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Millennial and Apocalyptic Movements in Africa

Abstract and Keywords

This article describes African millennialism, which is a blend of traces of Christianity, Islam, and indigenous religions. Prolonged suppression and suffering under colonial exploitation provided the subjective background to apocalyptic movements. The Xhosa cattle-killing movement and the practice of mumboism in the colonial period and the Satiru rebellion are described in this article. Post-independence, issues of political reorganization and national consolidation grew in importance, and these compiled the grounds for more movements such as The Holy Spirit movement and the Lord's Resistance Army, although the latter spent more time slaughtering civilians than taking stock. The African continent offers a rich tapestry of millennial and apocalyptic movements that go back at least two centuries and still emerge today and will continue to challenge researchers on a number of counts.

Keywords: African millennialism, apocalyptic movements, Xhosa cattle killing movement, Satiru rebellion, mumboism, Holy Spirit movement

While several apocalyptic-style movements in the African context—such as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God or the Lord's Resistance Army, or for that matter, Mungiki or Maitatsine, not least because of their dramatic rituals and mass killings—may be known to wider publics, a fuller picture of the history and present-day status of millennialism in Africa is lacking. This essay seeks to provide a comprehensive, although not exhaustive, analytical overview of Africa's rich tapestry of millennial movements, prophets, beliefs, and practices.1 It will attempt to draw together scholarship on both the older and the newer, the known and the less-well-known manifestations of the millennial and apocalyptic imaginary, supplementing this with analysis of recent “doomsday” groups that have garnered media attention.2 In conclusion, the distinctive features of this particular breed of African religious movement—with its emphasis on an imminent new age of salvation and radical social transformation, as well as the commonalities with like-minded movements in other geographical locations, will be discussed, along with suggestions for future areas of research.3

It hardly needs stating that such an exercise represents a daunting task, even for the present author who has conducted research on Africa's extensive new religious movements scene for more than three decades (see, e.g., Hackett 1987, 1989, 1999, 2004). The African continent is extremely diverse, with fifty-five nations, more than two thousand ethnic groups, and a host of indigenous and exogenous forms of religious expression. Religious ideas and practices are frequently imbricated with other forms of social and cultural expression, especially politics (on the latter, see Ellis and (p. 386) ter Haar 2004). Christianity and Islam now dominate the religious public spheres, and both have undergone several transformations due to diversification, enculturation, and revitalization. It is the millennial dimension of these religious trends, as well as their indigenous forebears, that concern us here. While the various movements and prophetic figures may be intrinsically interesting, it is impossible to comprehend their provenance and social impact without reference to the prevailing socioeconomic conditions. These range from migration, sickness, famine, land appropriation, social discrimination, political subjugation, and economic marginalization to local conflicts and world wars. Colonialism was the crucible for the early generation of movements; now we must look more to the forces of globalization in all their guises (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001).

Because of the methodological challenges raised by the aforementioned goals and considerations, and the need to frame the material in conducive ways, it seems more productive to focus on religious traditions, rather than regions or specific movements. The majority of movements tend to cluster around the prophetic ideas associated with Christianity, Islam, or their indigenous, ancestral traditions. Creative, syncretic intersections will, however, be explored. In order to address the historical roots of both the older and new religious formations, a two-phase structure—colonial and postcolonial—will be utilized, with some preservation of chronological development. The continuities notwithstanding, colonization and the postindependence period represent paradigmatic moments in Africa's history. Moreover, such a structure will help us situate and trace more effectively instances of millennial and apocalyptic activity in Africa. The emphasis on activity is perhaps more apposite for this diverse region, with both explicitly millennial groups—that is, collectivities that draw on millennial and apocalyptic ideas as a primary element of their identity—as well as more implicit ideas, discourse, and imagery that become embedded in popular culture, all under discussion here.4

The question of terminological correctness in relation to African millennial movements that “dream of an imminent transition to a new era, a condition of collective salvation” (Wessinger 2000, 4) is complicated by a preponderance of messianic figures. Harold W. Turner, one of the earliest and most influential scholars of new religious movements in Africa, was critical of the imprecise use of terminology regarding messianic and millennial groups, and he dismissed the too easy conflation of the two types of movements (Turner 1979, 52–54). He maintained that millennial groups constituted only a very small segment of the spectrum of new religious movements in Africa more generally. Hopes of a “grandiose millennial future,” he suggested, were more common at the outset of a movement and, if they persisted, were more likely in a “minor key.”5 Bennetta Jules-Rosette notes, by contrast, that millennial and messianic strains may coexist in a movement (1979, 19), while Yvan Droz (2001), in his study of millenarianism among the Kikuyu, sees no difference between millennial and messianic movements, except for emphasis on the person of the son of God and his reign in the latter. Turner was in part correct about the proportionality of millennial movements in Africa's overall religious landscape, but he could not have anticipated how millennial hopes and apocalyptic (p. 387) transformation might find new life in Africa's fast-changing religious public spheres.

As a final methodological note: the turn to violence by a minority of this type of religious movement demands explanatory attention, as has been ably demonstrated by other scholars in the field (Wessinger 2000; Walliss 2004). The African context provides not just abundant data in this regard, but also a prominent communitarian angle that would appear to support interpretations more predicated on catharsis and revitalization (Wallace 1956), than psycho-pathological aberrance (Cohn 1970/1957). In fact, for those interested in divergent interpretations of the manifestations and consequences of millennialism, some of the African cases detailed below will provide more than enough stimulation.

Colonial Period

Studies of religion in Africa usually begin with local forms of indigenous belief and practice, often referred to as “traditional,” “indigenous,” or “ancestral” religions. We shall respect this convention even though many of the traditionalist movements described below drew explicitly or implicitly on Christian millennial ideas to varying degrees. Since these popular movements often constituted forms of political resistance to colonial rule, they have been termed “nativist” or “neotraditionalist” (Lanternari 1963; Adas 1979; Wilson 1973; chapter 5 by Jean E. Rosenfeld, this volume). Protomillennial notions within indigenous religions may also have shaped Christian evangelization in certain African regions (see Droz 2001, 101; van Binsbergen 1981, 152–53), and vice versa (Ranger 1975), in the early twentieth century. Lamin Sanneh (2002, 250) contends that vernacular translations of the Bible—appearing from the mid-nineteenth century onward—made chronicles of prophets, wars, apocalyptic narratives, and messianic messages available to Africans. These resonated, in turn, with indigenous ideas and practices, such as divination, that allowed Africans to scrutinize the Bible in search of “omens of reassurance.”

(Neo)Traditionalist Movements

Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement

Of the African religious movements that prophesied the return of the ancestors and a new, more plentiful existence for the people, none rates more highly in terms of dramatic response and tragic outcome than the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–57 (Peires 1989, ix; see also Wenzel 2009). In his detailed study of this southern African movement and the young girl, Nongqawuse, whose redemptive message purportedly lured tens of thousands of Xhosa to their deaths, historian J. B. Peires seeks to go beyond the lies, accusations, and conspiracy theories to uncover the root (p. 388) causes of this human catastrophe. Against a backdrop of military action by local prophets and brutal repression by colonial forces, Nongqawuse, the niece of a local leader and religious visionary/preacher, Mhlakaza, claimed that she was in contact with a “new people” from over the sea, who were the ancestors of the Xhosa (309–23). To facilitate their return, they instructed her to tell the people to kill their cattle and destroy their corn. They were also to cease witchcraft activity and planting new crops. In preparation for the miraculous return of the ancestors, when all unbelievers would be destroyed in a storm and searing heat, the Xhosa were to build new houses and wear new ornaments.

Despite the doubts and subterfuges, by the end of 1858 it was clear that the prophecies had failed, more than 40,000 Xhosa were dead, and the number of cattle slaughtered had topped 400,000. Many Xhosa were displaced and the majority of their lands were lost to the British. The Xhosa were left destitute and forced to join the colony as wage laborers. Peires concludes that this was not a national suicide but logical action in the face of desperation, or even murder, given the manipulative role of the then colonial governor, Sir George Grey (Peires 1989, x). He notes additional factors that contributed to the cattle-killing strategy: the lungsickness epidemic among cattle that began in 1855 and its religious interpretation, and the ritual sacrifice of cattle as a correct form of communication with ancestors. To these signs, and the Xhosa belief in the continuation of life after death, was added the popularized Christian notion of the resurrection, together with news of the Russian defeat of the British in the Crimea. Nongqawuse's prophecies were not original in Peires's estimation, and were not inherently anti-white, just reflective of a movement “driven by positive expectations.”6 South African religion scholar and traditional religious activist Nokuzola Mndende (2005) disputes the prevailing interpretations of the movement by arguing that the account of events was invented or at least manipulated by the colonial powers to destroy African identity and buttress Western superiority. She examines the cultural contradictions in the story, as well as possible exaggerations of the outcome.

