Following the social, political and economic discontent of the Africans as a result of bad colonial treatment, Africans tried to react violently against them and because they were militarily inferior to Europeans, they all turned to their African traditional Religious leaders to be their Military commanders on wars against whites. Such wars included the Maji-Maji, Shona-Ndebele, Ternne- Mende, the Nama-Herero etc. Unfortunately, these leaders provided false protection which ended into their massive deaths at the bands of colonialists followed by their defeat eventually. Some of their roles include;
I. The leadership role:
It should be noted from the introduction that the leaders in African revolts were religious and had divine powers. E.g. Kinjikitile Ngwale, Nehanda, Kagubi, Umulugulu, Nyamanda, Witbooi of the Nama etc. they practiced their traditional cults in leading the resistance. Thus religion played a very strong leadership role.
2. It acted as a unifying factor:
It should be noted that, the primary aim of these rebellions was to regain African independence. Earlier all resistances were defeated because they were disunited. E.g. with the Maji-Maji, every fighter bad to drink water and sprinkle some on his body. Such beliefs unified many tribes against the colonialists. It also instilled "the spirit of brotherhood among the fighters from many regions of Tanganyika. It brought diverse tribes together.
3. It hastened unity:
Among the Ndebele, religious belief of Mwari cult had instilled a sense of unity among the Ndebele castes and when the revolt broke out all the tribes including slaves and those who had been assimilated fought together for a common cause. E.g. the Karanga and Rwozwi joined the struggle. They had a common attachment to Mwari cult that united them.
4. Provision of confidence:
Religion blessed the fighters with all the confidence they required which had been lacking in former resistance. Hence it had an effect of prolonging the period of the struggle-longer than it would have taken, for example, Maji-Maji (1905-07), Chimurenga (1896-97).
5. Raising of Support:
Religion also assisted the leaders in mobilising enough support and manpower from their fellow Africans. It would have been hard to raise an army to shock the imperialists and make them know that Africans were tired of their rule and that what they wanted was the whites to go back. For example, commonly they were all adversely affected religiously, socially, politically and economically. Therefore organising them was not difficult.
6. Disrespecting of Traditional religious leaders:
Politically chiefs who were in most cases traditional religious leaders were very much neglected. Traditional customs and religion were also undermined by Christian missionary activities e.g. no drinking of Alcohol, no polygamy, murder of twins, no human sacrifice etc. all these caused a social discontent among African leaders.
The responsibility of misfortunes:
Religious leaders confirmed to their subjects that, the real cause for disasters and other misfortunes was the Whiteman whom they obviously ousted from their land. Therefore religious leaders helped to know the real enemy. The situation was interpreted to be ripe for people to return to their gods and priests warned people of their continued association with the Whiteman. More to this, religious leaders argued that the disasters had come because people had neglected the traditional gods and cooperated with foreigners.
8. Sustainance of war efforts:
Traditional religious leaders played an important role of prolonging the war efforts amidst loss and failures. This was done through predictions of victory and threats mixed with intimidation. For example the guerilla warfare in the Matoposhills was sustained by a feeling that victory was ahead and that the high god would punish those who would surrender the Whiteman. Mkwati among the Shona had this to say;
"Mlimo (their evil/spirits) will kill those who make peace in war against whites." With such threats warriors feared entering into negotiations with Whiteman.
9. Burying the differences between some Afncan societies:
The importance of Traditional Religious leaders in African resistance against the Whites can be seen in a way it transcended the ethnic boundaries. Even former tribal enemies came together for a common cause against the Europeans. Therefore, the Shona who suffered a lot under Ndebele rule had to again join them against the British South African Company.
However, religion did not succeed in bringing higher predictions to reality. This was as a result of various weaknesses on the side of Africans that became advantage to the Whites.
10. False beliefs or promises:
Religion had false beliefs, for example, in Tanganyika during the Maji-Maji rebellion. the belief of water (Maji) that it would bring immunity against the German bullets was wrong It was completely disproved beyond doubt when on their first attacks against Germans at
Mahongo fort, Africans went armed with spears were killed in large numbers and fled crying from pain sustained in battlefield. They had this to say;
"Kinjikitile you have cheated us, those Matubi (his assistants) told us that the European guns would not fire into our bodies and we are now being wiped out".
11. Made Africans believe blindly:
Religion made Africans to believe blindly and accept without scientific proof about the powerful nature of European arms. Europeans were armed with repeater rifles as compared to Africans who had spears, shields and arrow. Even those who happened to have guns
were quite ancient and poor in quality not like the European canons, rifles and muskets.
12. The speed of the war:
Europeans because. of their advanced weapons broke down the African resistance quickly which demoralised those who were able to continue with the war. This made warriors to lose confidence in 'their religious predictions thus a big weakness on African side.
13. Mistrust of traditional religious leaders promises:
The victory promised by religious leaders was not forthcoming. The warriors died of bullets and starvation that forced them to surrender to Whiteman' s superiority.
14. Problem of a target or convenience unity:
As for instance, before the war, Shona and the Ndebele were not co-operative. The Ndebele first revolted and were defeated. Then the Shona revolted against the British, the Ndebele never gave a hand and too were easily defeated. This was because the Ndebele had weakened, perhaps if they had coperated strongly, they would have held the British longer than they did or probably defeated them out of their land. But because of traditional enemity, their merging (Shona-Ndebele) was just a theory.
15. Loss of confidence in their war strategies:
At last, they learnt that their religious 6eliefs could not hold water, they became weakened and lost confidence from their religious leaders. They withdrew their support and whites met a little resistance in suppressing the struggles. However they
learnt a lesson as African resistors. This is why the most of 20th century measures to regain the African independence from the colonialists were full of diplomacy and not guided by religious principles.