T he second largest continent in the world, Africa is home to 54 nations. Its population, currently 1.2 billion, is the youngest of all continents, with a median age of 19.7. According to some forecasts Africa’s population will double by 2050, outstripping both China and India, with Nigeria having a larger population than the USA. By 2100 Africa may have tripled its current population.
Africa is not only the youngest but also the poorest continent (excluding Antarctica). Much of its 30 million square kilometres is desert, and the vast Sahara is edging further south year by year.
Africa has been greatly blessed spiritually, with two periods of massive Church growth. The first, which focused on North Africa, was in the early Christian centuries, reaching its highest point around the year 500 AD when an estimated 40% of Africans were Christians although only 45% of the continent’s population had heard the Gospel.
The advent of Islam in the seventh century gradually destroyed the African Church except in Egypt, but before that destruction occurred Africa had produced several important theologians and Christian leaders. One such was Hadrian from Cyrenaica (in modern Libya) who travelled to remote Britain and became abbot of a monastery in Kent in 670. Hadrian was hugely influential on the young Church in what would become England, helping to turn it into “an intellectual powerhouse of the early medieval world”.
The second period of rapid Church growth in Africa was in the twentieth century. This time the focus was on the southern part of the continent resulting in a vibrant and joyful Church. By 2060 it is thought that nearly half (42%) of the world’s Christians – hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters – will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
But Africa today faces many grave difficulties. The continent has in the past few years replaced the Middle East as the epicentre of jihad and Islamist violence.
This violence comes as Africa is bearing the brunt of food poverty, scarcity and famine. The global economic downturn caused by Covid-19 is also having a disproportionate effect on Africa, while foreign intervention is adding to Africa’s mounting woes.
The rise of Islamism
In November 2020 the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) reported that the “centre of gravity” for Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) activity had moved from the Middle East to Africa. Africa is experiencing “a surge in terrorism”.
In September 2021, to give just one example, Islamist militants killed 34 people – most of them women and children – in Kaura Local Government Area, a predominantly Christian area of Kaduna State, Nigeria. Even by conservative estimates around 10,000 people have been killed by Islamist violence in Nigeria since 2015.
The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) estimates that in the 20 years prior to the 9/11 attack in the USA 10,000 people were killed by Islamist violence across Africa. In the 20 years since that attack the figure stands at 55,000 – more than five times as many.
The Islamist ideology seeping across Africa has deep roots, especially in West Africa. In the 1970s the Muslim World League – funded by Saudi Arabia – poured money into northern Nigeria, distributing Islamist literature, setting up Islamic schools and offering scholarships for religious universities in Saudi Arabia itself. This campaign bore fruit in 1978 with the founding of the Izala Society (known formally as the Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah).
The Izala movement was committed to Wahhabism – a Saudi Arabian ideology that seeks a return to a more “pure” and very strict form of Islam. The group remains dominant – it is virtually impossible to achieve rank or office in northern Nigeria without links to Izala.
A key figure in the rise of Izala was Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, who argued that Muslims should never accept the rule of a non-Muslim – this statement led to twelve northern Nigerian states adopting elements of sharia (Islamic law) after a Christian, Olusegun Obasanjo, became president in 1999. Another was Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, a highly successful Eritrean-born businessman based in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, who with the help of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood channelled funds from Nigeria to various Islamist causes, including to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda before and after 9/11.
Nigeria and the Sahel
The Izala movement provided the ideological and financial basis for the rise of Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that originated in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. It gained international attention after the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State, in 2014.
The group pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, but split the following year with one section forming the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and a separate Boko Haram movement remaining independent of IS. After the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in June 2021, however, reports indicated that some Boko Haram fighters were giving their loyalty (bay’a) to IS.
The western Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – has also become a hotbed of terrorism and unlawful Islamist governance. Three groups – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) and Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – are active. All three have roots in the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat, and all three have benefited from the illegal traffic of weapons and explosives looted from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Boko Haram operates across borders, carrying out – for example – attacks on Christian communities in south-east Niger. ISWAP is active in this region, with an estimated force of 3,500-5,000 fighters based around Lake Chad. Further south, Islamist violence has displaced at least 228,000 people from Cameroon’s border areas with Nigeria.
Eastern and central Africa
The traffic of weapons and explosives from Libya has also flowed into east Africa. Somalia has suffered violence from the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab, which controls much territory in southern and central Somalia, enforcing sharia law. The Islamist group also carries out attacks in Kenya, murdering Christians and other non-Muslims.
Islamists have wreaked havoc in Mozambique. Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (known locally as Al Shabaab due to comparisons with the Somalia-based group, but regarded by the US as an IS affiliate) took control of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique’s far north in 2020, subjecting the population to shocking violence. It was only with the help of Rwandan and South African forces that in late 2021 Mozambique drove the terrorists back.
IS affiliates and other Islamists are also active in central Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has been afflicted with violent conflict for many years. For example, in October 2020 terrorists, thought to have links with IS, killed at least 120 and burned down a church building along with 45 houses in DRC’s North Kivu province.