Mgijima's Israelites

A much smaller South African millennial movement, but one that has also gone down in the annals because of its tragic ending, is Enoch Mgijima's Israelites. Born in 1858 into a prosperous Wesleyan Methodist family, Mgijima began seeing visions in 1907 (Steyn 2000, 194; Edgar 1987). He claimed that he was instructed by an angel to lead people to the Old Testament worship of God so that they would be saved when the world ended. Mgijima interpreted Halley's comet in 1910 as a vindication of his prophetic preaching. He came under the influence of an African American, William Crowdy, who taught that black people were descended from the lost tribes of Israel. After parting company with the Methodists in 1912, Mgijima began to predict that the world would end before Christmas Day in 1912 and said his followers should not plant their crops. Impoverishment did not lead to disillusionment for the movement. Mgijima's visions became more apocalyptic in nature, and he predicted a war between blacks and whites. This led to his excommunication from the Church (p. 389) of God and the Saints of Christ. Mgijima and his followers now referred to themselves as the “Israelites” and observed the Sabbath and the annual Passover festival. In 1920, following a call by Mgijima to his followers, many began arriving at his home in Bulhoek in the Eastern Cape. This caused serious consternation to the authorities as an illegal camp began to develop and the group began to arm themselves. Despite numerous appeals to the Israelites to disperse, a large police force was deployed in May 1921 and a battle ensued. Nearly two hundred people lost their lives, many were injured, and Mgijima and his brother were sentenced to six years’ hard labor.

The escalation in hostilities between the Israelites and the colonial government needs to be understood in light of the deteriorating conditions for black South Africans over the previous two decades. Droughts, cattle disease, increased taxes, and unfair land laws primed people for an Endtime message of dramatic change and a new social dispensation.7 Following the Bulhoek tragedy, the government appointed a commission to investigate the independent churches. There was little sympathy from the white church leaders, while others felt that a compromise could have been reached (Millard 1997). Robert R. Edgar and Hilary Sapire (1999) contend that the Bulhoek massacre “left an indelible imprint on official attitudes toward prophetic movements” and led to the harsh treatment of the Xhosa prophetess Nontetha, who began having doomsday dreams from the time of the 1918 worldwide flu epidemic onward.

Maji Maji

However, the loss of life was far higher in German East Africa (now Tanzania) when the colonial authorities brutally suppressed an uprising known as the Maji Maji Rebellion from 1905 to 1907. In his account of this mass movement in southern Uzaramo, John Iliffe (1967) argues that it stemmed from peasant grievances over harsh labor associated with cotton production, later acquiring a religious dimension through prophetic leadership. The rebels claimed they were instructed to get rid of their livestock by Kolelo, the god of the Zaramo. They ceased paying taxes and were given maji, a type of water medicine, believed to protect them from the bullets of the Germans. More radical prophetic ideas began to circulate predicting that a great flood would engulf the whites and that a new god would come and transform the world. The German punitive expedition eventually moved in, burning several villages and killing around seventy-five thousand Africans. Viewed by the authorities as conspiracy and witchcraft, the Maji Maji Rebellion sought nonetheless to eradicate the practice of sorcery. Iliffe holds that indigenous millennial beliefs were instrumental in the expansion of the insurgency, but it has also been noted that many of the Zaramo were Christian converts (Kimambo 1999).


Punitive expeditions led by the British into the remote highlands of southwestern Kenya in the early twentieth century generated a series of millennial responses among the pastoral-agricultural Gusii. The pan-ethnic cult of Mumbo (local name for God) (p. 390) or Mumboism became the object of a short, but excellent study by the sociologist Audrey Wipper (1970). She identifies the political reorganization and cultural dislocation attendant upon colonialism, in addition to missionary (some Adventist) activity, as contributory factors in the emergence of Mumboism around 1914–15. Rejecting Christianity as “rotten” and all Europeans as “enemies” and defying traditional chiefs, the movement preached cataclysmic transformation. Depending on the various stories, water would be turned into blood and only Mumboites would have drinking water, all white people would disappear leaving only Africans as sole survivors, or the Germans would come and cut off the arms of those in clothes (i.e., Europeans and Westernized Africans) (Wipper 1970, 397). There were reports of people buying lamps in preparation for the end of the world that would be dark. The projected utopia would be a time of role reversal, healing, and plenty that could only be effected by traditional sacrifices and rituals. Different instantiations of the movement occurred over the next few years, particular during times of calamity and economic depression. It was eventually proscribed during the Mau-Mau emergency in 1954. Wipper comments on how demeaning language employed by the colonists and missionaries (and by some academics) to describe the movement served to obfuscate its adaptive capacity and the genuine grievances of the Gusii.


Traditional spirit-possession movements and local seers also served as vehicles of prophetic messages in central Kenya, during this same period of early colonial rule (Ambler 1995). One movement in particular, Kathambi, attracted large numbers of people to its ritual dances from 1910 to 1922. Spirits would possess the dancers and transmit messages with millennial overtones. Songs would prophesy God's coming to Earth to purify humanity or recount dreams of liberation from oppression. Two Kathambi leaders even preached of the imminence of the Millennium and ordered people to abandon their crops and remain in their homes. The resulting disruption of the colonial order was met with rapid repression by the authorities. In 1922 a man named Ndonye wa Kauti, claiming to be a prophet and traditional specialist, began attracting people from far and wide, all afflicted by hunger, sickness, poverty, and the travails of colonial domination. He delivered a radical message, which he had received in a dream from God, about healing and restitution. He instructed his followers to destroy the sacred groves and reject traditional beliefs to bring in a new age in which the Earth would be restored and there would be freedom from state domination. Despite Ndonye's call for cultural rejection, he is inscribed into what Charles Ambler terms a “vital prophetic tradition of divinely inspired women and men addressing communities in crisis” in the region (1995, 236).


Interpretations vary widely as to the configuration of political and religious elements in the later Mau-Mau movement among the Kikuyu of Kenya. Nor do all interpreters recognize that millennial notions of supernatural intervention played (p. 391) any role in the dynamics of this famed movement (Wilson 1973, 266–68). What is clear is that the oath-taking rituals and singing of Mau-Mau hymns helped mobilize the resistance fighters in Kenya during the 1950s, as they sought the restoration of Kikuyu land and the removal of British settlers. Yvan Droz (2001) demonstrates the association of the announcement of the great cycle of ritual purification with social and natural cataclysmic events. He also points to a number of factors that served to prepare the terrain for the Mau-Mau, namely the Kikuyu social ethos, early Christian missionary preaching that “time is short,” the growth of the East African Revival, together with the widespread belief that Kenya was going through a political purgatory before the arrival of a messiah-type president to conquer the forces of evil. So while Mau-Mau revolt could not merit an exclusively millennialist label, it did exhibit such characteristics in its quest for and promise of a better world.

Early Christian Messages of Social and Religious Reversal


One of the earliest recorded independent church movements in Africa, the Antonians, grew out of the remarkable activities of a young Kongo woman, Kimpa Vita, known by her baptismal name, Dona Béatrice (Thornton 1998). Born around 1684, she claimed that she was possessed by St. Anthony and that Christ was born in the Kingdom of Kongo. Her mass movement was aimed primarily at ending a long civil war in the region and restoring the broken monarchy, while also constituting a protest against slavery. Revered as a saint, Dona Béatrice promised a new era of wealth: trees would turn to gold and silver, and her followers would discover European treasures and luxury goods hidden around the city, as well as mines of gold and silver beneath the city. Because she preached a form of anti-Catholicism, infused with Kongo ritual and symbolism, and an increasingly politicized message, the Kongo king, Pedro IV, had her burned at the stake as a heretic in 1706. Her nationalization and democratization of Christianity, according to Wyatt MacGaffey, “threatened all the existing hierarchies” (1986, 210). He underscores the continuity between the Antonians and the later, modern Kongo prophets such as Simon Kimbangu (see below).

Arathi Movement

Similar articulations marked the growth of the Arathi Movement in central Kenya in the 1920s (Githieya 1999). Whether viewed as independent church, spirit movement, or autochthonous revival, the Church of the Holy Spirit (Watu wa Mungu or “People of God” in Swahili) had a strong eschatological dimension. One of its founding prophets, Joseph Ng’ang’a, was told in a vision to go and preach about God's intention to destroy Europeans, who had colonized the Kikuyu and expropriated their land. This was to be followed by a new golden age of Kikuyu cultural revival. The Arathi found affinity with the Hebrew Bible, in particular the concept of a chosen (p. 392) people and the experience of exile. But they also drew on traditional and Christian ideas and practices.8 They were known for their style of possession, which involved trembling and animal-like cries (Hoehler-Fatton 1996, 76). Arathi prophets disputed the actual date of the expected social reversal: some believed that there would be a major earthquake in which Europeans would perish (Githieya 1999, 239). Others believed that the world would end in 1931. Failed expectations and the death of Ng’ang’a led some to combine their millennial vision with political action.

