Even though Christianity was introduced to Africa by the West, Africa today is one of the largest Christian communities in the world with places like DR Congo that has some of the largest Catholic communities (31 million faithful). Moreover, tele-evangelism is on the rise with the growth of Pentecostalism in recent times. As the church maintains massive growth in Africa, so it is becoming very influential in all aspects of private and public life, including politics. One of the earliest church leaders to medley in political affairs in Africa was the venerated former Anglican Arch-Bishop of Pretoria, Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Arch-Bishop Tutu challenged the apartheid regime and supported most black movements as well as fostered the liberation of Nelson Mandela. This won him more applauds, and in 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Desmond Tutu therefore became one of the pillars of the anti-apartheid movement even though being a church leader. In more recent times, other church leaders have also voiced their view in matters of politics in Africa.
As the challenging political situation in Nigeria unfolds, some church leaders in the country have asked President Buhari not to seek reelection in 2019. The same views have been expressed by some very influential Bishops in Cameroon who have asked President Paul Biya not to present his candidature in October 2018 if he truly loves the country. More still with the worsening Anglophone crisis in the country, the International Crisis Group has asked the Catholic Church to weigh in and mediate between the government and Anglophone groups. In Chad, Catholic Bishops have criticized the holding of a parliamentary vote to decide on a constitutional amendment. While in Burundi, church leaders have asked the government to suspend the holding of the referendum for the conditions are not favourable. In DR Congo, the church has openly challenged the government and it’s organizing mass protests. All these interventions by the church have not received a favourable response from the governments and regimes concerned.
The Church Versus Governments and Regimes?
Speaking recently in Nigeria, the Chairman of the United Christian Leaders Eagle Eyes Forum asked President Buhari to forget about his second term bid because he and his party have taken Nigeria many years backward and cannot guarantee the security of Nigerians. Pastor Habu Aminchi argued that President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to honour his campaign promises. In response, some of the President’s close aides have maintained that these leaders have no right in determining the political future of Buhari. While campaigning for Presidency in 2015, Buhari promised to defeat Boko Haram by the end of 2015, yet the group is still active.
In neighbouring Cameroon, a similar called has been made by a prominent Catholic leader who has advised the 85 year old President Paul Biya not to seek reelection in October 2018 after 35 years in power. Arch-Bishop Samuel Kleda who is the President of the National Episcopal Council of Cameroon argued that Paul Biya has been in power for too long and can no longer guarantee the peace and stability of the country. Meanwhile, the Communication Minister has instead claimed church leaders are misguided. As the Anglophone crisis has metamorphosed into a violent struggle, the International Crisis Group has also called on the Catholic Church to use its influence and mediate between the government and Anglophone groups.
In 2015, the mandate of President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi came to an end and elections were to be organized as per the Arusha Accord signed in the year 2000 which prohibited any President from staying in power for more than 10 year beginning 2005. As the country is plunged into a political turmoil, the government is instead organizing a referendum to amend the Constitution which would give the President 16 more years in power. Seeing the tensed situation in the country, the Catholic Church has weighed in, calling on the government not to carry on with the project as the conditions aren’t favourable.
Chad is also facing a similar challenge as the government of President Idriss Deby Itno is seeking to amend the constitution so that it will give him more years in power in the midst of a public sector workers strike geared at securing pay increases. The amendment is being submitted to the parliament for a vote. The Catholic Bishops have criticized this procedural option and have called on the government to submit the project to the appreciation of the entire population through a referendum. As a response, the government has argued that the laws of the land give the President the prerogative to call for a referendum and that the Bishops are sowing seeds of division among Chadians.
In DR Congo, the church has not just denounced in other countries under the coordination of the Comtté Laic de Coordination (Laity Community), the Catholic Church has organized a series of protest marches against the government’s refusal to organize Presidential elections, which according to the December 31st Accord, was supposed to be organized in December 2017 without the participation of President Kabila. The church has come under heavy criticisms from the government which has asked the church to maintain the separation between politics and the church.
The Church in Secular States
In all these episodes, governments are trying to dissociate the church from political activities. The goals are to limit the church to preaching and to promote social services like schools and hospitals to the population. Moreover, these regimes and governments argue that their countries are secular in nature without the primacy of any particular religious belief. Based on this accession, the church is to stay clear of politicking as this may lead to a conflict of religions at the helm of the state which would trickle down to all every strata of the society.
Rightly said, the secular nature of these nations is enshrined in their constitutions and in most public ceremonies, the national anthem is sung in the place of prayer, which is reserved for religious ceremonies. In most cases, church leaders do not campaign for political offices or out-rightly support one leader over the other. They mostly maintain a parental role and would instead offer prayers for all rather than a particular group of persons. Moreover, it is the church which is found in the state and from the state the church gets its authorization to operate and not vice versa.
However, the church has become as important to some Africans as the state. Moreover, church leaders have become authorities not just limited to the four walls of their congregations and synagogues, but their influence goes beyond and sometimes people tend to pay more allegiance to church authority than secular authority. This is derived from their unquestionable nature and the inviolability of their office in the African perspective as well as the huge following they command as well as social services they provide.
DR Congo’s Catholic population is the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world, while about 20 percent of Chadians are Christians. In Cameroon, the Presbyterian alone Church has about 2 million followers out of a population of 22 million persons. The situation in Nigeria may even be worse as the country is virtually becoming the Christian headquarters of the globe. Some of the biggest churches in Africa and the world are found in Nigeria.
Some of these churches own and operate schools (including universities), hospitals and other social centres. Some of the best universities in DR Congo; Université Evangelique en Afrique, Université Protestante au Congo etc., are owned by the Church while in Cameroon, the Catholic Church runs the best cardiac hospital in the entire Central Africa; the Shishong Cardiac Centre.
Moreover, most politicians are members of one church or the other. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya is Catholic and most of his Ministers are also Christians. President Buhari of Nigeria is Muslim but his Vice, Yemi Osinbajo is a Christian and a Pastor himself of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Nigeria. This goes same for most African nations where religious adherence of leaders is shared between Christianity and Muslim faith. And in some cases, the very politicians seek the counsel of church leaders and even cause them to pray for their political projects. In 2015, the same United Christian Leaders Eagle Eyes movement which is castigating President Buhari today endorsed him and even presented him with a copy of the Holy Bible.
This goes to show that the church is everywhere and is involved in all aspects of life. Politics touches on the lives of the people and it impossible for the church to reshape the people without touching on some fundamentals such as politics, since people confide their hardships to church leaders including everyday life happenings. In addressing life’s challenges, the church is compelled to address political issues since they have a direct impact on the lives of its members.
Politics are everywhere and the workings of politicians affect members of the church as well as the church itself. It becomes impossible for the church to stay out of politics. Governments should instead distinguish a difference between partisan politics and real politics. The former being in support of particular parties and conquest for power while the latter boils down to management of public affairs. Being the moral authority of the land, the church should avoid (publicly) supporting one political party over the other, but must hail every good project as well as frown at every project that does not guarantee the welfare of citizens. This is what church leaders preach every day; good over evil and most often these leaders go beyond just preaching by actually providing services to the people. Therefore, it is also incumbent on the church not just to preach but compel regimes to put the welfare of the people first.