Africa’s ‘Christian’ statesmen and the Africa we want (Part 2 of 2) — Craig Bailie

RSA President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed African Union (AU) members in his role as chairperson on March 26 2020 on the eve of South Africa’s national lockdown. He later spoke with G20 members to assess the global cooperative effort in the fight against the coronavirus (PHOTO: The South African/Flickr).

See Part 1 of this article

The performance of Africa’s political leadership

With the influence that accompanies political office comes great responsibility. We read in Luke 12:48: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (ESV).

Indeed, both in historical and contemporary times, great demands have and will continue to be placed on those entrusted with the task of governing the respective territories that altogether constitute the African continent.

These demands have originated not just from the people over whom political leaders govern, but also from circumstances of both a historical and contemporary nature. Crocker recognises that “African societies are exposed to especially severe pressures, and governments must operate in an environment of high social demands and limited resources and capacity with which to meet them”.

Africa’s heads of state and government have a mostly negative record of meeting these demands and so, analyses of Africa’s post-colonial political leadership have been less than impressive.

Mangu writes: “Unfortunately, in many African countries leadership has been (and still remains) power by force used against the people.” Samuel Makinda titles his book chapter Africa’s Leadership Malaise and the Crisis of Governance. For John Campbell: “Poor political leadership informs the bad governance that is Africa’s greatest barrier to social and economic development”, and according to Sam Adeyemi, Africa’s problem is leadership. These are only a few citations that reveal the largely negative experience of political leadership in Africa.

Are Africa’s ‘Christian’ statesmen set apart?

If based on the command of Christ to love others, we should expect Christians to be better citizens, it follows that we should also expect Christians to be better statesmen.

Since the opportunity to exercise the love that Jesus commands grows with an increasing sphere of influence, it stands to reason that Africa’s Christian politicians, but more especially heads of state or government who profess to be Christian, have a significant opportunity and responsibility to share God’s love through governance that shows concern for the wellbeing of an entire population, and not just one demographic or a select few.

An online search for media reporting on Africa’s 57 existing heads of state and government, reveals that 15 of these individuals, all of whom are men, identify as, or are identified as, Christian. Leaders included are those of Ethiopia, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Do these African statesmen reflect anything different from the negative assessments that dominate analyses of Africa’s political leadership? Do they reflect sincere care for people in the manner that they govern their respective countries?

The criterion for assessment

Time and space do not allow for an in-depth discussion on assessing governance in Africa, nor do they allow for considering Africa’s former ‘Christian’ statesmen. As far as criteria for assessment is concerned, the broadest and arguably the most important criterion is freedom.

Maxwell states: “Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others”. Dennis Peacocke argues: “The only truly legitimate goal of all government is the physical protection of its citizens’ lives, property, and civil rights, and the empowerment and strengthening of their capacities for self-government and freedom under God”.

Based on Luke 4:18 and Proverbs 29:2, is it fair to accept that in countries with “Christian” heads of state or government, there should be greater levels of freedom? Since Jesus said“The tree is known by its fruit” — Luke 6:44, — is it fair to assess the governance of supposedly Christian heads of state and government, according to whether their terms have resulted in more or less freedom for their people?

What we see regarding freedom in Africa

If God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, and His Son commands that we love God and our neighbour, it follows that the defining feature of a Christian statesman is self-sacrifice. In this trait, we will find love, humility and a willingness to serve.

Instead, what we often see in Africa’s ‘Christian’ heads of state and government is the domineering leadership that Peter cautioned the elders of the Church in Asia Minor against – the kind that stifles human freedom.

The CIVICUS Monitor is an online tool that measures the freedom of civic space in countries around the world. It defines closed civic spaces as “contexts where state and non-state actors create an atmosphere of violence and intimidation, and kill, detain, persecute and injure people who simply exercise their right to assemble, express themselves and associate”. In 2018, half of the world’s closed civic spaces were located in Africa. Of these countries, the majority had heads of state or government who identified as Christian.