The Watchtower Movement and Indigenous Millennialism

By the time of the First World War, millennial ideas were beginning to circulate on a much larger scale in Africa, notably Central Africa. They stemmed, in part, from the adventist teachings of Joseph Booth in Nyasaland (present-day Malawi) in the late 1890s (Shepperson and Price 1958). This English fundamentalist Baptist missionary, who shuttled between Australia, New Zealand, Nyasaland, South Africa, Britain, and the United States, introduced many Central Africans to the millennial doctrines of Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916) from Alleghany, Pennsylvania, which formed the basis of the present-day Jehovah's Witnesses (Shepperson 1970, 148; see also chapter 25 by Jon R. Stone, this volume). One such teaching, concerning the “time of trouble” from 1874 to 1915, resonated with several Africans as it corresponded with the arrival of the first effective Christian mission in the region, the Free Church of Scotland's Livingstonia, as well as growing dissatisfaction with European rule. In fact, it was lapsed members of this mission who formed the core group of converts and preachers.9 Their leader was a young Tonga man, Elliott or Kenan Kamwana, who, after meeting with the deported Booth in South Africa in 1907, began preaching to vast crowds back in his homeland that the new age was at hand when Africans would supplant Europeans and taxes would be abolished. He, too, was deported by the authorities after the end of the First World War.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS, known as Jehovah's Witnesses from 1931) went on to spawn many indigenous millennial movements, following the abortive expectations of 1914 and the dispersal of many adherents into neighboring territories (Shepperson 1970, 150). In the Rhodesias, the Watchtower movement was known as “Chitawala” and in Congo and Portuguese territories as “Kitawala.” Several of these offshoots were associated with resistance to British colonial rule (Cross 1978, 304–5), although the real militancy fell to more politicized groups (Fields 1985, 9). Shepperson deems their premillennial character to be a “commentary on the state of race relations” in the region (1970, 146). It was not until the 1950s that the WTBTS managed to establish control over the “heterodox” movements that had appropriated its name, Watch Tower or Watchtower (Cross 1978, 305; Assimeng 1986, 74–77). Yet, it, too, was subjected to state restrictions in that pre- and postindependence phase. Sholto Cross attributes the grassroots, populist appeal of these Watchtower movements to their social ethic, their communal solidarity, and an ideology that could interpret the upheavals of the outside world with a promise of ultimate salvation (1978, 307).

(p. 393) John Chilembwe's Movement

In his study of religious change in the Central African country of Zambia, Wim van Binsbergen (1981) examines the socioeconomic and political tensions in the region that generated religious innovation.10 The prophetic movements that he terms eschatological are the ones that concern us here. Inspired by the 1915 revolutionary movement of John Chilembwe, a Booth-influenced Baptist from Nyasaland (Shepperson and Price 1958),11 their leaders began to penetrate central Western Zambia in the 1920s and 1930s, preaching the need for a “total cleansing and radical transformation of the community, as a prerequisite for the new society which was allegedly imminent” (van Binsbergen 1981, 152).

Their main ritual activities consisted of dipping (ritual immersion of whole body), witch-finding and -removal, and hymn-singing. Many claimed to be representatives of Watchtower, while others operated more independently. Some claimed that they had visited heaven and had been sent back to Earth to prepare for the imminent changes. They also called for taboos on certain crops and domestic animals. Van Binsbergen argues that this movement served to intensify preexisting eschatological notions of a “radically new, final society,” giving them a new ritual expression and preparing the ground for the preachers and dippers of the 1930s. The colonial authorities were initially alarmed by the “political overtones” of the movement, but eventually allowed the various groups to subside (153–54). It is noteworthy that the greatest and most successful of the Zambian prophets discussed by van Binsbergen, Mupumani, refrained from voicing any colonial protest in his preaching. But because of the prophet's extensive travels and his popularity he was eventually imprisoned on a charge of vagrancy and false pretensions.

Many nonrural Watchtower religious movements in Central Africa, according to van Binsbergen, started out with anticolonial stances, but, because of the perceptions and needs of rural populations, refocused their ritual activities on witch-cleansing and the eradication of sorcery (284–85). This common focus or “instant millennium” of these movements (to use Roy G. Willis's designation [1970]) represents religious innovation, in van Binsbergen's view, rather than straight continuity with tradition.

Mwana Lesa Movement

This interpretation tallies with Terence Ranger's fine analysis (1975) of another witch-finding and witch-killing movement, the notorious Mwana Lesa Movement of 1925 in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). He dismisses alternative readings that viewed the movement as anti-white, nationalist, and nativist. In contrast, Ranger considers that the movement centered on the Watchtower preacher, Tomo Nyirenda—who came to be known as Mwana Lesa, the Son of God—is more revealing of the interaction between Christianity and traditional (Lala) beliefs, in particular the differences between indigenous and Christian millenarianism. He argues that Nyirenda, who was born in Nyasaland and moved to work on the Copperbelt in Zambia advocated an “explicitly Christian millenarianism” (1975, (p. 394) 50) in that he preached the imminent coming of God and the promise of Christian brotherhood, rather than the “earthly millennium” (ibid.) offered by witchcraft eradication movements. He was also was very concerned about the future discipline and structure of the church, and firmly believed that African American missionaries would come to revitalize and replenish their communities (cf. Fields 1985, 165).12

While Watchtower teachings were clearly the main source of Nyirenda's ideas, Ranger considers he would most likely have been influenced by the intense millennial fervor that swept Nyasaland until the end of World War I. He would also have experienced the revivalism within the Scottish mission church (United Free Church), as a pupil at their famous mission school, Livingstonia. Nyirenda was operating amidst the changing tensions and pressures of Lala society and was subject to political manipulation (Cross 1978, 162, 168). He was also subject to the expectations of the people whose own indigenous millennial beliefs about divine intervention fueled their desire for social order and an end to witchcraft, or what Ranger terms a “witch-dominated spiritual economy” (1975, 60). Nonetheless, he remains a tragic figure, having angered the government by drowning nearly two hundred purported witches who failed to pass his test of baptism in both Nyasaland and then the Katanga province of the Belgian Congo (now Zaïre). The Belgians pursued him back to Zambia, where the authorities tried and hanged him in 1926 (Lipschutz and Rasmussen 1986).

In her landmark work, Karen E. Fields raises the issue of the rationality of Watchtower movements like that of Mwana Lesa (1985, 268–71). Recalling Eric Hobsbawm's thesis that in some kinds of community the line between religion and politics cannot be clearly drawn, especially in the case of millennial movements, Fields argues that the Watchtower revival had the effect of “galvanizing politically effective groups” (1985, 268). Mass baptism, and its association with deliverance from witchcraft, together with its capacity for appropriation by different players, constituted a threat to the colonial structure of indirect rule. Contrary to the view of some Western interpreters, Fields contends that African millenarians, even if they were “doomed in the long run, they were of their land and their historical time—and that, as rational actors, they lived in it” (1985, 271).

Ghanaian sociologist Max Assimeng, in his 1986 study of the missionary activities and social impact of “heterodox movements” in West and Central Africa, notes the “disproportionate popularity” of millennial and Adventist groups in the latter region (251). He claims that, by contrast, West Africa has been more receptive to thaumaturgically and expressively oriented groups, such as Pentecostals, while Central Africa has favored those groups predicated on the imminence of the Millennium, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists.13

He attributes the millennial bent of Central Africa to white settler influence and the lack of secular modes of protest against oppression and racism (Assimeng 1986, xiv). Although, as Brian Wilson notes, in some instances millennial beliefs and nativist sanctions may provide a “context of expectation” for more secular and political causes (1973, 270).

(p. 395) Kongo Prophetism

L’Eglise de Jésus Christ sur la terre par Son Envoyé Spécial Simon Kimbangu (EJCSK)

A particularly fertile region in colonial times for the emergence of prophet movements with messianic and millennial characteristics was the region known as Lower Congo Province of the Belgian Congo or Lower Zaire. These have been well documented by Ephraim Andersson (1958) and Wyatt MacGaffey (1983). These movements are a particularly instructive example of the interdependence of religious and political ideologies. The foremost church in the region, then as now, L’Eglise de Jésus Christ sur la terre par Son Envoyé Spécial Simon Kimbangu (EJCSK), declared millennial expectations in the period from 1959 to 1960, but these later faded, being retained only in the name of the church (MacGaffey 1983, 75). During Simon Kimbangu's imprisonment by authorities from 1921 to 1951 (he eventually died in jail in Elizabethville in 1951), a number of his followers continued to be arrested, and the Kimbanguist movement began assuming new forms.

Black Church

One of the more striking prophetic leaders in this Central African region was Mpadi Simon-Pierre, who hailed from eastern Congo. Influenced by the Salvation Army (which had arrived in 1934), and believing like many that the army's red flag, its military characteristics, and the S on the uniforms heralded the return of Simon Kimbangu “to renew the prophetic struggle,” he named his movement the Mission, later Eglise des Noirs en Afrique (ENAF) or Black Church (MacGaffey 1983, 41–45). The teachings of the Black Church on sickness and healing were shaped by their millennial beliefs. They preached that God's future kingdom on Earth would be devoid of sickness. The Black Church developed a program of herbal medicine, which they presented as an African version of Western medicine. This political overtone stemmed from the close association of ideas about the Millennium and pan-African independence, particularly the independence of Angola—from which most Mpadists originated.

