Thanks to the increasing legitimacy of the church among the general population in Africa, the AU should leverage the church’s influence in promoting various policy and institutional initiatives, argues Carole Obure.
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, evolving European societies wrestled with determining exactly what cross-cutting roles the church and state should play in each other’s spheres of influence without conflicting in doctrine, being antagonistic in practice, or clashing in policy.
These discussions centered on the delimitation of cultural and moral boundaries that define the roles of the church and state in the lives of the citizens they sought to govern. The areas of interest forming the bulk of the debate on jurisdictional separation between the church and state are: exclusive rights to practice religious faith in a political environment governed by cultural laws; the remittance of taxes; and the extent to which the church should participate in local governance.
In most countries in Africa, the laws of the land provide for a clear demarcation between the church and the state; with their relationship continuing to be an interesting thematic area in political philosophy, despite the emerging consensus on the right to freedom of conscience and on the need for some sort of separation between church and state.
According to the Kenyan governance scholar, Gabriel Oguda, “one of the reasons why this topic will not fade away is that religion is a major contributing factor to individual moral choices; including the hot topics on sexual and reproductive rights, the death penalty, and political choices during elections.” Thus, it is probably inevitable that religious commitments will sometimes come into conflict with the demands of politics, providing a strong case for the involvement of religious leadership in all spheres of mainstream governance in Africa.
However, whereas there has been an increasing need by governments in Africa to involve religious leadership in the political affairs of their respective countries, we are in a non-aligned era where regional bodies and other decision makers in government had systematically ignored the impact and influence of religion among citizens of countries in Africa. This is despite the undisputed acknowledgment of the positive contribution of religious organizations in providing public services such as healthcare and education, especially in harder-to-reach geospatial areas that have systematically suffered government neglect.
Throughout the continent of Africa, case studies abound of instances where the church has stuck its neck out, speaking truth to political power and being the voice of the voiceless, at a greater risk to their organizational reputation in general and the personal lives of the clergy in particular.
Amplifying muzzled voices— especially in political regimes that have a historical track record of human rights violations and zero tolerance for dissent—is not for the faint of heart. For a long time, the church in Africa has played the diplomatic role of an impartial arbiter between the government and its people, while advocating for fair treatment, non-discriminatory provision of government services and equal justice for all.
It’s not only the moral position of the church in people’s affairs in Africa that gives it legitimacy among the people; rather, it is the fact that the church has been able to provide for the people the basic necessities and social services that their governments have not been able to provide. In some cases, they also own farmlands, through which they provide employment to the unemployed in society.
Where I come from in Kenya, before the advent of devolution in 2010, there was a large swathe of communities that had historically suffered extended periods of institutional marginalization from the government. The neglect was so great that there was a funny joke that the only government the people of the region knew was that of the Republic of the Church.
Therefore, all development projects in those areas were courtesy of partnerships between local communities and religious groups, mostly from outside the country. In the absence of government interventions, these church groups filled the gap, offering relief services. As a result, the church has become a respected voice in these communities, and its word is taken as gospel truth.
This has led to a high-level of confidence among the general public in the church, its activities, and public proclamations on policy issues. In this regard, the church in Africa plays a crucial role in reinforcing social unity and stability among the general public, something the government cannot ignore. The entrenched distrust of the people in their governments has led religious institutions across the continent to deviate from their primary mission of spreading the word of God and instead provide useful intervention in crucial areas of governance.
In most African countries, for example, the formation of interfaith committees has been an effective advocacy tool against unfair government practices and a safe vent for citizens with alternative voices from being harassed by the state. A majority of governments in Africa have recognized this critical contribution by the church in mainstreaming citizen voices in government policy. In Kenya, for example, the Inter Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK) has just been given an extra seat in the reconstituted technical panel that will be responsible for forming the new electoral body that will oversee the next elections in 2027.
Other faith-based institutions like the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), a continental ecumenical body that accounts for over 140 million Christians across the continent, are well placed to play an advocacy role in promoting the continental commitments contained in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), the key policy instrument of the African Union (AU), to advance democratic governance in member states.
ACDEG was adopted on January 30, 2007 as the African Union’s main normative instrument to set standards for better governance across the continent with the objective of enhancing the quality of elections in Africa, promoting human rights, strengthening the rule of law, improving political, economic and social governance, and addressing the recurrent issues relating to unconstitutional changes of government in the continent.
Thanks to the increasing legitimacy of the church among the general population in Africa, the AU should leverage the church’s influence in promoting various policy and institutional initiatives, in conjunction with the respective governments of its member states and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs).
Carole Obure is a regional integration consultant. The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect African Newspage’s editorial policy.
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