Remaking the African Christian Statesman

In Africa and other parts of the world, 25 May is designated, Africa Day. According to the South African government, “Africa Day is intended to celebrate and acknowledge the successes of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU now the AU) from its creation on May 25, 1963, in the fight against colonialism and apartheid, as well as the progress that Africa has made while reflecting upon the common challenges that the continent faces in a global environment.”

The preamble to the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) – the successor to the OAU – refers to, among other noble ideals, “unity, solidarity, cohesion, and cooperation,” “political independence, human dignity, and economic emancipation,” “liberation of the continent,” “peace, security and stability,” and “good governance and the rule of law”.

The AU has designated 2020, the year of, “Silencing the Guns” – one of the many objectives that feature in the AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want – “a robust framework for addressing past injustices and the realisation of the 21st Century as the African Century.”

“Silencing the guns” is about ending all violent conflicts, including gender-based violence, in Africa. Simon Allison observes as many others will have, the AU and its member states “will have to work miracles” to achieve this laudable goal by the end of 2020.

Attempts to achieve the ideals listed in the AU’s institutional framework, if not done in love, will ultimately fall short.  

The Meaning of Love for Africa’s Citizenry

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus said, “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on these two commandments. Put differently, these are the fundamental instructions that Jesus gave to every follower of Christ. They are foundational to everything that God asks of those who believe in and follow Him.

Paul describes love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For these reasons, Christians should generally be better citizens.

In Joshua 1v8 we read, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”

What then, should we expect to find in those regions or countries of the world with Christian majorities?

Christianity in Africa: The Quantity and the Quality

In 2015, three of the ten countries in the world with the largest Christian populations were located in Africa: Nigeria, DR Congo, and Ethiopia. Africa is currently home to the highest number of professing Christians in the world. Christians make up more than 45 % of the continent’s population.

Pew Research Center surveys conducted from 2008 to 2017 suggest that the world’s most committed Christians live in Africa, meaning they “pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere in the world.” Yet, much of what we see and experience in Africa does not reflect the love that Jesus modeled and commanded.

In a previous piece on the relationship between Christianity and politics in my home country of South Africa, a territory with a population that is reportedly more than 80 % Christian, I highlighted and offered possible reasons for the disjuncture that can exist between the claimed religious commitments of majority Christian populations and their lived realities.

I refer to these lived realities, broadly, as the challenges of governance. These could include, corruption, terrorism, crime, poverty and unemployment, unrestrained population growth, intrastate conflict, lack of quality education, famine, and poor health.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]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.[/perfectpullquote]

Let us consider for a brief moment, the three African countries with the largest Christian populations in 2015. Nigeria, with a population that is 58 % Christian, scores 27/100 on Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. DR Congo, where 95.8 % of the population is Christian, was home to “Africa’s First World War” (1994-2003). The country continues to struggle with conflict and security sector reform – a process that is fundamental to initiating and sustaining development in a post-conflict setting. Today, Ethiopia, a country whose population is 62.8 % Christian, is threatened by ethnic violence and forced displacement.

The Call to be ‘Salt’ and ‘Light’ in an Undeniably Political World

Speaking to disciples during His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world”.

I have argued in my writing on South Africa that the disjuncture between the number of South Africans identified as Christian and the state of South African society, suggests a failure on the part of professing Christians to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ across all spheres of society, including politics. The same applies to the rest of Africa and indeed, other parts of the world.

Politics is important because it has a daily and, potentially, everlasting impact on the well-being of every human life, created in the image of GodHunter Baker argues, “The laws of politics have their impact on human lives just as the laws of physics do.” Paul Geren (1963) writes,

“If our existence is set in a political context, Christians are called to politics, some to leadership and all to concern. To refuse this calling is to leave a gap which is both quantitative and qualitative: quantitative in that some decisions are taken in the political realm and Christians can have little effect unless they are engaged politically; qualitative in that the cutting edge of many struggles is political and the Christian cannot be engaged at the decisive edge except through politics.”

Unresponsiveness to the Call

Bob Dylan sings, the political world is a space where, “Love don’t [sic] have any place,” where “Wisdom is thrown in jail, It rots in a cell, Is misguided as hell…Where mercy walks the plank…Children unwanted,” where, “Courage is a thing of the past…Where peace is not welcome at all.”

If the political realm is as grim as Dylan describes, how then shall we redeem it, if not by being ‘salt’ and ‘light’? Dylan is accurate in his assessment, only to the degree that people, including Christians, remain unresponsive to God’s all-encompassing mandate.

Jesus asks, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” God has ordained Christians to be agents of a heavenly Kingdom on Earth. The instructions to love, to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’, and to disciple the nations, inform this mandate.

The failure of Christians to engage politics at all, or to engage politics without God’s word at the forefront of their thoughts and deeds (Joshua 1v8 and Mathew 4v4), is a failure to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ in a highly significant and pervasive sphere of human relations.