The Black Church formed part of a group of churches known as “Dibundu dia Mpeve a Nlongo” (DMN). Many of their leaders were considered to be subversive by the colonial authorities. One such prophet, Kinene Jean (1915–62), who, after working for some years in an American Baptist Mission and then traveling abroad for several months (he claimed he went to Mecca), realized his own prophetic calling, rather than heeding the unifying call of the EJCSK, and created a small church before he died. What is interesting about this particular group is the founder's predilection for telling stories and making predictions. He would recount to his followers about troubles in Palestine and America, and of the coming of a messiah who was “between” Christ and Kimbangu, yet superior to them. Influenced by his travels and by Watchtower theology, he claimed that the messiah would sweep away the world's institutions and install a new government. There would be a new currency and an oppressive military regime (which his later followers all denoted as Mobutu). His prophecy derived from a period of confinement by the colonial government in 1953. With independence in 1960 he enthusiastically printed out copies of his revelation on which he identified eight ages. The latter he described as follows: (p. 396)

The time of recrimination has come.…Belief in the Lord of Heaven and his helpers is absent. People prefer witchcraft, killing others without good reason, quarrelling, adultery, theft, dirty books, misconduct of women in the presence of men, man with man, woman with woman, so that procreation ceases. For such people there is no heaven; for them dawns only the fire of hell. (MacGaffey 1983, 46)

The fact that no one took his miracles and “vision of doom” seriously (as the church was winding down in the 1970s) constituted enough proof for his followers that they had already entered the age of unbelief.

The Lumpa Rising: Contesting the Zambian State

Around the time of independence in Zambia there arose one of Africa's best-known independent churches. Like Watchtower, it was predominantly a rural movement. Known as the Lumpa Rising or Lumpa Church, it became renowned, not just because it was founded by a woman, the prophetess Alice Lenshina Mulenga Mubisha, but also because of its eventual rejection of secular authority and clashes with the new government (Roberts 1970; Hinfelaar 1991). Born around 1920 among the Bemba of northeastern Zambia, Lenshina began receiving visions in 1953. She was associated with a Presbyterian mission at the time but was not yet baptized. She claimed to have died several times and returned from the dead. According to one of her visions, Christ had ascended on a white cloud but would return at the Last Judgment on a black one (Shepperson 1970, 157). She began attracting many thousands of former Catholics and Presbyterians because of her healing rituals, simple evangelical liturgy, and popular hymns. After she began baptizing her followers, the movement assumed independent status in 1959 and became known as the Lumpa Church (lumpa means “best” or “highest” in Bemba). At its inception, there were no separatist aspirations. As with other Central African movements, such as the Bamucapi of the 1930s, she propagated a message of witchcraft eradication but did not call for a revival of traditional religious beliefs and practices (Bond 1979).

In its earlier phase, the movement was nationalist and anticolonial (van Binsbergen 1981, 288–91; Bond 1979, 158–59). But, inspired by chiliastic teachings, it moved toward the construction of new social and economic relations, along theocratic lines, as well as new (stockaded) villages in local, rural contexts. This put the community (about twenty thousand after many defections in the early 1960s) (van Binsbergen 1981, 306) at odds with nationalist leaders, as well as local chiefs, and, in the face of attacks in 1963–64, it became increasingly intransigent and withdrawn from the state. Lenshina rejected the registration of her church and the payment of taxes (Garvey 1994). In the course of police and army attacks lasting three months, seven hundred church members were killed. The church was eventually banned and Lenshina was arrested. After being released in 1975, she was re-arrested two years later for conducting a church service. This put an end to the movement and she died under house arrest in December 1978.

Just as many stories circulated about Lenshina's powers and exploits, so too have interpretations differed among the various analysts over the nature of Lenshina's role and the orientation of her movement. Brian Garvey (1994) notes (p. 397) that while the Lumpa Church was generally seen as an outgrowth from the Livingstonia Mission, the appeal of its founder was to all those Bemba who retained a fear of witchcraft, whatever their religious affiliation. Hugo Hinfelaar (1991) highlights the way in which Lenshina restored women's religious roles as intercessors, and the significance of the firm foundation of family life. Van Binsbergen (1981, 312) views her as an innovator who opposed peasantization, while George C. Bond (1979, 159) puts her in the Christian reformist tradition in that she sought to restore fundamental Christian (Free Church) values. He also underscores the appeal of Lenshina's egalitarian and otherworldly message for such a subordinated social group as the Lumpa Church members, who were both the laboring poor of the towns, mines, and plantations of east, central, and southern Africa, as well as the least prosperous and educated of the peasantry when they returned home. Interestingly, Van Binsbergen (2001) notes the way the postcolonial Zambian government has used the Lumpa Rising as a “reference point” to stress the “the dangers of religious sectarianism for national unity and stable government” in its harsh treatment of Watchtower movements in the postindependence phase.

Islamic Millennial Movements

Messianic and millennial Islamic expectations have flourished for centuries in Africa, in both political and apolitical forms. Lamin Sanneh documents one of the earliest reports of millenarian ideas in West Africa—the great medieval traveler, Ibn Battuta's 1353 account of a Shii settlement in the ancient kingdom of Mali seeking to keep the “flame of expectancy” alive in the tradition of hijra communities (2002, 238–40). Several other scholars of Islam have emphasized the agency of Muslim Sufi brotherhoods (tariqa) in resisting colonial rule in Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Willis 1967; Hiskett 1994). Muslim reformers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West African jihads, from Senegambia to Nigeria, exported their beliefs to Western Sudan about the ever-present hope for an otherworldly deliverance (Holt 1970; Al-Karsani 1993). Three examples—one from West Africa and two from East Africa—illustrate the trajectory and impact of such ideas.

The Satiru Rebellion

The Satiru Rebellion of February–March 1906 is enshrined in the annals of anticolonial resistance in northern Nigeria. It provides a clear example of how millennial beliefs, in the form of Mahdist expectations about the appearance of a deliverer or expected Mahdi in the Endtime to ensure the triumph of Islam over infidel forces, played a catalytic role in fomenting rebellion, in this case with a tragic outcome (Adeleye 1972). Building on local eschatology and rising frustrations about the loss of sovereignty under British rule, a series of individuals, from 1902 onward, began preaching in the Sokoto Caliphate against the payment of taxes and the imminent end of colonial domination, and predicting mysterious forces that would exterminate the British. These incipient risings were suppressed by the British administration. (p. 398) A complex set of circumstances ensured that Satiru, an emergent center of disaffection, would prove to be the most dramatic of the anticolonial Mahdist revolts.

In February 1904 a village chief proclaimed himself the Mahdi and named his son the Prophet Isa (Jesus Christ) according to Islamic tradition. He died in prison in 1904, leaving his son to assume leadership of the Mahdist movement. So the rising of February 1906 was, in effect, the final phase. The appearance of a religious leader in the area in the previous month, a man who had instigated rebellion against the French in Zaberma and who taught that the bullets from European guns would turn to water, was a contributory factor. Instead of arresting peacefully the Prophet Isa—as they had done with his father, “the Mahdi”—the British moved in to suppress the movement with undue force and mismanagement. They were roundly defeated, and a subsequent expedition was also routed, in part because many of the fighters in the army of a co-opted Islamic leader from the traditional aristocracy refused to oppose the “holy cause” of the rebels. Eventually, on 10 March 1906, the rebellion was brutally suppressed and Satiru razed to the ground. Beholden to their British overlords, the Sultan of Sokoto and his chiefs condemned the uprising as fanaticism and British Indirect Rule rediscovered its equilibrium.

The “Mecca Letter”

Of interest is the role played by a subversive letter with millennial overtones that was circulated by a branch of the Qadiriya Brotherhood in East Africa at the outset of the twentieth century (Martin 1969). In 1908 reports began to come in from the German protectorate of Tanganyika that a “letter from Mecca” was inciting anti-European preaching among the locals. This letter spoke of a dream by a certain Shaykh Ahmad in Mecca, who was told by the Prophet Muhammad that God was exasperated with the moral failures of his fellow Muslims and that the end of the world was at hand. Anyone who read the letter was supposed to pass it on or face the opposition of the Prophet at the Day of Judgment. The Germans traced the origins of the letter to Zanzibar, and a famous slave-trader and ivory merchant known as Rumazila and his family. His political and commercial interests had suffered under the German protectorate.

Comparisons have been drawn with other anti-European manifestoes that emanated from Sudan some years earlier (Soares 2003). The Germans eventually moved to suppress the activities of the leaders, as it had only been a year since they had put down the Maji Maji revolt in the same region.

Mohamedan Movement

A little-known Islamic millennial movement in western Kenya in the 1920s is the subject of a revealing study by Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton (forthcoming). The Mohamedan Movement of 1926 in North Kavirondo, in the country of the Abaluyia, appeared to be an anomaly in the region because of its anticolonial content, appeal to women and nonurban context. Overlooked by historians with their prevailing model of urban Islamization, the movement demonstrates, in Hoehler-Fatton's opinion, the appeal of (p. 399) millennial hopes in the rural hinterland—an area experiencing a sudden political and economic downturn. The prophecies declared that African Muslims would soon triumph over European Christians. But rather than interpreting these millennial discourses as a response to the upheavals of foreign rule, Hoehler-Fatton asserts that experience of colonialism was filtered through preexisting Islamic eschatological beliefs concerning the promised Mahdi, and then expressed through local and religious idioms (such as using protective water, involvement of women).14 She also notes how millennial prophecies and rumors were associated in this case, as indeed in other parts of Africa, with the incursions of railway lines into local territories.

