It is easy to see why a growing number of people in the west have started to see religion as a possible engine of development where the state has failed so dismally in Africa. Across the continent, religious organisations have gained a new visibility by stepping into the void created by anaemic state bureaucracies.
In several rural and urban communities, the pastor or imam (these days often an unemployed university graduate) has replaced the elected councillor. State-society disconnect, long predicted as the inescapable logic of worrisome trends in African governance, is now a profound fact of life. The crisis of the state in Africa has brought society to its knees, and a majority of citizens have, literally, remained there.
The interior expressions of religion on the continent are even more insidious and most clearly evident in an intellectual surrender that sees its current crises as the making of a divine being, one who will, as soon as current earthly arrangements are brought to their imminent end, sort things out and compensate the longsuffering faithful. Religion, therefore, has effectively become Africa's shadow state, enhancing its dubious social agency, even as the authority and legitimacy of the state rapidly diminishes.
A recent debate on 'God and Mammon' at the British Museum, at which I was a panellist, marked a recognition of spirituality's increased presence across the African continent. Posing the question of whether faith has succeeded in Africa where the nation state has failed, the debate sought to bring fresh perspectives to the virtually exhausted dialogue about the debacle of state-engineered development in Africa.
As a secularist student of African societies, it seems to me that one could reject the mentality which framed the debate on certain grounds. For instance, to ask whether faith has succeeded (or might succeed) where the nation state has failed in Africa is to unwittingly pander to the sectionalist whims of those who, preferring to see reality through the tinted monocles of faith, are aggressively laying sectarian foundations for issues of public interest on the continent.
Second, the question itself betrays a reluctance to come to terms with the origins of state failure in Africa, widely acknowledged to have been brought about by a combination of foreign mischief and indigenous wilful plunder. If, as is widely known, African states have had the singular luck of being ruled by a succession of political leaders with all the features of an underworld criminal gang, and if these leaders have often acted in cahoots with so-called religious leaders, why must a patently human mess be dumped in the lap of a creator?
Third, the expectation that a solution to the problems of African development might be found in the magico-spiritual realm seems to have emanated from a dubious and unsustainable assumption of African exceptionalism, one with a pedigree deep in the infancy of the anthropological endeavour. Clearly, the modern nation state is everywhere undergoing profound stresses and witnessing robust challenges to its authority and legitimacy. If the prescribed solution in other places is the rebuilding of state capacity and its deeper embedding in society, why, one wonders, should Africa be different?
This constitution of Africa as a space of strangeness, culturally and socially distinct from the rest of the world, and forever struggling to break free from the vice of irrationality, derives, and may well have sprung from a colonialist perceptual schema, but what should give pause to secularists everywhere is the mileage that the debate itself is in danger of giving advocates of the increased role of religion on the continent.
For, if the background to the debate, plus associated speculations about the possibility of what might be called 'faith-based development' has had any effect, it is to unwittingly strengthen the hand of sectarians in the ongoing battle for the character of the state and the public space in Africa. Imagining the possibility of religions taking over from, let alone succeeding, where the state in Africa has failed, is to give undeserved nourishment to the hopes of those both within and outside Africa whose main interest is in fashioning social entities with little or no distinction from religious institutions.
This group, to be sure, is not limited to the traditional religious clerisy alone. Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the deepening hold of religion on the popular imagination in Africa, is the role of political leaders who, although usually elected on a secularist platform, nevertheless aggressively proceed in subverting the very same ethos.
Some of the manifestations of this can be very bizarre. In Nigeria for example, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a 'born again' Christian who was officially adopted early in his presidency by the country's influential Pentecostal clan, and who has never been shy to cultivate it, has unwittingly helped to amplify the latent religious challenge to the country's secular status.
Thus, under the current dispensation, church sermons, as well as the presidential chaplain's Sunday service from the presidential villa, are broadcast all weekend long on state-owned television.
Arguably no where else is the identified capacity of religion to foster cerebral closure in greater evidence than in African universities, where, over the past two decades, the religious identity has slowly, yet steadily, undercut and subsumed undergraduates' primary identity as students, let alone citizens of particular countries. With both faculty and students generally gripped by widespread eschatological tension, the intellectual enterprise is distinguished by its glaring absence.
To prescribe an increased role for faith as a panacea to all this is to conflate the problem with the solution. It is to forget that if the state in Africa has failed, the solution must lie in rebuilding it; in short, in human, as opposed to divine, agency. State failure in Africa being a human creation, only human ingenuity, not a Creator, can solve it.
Ebenezer Obadare is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics