Hearts of Darkness: African Leaders Tighten the Limits of Tolerance

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi of Egypt are playing fast and loose with the unsettled rules of democracy in two of Africa’s most populous and volatile countries. Dismay colors the narrative in most news media coverage of these stories, but reportage that probes the deeper, interrelated causes of instability in both countries is often missing from the mainstream mix.

Jonathan, a Christian, will likely run for a second four-year term next year even though he succeeded Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim, after Yar’Adua died in office in 2010—a move that will test the limits of an unwritten pact in Nigerian politics that requires Christians and Muslims to alternate control of the country’s executive branch. That broader political context frames Jonathan’s signature on a new law banning same-sex relationships, which plays to his evangelical base in the south and shifts national policy closer to the conservative interpretations of sharia law that shape civic culture in some of the most unstable parts of the north.

As Egyptians head to the polls today to vote in a referendum on the country’s latest constitution, Sisi and his military backers are touting the new document’s guarantee of freedoms that deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood did not vow to uphold.

But in the six months since Morsi’s ouster, Sisi’s government has jailed thousands of Morsi’s supporters without charge and silenced journalists sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s protests against disenfranchisement—a situation that casts serious doubt on the notion that Sisi and his junta will relax their grip on power or show greater willingness to tolerate dissent.

How are religion, economics, politics and military power intersecting in Egypt during the current plebiscite? Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University of Cairo, has written a superb summary of Egypt’s array of challenges, including the problem of youth unemployment, which is arguably the key factor in the country’s long-term prospects for stability.

Nigeria is facing an even larger demographic “youth bubble,” along with ethnic and religious crises that are exacerbated by conflicting provisions in the country’s current constitution. Unlike Uganda, where the influence of conservative American evangelicals is closely related to the passage of antigay legislation, Nigeria’s antipathy toward its LGBT citizens is largely homegrown—a byproduct of complex, deeply polarizing problems that have hardened religious sentiments, both Muslim and Christian, and that the Jonathan administration has generally ignored.

Because of its proximity to Israel and status as the most populous Arab country, Egypt’s travails have received far more mainstream analysis than Nigeria’s. But both states powerfully influence events well beyond their borders—a consideration that should encourage reporters to continue digging deeper.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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