Geographically, West Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries distributed over an area of approximately five million km² (the surface area of the 27 European Union member states comprises a total of 4.3 million km²):Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Togo. In twothirds of these countries between 50 and 100 per cent of the population is Muslim: Mauritania (100 per cent),2 Senegal (94 per cent),3 Mali (90 per cent),4 The Gambia (90 per cent),5 Guinea (85 per cent),6 Niger (85 per cent),7 Sierra Leone (60 per cent),8
Burkina Faso (50 per cent),9 Guinea Bissau (50 per cent),10 Nigeria (50 per cent).11 In Côte d’Ivoire, it is the foreign workers who are overwhelmingly Muslim.12 There is a large number of Christians in West Africa, but they form the majority of the population in only three West African countries: Cape Verde,13 Benin (42.8 per cent)14 and Ghana (68.8 per cent).15 Small communities in West Africa follow other world religions such as Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Indigenous African religions are followed by a large segment of the population in Togo (51 per cent),16 Liberia (40 per cent),17 Burkina Faso (40 per cent)18 and GuineaBissau (40 per cent).19 However, what the statistics do not reveal is the syncretism that is an integral part of African beliefs. In Africa, a Christian or a Muslim is not only a
Christian or a Muslim; he/she is also a follower of the indigenous faith whether or not he/she admits it openly. Senegal’s first president, famed poet L.S. Senghor, who was a Catholic raised by missionaries, testified as to the continued existence of indigenous faith in both Christian and Muslim Senegalese men and women. Senghor wrote the following in the preface of a book by P. Alexandre, entitled Les Africains:
Indigenous faith still shapes the spiritual beliefs of the majority of African people. Religious tolerance is therefore the norm in Western Africa. Accordingly, 15 of the 16 West African countries are secular states who recognize freedom of religion. Mauritania is the only Islamic republic in the area.21 All the other West African states are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Secularity and neutrality of the state in all matters relating to religion is listed among the constitutional principles shared by all member states in art. 1 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, 2001. The Protocol defines secularity as:
The ECOWAS’s definition of secularity is consistent with the fundamental principle enshrined in art. 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
This definition shows that secularism is not anti-religious or akin to an atheistic state (meaning, one officially opposed to all religious beliefs and practices). Secularism guarantees all citizens equal rights regardless of their beliefs, whether they are atheists, agnostics or believers. A secular state recognizes and protects freedom of conscience and freedom of religion of all. Secularism is also a tool for democracy, because it guarantees the free discussion of any rule and of any societal programme without invoking a divine entity, and its human interpreters, to arbitrate (put an end to) debates. Under these principles, government in a secular state cannot interfere with religious affairs unless ‘law and order break down as a result of any religious activity’ (ECOWAS Protocol, 2001); conversely, religious authorities cannot dictate state policies. However, for political or economic purposes, the principles of secularism are being put aside in some West African countries with a strong Muslim majority. In the north of Nigeria, 12 states have installed the shari’a. In Senegal, the Code de la Famille (Family Law) has a chapter entitled ‘Muslim Law of Inheritance’ (Droit musulman des successions) without any corresponding chapter on Christian inheritance law or Animist/ Fetishist22 inheritance law. In Senegal, Mali and Niger, legal reforms promoting equal rights for women have been put aside because of pressures from Muslim associations. Thus the constitutional norm of secularism is under attack in West African countries.