The National Chief Imam of Ghana: Religious Leadership and Peacebuilding in an Emerging Democracy
Okechukwu C. Iheduru
Journal of Transdisciplinary Peace Praxis, vol. 2, no. 2, August 2020, pp. 66-98.
Analyses of the complex relationship between religion and social conflict rarely explore the contributions of religious leaders in deepening existing peaceful social order and/or preventing the eruption of violent conflicts or wars. Ghana—a relatively peaceful, Christian-majority country—and the activities of Sheikh Osmanu Sharubutu, its National Chief Imam exemplify successful ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding through the diplomacy of religious leaders not based on war and post-conflict situations. For over 30 years, Sheikh Sharubutu’s peace praxis has been instrumental in ending frequent and bloody intra-Muslim conflicts, deepening interfaith harmony and preventing the eruption of violent conflicts. Sharubutu’s successes are attributable to the cooperation of ‘believers’ (religious authorities and peacebuilding institutions) in ‘the miracles of transformation through interfaith dialogue’ rooted in African indigenous accommodative values
of religious pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect. Ghana, however, teams with domestic and external forces that are radically delegitimising this foundation of its ‘oasis of peace’ image; the process coupled with the fact that Ghana actually has the same mix of structural variables that have plunged other African countries into violent and often protracted conflicts, could undermine sustainability of local peacebuilding by religious leaders like Sheikh Sharubutu. These include the impending battle to succeed the 101-year-old National Chief Imam; the proliferation of ex-African ‘fundamentalist’ religious actors and transformation of educational institutions into sites of inter and intra-faith rivalry. Moreover, some of the Sheikh’s advocacy activities about social issues grounded in the same ‘accommodative’ indigenous values that justify social exclusion and/or
violence against certain marginalised minority communities further undermine the effectiveness and emancipatory potential of local turn in peacebuilding. These contradictions and developments further challenge the binary and essentialist opposition of ‘the local’ to ‘the international’ in peacebuilding scholarship and practice that often romanticises local peacebuilders while underestimating their paradoxes. This case study suggests that charismatic religious leadership that fails to address the root causes and effects of conflict is as much of a threat to the establishment of durable peace as the withdrawal of international peacebuilders is to the recurrence of violence.
Peace, peacebuilding, religious leadership, interfaith dialogue, conflict management, chief imam, Ghana, Africa