Hunger and food insecurity
Of ten “extreme hunger hotspots” cited in an Oxfam report on global food insecurity, five are in Africa – DRC, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and the western Sahel – these areas alone accounting in 2020 for 61.5 million people experiencing “crisis-level hunger”. By November 2021 it was estimated that 239 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were at risk of malnutrition.
These reports and others indicate the overlapping and interconnected causes of the global food crisis that is afflicting Africa so deeply. Conflict is perhaps chief among the drivers of food insecurity, as farmers are forced off the land and food supplies are looted or destroyed.
Natural disasters also have a devastating impact. Persistent drought and desertification over the last five years have led to repeated failed harvests and, in turn, widespread malnutrition, acute hunger and desperate famine in Madagascar. At least half a million children under the age of five are malnourished, more than a million people are in danger of starvation, and many have already starved to death.
Economic shocks also drive hunger and famine. In early 2021 the World Bank reported that the pandemic had already pushed as many as 40 million Africans into poverty. This foreshadows further unrest and instability: “Africa’s Covid crisis is yet to come,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham.
Food insecurity leads not only to hunger and starvation but also to further conflict. The ISS reported in September that “supply chain disruptions, climatic shocks, rapid spikes in commodity prices and lockdowns” have “created fertile ground for unrest”. Conflict – a cause of food crisis – is also a result of food crisis.
Corruption, instability and mis-government
Africa’s troubles are compounded by governments often unable or unwilling to do anything about violence and hunger. Government is characterised by instability, a fact that provides opportunities for Islamists. In Mali and Somalia, for example, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have stepped into the role of government by providing services such as Islamic schools.
European colonialism has left a legacy of ethnic conflicts, due to European decisions about national borders that ignored the reality of African demographics.
The distrust of the West that exists across much of Africa is a major headache for Christian communities who are simplistically identified with Western colonialism. To nominal Muslims who see Christianity as a Western imposition, and who understandably balk at millionaire pastors and the so-called “prosperity gospel” that are often Christianity’s most visible face, the purported purity of Wahhabi Islam becomes an attractive prospect.
A new scramble for Africa
Today China is leading what some have termed “a new scramble for Africa”. The communist state is now Africa’s largest trading partner, with Sino-African trade worth an estimated $200 billion annually.
China is providing much infrastructure in countries such as the DRC, Kenya and South Africa, and the Chinese recognise that government stability is good for business. Yet there are downsides. A likely reduction in Chinese lending could lead to a new economic shock. African countries who ally themselves with China rather than Western powers will face fewer difficult questions about human rights, including anti-Christian persecution.
Wagner – a Russian private paramilitary company with alleged links to the Russian state – is active in several African nations, creating a further threat to peace and security.
In the Central African Republic, says Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington DC, “Wagner has been implicated in human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture” as part of its profiteering mission to take control of mineral extraction, including the mining of gold, uranium and diamonds. Similar accounts emerge from Wagner involvement in Libya, Syria, Sudan, Mozambique and Madagascar.
Now the government of Mali plans to bring in 1,000 Wagner troops, ostensibly for security and training purposes as France scales back its operations in the Sahel nation. Yet Wagner has no interest in stability – indeed, the UK Foreign Office calls the organisation a “driver of conflict” that “capitalises on instability for its own interests”. The government of Niger – Mali’s neighbour – has already predicted trouble for the western Sahel if the Russian paramilitaries become involved.
An African Afghanistan?
The picture for Africa is bleak. Terrorism, violence and instability reign. Poverty and food insecurity will lead to more terrorism, violence and instability. African governments are unable to cope, Western and Chinese involvement is at best a mixed blessing, and Wagner threatens to destabilise regions of Africa still further.
The Taliban’s recent takeover of similarly dysfunctional Afghanistan was greeted joyfully by African Islamists, from al-Shabaab in Somalia to JNIM in the western Sahel. JNIM leader Iyad Ag Ghaly likened the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to the French withdrawal from Mali, baldly declaring: “We are winning.”
Many African nations risk becoming failed states; several are already there. It does not take a great leap in imagination to see the western Sahel together with northern Nigeria becoming a vast West African Afghanistan.
Yet Africa remains a continent of deep and unyielding Christian faith. There are hundreds of millions of believers across Africa, with more turning to Christ every day. Increasingly the Church in the West, where Christianity is in decline, will look to Africa for spiritual sustenance, support, leadership and evangelism. The Kingdom of Christ increases even in the most seemingly helpless and hopeless of circumstances, and “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7, ESV).
* 54 are fully recognised by the United Nations. There are also Western Sahara and Somaliland.
You Can Help!
Barnabas Fund has been working for many years to alleviate the suffering of our African brothers and sisters, and you can help!
Our new initiative food.gives is a further way that Barnabas Fund is combating food insecurity, hunger and starvation. We have already delivered vital food supplies from South Africa to believers in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and in Madagascar we are providing 234 tonnes of ePap – a special nutritious porridge designed to provide vital nutrients – for a rolling programme over two years reaching over 79,000 Christians across Madagascar’s 22 regions.
Please visit www.food.gives to see how you can help.