In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion and Politics in Contemporary Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Newsletters
  • Primary Sources
  • Democratization
  • The Third Wave of Democracy and Regime Change in Africa
  • Religious Leaders and Political Change in Africa
  • The Role of Civil Society, Including Religious Actors, in Political Change in Africa
  • External Pressures for Regime Change in Africa
  • Good Governance and Religion in Africa

African Studies Religion and Politics in Contemporary Africa
Jeffrey Haynes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0209


This entry examines the relationship of religion and politics in Africa in the context of Democratization over time, with particular focus on the roles of religious leaders. Two main issues form its focus. The first is the relationship of senior religious figures to the state in Africa and the role of the former in the region’s recent attempts to democratize in the 1980s and 1990s. The second aim is to examine a more recent development: Islamic militancy in Africa in the 2000s, and its relationship with politics, political change, and democratization. During the 1980s and 1990s Africa experienced something it had not seen for decades: widespread popular calls for democratization, part of a wider package of demands for improved economic and political, including human, rights. Demands for democratization had both domestic and external roots. Domestically, demands for reform reflected an awakening—or reawakening—of an often long dormant political voice for various civil society groups, with trade union officials, higher education students, businesspeople, civil servants, and religious (mostly Christian) figures initially leading and coordinating popular demands for reform. Professional politicians later made such demands integral parts of their programs for election. The widespread expectation was that popular efforts would force long-entrenched, often venal governments from office. A second factor was that Africa’s democratization was the ‘road map’ for political change preferred by key external actors: Western governments who provided Africa with the bulk of its foreign aid. In sum, demands for democratization in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s are best explained through the interaction of domestic and international factors, with the former of most importance. During the 1980s and 1990s, religious figures, notably Christian leaders, added their voices to the clamor for fundamental political changes in Africa. Leading Catholics were frequently involved in national conferences on the political way forward in a number of French-speaking, mainly Christian, countries, including Congo-Brazzaville, Togo, Gabon, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and Chad. In addition, in South Africa, apartheid rule came to an end in 1994 and a democratically elected government followed. And in Muslim-majority Niger and Mali new political leaders and democratically elected governments emerged. In sum, during the 1980s and 1990s involvement of religious leaders, including Catholic leaders in national democracy conferences and other means of democratization, reflected the fact that many religious figures became convinced of the need for democratically elected government in Africa.

General Overviews

Comparatively speaking, there are relatively few scholarly sources covering the interaction of religion and politics in contemporary Africa, compared to, for example, the Middle East or South Asia. Nevertheless, over the years, especially since the 1980s and 1990s, a number of useful overviews have appeared seeking to link the role of religion in politics in Africa, including political changes, such as Democratization. Bratton and van der Walle 1992 is an early but still useful overview of the regional shift toward democracy in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Ellis and ter Haar 1998 is another useful overview of that same shift, with a focus on religious actors. Ellis and ter Haar 2012 updates the story of the interaction of religion and politics in Africa. Freston 2001 provides a comparative overview of the role in politics of Christian evangelicals in Africa, comparing that region with Asia and Latin America. Haynes 1996 provides a pioneering study of the interaction of religion and politics in Africa over time, from the colonial era to the phase of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Bratton, Michael, and Nic van der Walle. “Towards Governance in Africa Popular Demands and State Responses.” In Governance and Politics in Africa. Edited by Göran Hydén and Michael Bratton. London: Lynne Rienner, 1992.

    Useful overview of the shift to more democratically oriented politics in Africa in the 1990s.

  • Ellis, Stephen, and Gerrie ter Haar. “Religion and Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 36.2 (June 1998): 175–201.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X9800278X

    Useful overview of the shift to more democratically oriented politics in Africa in the 1990s, linking the developments to religious involvement. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Ellis, Stephen, and Gerrie ter Haar. “Religion and Politics in Africa.” In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions. Edited by E. K. Bongmba, 457–465. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118255513.ch32

    Relatively up-to-date and useful overview of the shift to more democratically oriented politics in Africa in the 1990s, linking the developments to religious involvement.

  • Freston, Paul. Evangelicals and Politics in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487705

    Comparative focus on the political impact of Christian evangelicals in three regions of the global South.

  • Haynes, Jeffrey. Religion and Politics in Africa. London: Zed Books, 1996.

    Pioneering and wide-ranging study of the interaction of religion and politics in Africa.

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