Postcolonial Period

Neotraditional Movements

This period, from the 1960s onward, is characterized by modernization and political independence along with increased trade and travel and new forms of communication. Of particular importance is the greater availability of literature and films on spiritual warfare, much of it coming from United States-based ministries of deliverance. Some would link the appeal of this type of religious message to the growing insecurities of urban living.


Designating millennialist-style groups in the postcolonial phase as traditionalist or neotraditionalist is particularly challenging, given the pluralization of religious options, and more extensive encounters between religious ideas. One such example is the mysterious Mungiki group in present-day Kenya, which is said to have a millennial component (Wamue 2011). They have gained local and international notoriety because of their public acts of violence against women (notably in 2002–3) in seeking to return Kenya to indigenous African, specifically Kikuyu, traditions and values (Wamue 2001, 2011).15 They have also been harassed by the Kenyan authorities. Kenyan scholar of religion Grace Wamue argues that to label it as an ideological reaction to modernity or as an apolitical movement of misguided youths is to miss its deeply religious origins and ethos, such as their ritual surrender of material objects and the apocalyptic dimension of its mythology. As inscribed on their flag, bloodshed must precede the attainment of peace.

Kiyang-yang Movement

A rare example of a millennial group from Lusophone Africa is the Kiyang-yang movement founded by a Balanta woman prophet, Ntombikte, from Guinea-Bissau in 1984. Emerging from a subsistence existence, a series of personal afflictions, and (p. 400) a turbulent political context, Ntombikte claimed that she was elected by Nhaala, the Balanta God, to proclaim a new era without disease, conflict, barrenness, and child mortality (Jong and Reis 2010). It would be an age when the underdevelopment of the Balanta in comparison with other ethnic groups and the “white man” would come to an end. It could only be achieved by a radical break with traditional divination and witchcraft. The communications from Nhaala are recorded in an invented written language, and sometimes expressed in a glossolalic language. Inger Callewaert (2000), who conducted research on the movement's ritual songs, suggests that this idea of revealed writing and language may derive from Christian and Muslim influences. She also claims that the movement is ambivalent toward traditional thought and practice in that it still affirms the importance of the Balanta ancestors and community.

Uganda: Spirit Armies and Political Resistance

Holy Spirit Movement

It might be expected that Uganda's tortured political history would give rise to, and be fueled by, prophets of a new Millennium. The world has come to know of two such figures, Alice Auma (Lakwena) and Joseph Kony, both protagonists in the tragic drama of northern Uganda's two-decade-old civil war. Alice Auma was an Acholi spirit-medium who, in 1986, began to organize a resistance movement known as the Holy Spirit Movement to wage war against the government of Yoweri Museveni, witches, and impure soldiers (Behrend 1998, 107). She set out to cleanse Acholi society of violence and ethnic rivalries (the outcome of an earlier civil war) using traditional ritual practices and a Christian vision of moral renewal. She had converted to Catholicism in the mid-1980s. Through her possessing spirit, Lakwena (or “messenger” in Luo), she drew up a set of moral prohibitions, known as the Holy Spirit Safety Precautions. Thereby she was able to instill discipline among the many former soldiers in her army, as well as courage through the ritual anointing intended to make them bulletproof (Behrend 2000, 59). Her goal was to create a new society predicated on Christian ideals of love and repentance, but her paradoxical teachings, in Heike Behrend's view, effected a “re-magification” of society. Lakwena forbade inducements to fight, yet offered rewards; banned witchcraft, but reapplied its idiom in her struggle against the National Resistance Army; and promoted peace, yet conducted war. Her Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (between seven thousand and ten thousand individuals) famously marched on Kampala in 1987 before being defeated by government forces at Jinja (just over forty miles from the capital).

Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)

There was an interim period when Alice Auma's father, Severino Lukoya, took over the reigns of the movement after she fled to Kenya (where she died in January 2007, in a refugee camp, at age fifty-one). If Lakwena's mission was to end a reign of terror for her people, her cousin (some say nephew), Joseph Kony, was intent on creating one. Biographical details on him are rare and confused, despite the fact that he has been on the scene as leader of successive movements (the Uganda People's Democratic Christian Army, then the (p. 401) Lord's Resistance Army [LRA]) from 1987 to the time of writing. He was reportedly a high school dropout and a Catholic. Despite the rivalry between Lakwena and Kony, he adopted many of her ritual and military tactics. However, his movement was not about transcending ethnicity but rather about restoring Acholi identity and resources (Behrend 2000, 174). He also claimed to be possessed by a greater range of local and foreign spirits. Kony's insurgency began to assume a different character from 1990 onward, becoming more international, more brutal, and, arguably, more apocalyptic (Behrend 1998, 115–18; Behrend 2000, 179–200).

The LRA began to terrorize the local population with killings, abductions, and raids, accounts of which have featured in numerous reports the world over. One abductee reported that Kony had told her that the end of the world was imminent—heralded by the Gulf War—so too was the advent of the savior. He justified kidnapping children and youth so they could be rescued and live in an uncorrupted New World, grounded in the Ten Commandments (Behrend 2000, 182–83). The war has been perpetuated by lack of political will and ineffective military strategies, and compounded by a series of failed peace talks (Allen and Vlassenroot 2010). As of 2009 the LRA had retreated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was involved in brutal attacks and was being hunted down by a coalition of regional forces.


Kimbanguist Church

African Christian movements of the postindependence phase are less millennial in outlook than some of their earlier counterparts who lived in more repressive circumstances. Yet research by Anne Melice (2001) in the 1990s on the Kimbanguist Church reveals a renewed millennial thrust in the church's theological teachings as it seeks to situate the “dynasty” formed by Kimbangu and his descendants, as well as the Kongo people, and the black race as a whole, within biblical history. The ethnocentrism of this new millenarianism is reflected in the increased significance of Nkamba, the Kimbanguist holy city or “New Jerusalem.” The rituals intended to inaugurate the imminent Kongo kingdom are understandable, in Melice's view, in light of the “anomie” of contemporary Congo. Lamin Sanneh recognizes the profound impact of the European encounter on the evolution of the millennial tradition in Africa. He maintains that independent church movements, such as Zionism in South Africa and Aladura in West Africa, effected a shift to a more “moderate soteriology” from a more troubled view of the past and future (2002, 260–61).

Brotherhood of the Cross and Star

One could also highlight the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, with headquarters in Calabar, southeastern Nigeria, for its distinctive New Kingdom, New Age rhetoric and its theocratic aspirations. Talk of ascension toward a type of millennial fulfillment, beginning in 2001, was more characteristic of earlier writings by the (late) (p. 402) founder Olumba Olumba Obu (1918–2003?), but Elias Bongmba still wants to label the Brotherhood as postmillennial (2007, 112–13). Obu's role is articulated as ushering in a new reign of love. Obu Jr. continues with the same emphasis on “practical Christianity” but his leadership style is more “corporate charismatic” compared to his father's traditional prophetic status.

Masowe Apostles

The founder of the Zimbabwean church known as the Masowe Apostles, Johane Masowe (d. 1973), asked to be buried in a coffin with a glass top, “possibly because he would be able to see the Lord at the Second Coming in which he so firmly believed” (Dillon-Malone 1978, 41). In an account of one of his visions, where he was given the power of John the Baptist at his baptism, Masowe claimed he was told by Jesus “to go back to earth to drive away witches and to destroy all medicines (mishonga) because the world is about to come to an end. The different churches have failed to teach the laws that I have given them” (148).

House of Yahweh

A group with more transnational millennial connections is the House of Yahweh in Kenya (BBC News 2006). Taking its lead from the founder of the sect, Yisrayl Hawkins in Abilene, Texas, the group bunkered down in central Kenya on 12 September 2006 in anticipation of the end of the world. Several hundreds of Hawkins's followers in Kenya hid in basement bomb shelters and donned gas masks on that date. Deriving their predictions about nuclear cataclysms from their Book of Yahweh, the leaders were eventually arrested and later disappeared. Some blamed negative media coverage for the reaction of the authorities. It is interesting to note that the Kenyan group took the prophecy more seriously than its American counterpart, perhaps due to local fears and insecurities. Not long after, in neighboring Tanzania, the Seventh-day Adventist Church dissociated itself from a breakaway sect, which had persuaded its members to abandon jobs, farms and school in anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Ubwani, Jumbe, and Kagashe 2008). The group attracted media attention as they camped out at the international airport in Dar es Salaam, expecting to fly out to foreign countries to preach their message—even though they possessed no passports or tickets.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

Africa was largely unaffected by turn of millennium anxieties. There was one major exception in southwestern Uganda (Robinson 2000). On 17 March 2000, more than five hundred followers of a Catholic-related, apocalyptic movement known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) perished in a fire in their main church in Kanungu, 217 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala (Introvigne 2006; Mayer 2000).16 What looked initially like a mass suicide in this remote region was soon designated as mass murder when graves were discovered (p. 403) of people who had died violent deaths. Some suicides were also reported. The death count (to date) stands at over one thousand, many of them women and children. A significant proportion was Rwandan refugees who had escaped the genocide. Various theories and rumors still abound as to the reasons for the tragedy (Businge 2007). One of the three main leaders died in the conflagration, and the whereabouts of the others are still unknown.

