By 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, antagonistic in practice, and clashing in policy. These discussions centred on delimitation of cultural and moral boundaries that defined the operation of the church and state in the lives of the citizens they sought to govern by their respective rules and regulations that defined their existence.
Among the areas of interest forming the bulk of the debate on jurisdiction between the separation between the church and state involved exclusive rights to practice religious faith in a political environment governed by cultural laws, remittance of taxes, and extent to which the church should participate in local governance.
In most African countries, the laws of the land provides 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 emergent consensus on the right to freedom of conscience and on the need for some sort of separation between church and state.
According to governance scholars, 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, 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 have come from 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 — despite the undisputed acknowledgment of the positive contribution by religious organisations in providing public services, such as health and education especially in harder-to-reach geospatial areas that have systematic suffered government neglect.
Throughout the African continent, 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 personal lives in particular. Amplifying muzzled voices – especially in political regimes that have a historical track record of human rights violations and zero tolerance to 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 their people, while advocating for fair treatment, non-discriminatory provision of government services and equal justice for all.
It’s not only the moral stand the church in Africa has taken that gave them their legitimacy among the people they serve, but they have also been able to provide for the people the basic necessities and social services that their respective governments have not been able to through the provision of health and education services. They also have land from which they derive favourable income and their farms give employment to the jobless in society.
Where I come from in Kenya, before the advent of devolution in 2010, there was a large swathe of the country – mainly in the North – that had historically-suffered extended periods of institutional marginalization from mainstream government. There exists a running joke that the only government they knew was that of the Government of the Republic of the Church. All development projects initiated in those areas were courtesy of the partnership between local communities and religious groups mostly from outside the country. These church groups stood in the gap and extended relief in the absence of government intervention. As a result, the church gained a respected voice among these communities and their word was taken as gospel truth.
This renewed faith has led to the restoration of confidence by the general public in the church, its activities, and public proclamations on policy issues. In this regard, the church in Africa has played a crucial role in reinforcing social unity and stability among the general public, something the government cannot ignore.
This entrenched distrust of the people on their governments has led religious institutions in respective countries to deviate from their mission to spread the word of God into providing useful intervention on 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) have just been added an extra seat in the reconstituted technical panel that will be responsible for selecting 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 and a member of the worldwide ecumenical network that accounts for over 200 million Christians across the continent, the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) 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 African Union (AU) policy instrument seeking to advance democratic governance in member states.
The African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance (ACDEG) was adopted on 30 January 2007 as the African Union’s (AU) 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.
With the increasing legitimacy, the church in Africa has gained among the general population, the AU stands at a better place to harness this potential for various policy and institutional initiatives in conjunction with respective government and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs).