Profound changes have been occurring throughout the world since the onset of the 21st century. In Africa, conflicts stemming from mismanagement of national resources, lack of individual and group security, and suppression of cultural pluralism have taken over center-stage from what had been promising on-going processes of democratization, economic liberalization, conflict management and post-conflict reconstruction. Intra-communal violence and intra-state wars with confessional overtones have come to overtake a wide swath of the African political map including Nigeria, Algeria, Chad, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Somalia, to name only a few.
Beginning in the colonial period and into the first decade of the new millennium, the continent has seen genocidal warfare, ethnic clashes, guerrilla insurgencies, border conflicts, and resource wars. Although there is already a considerable literature on Africa's seemingly endemic conflicts, surprisingly little effort has gone into identifying how the roles of religious actors and institutions impacted on transitions to democracy. Religion and politics have long crisscrossed Africa’s public and private realms triggering conflict as well as the crafting of mechanisms for peaceful communal co-existence. In the pre-colonial era, the cosmologies of communal divinities, chiefdoms, kingdoms and sultanates were acknowledged as powerful, as were their chosen interlocutors, who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds. The role of gatekeeper of the world of divinities endowed the chosen person with powers both religious and political (Iliffe 2005: 1). Thus, African history is dotted with fragmentary, anecdotal narratives of and about religio-political power-brokers, demonstrating that the continent has a long tradition of accommodating different power loci. These include elders’ power of wisdom stemming from age and experience, warriors’ military prowess guided by counsel, and, last but not least, the legitimacy of the leader buttressed by ancestors and communal tradition. Africa's continental organization, the African Union (AU), formerly the Organization of African Unity (OAU), continues to honor these older forms of authority and applies them in different situations. The National Conferences that spearheaded transitions to democracy in francophone Africa in the early 1990s clearly demonstrated the combined power of political reformers and religious leaders in the institutions.
The African-Arab encounter, which preceded Europe's colonial penetration by ten centuries, also spearheaded campaigns of religious conversion, conquest and commerce, creating hybrid societies and ruling dynasties claiming membership in the Umma.