The movement came into being in 1989, following apparitions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and activity by the Legion of Mary. Such experiences were common in this part of Uganda and neighboring Rwanda.17 Not all were endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church. The group moved in 1993 to Kanungu, registering in the same year as a religious nongovernmental organization. They named the site “Ishayuuriro rya Maria,” meaning “where Mary comes to the rescue of the spiritually stranded.” The movement attracted people (predominantly women and children) from various religions, classes, and professions and was the preserve of the illiterate as had been generally thought. The key figures of this very secretive movement were Paul Kashaku (1890–1991), who died before the events of March 2000; his daughter, Credonia Mwerinde (1952–2000?), a barmaid with a reputation for sexual promiscuity and renowned Marian visionary; Joseph Kibwetere (1932–2000?), a former politician and locally prominent Catholic layman; and Dominic Kataribabo (d. 2000), a former Catholic priest and college-educated theologian. The group was in contact with the local authorities over registration issues. In fact, they had even paid their taxes not long before March 2000. There were reports, nonetheless, of police ignoring appeals to investigate charges of child abuse and kidnapping in the group.

Not long after the tragedy, the department of Religious Studies at Makerere University produced a report that sheds light on the “chaotic situation” that developed in the camp when the earlier predictions regarding the end of the world on 31 December 1999 did not come to pass, and the date was reset to 17 March 2000 (Kabazzi-Kisirinya, Nkuruniziza, and Banura 2000; see also Atuhaire 2006). It remains unclear whether the final events were precipitated by apocalyptic fears, failed prophecy, or demands from members for the return of their funds and property (Mayer 2001). Several observers agree that, unlike with other groups, such as the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, where the tragic outcome was influenced by external factors (see chapter 10 by David G. Bromley and Catherine Wessinger, and chapter 11 by John Walliss, both in this volume), internal dynamics predominated in the case of MRTCG (Walliss 2005). At any rate, there were elaborate prophesies from the leaders about the impending end of a generation and future salvation of the redeemed, with the Virgin Mary coming to take the latter to heaven:

All of you living on the Planet, listen to what I’m going to say: When the year 2000 is completed, the year that will follow will not be year 2001. The year that will follow shall be called Year One in a generation that will follow the present generation; the generation that will follow will have few or many people depending on who will repent. […] The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented. (Cited in Introvigne 2006)18

(p. 404) Several scholars note how MRTCG was fueled by a global and regional network of Marian apocalyptic movements (Introvigne 2006; Kamphausen 2000; Behrend 2001, 81–82; Vokes 2005; Walliss forthcoming; see also chapter 28 by Massimo Introvigne, this volume). Not only did the group's key actors have access to Marian literature from other parts of the world, but they also produced some literature of their own, including a book, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times (1991). In arguing that the group only developed its millennial outlook in response to the “worldwide hype” about the year 2000, Richard Vokes demonstrates the centrality of this “gospel” text. He claims that the book allows the tracing of MRTCG's evolving millennial thinking, as the visions are recounted in chronological order. As he indicates, the “shift from judgement day as inchoate future possibility to impending event” (2005, 302) occurred in a group vision after 1991. The tone thereafter is darker and more apocalyptic, with predictions of rape, cannibalism, and deformed and nonhuman births. There was to be a final battle between Satan and Jesus on Earth, with only a quarter of the population being saved. Uganda was to be the “new Israel” after the judgment, with MRTCG enjoying a privileged position in the global Marian network. Vokes underscores the strategic, transformative role played by the Marian literature consumed by the group: it came from a “startling array” of worldwide Marian organizations—from Australia to Vermont. According to the former wife of Kibweteere (it was she who acquired many of these sources), many people came to the early meetings in their home just to hear readings from this literature. By 1991, the principal ideas—moral dislocation, chastisement and imminent apocalypse predicted by Holy Mary—were incorporated into their visions and teachings. The primary factor then, in Vokes's view, in the radicalization of the group, was not a response to social tensions and change, but rather the influence of the external literature and their interpretation of the urgency of the imminent end of the world.

Ugandan Catholic theologian Emmanuel Katongole suggests that the group's growing isolation from the wider Catholic community helped fuel its radicalization and vision of itself as a privileged community (2005, 129–30). Ronald Kassimir attributes the ferment in popular Catholicism, of which MRTCG and the LRA could be considered manifestations, as due to lack of grassroots inculturation, as well as the growing presence of foreign evangelical movements and local independent religious groups (1999, 251–55). The more open political environment was an additional factor, although the violence of Uganda's postcolonial history, in the likes of Idi Amin (1925–2003) and Milton Obote (1925–2005), was still fresh in historical memory. Anthropologist Heike Behrend also highlights the salience of local traditions of renewal, such as witch-cleansing movements (2001, 82–84), which aimed to create a world free from evil, again recalling Willis's notion of an “instant millennium” (1970). She also postulates that the increase in the death rate due to the AIDS epidemic, in addition to poverty and malnourishment, generated a sense of impending crisis or what she calls “internal terror.” Katongole (2005) talks of the “hopelessness and violence” of everyday life for Ugandans and Africans more generally as a root cause of the tragedy.

(p. 405) The Kanungu inferno was almost immediately compared to Jonestown and the Branch Davidians (see chapter 10 by David G. Bromley and Catherine Wessinger, and chapter 11 by John Walliss, both in this volume) by the local and world press (Behrend 2001, 81). The repercussions were manifold. The Ugandan government, encouraged by the mainline churches, started clamping down on many minority religions notably those perceived as “doomsday” groups, including several Pentecostal churches. The latter tried to turn the tables by casting aspersions on the normally unassailable Roman Catholic Church. The arrest in July 2000 of Wilson Bushara, leader of the World Message Last Warning Church, who had been on the run in Uganda for ten months and accused of embezzlement, unlawful assemblies, and sexual and child abuse, was much heralded by the media. In July 2000 Kenyan human rights groups expressed fears about the MRTCG being reincarnated in Kenya in the guise of another movement known as Choma. They appealed to the authorities to “move in and save the people of western Kenya from mass suicide that may be occasioned by the cult” (Pan-African News Agency 2000a). Several African governments (Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, and Rwanda) made it known to their populations that they were stepping up vigilance and/or control of “sects and cults.” The media seemed readier than ever to cover and comment on the questionable activities of such groups, as when Heaven's Gate members purportedly entered Kenya in 2000 to make contacts and distribute literature (Panafrican News Agency 2000b).

Apocalyptic Media: Pentecostal Style

The newer generation of charismatic/Neo-Pentecostal churches that abound in many parts of contemporary Africa are more focused on messages of personal salvation and life transformation than cataclysm and doom. However, one of Nigeria's largest churches, the Household of God Church, founded by a former popular musician, Kris Okotie, is known for its apocalyptic message. Indeed, Okotie's television program is entitled “Apocalypse” and in a major book, The Last Outcast (2001), he claims that the Antichrist will be a product of cloning, as prophesied in the Bible. The mission statement of the influential Nigerian deliverance ministry of Dr. D. K. Olukoya—the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries—includes the goal of building an aggressive Endtime army for the Lord ([2009]; see also Hackett 2011). The popular video-recordings of the sermons of Pastor (Dr.) E. A. Adeboye, the current leader of Nigeria's largest Pentecostal church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, are called “End Time Messages for the World” and advertised as “the undiluted Word of God for this end time.” In his extensive study of this organization, Asonzeh Ukah notes that the teachings are fairly conventional in terms of millenarianism: they involve Rapture, Tribulation, Last Judgment, and new heaven and new Earth for the holy and saved (Ukah 2008, 207–9).

