Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa

Alternative names: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Publishers
Location: Many African countries, especially Nigeria, Zambia
Population: Total 250,000
% of population: In Zambia 0.9%; elsewhere much smaller
Religion: Jehovah’s Witness, millennarian Christian sect
Language: various

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religous minority in every country where they are present and because of their beliefs — which includes a refusal to participate in politics or to honour nationalist symbols — have been the subject of harassment and persecution by many governments. In Nazi Germany they were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, while during World War II the Society was banned in Canada and Australia. Today there are about two million Jehovah’s Witnesses world wide, of whom about one quarter of a million are in Africa.

Experiences in Africa

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS) was founded in 1884 in the United States. Watch Tower ideas were brought to Southern and Central Africa in 1908 by an Australian, Joseph Booth, and they spread rapidly, carried initially by migrant workers returning to their homes from the mines of Southern Rhodesia. For many Africans WTBTS was a means of gaining literacy, with Watch Tower commentaries in African languages being virtually the only form of reading material available in the villages during the 1920s and ’30s. Autonomous sects appeared, led by local prophets, and as a result doctrines differed widely according to local conditions. The movement in Africa was led then, as now, largely by Africans. Before 1940 it was an independent organization but is now directly responsible to WTBTS headquarters in New York. Its members have been known as Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1931.

One important aspect of WTBTS teaching in Africa was its emancipatory message. The original teachings, embodied in Charles Taze Russell’s seven-volume “Studies in Scripture”, predicted the downfall of the old order and the establishment of a new one. Believers, however severe their present sufferings, would be the inheritors of eternal life in the new order and Satan’s power would be overthrown. This message, whilst religious in meaning, clearly had an appeal to those living under colonial rule at the start of the century, and also appealed to vassal peoples such as the Wiko and Luvale in Barotseland. In Tanganyika in 1917 Witnesses took a stand against conscription and collaboration with the British, and in 1926 when land was seized from the Kunda people of Eastern Province by European settlers it was the Witnesses who led protests. In these and other cases Witnesses were arrested and many were imprisoned. After World War II the Watch Tower Movement lost much of its revolutionary quality however, and was no longer a vehicle of protest, partly because it was replaced in this capacity by modern nationalist parties and labour organizations and partly because the passivist WTBTS was allowed to organize openly in the post war world and thus displaced many of the overtly rebellious independent sects. Jehovah’s Witnesses have long suffered persecution in Africa, usually due to their failure to honour symbols of state such as the national flag or the national anthem. The Witnesses’ attitude towards governments and political parties arises from their belief that temporal authority represents the power of Satan and that their only duty to the state should be that of paying their taxes and keeping the peace. In some countries this stand has been interpreted as a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the state. In certain cases Witnesses have served as scapegoats for governments which have failed to fulfil expectations raised before independence, and many governments have viewed the WTBTS as competitors to the ruling party.


The most serious conflict between Witnesses and government occurred from 1967 in Malawi. WTBTS members, prohibited from joining political groupings by their religious convictions, refused to purchase Malawi Congress Party (MCP) membership cards. MCP is the country’s sole legal political organization, to which most nationals belong. Government persecution of the sect’s 18,000 members began. Leading members were deported, and Witnesses suffered assault, murder and arson. The move against the Witnesses failed, however, and members (now numbering 23,000) still refused to buy party cards. In 1972 further persecutions led some 21,000 to flee across the border to Zambia but they were forcibly repatriated, and this pattern was repeated several times with numbers also being imprisoned, tortured and killed. The situation improved considerably after international pressure brought about the liberalization of political conditions in Malawi in 1976, but the persecution is by no means over; the WTBTS is still banned and some Witnesses are still in jail.

Elsewhere in Africa

Although Witnesses have not suffered the same degree of persecution elsewhere as they experienced in Malawi, they have nevertheless suffered for their beliefs in other African countries. In Mozambique the majority of the country’s 7,000 members were arrested for refusing on religious grounds to give allegiance to Frelimo shortly after independence in June 1975, and today the sect is still banned although some refugee Witnesses from Malawi are thought still to be living there. In Angola Witnesses have been persecuted by both the Portugese authorities and the MPLA regime; some have been jailed and tortured although all were freed by 1980. There have however been occasional reports of new arrests. The sect was banned in 1978.

In Zambia, which has one of the largest concentrations of Witnesses in the world, and where the WTBTS is a legal organization, members refused to register as voters in the 1968-69 general elections and were as a result subjected to widespread violence, hostility being particularly directed against European officials of the WTBTS, who were criticized as being alien and a hostile influence. However there has been no repetition of these violent incidents and Zambia today with almost 60,000 Witnesses has the highest ratio of Witnesses to population on the Africa continent (1:109 in 1982).

In South Africa white Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced sanctions from the apartheid regime for their refusal to accept military conscription and in January 1983, 66 Witnesses were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. However it has since been ruled that Witnesses and others who can prove religious grounds for their refusal to serve can instead carry out a long period of alternative non-military service. In Swaziland in 1982 Jehovah’s Witnesses, of whom there are about 700, refused to shave their hair in mourning after the death of the king and over the following months at least 30 Witnesses were arrested, jailed, fined and forcibly shaved by the police. However adverse publicity internationally restrained the authorities and some sentences were later quashed.

In East Africa the movement is banned in Ethiopia and Tanzania. There have been recent reports of widespread arrests in Burundi.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also faced persecution in the West African state of Benin in 1976 when the country’s 2000 Witnesses refused to attend political education classes, to salute the flag or to participate in ceremonies honouring the country’s change of name (from Dahomey). The sect was banned in April 1976 and some of its members were arrested. Much the same process took place in Cameroon when the Witnesses were banned in 1970. By 1982 the new President had released a number of Witnesses held without trial since 1978. The largest population of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa is found in Nigeria — 108,000 in 1983 — but there are no reports of government persecution.

(See also Falashas of Ethiopia)