Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Is Tanzania splitting on religious lines?

Tanzania has long been heralded as one of Africa's most peaceful nations. Apart from Zanzibar Island, which has had its own fair share of political turmoil, mainland Tanzania has acted as an oasis of stability that none of its neighbours have matched. However, whilst many academics have praised how the political leader at independence, Julius Nyerere, achieved this peace by de-politicising the country's ethnic divisions, some are now starting to argue that what used to be an example of national cohesion is showing a very 21st century split.

According to the CIA, mainland Tanzania's population is 35 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, something that makes the two religions almost equal competitors, and something that has encouraged speculation on the country developing religious divisions that are turning political.

Increased concern over the possibility of religious tension in Tanzania has come alongside global trepidation over Islamist extremism and its potential spread in Africa, most notably in Nigeria and Somalia. Kenya is also seeing a rise in extremism in response to the killing of a Muslim cleric in Mombasa, not to mention how members of Al-Shabaab (an organisation allied to Al-Qaeda) have crossed into Kenya to organise grenade attacks.

It is hard to deny that this general trepidation over Christian/Muslim splits in the continent are affecting confidence in Tanzania's future. But is there enough evidence to show Tanzania is following the trend? The potential for conflict between Christians and Muslims was evidenced in mainland Tanzania back in 2008 when fighting broke out in the western town of Nguruka as Muslims accused an Anglican evangelist of blaspheming Islam. Tension over religious change has also marked political developments in Zanzibar, with 2012 seeing two churches burnt down amidst clashes between Muslim protesters and the police.

In the last presidential election of 2010, religion also became a political issue for Tanzanian voters. Although Jakaya Kikwete, a Muslim, retained his position as the country's president, his main rival was subjected to close scrutiny from both Christian and Muslim spiritual leaders. Wilbrod Slaa, presidential candidate for the CHADEMA opposition party, came under criticism from both Sheikh Mohammed Iddi and Bishop Sylvester Gamanywa when it was revealed how Dr Slaa was perhaps not the best example of a God-fearing politician. Dr Slaa previously served under the Catholic Church as a priest until turning to politics in 1998 and revealing himself as someone who "does not belong to the married club" after fathering two children out of wedlock and then introducing (whilst on campaign) his future wife, Josephine Mushumbushi, before it transpired she was already married.

There clearly is heavy use of religious discourse in Tanzanian politics and protests but there is not enough evidence to make the claim that this is comparable to what has been seen in Somalia, Nigeria or Kenya. For example, even in the face of violence involving religious groups or the manipulation of faith for political campaigns, a steady rejection has been made by Tanzanian politicians and journalists of anything that divides citizens, a rejection that decries "rhetoric that insinuates the mythical religious division amongst us" whilst encouraging citizens "to overcome prejudices". This is the Tanzania that makes sense to those who have lived and spoken with ordinary citizens: a strong desire to live peacefully and count neighbours as part of one's family; an enduring commitment to a nation of equals.