More influential in Ukah's view is the video-film Rapture (2002), produced by Pentecostal evangelist and film producer Helen Ukpabio, which took “last days anxiety” to new heights (Ukah 2003, forthcoming). This controversial two-part film has (p. 406) been subject to censorship and litigation for its demonization of the Roman Catholic Church in depicting pre- and post-Rapture settings. Ukah uncovers the influence that the Left Behind series of novels (see chapter 26 by Glenn W. Shuck, this volume) has had on Rapture. In a visit to her office, he discovered that Ukpabio had read all the volumes before writing the film script. However, in her narrative, Armageddon begins, not in Babylon and Jerusalem, but in the chaotic and dangerous streets of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial mega-city. Ukpabio claims that is not her own interpretation of the biblical apocalypse but a divine revelation for the present age. The appeal and impact of such mass-mediated and mass-marketed apocalyptic messages are well analyzed by Ukah in relation to the insecurities and struggles of the Nigerian populace (see also Ojo 2006).19 Similarly, in his ecclesiological study of an important Ghanaian charismatic publication, God's End-Time Militia (Anaba 1997), Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu (2004) situates the message of a democratized ministry, combating the evil forces inimical to the world's redemption, against the backdrop of a revolutionary army led by J. J. Rawlings, seeking to overthrow a corrupt and ineffective “regular army” from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

Citing corruption in the churches as well as in national politics, Kenyan scientist-turned-prophet Dr. David Owuor also disseminates his Endtime prophecies via modern media technologies, using blogs, Facebook, or his Jesus Is Lord radio station. Viewed by many as a “prophet of doom,” and by others as a timely critical visionary, Owuor has been preaching a stark message of repentance and holiness since 2003. While focused on Kenya's “defiled state,” his website lists the natural disasters he has predicted in various parts of the world, including the Asian tsunami in 2004. He is also well known for organizing a National Day of Repentance in Nakuru, and in June 2009 was appointed by the Kenyan government to lead a nationwide prayer campaign following the postelection violence of 2007.

Writing of the new waves of transnational Pentecostalism in both Africa and Latin America and their emphasis on the struggle against the devil, Waldo César suggests that they have transferred postmillennial optimism to daily living. In other words, “the devil of daily life is more real than the Satan of the millennium, and must be eliminated each time he is encountered.” He considers that the “blending of everyday time and millennial time reveals in many ways the very ethos of Pentecostalism” (2001, 34–35). This is well evidenced in Filip de Boeck's fascinating study (Boeck 2001, 2005) of everyday life in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and how the book of Revelation has become an “omnipresent point of reference” (2001, 57) in the Congolese experience. He claims that most Congolese inhabit an interstitial space between salvation and doom, vividly expressed in popular art and music, and one which blurs the delineation between the three orders of imaginary, symbolic, and real. He notes that the “rapid demonization of everyday life in Congo” (59) is both countered and nurtured by religious organizations.

Droz (2001) emphasizes how the millennial imaginary that pervades Kenya's contemporary urban spaces is sustained by the historical memory of earlier millennial groups such as Mau-Mau. While the Pentecostal discourse on the timing of the (p. 407) Millennium is generally restrained—for fear of recriminations of false prophecy, it is nonetheless replete with millennial convictions about the Second Coming of Christ.


Maitatsine: Nigeria's Apocalyptic Paradigm

In December 1980 the ancient city of Kano in northern Nigeria erupted into a virtual civil war, as a result of violent clashes between the security forces and the followers of a dissident religious teacher, Muhammadu Marwa, or “Maitatsine” (“the one who damns”), as he was known. The details of Maitatsine's life, the growth of the movement, and the 1980 revolt by his followers, which led to the deaths of more than 4,177 people (including Maitatsine himself),20 and the subsequent uprisings in the early 1980s, and again in 1993, have been well documented by a number of authors (Nicolas 1981; Christelow 1985a, 1985b; Lubeck 1985; Isichei 1987; Hiskett 1987; Clarke 1987; Kastefelt 1989; Hickey 1984). Many see this incident as the turning point in terms of religious intolerance in Nigeria.21 Even today, when communal clashes occur, for whatever reason, the name of Maitatsine is invoked metonymically (Kastefelt 1989, 367; Lubeck 1985). The many and varied interpretations of this millennial Islamic or Islamist movement, and the reasons for the outbreak of violence on a scale not seen in Nigeria since the civil war (1967–70) have been discussed by the present author in an earlier essay (Hackett 2005). Here the focus will be on those accounts that foreground the millennial variable.

Central to the Mahdist tradition in northern Nigeria, argues historian of religion Peter Clarke, is that “the process of  ‘redemption,’ the onset of the millennium involves a form of defensive ‘war’ ” (Clarke and Linden 1984, 121). Mahdists seek the Golden Age of Islam by either hijra (migration) or jihad (holy war) and view its implementation as essentially an “irruption of the divine into human history in the person of the Mahdi” (109). They do not seek a revolutionary transformation of society as such, but periods of waiting and pietism can suddenly be transformed into violent action when the time is right. There was a growing awareness of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran (see chapter 35 by Jeffrey T. Kenney, this volume), and this may have inspired more aggressive tactics in Maitatsine's movement. Furthermore, the beginning of the new Muslim century—1400 a.h., or 1979 c.e.—was believed by millennialist Muslims to be the end of the world, after which all the world would be converted to Islam (Al-Karsani 1993).22 Some of Kano's leading scholars indeed saw the crisis as evidence of “Signs of the Hour,” which in Islamic eschatological thought is related to the idea that at the end of every century a mujaddid or renewer may arise to restore order (Barkindo 1993, 99). Allan Christelow (1985b, 80ff.; see also Clarke 1987) argues that there was a clear Mahdist motif operating through the `Yan Tatsine movement. He attributes this in part to the fact that Maitatsine came from northern Cameroon where several Mahdist movements had operated during the colonial period. The `Yan Tatsine, in his opinion, also bore resemblance to a branch of the Tijaniyya, known as the Hamaliyya, in that they were reclusive.

(p. 408) Moreover, the fact that Maitatsine rejected the hadith (stories about the Prophet) and the sunna (custom or example of the Prophet), and arrogated to himself the role of prophet after downgrading the status of the Prophet Muhammad to “just another Arab,” served to create an “intense religious fervor” and, simultaneously, “a frightening moral anarchy” (Christelow 1985a, 83). It was this, argues Christelow, that accounted for the distinctiveness of this movement and its appeal to those who, for reasons of youth and/or poverty, felt the need to be “different and defiant” (Christelow 1985a, 84). Others have tried to situate the `Yan Tatsine movement as one element in the wider, burgeoning phenomenon of radical religious activism. Michael Watts argues that Maitatsine's reformist, even utopian, message inscribed itself into a dynamic, discursive tradition that dated back to colonial times of debating Muslim identity and correct practice. In that respect this controversial religious leader was not, in Watts's view, an “isolated fanatic” (1996, 279).

The large numbers of West African immigrants, including Maitatsine, who was from neighboring Cameroon, fomented a number of conspiracy theories (Isichei 1987, 205). These were readily fueled by journalistic accounts, which picked up on the fears and rumors generated by this violent episode (Christelow 1985a, 69). For example, Zahradeen (1988, 75), a journalist who was involved with the coverage of the incident, writes about the purported “Jewish connection” of the Maitatsine movement, as publicly announced even by then Governor Abubakar Rimi. Zahradeen also described how Maitatsine's appearance—he had a squint in one eye—contributed to the fear that he was the “Dujal,” the one-eyed Antichrist who would fight gallantly against the true faith of Islam at the beginning of the end of the world (1988, 11).

Similarly, theories sprung up about the role of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Saudis, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or at very least, the manipulation of events by power-hungry Nigerians (see Isichei 1987, n.76–78). But many of the analyses of the movement came down to the centrality of socioeconomic factors (Lubeck 1985). Increased migration in the north, higher unemployment, poor adaptation of Quranic students, and an ethnic and cultural reaction to poorly integrated non-Hausas in Hausa Muslim society were all cited as contributory factors (Barkindo 1993; Hiskett 1987, 221–22). A disaffected class, made up of both rural and urban followers, was ripe for the antimodernist message of Maitatsine—symbolized in the ban on radios, buttons, watches, bicycles, and automobiles (see especially Watts 1996, 282). But, as Clarke notes, the Mahdists possessed no effective strategies for bringing about the period of earthly rule of Islam lasting a thousand years (1987, 108).

Concluding Reflections

In comparative terms, the African continent offers a rich tapestry of millennial and apocalyptic movements that go back at least two centuries and still emerge today. While, as in other areas of the world, they are minoritarian, they have nonetheless (p. 409) made their mark in various ways.23 Some have become paradigmatic in terms of national heritage, while others have become metonymic for dangerous, unconventional religious behavior. Unlike in some other contexts, women have played a significant role in the formation and leadership of several of these movements—reflecting their capacity to generate social power, and sometimes authority, in the face of local and colonial patriarchal structures.

There have been some interesting academic debates more generally over the weighting of internal, predisposing factors and real or perceived external pressures in precipitating violence (see chapter 11 by John Walliss, this volume; Bromley 2002; Hall with Schuyler and Trinh 2000). While recognizing that a synergy is always at work, many of the cases adumbrated above seem to point to the significance of a hostile “outside” world—whether in the form of repressive colonial regimes, ineffective postcolonial governments, or precarious quotidian existence. It is also possible that, due to these difficult social conditions, far greater loss of life has been sustained in connection with the millennial—especially the apocalyptic—impulse in contemporary Africa than in many other locations.

Another distinctive feature of the African religious landscape is the persistence of traditional forms of belief and practice, even in those millennial manifestations that are more explicitly Christian or Muslim and that ostensibly reject tradition. These may translate into ideas about the return of the ancestors or the sacredness of land. They also shape perceptions of the imbrications of the spiritual and the material, as well as religious and political activity—a not insignificant factor in the movements under consideration here, and a challenge to overreliance on secularization paradigms.