A study of the 15 states listed above, using the Freedom House Freedom Index to determine levels of freedom over the period in which their incumbent leaders have been in office, reveals a mostly negative correlation between supposedly Christian heads of state and government and experiences of freedom in their respective countries. In other words, most of the societies across the 15 states have experienced declining freedom under their “Christian” political leaders.

This finding is based on a brief inquiry, using only one measure of freedom. Whether the use of other measures, such as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, the Human Development Index or the measures employed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the CIVICUS Monitor, will reveal a similar outcome, is yet to be determined.

The significance and implication”

What can we conclude about the experience of freedom that Africa’s citizens have had under “Christian” statesmen?

One possible conclusion is that leaders who identify as Christian, and under whom freedom has eroded, are not Christian and that any expectation of governance founded on an appreciation for human dignity, rooted in the truth that God created human beings, is misplaced.

Borrowing from Karl Marx, Mpho Matheolane, writes: “Religion continues to be the ‘opium for the masses’ used to perpetuate the causes of politicians and meet their own ends – while sprouting convenient falsehoods of how it is ultimately the people that their actions aim to serve.”

The political manipulation of religion has implications for true believers, who, because of refrain from politics on the part of their church leaders, have not been properly trained and equipped to discern the false witness of a prospective office bearer or to act, by whatever godly means necessary, on that person’s negative influence once he or she takes office.

In a recent case on social media, for example, a widely known South Africa-based missionary described South Africa’s former apartheid-era president, PW Botha, as: “A real statesman. A genuine Christian. Our last real president. Honoured and greatly missed”.

It would be disingenuous to deny that many Africans do not have the kind of opportunities to influence government, as are evident in my home country of South Africa, for example. Nevertheless, Christians whose freedoms are restricted by the state must be encouraged to develop an awareness of their faith-based responsibilities when it comes to politics. The question is this: How do I, as a Christian, support, challenge and hold my government accountable, even if my government is less than democratic in nature?

One well-known Christian life that offers an answer to this question is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German evangelical pastor and theologian whom Hitler’s Nazi regime executed for expressing dissent against the state.

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people – the shepherds of my sheep – for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,’ says the Lord” — Jeremiah 23:1 (NLT). The responsibility to hold authorities to account is biblical and it does not end and begin with leaders of the church, as much as some political leaders would like this to be the case.

In his article on Critical prophecy and Political Leadership, PO Abioje writes: “There is hardly any doubt that political leaders are usually prone to abuse of their positions and they need to be reprimanded and lampooned.”

Whether Christians have the authority to rebuke and hold secular political leaders to biblical account is a contested issue. See, for example, the differing views of Joe Boot and Robert Blair. I would contend, however, that a political leader who claims to be a Christian, also claims to be a member of the Church, and should, therefore, expect accountability from fellow Christians, based on biblical principles of governance of course.

In holding those in authority to account, however, Christians will do well to remember that all are created in the image of God and, indeed, all have fallen short of the glory of God.

Ultimately, the problem of poor political leadership or statesmanship is rooted not in a particular culture, ethnic group, geography or even in the vocation of politics. Instead, this challenge results from the reality of an inherently flawed human nature, that, “unbridled” by the transcendent values of God, will inevitably run amok with the power at its disposal.

Another conclusion may be that some politicians, while Christian, have not been properly discipled and biblically trained to govern. This failure speaks again to the need for the Church to take an active role in preparing its members for living in a political world.

It is certain for now, and based on the two possible conclusions noted above, that Africa’s Christians must take a greater interest in and develop greater concern for politics while taking care to engage the political in a manner that reflects a love for God and for one’s neighbour.

For a start, and not just because they face many obstacles, but also because we have been instructed, Christians must commit to keeping Africa’s political leaders of all faiths in prayer. This is a show of love.

Without love, Africa Day and all that it celebrates and commemorates will be but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.


Comments are closed.