. There have not been bigger changes on any continent other than Africa. According to statistics we observe a considerable decrease of traditional religions while especially Christianity and Islam too have gained ground. How far do those numbers tell really the story of religion in Africa?
Stephen Ellis – They obviously do tell a story and they are interesting. Of course there are several things one would have to say. One is that the population of Africa has increased enormously from maybe 150 million people at the beginning of the 20th century to more like 7 or 8 hundred million people now. So there are perhaps six times as many Africans now as there were at the beginning of the 20th century. So it seems logical there are more Christians and Muslims. It is also clear that in percentage terms there has been a growth of the world religions.
The conventional way of looking at it is to say people have converted from African traditional religions to one of the great world religions, Christianity or Islam, as part of the process of becoming more modern. But I think that is unsatisfactory for all sorts of reasons. First because there is a very well known phenomenon in Africa, i.e. multiple religious allegiances. In other words, somebody might describe himself as a Christian, might go to church regularly or quite often, but still carry out various traditional practises and not consider that contradictory or hypocritical or anything like that.
Of course there has always been a problem among Muslims in other parts of the world and Christians in other parts of the world who may think somehow Africans are not proper Christians, not proper Muslims. I think actually there is a huge amount of arrogance in that, in the sense that every continent, every group of people assimilates religion in their own terms and in a sense has a right to do so. If you come across an African who goes to church sometimes, maybe an African church, but also sacrifices to the ancestors or something like that, at what point can you say this person is a Christian or not a Christian? That is a very difficult question to answer.
So there is the phenomenon of inculturation of world religions in Africa, which is perfectly legitimate, but does pose problems for other adherents of those religions. I suppose a classic one would be something very centralized like Roman Catholicism. If you get very considerable numbers of Roman Catholics in Africa, which is the case, and if there is a feeling in the Vatican that maybe some of them are not entirely orthodox, then I believe there is a sort of power struggle going on. That’s in a sense where I come in. I hope I am open-minded, my interest is in politics really so I’ve become interested in it as a phenomenon of power.
Religioscope – One of the points clearly emphasised in your book on conflicts and religious factors in Liberia is that traditional religions continue to play a very important role in Africa today. But at the same time traditional religion has experienced such severe disruptions it has been changing too. And there are some voices calling for a return to traditional religious practises in order to restore some kind of social order as well.
Stephen Ellis – That’s right. It is widely noted that there is a so-called religious revival in Africa. Now, revival might not be the best word because religion has never been away but you see for example clear phenomena of political Islam in some countries like Sudan, so-called Islamic fundamentalism. You also see very dynamic new Christian movements, charismatic churches and so forth, not just making converts but also occupying public space in terms of processions in the street, new churches being opened, and also politicians openly identifying with them. Like former President Chiluba in Zambia saying he’s a born-again Christian, declaring that Zambia is now a Christian nation, which is a very political gesture.
We are also seeing a revival of traditional religions. Now that poses all sorts of interesting questions about what do we mean by traditional religion particularly in the case of Africa where so-called traditional African religions are not based on scriptures. It is simply a body of practices and beliefs, which because it is oral is very flexible and absorptive. You can absorb almost anything without a problem. There is a quite self-conscious revival of African traditional religions in some instances for example in Kenya with a revival of Kikuyu religions, which has a very distinctive political overtone, which recalls the days of Mau-Mau. But you are also seeing some African so-called traditional religions taking on, in the image of Christianity and Islam, a proselytising role, seeking to convert people so you probably now have more adherents of traditional Yoruba religion in New York than you have in Lagos.
Religioscope – We would tend to see African religions as being affected by globalisation but actually they globalise as well including African independent churches, which have now congregations in various parts of the world.
Stephen Ellis – Yes, that is right.
Religioscope – As already mentioned, there are changes in the profile of Christianity in Africa especially the huge impetus of evangelicals. When did the development of evangelical movements in Africa really develop full scale?