Africa's movements of millennial persuasion will continue to challenge researchers on a number of counts. Sources will remain problematic, in contrast to some other locations that are better served by archives and publications. Modern media technologies may help offset this. As stated at the outset, it is possible to differentiate those movements for which apocalyptic or millennial ideas constitute a primary marker of identity, from those which only draw on such ideas in a partial or temporary manner. But there remains the task of tracking the provenance and confluences of millennial teachings in particular instantiations. These could stem from indigenous, Christian, or Islamic sources, or a combination thereof. It is this complex interplay of endogenous and exogenous beliefs concerning future collective salvation that accounts for the challenges of categorization in the African setting. A movement might go through different phases and attract a range of labels—messianic, prophetic, millennial—in the course of its lifetime. In South Africa, for instance, prophets and movements were variously influenced by the different currents of pre- and postmillennial thought as propounded by different missionary groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Mills 1997). Several Africans abandoned the more positive, and socially and politically engaged, postmillennial outlook for more fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations, whose premillennial outlook was more in keeping with their experiences of repression and disillusionment in church and society.

(p. 410) Another area of perduring interest for scholars of African religious movements is the question of agency. What Jean Comaroff (1985, 168–69) calls the “cultural logic” of such groups, and the ways in which they may play a mediatory and transformative role in conditions of structural inequality, has also been taken up by other scholars (e.g., Fields 1985) on their “rationality,” discussed above. Comaroff argues that we should not underestimate the “cultural signification” (1985, 168–69) of the ritual and symbolic practice of these groups. In other words, neither destruction nor escapism would tell the whole story of the plight of those African leaders and their followers who chose to interpret the Endtime with greater radical urgency.

The current phase in Africa involving urbanization, democratization, modernization, and globalization seems more conducive to the persistence, if not flourishing, of millennial and apocalyptic ideas, rather than actual movements. The modern mass media are salient in this regard (see also chapter 31 by Douglas E. Cowan, this volume). They can both vilify nonconventional religious groups and sustain them through a range of apocalyptically oriented local, regional, and global cultural products (films, websites, broadcasts, tracts, books) that can be customized as appropriate by a range of consumers. GOD TV, for example, an international religious broadcasting operation in Jerusalem, with outlets in several African countries, has developed new programming on “Apocalypse and the End Times.”24 Moreover, with fears over the HIV-AIDS pandemic, all manner of social deception, corruption and poor governance, and global economic insecurities, it is hardly surprising that the millennial-apocalyptic trope is finding new life in many of Africa's (religious) public spheres.

Acknowledgments. I wish to acknowledge the research assistance of Chris Byrns and Jeremy Spiers, and the references and resources supplied by David Cook, Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, Bella Mukonyora, Benjamin Soares, and David Maxwell. I am also grateful for the feedback provided by colleagues at the University of Alberta in response to my lecture on this topic, 16 March 2009, and to Annie Blankenship for her close reading of the text.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) Due to space constraints, millennial movements stemming from the Islamic tradition will not feature as prominently in this essay as those related to indigenous forms of religious practice and Christianity. Furthermore, the African diaspora in Europe and the Americas will not be treated here, but it can be assumed that many of the contemporary African religious movements that operate in diasporic spaces facilitate the exchange of millennial ideas, literature, and related media products.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) Most present-day scholars of millennialism acknowledge the seminal work of historian Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium (Cohn 1970/1957). There is also a preference for viewing millennialism or millenarianism as a continuum, ranging from more passive, peaceful expectations about imminent, collective salvation to more active, apocalyptic Endtime scenarios (Wessinger 2000). Richard Landes (2004) argues that the latter type of movement or orientation is more short-lived than the former. Herein I employ the term apocalyptic to refer to those groups with more radical, and often violent, proclivities and to reflect local discourses on particular movements.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) Rare are studies that offer a comparative perspective on African millennialism and apocalypticism: see Sanneh 2002; Wilson 1973.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (4.) Droz (2001, 100) contends that a broader understanding of millennialism, that is to say, the expectation of a period of peace and prosperity that realizes the wishes and desires of a group, is more likely to uncover the millennial aspects of prophetic activity in a region.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (5.) This is underscored by Bengt Sundkler (1961), who also notes the small percentage of African independent churches that could be classified as messianic (1976).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (6.) David Chidester notes, somewhat ironically, that the Cattle-Killing Movement led to the recognition by some government agents that the Xhosa had a religion (Chidester 1996).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (7.) These same conditions provoked Namibian prophet Klaas Stuurman, or Hendrik Bekeer (as he was known in South Africa), into organizing “sacred warriors” for a holy war of liberation that would drive out the whites and redeem the oppressed blacks. The liberators would cross a large bridge to Germany, where they would eventually kill all whites (Dedering 1999).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (8.) Adrian Hastings considers that the emphasis of Protestant Christian missionaries on the resurrection of the dead may well have contributed to the millennial orientation of such early Xhosa prophets as Nxele in the 1820s in South Africa (Hastings 1994; Hodgson 1985, 1986).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (9.) Assimeng (1986, 71, 75) contends that this literate constituency, as well as the availability of proselytic literature, contributed to the spread of the Watchtower message. He also notes the influence, from the 1880s onward, of the burgeoning movement of Ethiopianism in South Africa, with its quest for African-led churches and religious emancipation (69–70).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (10.) Cross notes that parts of Zambia (in the 1970s) had some of the highest concentrations of Witnesses in the world (1978, 305).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (11.) In trying to explain why an American-educated leader fomented revolt, Rotberg argues that Chilembwe's disturbed mental state “encouraged him to equate the outbreak of war [World War I]with the imminence of existential doom and provoke a call to arms” (1970, 372). This complex, John Brown-type figure was killed in a skirmish with police in 1915. The Malawi currency now bears the imprint of Chilembwe's portrait, and plays about this revered figure are aired on radio and television on Chilembwe Day and Martyrs’ Day.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (12.) The (mythical) liberatory role played by African Americans during this period is attributed by Shepperson to the educational experiences of five Africans from Nyasaland who studied in black American institutions, to missionary visits by African Americans—some of whom came from radical millennialist groups in the United States, and the influence of pan-African ideologies (“Africa for the Africans” and the “Back to Africa” movement), such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (1970, 152–53). In 1921 a South African in the Transkei, Wellington Buthelezi, posed as a black American and informed his followers that all Americans were “negroes” and that they would soon come in airplanes to free the Bantu from European power and taxes (153). Jean Comaroff also examines the “structural equivalence” between the two dispossessed communities of black Americans and black South Africans and the “cultural logic” of the American Zion (1985, 177–78). She highlights the formative role played by John Alexander Dowie's Chicago-based Zion City, through its missionary work in South Africa from 1904 onward, in transmitting a new emphasis on healing and millennialism.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (13.) Assimeng notes that Adventists are now known more for their sabbatarianism than for their earlier millennial teachings (1986, 22–52, 248).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (14.) For these ideas, she draws on the work of Muhammad S. Umar (1999).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (15.) It is interesting to note how Mungiki has featured quite regularly on Western anticult websites as an example of a dangerous atavistic and apocalyptic movement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (16.) See summary of the Uganda Human Rights Commission report on the Kanungu massacre in Byamukama 2005. See also Hexham 2000 for analysis of the press reports—local and international—of varying reliability. Several of the media reports are available at

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (17.) Richard Vokes (2002), an anthropologist who worked in the region and made several visits to Kanungu following the fire, points to the significance of the location of the initial public visions of the group's main leader, Credonia Mwerinde. These occurred in the Nyakishenyi caves, one of the most important spiritual sites in the area, conferring on Mwerinde the status of medium. But it was the Virgin Mary and not the fertility goddess Nyabingi who was the purported source of her visions and auditions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (18.) An excerpt from the main MRTCG publication, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of Present Times, cited in Introvigne 2006. He also notes that similar messages came from (MRTCG-approved) visions of Kibeho visionaries in neighboring Rwanda.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (19.) The pan-African, indeed global, influence of Nigerian Pentecostals and charismatics and their cultural production should not be underestimated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (20.) According to the Aniagolu Commission of Inquiry, which was reprinted in thirty-five installments in the New Nigerian from 13 November 1981 to 2 January 1982.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (21.) In fact, the Aniagolu Report (1981, 106) reports that a total of thirty-four clashes between rival religious groups in the northern states had preceded the Maitatsine episode, in most cases requiring police intervention. The report indicated that steps had been taken from 1979 by the government in the form of an advisory council on Hajj affairs and an edict (from the Sokoto State government) to regulate Islamic religious preachers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (22.) In comparing Sudanese and Nigerian patterns of millennial Islam, Al-Karsani shows that both used the images and messages to express popular discontent and grievances but that the Nigerian form tended toward more militant action (1993, 151).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (23.) See Jennifer Wenzel's wonderful 2009 study of the literary memories of the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (24.) See (accessed 11 February 2009).