Since Arab expansion in the eighth century and European expansion in the 15th century, Africans have almost completely converted from their indigenous, traditional religions, to that of Christianity and Islam. Today, traditional African religions are followed by a majority only in Togo.
Has this transformation been for the better or for the worse?
Religion is the spark for disputes throughout the world, but especially in Africa. Although conflicts are often caused by a variety of other factors, such as ethnicity and race, religion has also been at the heart of much of today’s atrocities on the continent.
Here are five African countries that are currently torn apart by religious violence between Muslims and Christians.
Central African Republic
Although the Central African Republic has no significant history of sectarian conflict or deep-seated religious tension, the United Nations, France, and other international groups have recently been warning the world that CAR is facing widespread religious violence that could take on genocidal proportions.
According to The Washington Times, the conflict became increasingly religious when members of the Seleka rebel coalition looted, raped and killed Christians upon seizing control of the capital city of Bangui last year. Muslim civilians then became targets of attacks by armed Christians, who wrested control of the capital back from the Seleka coalition.
The violence has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes within a year, and at one point, The Washington Post reports, nearly 100,000 people sought shelter on the grounds of the Bangui airport, which has been guarded first by the French, and now by other European peacekeepers. No official death toll numbers have been released.
While most media portrayals of the CAR conflict have focused on a Christian vs. Muslim narrative, some journalists have noted that political and economic instability led to the overthrow of the government in March 2013, which resulted in the protracted violence.
Since Sudan’s independence in 1956, only 10 out of the 58 years have been peaceful. The rest were filled with the violence and bloodshed of two civil wars, and the war in Darfur. Northern Sudan is populated by people who practice Islam, while Southern Sudanese are followers of traditional religions and Christianity.
In 1947, despite the religious and cultural differences, the British and Arab-Egyptian colonizers decided to make Sudan one country. This led to the first civil war, which lasted from 1955 to 1972, claiming the lives of 500,000 people, of whom only 1 in 5 was considered an armed combatant. Hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homes.
Between 1983 and 2005, a second civil war between the north and south erupted. Nearly 2 million people were lost to bloodshed, famine and disease. Four million people in Southern Sudan were displaced.
The war in Darfur began in 2003, when rebels took up arms, accusing the government of unfair practices in the region. The United Nations says as many as 300,000 people may have died.
On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent nation. Although religion is a major factor in the Sudanese conflicts, it is not the only one. Many analysts have described the wars in the oil-rich nation as a fight over its resources.
The populations of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are nearly equal in number. The majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni and are concentrated in the northern area of the country, while Christians dominate in the middle belt and south.
The Islamist insurgency, or the Sharia conflict in Nigeria, began in 1999 with the establishment of the Islamic law in several Muslim-majority northern states, despite the secular Constitution of Nigeria and the disapproval of the Christian minority.
From 2000 onward, occasional riots between Christians and Muslims have resulted in thousands of deaths. Since 2009, when the Islamist group Boko Haram began an armed rebellion against the secular government, the conflict has spiraled into a more violent phase.
Many Nigerians argue that the real reason for the violence is not the ethnic or religious differences, but the scramble for land, scarce resources and political clout.
Andrew Kakabadse, professor of international management development at the U.K.-based Cranfield School of Management, blames a lethal combination of outside oil interests, longstanding local conflicts, and poverty, for the sectarian strife.
“In Nigeria, the Christian-Muslim thing is the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “What’s underneath the water is a much more complex sociopolitical situation, which cannot be explained just in terms of the religious divide. You have a recipe ripe for conflict, and it just so happens to be Christian-Muslim.”
On Jan. 16, 2012, several Islamic groups, led by the Tuareg-based National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), rebelled against the Malian government for the independence of northern region, also known as Azawad.
Frustrated by President Amadou Toumani Toure’s management of the rebellion and the high number of military deaths, Malian soldiers marched on the capital of Bamako in March 2012, causing Toure to flee the capital.
The military’s takeover of Bamako created instability in the country and allowed the rebels to quickly take control of the north by April, according to Washington State University professor Peter Chilson, who explained the conflict at an appearance at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.,
Chilson also noted that the Tuareg had little time to celebrate their victory. By June, the jihadist groups the Tuareg had partnered with had undermined the rebellion, seized power and established a fundamentalist form of Sharia, Islamic law.
The Tuareg never desired the implementation of Islamic law in their territory, Chilson said. Instead, they simply wanted “an independent state in which they could protect their culture.”
The Islamists remained in power until the government of Mali called on France to launch an intervention this past January.
The port hub of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, is at the center of a religious divide. It’s a predominately Muslim region of an otherwise Christian nation, and residents say it’s an area that has been neglected by the government. The simmering tensions have often erupted into violence.
In 1992, Mombasa, witnessed many street battles between the police and supporters of the Islamic Party of Kenya, which was trying to get its members elected to parliament on a radical Islamic platform.
Though they were unsuccessful electorally, scores were injured and extensive property destroyed in ensuing street battles with police.
On Sept. 21, 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. The attack, which lasted until Sept. 24, left 67 people dead, including four attackers. Over 175 people were wounded in the mass shooting, with all of the gunmen eventually reported killed.
The Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident, which it characterized as retribution for the Kenyan military’s deployment in Somalia in October 2011. Since the Westgate mall attack, Kenya has been hit by a wave of religious violence in the coastal region.