Stephen Ellis – It’s very hard to say because of course some of the mission churches, Anglicans, Baptists and so on, when they came to Africa in the 19th century were in full evangelical mood, coming straight from Europe, so you could say they have always been evangelical. You get various churches of the charismatic Pentecostal type, which have been in Africa now for many decades since the early 20th century. It does however appear, to judge from the very fragmentary statistics and from various anecdotes to have been a real growth since the 1970s-1980s. It’s very difficult to be precise about it and it’s very hard to say if this is something which has been going on all the time and people like myself have only recently become aware of it because I’m not a specialist in religious studies? Or if it has been going on all the time and it’s only become so apparent because as it were of what has happened to African states? There has been a widespread collapse of states in Africa. To a certain extent that leaves churches in a much more obvious position as public institutions than they were or they would be in times when states, bureaucratic states on the European model, were functioning fairly normally.
Religioscope – Do we see those evangelical groups developing not only in traditionally Protestant mission areas but also in areas in Africa where Catholic missionaries were predominantly active during the colonial times or do we still see a pattern of primary diffusion to Protestant areas?
Stephen Ellis – That’s an interesting question. I haven’t looked at it but I think probably both. All the so-called mainline churches which I use as shorthand to designate those churches which were originally led by European missionaries and implanted in Africa in colonial times, like the Anglicans, the Catholics, the Methodists and so on – all of them seem to feel a degree of competition coming from newer churches of the charismatic/Pentecostal varieties and all of them have assimilated this in the sense that they have become more Pentecostal and charismatic themselves. In some cases, like some of the mainstream Protestant churches, this is simply a question of going back to their roots. But in other cases, like the Catholics, it means probably taking ways of thinking and practices they haven’t known or have regarded as peripheral for many centuries. And they have great problems with this.
Religioscope – Actually we have other groups that are quite important in Africa, the African-initiated churches. We have so many churches, which were born in Africa, and some of them grew to be quite large movements, sometimes with international following. Do we see the phenomena of those African independent churches all over Africa or predominantly in some areas of Africa?
Stephen Ellis – I think they are all over Africa. You might find more in some places than others. For example, I think I am right in saying that in Rwanda before the genocide there were comparatively few African-initiated churches. Rwanda has a very particular history. The Catholic Church was extremely strong and it was combined with a really very thoroughly organized state so there wasn’t very much space as it was for creating independent churches. But I think in general they are all over Africa.
Religioscope – How would you describe the independent African churches for readers who are not very familiar with Africa? What are their main features?
Stephen Ellis – Technically they are simply churches that have been founded by an African and without any direct link to any of the historically European-led churches, which generally means churches that were led by European missionaries coming to Africa in colonial times, so-called mainstream churches. One of their characteristics is that they’re independent, financially, juridically and so on, of the historic missionary churches. Secondly, there are theological aspects. Thirdly, I suppose they place a great deal of attention on healing, and I think that is one of the things that make them very popular. And beyond that it would be very hard for me to say because they vary so very much.
They are often perceived, by many Europeans, including European missionaries and European academics, as being somehow disorganized, in the sense of likely to split: they are always independent of one another, you often get people splitting off from one church and starting a new one and this can give an impression of disorganization. It is probably unfair, in the sense that many of these churches begin with somebody claiming to have had a message, a dream or something like that to start a church. So what is more normal than that they should go and do so, it is not necessarily seen as a schism.
It should also be said it is often considered by sceptical outsiders that you can too easily become the leader of an independent church. And it is true you can set up a church without any kind of permission and you do get a number of people who are more interested in money than anything else setting up their own churches in parts of Africa. But I wouldn’t want to exaggerate that, even though it happens. But I wouldn’t want to say they are all like that. Imagine there were a church led by somebody that people feel is an impostor, a charlatan. The church is not going to last very long, people will simply stop going.
Religioscope – Going to African countries and see the roads full of people on Sunday going to church we have a feeling of a continent with a vibrant religious life. Compared to Europe do you think theories of secularisation do not apply to Africa?
