Making Societies in Africa Socially Cohesive: History, Politics and Interreligious Dialogue Matter

It is not out of place to say that Africa has been trying really hard to build economic cohesion. Economic integration and boosts in intra-African trade are the reasons regional blocs like Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), South African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and East African Community (EAC) were established. Understanding the importance of trade in terms of prosperity, development, productivity and extreme poverty reduction helps one to appreciate economic cohesion.

Expecting that Africa, the continent with the second largest population and landmass and home to about 2,000 indigenous languages, will be a dominant player and contributor to global trade and development is within reason and logic. But the reality shows that Africa’s share of global GDP is a condescending 3%. That is why the euphoria that greeted the operational launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) in 2019 is quite understandable.

Despite the many concerns that public policy conversationalists and trade experts expressed about ACFTA, its proponents reiterated many benefits such as expansion of intra-African trade, increased GDP through enhanced competitiveness, and free movements of investments that can potentially promote enormous job creation. As expected, certain countries in Africa who hitherto stayed aloof have become signatories to the consolidated texts of the agreement establishing ACFTA. Eritrea is the only African Union member-state yet to be part of the intercontinental agreement, while 38 countries in Africa have gone ahead to submit their instruments of ACFTA ratification with the African Union Commission Chairperson.

Despite all these steps being taken to economically integrate Africa, it is indisputable to say that the absence of social cohesion in African societies has dwarfed the potential achievements of many economic integration policies. The high prevalence of political instability and the recurring decimal at which conflicts spiral into anarchy and lawlessness lend credence to lack of social cohesion, which invariably has high socio-economic cost. According to the United Nations Environmental program, Africa’s total economic cost of terrorism from 2007 to 2016 is estimated at $119 billion. When the total economic impact of refugees and internally displaced people from 18 African countries that are most impacted by terrorism was calculated from 2007 to 2016, it was estimated at $312.7 billion. To get a sense of proportion, almost $84 billion that the continent spends per year on securitization will immunize 117 low and lower-middle income countries for approximately ten years.

Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26% of the world’s refugee population and the number continues to increase due to the activities of terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Al-Shabaab. When societies become unsafe for investment, it leads to low foreign direct investments and high capital flight. A paper titled ‘Government and the Capital Flight Trap in Africa’ recognized the role that political stability plays in ensuring capital flight trap. Considering the cost Africa has been incurring on rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction of some state economies battered by terrorism, anarchy, internecine feud, and conflict underlines the importance of social cohesion in fostering economic integration. It is axiomatic to say that economic cohesion cannot be achieved without social cohesion.

History can be an enhancer or impediment to social cohesion. One reason for unending conflict is the inability to give a vivid account of what caused conflicts from the very beginning. Because some conflicts date back to more than a century old, both sides of the divide have had to rely on what past generations told them. And because each group usually held to their own version of the conflict’s history as the truth, it makes rapprochement very difficult to achieve. Therefore, in this day and age, post-conflict and social cohesion work will require writing history in a way that meets the approval of all parties.

There is a purpose for every work of history that is written and stories of the past told and shared. The very kinds of history we consume could either help us to reconcile or fan the embers of conflict. Pathological history, which is fraught with lies, mendacity and irregularities most often tend to social division. Such kind of history should be replaced with history that helps to teach peaceful coexistence. There isn’t any denial that certain tribes, most especially during the uncivilized, unregulated and dark ages of the world suffered inhumanities, hostilities, genocide from other tribes. Notwithstanding, resort to vengeance outside the purview of the law must be outrightly condemned in the strongest terms. That is why history written or told to such marginalized, victimized peoples should be with the intent to forge reconciliation, disapprove hostility and forge coexistence and seek reparation and justice though legitimate means.

Mutual interdependence and diversity, which modern societies are based upon often lead to multiplicity of lifestyles, and could result in high likelihood of exclusion. One of the greatest tools that can be used to fight exclusion and marginalization and work towards the wellbeing and inclusiveness of all members of a society is politics. When resolving conflict, politics is a vital and strong tool and plays an indispensable role in reconciling aggrieved parties of society. It was through politics that the Former President of South Africa, Late Nelson Mandela was able to establish The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995 that aimed to reconcile the South African Community deeply divided by apartheid. Nigeria in like fashion, under the democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo, established a Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC) in 1999. The commission was saddled with the responsibility of establishing the causes, nature, and extent of human rights violation and recommending means to pursue justice and prevent future abuses. Hence, when building social cohesion, politics is a formidable weapon that can help to promote trust and improve upward mobility.

While the notion that Africans are “notoriously religious” may be debatable, the great influence religion has on the continent has never been contested. Religious pluralism, in society if not carefully managed, is known to have great tendencies to breed socio-religious, ideological and political conflicts. According to the research published in 2018, it established a significant correlation between religious discrimination and armed conflict over religious content. There are a handful of circumstances whereby religious conflicts slipped out of control and caused devastating socio-economic impacts in society. Therefore, preventing interreligious conflicts requires dialogue between different faith groups in society.

Although getting representatives of different faith on the negotiation table is not a simple task as it requires multiple consultations, concessions, agreements and the establishment of safe spaces for the purpose of transparency, it is nevertheless important as it helps religious communities to build sustainable relationships. Through interfaith dialogue, differences in faith don’t translate to discrimination of people on the basis of their religion, which helps to prevent the breakdown of social cohesion. Respectful conversations between different religious leaders also helps to create functional and responsive channels of communication that quickly helps in amicable resolution of conflicts that can get out of hand. Most importantly, interreligious dialogue helps to educate faith leaders, who in turn educate their followers on the sacredness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that espouses the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Share this post