Apart from the Mainstream religious beliefs such as Islam and Christianity, Africa is also the home of different indigenous religious beliefs most of which are considered regressive. For scholars like Lauric Henneton, colonization in the early modern period was as much about religious missions, about ‘the harvest of souls’, as it was about expanding territorial boundaries and economic resources. In post-colonial Africa, the primary goal of the Organization of African Union(OAU) was defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states rather than promoting and protecting the individual rights of the people of Africa. The latter becomes a matter of priority when the African Commission established by the African Charter on Human and peoples’ Right (the Banjul Charter) in 1981. Article 8 of the Charter provides that: “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.”This provision does not explicitly mention the word “belief” despite the fact that the right to hold a particular belief is generally considered to be an absolute one. Furthermore, this provision fails to guarantee the right to change one’s religion. However, probably the most problematic part of Article 8 of the charter is its inclusion of ‘the claw-back clause’ – “…subject to law and order…”. Such formulation allows member states to limit the right to freedom of religion ‘to the maximum extent permitted by domestic law’. In other words, they can enact laws which could potentially violate the right to freedom of religion and negate the regional human right protection system. Even though it has never been the primary subject of contention, the issue of freedom of religion has dealt with by the African Commission and Court of Human and peoples’ rights as an auxiliary matter in several cases. In this blog post, I will present four different cases related to freedom of religion decided by the ACHPR and the ACtHPR in their chronological order.
In this case, the complaints described numerous serious violations that took place in different parts of Sudan, primarily between 1989 and 1993. The cases were submitted by four different Non-Governmental organizations alleging that the Sudanese government involved in extrajudicial and summary execution, torture and discrimination on the basis of religion. Though the case involves a number of issues, for the purpose of this blog I will only focus on the ruling of the commission regarding freedom of religion. It was alleged that Christians and other non-Muslims were subjected to expulsion, arbitrary arrests and detention. Their churches were closed, and religious leaders were prevented from getting food with the aim of converting them to Islam. In addition to this, the domestic court of Sudan entertained their case based on Shari’a law which is not subscribed by those victims. The government, on the other hand, alleged that Sudan has guaranteed the right to freedom of faith and worship in its constitution.
The commission founds violation of Article 8 and Article 2 of the African charter stating that
“There is no controversy as to Shari’a being based upon the interpretation of the Muslim religion’, but when applying Shari’a the tribunals in Sudan must do so in accordance with the other obligations undertaken by the State of Sudan. Trials must always accord with international fair-trial standards”
The commission has also emphasized that “Shari’a law, being based on a religious belief, should not be applied to those who do not adhere to the religion of Islam” Accordingly, tribunals that apply only Shari’a law are not competent to judge non-Muslims, and everyone should have the right to be tried by a secular court if they wish.” Concerning other claims related oppression of religious leaders and expulsion of missionaries from the country, since the government of Sudan fails to ‘provides evidence or justifications that would rebut the allegations” the commission concluded that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Charter.
This case started following the eviction of thousands Endorses tribe members by the then Kenyan government to create a game reserve for tourism. The area from which the community was evicted, according to the complainant had been considered as “the spiritual home of all Endorois”. Their eviction, thus, prevented them from practicing their religion in the appropriate place. After exhausting all the domestic remedies, in 2003 the Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International brought the communication to the African Commission on behalf of the Endoroi community. Before the commission, the government argued that even though the eviction had actually happened, it was justified and “subject to administrative procedures” The commission found infringement of freedom of religion of the community reasoning that the action of the government was neither necessary nor backed by sound justifications. The commission asserted that “allowing the Endorois community to use the land to practice their religion would not detract from the goal of conservation or developing the area for economic purposes”. Most importantly, in a way which could remedy the shortcoming of Article 8 of the Charter, the commission underscored that “states cannot take recourse to the limitation clauses of the African Charter in order to violate the express provisions of the charter and its underlying principles”(Para. 173)
The case started following Mr. Garreth Anver Prince’s denial of access to the bar in South Africa due to his religious use of cannabis (he was a member of the Rastafari). His claim was that the prohibition of cannabis usage for ritual purposes amounted to a disproportionate infringement on his right to freedom of religion. In addition to his freedom of religion, Mr. Prince alleged that the prohibition of the use of marijuana is an affront to his dignity. The Constitutional court of South Africa decided against Mr. Prince underscoring the qualified or non-absolute nature of the right to freedom of religion. The court specifically ascertained that “While members of a religious community may not determine for themselves which laws they will obey and which they will not, the state should, where it is reasonably possible, seek to avoid putting the believers to a choice between their faith and respect for the law.” Following his unsuccessful appeal, Mr. Prince brought his case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Right claiming that South Africa had violated, inter alia, his freedom of religion. The commission affirm the decision of South African constitutional court emphasizing that while the right to hold religious beliefs is an absolute one, the right to act according to the belief is not. As such, “the right to practice one’s religion must yield to the interests of society in some circumstances” (para 41). In legitimizing the limitation imposes by South Africa, the commission made reference to Article 27 of the African Charter which provides the necessity of considering the rights of others in allowing the exercise of any right guaranteed therein.
The African commission V. Kenya is the latest decision rendered by the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights related to the right to freedom of religion. Unlike the rulings of the commission which are merely recommendations, the court’s decision has binding effects. Nevertheless, the court’s mandatory jurisdiction is shrinking. Within the past six months, Tanzania, Benin and Ivory Coast have revoked the right of individuals and NGOs to sue them before the ACtHPR. Consequently, out of 54 member states of AU, the court has binding jurisdiction only over five countries. The facts of this case are similar to the second case discussed in this paper. Following the eviction of members of the Ogiek community from their ancestral land, non-governmental organizations that represent the interest of the community brought an action before the Commission alleging that the action of the Kenyan government had violated different rights of the ogiek tribe members which are enshrined in the African charter. One of which was the right to freedom of religion. The government, on the other hand, argued that the “applicant has failed to adduce evidence to show the exact places where the alleged ceremonies for the religious sites of the Ogieks are located”. The respondent state has also contended that members of the community have already changed their religion to Christianity and therefore the forest has no relevance to exercise their religion.
The court decided that there was a violation of Article 8 of the African charter reasoning that “the communities’ religious practices were inextricably linked with the land and the environment and that interference with their connection to the land placed severe constraints on their ability to practice religious rituals.” (para 166 and 167)
 Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Malawi, and Rep. of Tunisia