Stephen Ellis – We have been brought up in societies where there has been a steady loss of religious belief in most of Western Europe. Moreover I think we have been brought up to believe actively or not so actively in theories of modernization whereby we think the more developed a country becomes, then the less religious it becomes or at least religion will be accorded a rather private role. In other words it is not a public thing, it is certainly not a political thing, it is a matter of private belief. Do you want to go to church? Well, that’s up to you. That is certainly not the case in Africa, where religion is absolutely vibrant as much now as ever, maybe more than ever, but certainly there are no signs of a loss of dynamism.
But it is also not the case with the United States which many people would consider in some ways one of the world’s most developed countries seen by many as leader in politics, as the world’s only super power. America has very high percentages of people expressing belief in God, attending some religious service regularly, describing themselves as members of some religious group, including notably in the government itself, to start with the Attorney General. We can think of other places, like Pakistan and India, where religion is very important. There are even political parties with strong religious affiliation. And these countries now have nuclear bombs so we can’t regard them somehow as backward. In short, analysts have to literally be post-modern. Regarding a lot of our received ideas about modernization, development, we have to literally be able to say this happens not to be correct. We have got to rethink what is going on in those parts of the world that were formerly colonized and were considered to be on a road to some sort of development. We have got to rethink the whole notion.
Religioscope – Then we see Africa as a place of conflicts where religions play a role. We have the reports of the past few months about Nigeria and sometimes very violent clashes between Christian and Muslim groups. Do we have an African continent where we will see in the future an increasing number of militant religious organizations, Muslim and Christian, clashing with each other? Is this to some extent a prefiguration of the future of Africa, increasing radicalisation of opposing religious groups competing with each other? Or is this a very pessimistic view of what the future holds for Africa?
Stephen Ellis – I think it is a very pessimistic view of what the future holds, but of course nobody knows what the future holds. It all depends upon what politicians in particular make of religion. We have these images from Nigeria, which are not inventions; indeed Muslims and Christians have been fighting each other in central Nigeria in particular in recent times. Nigeria is one country in Africa with a long history of politicised religion going back to pre-colonial times. You also have in West Africa places like Sierra Leone, Liberia and others where, even in situation of war, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other. Even in the same family it is not at all uncommon in these places to find a man who is, let’s say, Muslim, whose wife is Christian and whose children are some Muslims and some Christians and people converting from one religion to the other. That is not at all uncommon. The last president of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, was a Muslim but his wife was a Christian. You have this very commonly throughout Africa so you couldn’t think of a more perfect harmony between the main religions and also traditional religions.
But of course if the power of religion to mobilize people is used for political purposes, especially in situations of conflict then you can get people fighting each other with the badge of religion. Then it becomes extremely difficult to say if this is this really a political conflict or is it really a religious conflict? I have often thought about this with relation to Northern Ireland, as a British person myself, and some people will say to you: “Look. This is a religious conflict which takes on a political form”, and some people will say: “No, this is a political conflict taking on a religious form”. I think the latter is true in the sense that if you take Northern Ireland for example ultimately it is a contest about political identity. Do you consider yourself as an Irish citizen? Or do you consider yourself as a British citizen? And it happens that this corresponds with Catholics and Protestants.
Now you have similar situations in Nigeria and some other places with the whole history that goes with it of course. So for example very serious fighting in the city of Jos (Nigeria) in September 2001 was described as Christian against Muslim. It was indeed to a large degree, but there were also Muslims killing other Muslims. It was about who really runs Jos. Is it local people and southerners or is it people from northern Nigeria? Among the southerners there is a significant number of Muslims also killed. So in the end you can say religion had something to do with it, but this was really a political struggle.
Religioscope – Despite the fact that some of those clashes were originally attributed to the will of local governments to implement the sharia?
Stephen Ellis – In the case of the Jos riots, which happens to be the one I am quite well informed about, it was not because of the local government imposing sharia. Jos City, which is largely Christian and has had a reputation for tolerance over many decades, had received many displaced people coming from states where sharia had been imposed. And some people who didn’t like this were literally moving to a place where they were seeking refuge and that of course changed not only the composition of the population, with many displaced people arriving in the city, but also very charged, because people were coming with all sorts of stories about sharia. So clearly the introduction of sharia in some Nigerian states, whatever one thinks of it in religious terms, is a highly political action.