The Christian who refrains from engaging the political fails to exploit fully the opportunity to influence for Christ and extend His kingdom. The Christian who does engage politics, but fails to do so biblically, fails to bring his or her being and God-given agency fully under the lordship of Christ. It is not enough to say, “Jesus is my Saviour.” He must also be Lord over my political thinking and my political doing. He must be Lord over my political being.

The failure noted above, for which there may be a number of reasons in a given country, must form part of any explanation of the incongruence between the large numbers of professing Christians in Africa and the challenges of governance experienced in many parts of the continent.

This is not to deny the impact of Africa’s colonial history, the restrictions on freedoms under many of Africa’s post-colonial governments, and the continued impact of foreign actors on the well-being of Africa’s people.

The responsibility to exercise faith and to be salt and light in the political sphere rests with every follower of Christ, irrespective of geographical location, political circumstance, or the degree of influence that accompanies his or her occupation or socio-economic standing.

However, to focus our attention exclusively on this responsibility of Christians broadly, with the hope of overcoming challenges of governance, is to deny the substantial influence exercised by those occupying positions of political power, irrespective of their faith. In the midst of Covid-19, for example, we are reminded of the bearing that governments have.

The Significance of Political Leadership

The responsibility of all Christians to engage politics and to do so according to God’s Word, even in instances where it is exercised faithfully in a country by a meaningful number, does not negate necessarily, the negative impact of political leadership that is motivated by anything other than a sincere desire for the well-being of people.

Hypothetically speaking, it is possible for a head of state or government, even a professing Christian, with sufficient coercive force at his or her disposal, to deny the legitimate interests and potential impact of a politically active and biblically aligned Christian majority.

If, as John Maxwell argues, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” it stands to reason that the well-being of nations will rise and fall depending to a substantial degree at least, on the nature and quality of their political leadership. The Bible and secular sources attest to this.

Proverbs 11v14 reads, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.” In Proverbs 29v2, King Solomon writes, “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked rule, the people groan.”

In his commentary on Isaiah 3v1-4Maxwell writes, “God had a strategy for judging Judah, and part of His judgment involved removing good leaders from the nation. No organisation or nation can prosper without good leadership. People suffer from poor leaders at the helm. God knew the way to impact the nation was to change its leadership.”

Jo-Ansie Van Wyk argues, “Africans are some of the poorest and least developed people. In order to change these conditions, African leaders have to make a difference and pay more than mere lip service to the idea of an African Renaissance.” Hellicy Ngambi believes, “the success or failure of every nation is a true reflection of its leadership.”

Chester Crocker writes, “In Africa, as in every region, it is the quality and characteristics of governance that shape the level of peace and stability and the prospects for economic development. There is no more critical variable than governance.”

While addressing Christian leaders at a prayer breakfast in Harare in 2017, Zimbabwe’s incumbent president said, “If we, in leadership positions, as the people of influence within our nation, conduct ourselves with righteousness, continue upholding justice, honesty and peace, then the entire nation will be transformed for the better.” Have truer words been spoken by an African president?

Due to their positions and enhanced access to resources, Africa’s statesmen generally, but heads of state and government, in particular, yield greater political influence. Note, for example, how the Constitutive Act of the AU begins, “We, Heads of State and Government.”

For Andre Mangu, “Of all forms of leadership…political leadership – in particular in a nation-state – occupies a special position because it is vastly more visible and, ostensibly at least, more important.” He agrees, however, that, “Although there are many political leaders at all levels of power, the most important are heads of state and government.”

This truism is not unique to Africa, but in a continent where institutions of collective (democratic) governance remain relatively underdeveloped, the influence of a head of state or government becomes paramount. Crocker writes, for example, that, “in Africa, where the rule of law is in competition with the rule of men, leaders play a strikingly critical role, for good or ill.”

The Performance of Africa’s Political Leadership

With the influence that accompanies political office comes great responsibility. We read in Luke 12v48, “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.”

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 recognizes 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 well-being of an entire population, and not just one demographic or a select few.

An online search for media reporting on Africa’s fifty-seven existing heads of state and government, reveals that fifteen of these individuals, all of whom are men, identify as, or are identified as, Christian. Leaders included are those of EthiopiaBurundiRepublic of CongoGhanaKenyaLiberiaMalawiNamibiaSierra LeoneSouth AfricaSouth SudanTanzaniaUgandaZambia, 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 does it 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 4v18 and Proverbs 29v2, 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,” 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 of 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 fifteen 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 fifteen 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 Implications

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 African 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.’

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]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.[/perfectpullquote]

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 await 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 23v1, NIV). 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,” P.O. 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 accounts 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 the 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.

Craig Bailie lectures Political Science in the Stellenbosch University School for Security and Africa Studies. He holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He writes in his personal capacity.