In Nigeria’s tight election, the Christian vote is key

In Nigeria’s tight election, the Christian vote is key

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, center, and opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, right, stand for a group photo with other candidates after signing an electoral peace accord at a conference center in Abuja, Nigeria, on Feb. 13, 2019. Nigeria is due to hold general elections on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Ask worshippers at St. Charles Catholic Church what they want most from Nigeria’s presidential election, and the answer is peace.

“We don’t want any more bloodshed in Nigeria,” said Everistus Suburu, vice chairman of the church in the northern state of Kano. “We are tired of (Islamic extremist group) Boko Haram.”

The presidential campaign has been largely free of the religious pressures that marked the 2015 vote when Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner, defeated a Christian president from the south who had grown unpopular over his failure to control Boko Haram.

Now, with the leading candidates both northern Muslims, the Christian vote may be decisive in sweeping the incumbent from power for the second time in as many elections in Africa’s most populous country.



Video Courtesy of DW News


Nigeria’s 190 million people are divided almost equally between Christians mainly in the south and Muslims, like Buhari and his opponent Atiku Abubakar, who dominate in the north.

Across northern Nigeria, where street scenes are rich with Islamic customs and mosques, people of different faiths have co-existed over the decades, even joining forces in recent years to fight Boko Haram, which opposes a secular Nigeria.

Yet religious tensions remain even in an election that offers no clear sectarian choice, underscoring the pervasive influence of faith in Nigerian politics.

It’s not certain which of the top two candidates Christian voters will support, or if they will vote as a bloc.

In a bit of last-minute drama, the electoral commission decided early Saturday, just hours before polls were to open, to postpone the election until Feb. 23. The commission’s chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, cited “very trying circumstances” in logistics for the balloting, including bad weather affecting flights and fires at three commission offices in an apparent attempt “to sabotage our preparations.”

The delay has deepened the sense of mistrust and frustration some northern Christians feel toward Buhari’s government.

“The major problem we have in this country is that our leaders don’t have the fear of God,” said Murna Samuel, a schoolteacher in Yola, capital of the northern state of Adamawa, complaining about the postponement. “We are in a mess. It’s like they don’t want to do this election.”

Over the years, in an informal system known as zoning, Nigeria’s presidency has tended to rotate: A Muslim from the north is succeeded by a Christian from the south. This is widely seen as key to holding the country together.

The incumbent Buhari, a Muslim, took over from Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Now Buhari is seeking a second term, and his chief opponent is Muslim. The rotation to a Christian could come after a second term for Buhari.

Both Buhari and Abubakar have Christian running mates, in keeping with tradition. Without legal backing, however, the rotational system essentially relies on the goodwill of the politicians of the day.

“I am concerned,” said the Rev. Maurice Kwairanga of the Catholic Secretariat in Yola. “If the Muslims are given a platform where there are no checks and balances, they want to turn the whole country to Islam. If you want to build a chapel, the process you have to go through is very difficult. And even if you complete the process you may not get the chapel.”

In Yola and other northern towns, killings allegedly undertaken by Muslim herders from the Fulani ethnic group have alarmed Christians, especially when no suspects are arrested.

Abubakar is expected to perform well among Christian voters in some central states, such as Plateau and Kaduna, where the problem of marauding herders is severe, said Sylvester Akhaine, professor of political science at Lagos State University.

“The issue of herdsman disturbs the Christians,” said Godswill Sambo, a barman in Yola who is a member of the Lutheran Church. “For me, I will support a person who will bring peace to Nigeria and who is opposed to discrimination. You can see that Nigeria is disunited.”

Other Christians in Yola strongly support Abubakar, noting that his companies, including a major hotel and a university, employ hundreds of people across the religious divide.

“Atiku may be Muslim, but he has opened up more job opportunities for everyone in this place,” said Sunday Abraham, a spaghetti salesman with the Dangote Group. “At least there is a sign of job creation for all in him.”

The enigmatic man who founded southern Africa’s largest church

The enigmatic man who founded southern Africa’s largest church

File 20190125 108351 qlrdt6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
ZCC members at Moria City.
Sowetan/Edward Maahlamela

Every Easter weekend, several millions of Zion Christian Church (ZCC) faithful from across southern Africa descend on “Moria city”, the church’s capital in the north of the country, for their annual pilgrimage.

The church, founded by Engenas Lekganyane in 1925, is “the largest indigenous religious movement in southern Africa.” An estimated one in ten South Africans is a member, according to University Allan Anderson, Professor of Theology at University of Birmingham.

There are two branches of the church. The main one is led by the founder’s grandson, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane (b. 1955) The breakaway St. Engenas ZCC is headed by his namesake and great-grandson.