Religioscope – You mentioned before the fact that many churches in Africa remain the sole real structure existing in Africa. How far are they concretely able to contribute to peace building in Africa? What have been, for example, success stories in recent years?
Stephen Ellis – Very difficult question to answer for various reasons. It is true that in some parts of Africa, I guess the leading example would be Congo, the Catholic Church is the only reasonably coherent nationwide infrastructure and therefore it functions as a post office. People will go to a Catholic Church in a part of the Congo and leave a message and sometime later it will be transmitted to somebody else in another part of the country because there is no working national postal service. So it has great importance just as an infrastructure.
In various parts of Africa, of course, church leaders, and for that matter Muslim leaders and maybe other religious leaders too have been prominent in talks about peace in situations where there had been conflict. They have intervened with different degrees of success in different places. If you take South Africa, for example, the church has played quite a significant role in ending apartheid. I cannot say they played the leading role, because obviously organs of state power were absolutely crucial. But they played a leading role; and of course the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about which a great deal has been written, was very much a Christian thing. There were also non-Christians involved, but it was a very much religiously inspired movement, led by a former archbishop and seconded by a former head of the Methodist Church, so it was very much a religious initiative.
And in different places you’ve had efforts at mediation or peacemaking with varying degrees of success. I am racking my brains to think of a really good example of a successful one. The Sant’Egidio community, from Italy, played a leading role in Mozambique. Recently, there has been an interesting peace movement in Angola, where the Catholic Church has been playing an important part.
In a country which I know well, which is Liberia, the churches combined with the leaders of the Muslim communities to take a leading and admirable role in attempts at mediation. It wasn’t entirely successful, I am afraid to say, because the war went on for a very long time in Liberia and it is still a troubled country to this day, but certainly the churches and also Muslim leaders played a very significant role.
Religioscope – There are several people especially in Christian circles who sometimes claim there is progression of Islam towards parts of Africa which lie more to the South. Does this correspond to reality or is it a myth?
Stephen Ellis – I think it is true. I don’t have any figures at hand and even if I did have they would be eminently debatable because generally speaking you don’t get very accurate statistics on this type of thing. And as I have said you do get in Africa a phenomena of multiple religious affiliations, so just because so many percent of the population are Christians, it doesn’t therefore mean that the rest are Muslims or traditional believers because the people might be two at once. Definitely, if you look at the map of Africa there are areas where Islam was always either not present or very much a minority religion, maybe associated with foreigners or with very small groups of the population, where it is definitely thriving and I would certainly say growing numbers; for example Mozambique probably and Rwanda certainly, the Ivory Coast, maybe even Ghana, those would all be examples.
Religioscope – Do you see in recent years new religious players coming into the African scene, in addition to traditional religion, Islam, Christianity in their various forms?
Stephen Ellis – As we have already discussed, you have new churches coming up all the time initiated by Africans inside Africa. You also have new churches originating in other parts of the world coming to Africa from Brazil, from America, from Korea and so on. You also have non-Christian and for that matter non-Muslim movements with origins outside Africa getting some followers in Africa. I have no way of knowing on what scale this is taking place but I have seen people in West Africa who appeared to be converts to some form of Buddhism or Hindu religion, wearing saffron robes and so on. I have really got no way of knowing on what scale that exists. I am sure this is happening. Because of the increases generally in relations between Africa and Asia in particular.
Logically I would imagine in the future we are going to see more Africans becoming interested in aspects of Asian civilization including religion and maybe more active efforts by Asians to proselytise in Africa, Muslims, Buddhists or others. But we are also seeing to some extent African traditional religions proselytising in other parts of the world, notably of course in North America where Americans of African origin, African Americans, might find that very attractive.
The interview with Stephen Ellis took place in Leiden on 30 January 2001. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.