Both of these competing branches are headquartered at Moria, two kilometres apart on the same farm on which Engenas died and was buried. They hold separate pilgrimages and other events.

The regular members of the main branch are expected to wear Star badges at all times. For their part the St Engenas members sport Dove badges. Both organisations are similar in theology – a fusion of Christianity and traditional African beliefs. They prohibit drinking, smoking and eating pork, among other practices. The Star section has a distinctive men’s organisation.

The unrelenting growth of the ZCC has essentially sidelined the traditional Protestant churches that introduced Christianity to southern Africa. In addition to their vast membership base across the region, they also control extensive business empires in areas such as transport, agribusiness and insurance.

But, even though Lekganyane was central to the redefinition of Christianity in southern Africa, his life story has been extremely difficult to track down. Few written records have survived. In addition, the ZCC has always been secretive. Members are forbidden from discussing the church with outsiders.

Church writings are restricted to members and still cannot be found in public libraries. Researchers, from the 1940s onwards, were also stifled as the church sought to maintain tight control over its message and practices.

My new book, Engenas Lekganyane and the Early ZCC: An Unauthorized History sheds light on the enigmatic figure and foundations of his church. The full biography became possible after a substantial cache of new documentation emerged about Engenas and the ZCC in the last few years.

Who was Engenas Lekganyane?

The Lekganyanes were ordinary members of a small Pedi chieftaincy living in the hills east of Polokwane. They lived on land owned by German missionaries, and Engenas grew up as a Lutheran before a political disagreement erupted over a land dispute between the mission and the tribe.

In the late 1890s the young Engenas was educated by Xhosa Presbyterian missionaries brought in to replace the Lutherans. So Engenas had a very orthodox Protestant background and education.

Engenas Lekganyane, founder of the ZCC.
Supplied by author, Author provided

Lekganyane’s education and life were completely disrupted following the outbreak of the South African War between the British and the Boers in 1899. He eventually became a migrant worker, leaving home to work in nearby Tzaneen and faraway Boksburg on municipal construction projects.

During these years he first joined Pentecostal or Zionist churches. But he was expelled from Tzaneen by the Protestant chief. Returning home in 1915 at the age of 30 he began his own church with 14 members. Within 10 years he had 926 followers and began the ZCC following a vision he had at the top of Mt Thabakgone, a now sacred hill adjacent to his village.

After a legal dispute involving the stillbirth of his illegitimate child, Lekganyane was expelled by his chief in 1930. He lived on private land thereafter, carefully maintaining his autonomy and privacy.

Making of the ZCC

Lekganyane was initially inspired by an Australian faith healer named John Alexander Dowie. He took most of his theology from the then white-led Apostolic Faith Mission a Pentecostal group he belonged to from 1910 to 1916.

He incorporated many syncretic practices taken from African tradition. The most important of these was to incorporate ancestral worship into his church, a practice that he adopted from an early Zionist named Daniel Nkonyane.

ZCC members were expected to make cash offerings to their ancestors, which they gave to Lekganyane so that he could intercede on their behalf. He also reputedly protected his members against witchcraft, crime and disease. Over time, he usurped the roles of the chiefs as the claimed major rainmaker in the region.

By 1948, his church had grown to about 50 000 members. His legend within the ZCC community has grown substantially ever since. Even though he left no writing texts behind, the ZCC has made him the focus of its sacred narrative. The story of his religious calling, and also his various claimed miracles and prophesies, are well known by all members.

One of the reasons he managed to turn the ZCC into a religious juggernaut was his financial astuteness. He acquired property and carefully used donations for expansion. Additionally, he catered primarily to migrant workers, the largest growing segment of the African population.

Engenas Lekganyane (c. 1885-1948) died 71 years ago on his private farm east of Polokwane.

During his lifetime, Lekganyane was never mentioned in print. Nor did anyone write his obituary following his rapid burial. He lived, to the end, a secretive and enigmatic existence.The Conversation

Barry Morton, Research Fellow, African Studies, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Black Canadian artists detangle the roots of Black beauty

Black Canadian artists detangle the roots of Black beauty

File 20190116 152968 1y7zphw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Detail from Mickalene Thomas’s ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires’ which is part of a show called ‘Femmes Noires’ currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection © Mickalene Thomas

Cheryl Thompson, Ryerson University

Renowned visual artist Mickalene Thomas has taken over the fifth-floor gallery space of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with her show “Femmes Noires.” Working with curator Julie Crooks, it is the first time the Brooklyn-based artist has staged an exhibition in Canada — and it is only the second time the AGO has exhibited the work of a Black woman artist.

Thomas’s exhibit is a powerful and extraordinary contemplation on the intersections of being both Black and a woman. Thomas takes inspiration from multiple art forms, movements, and histories, like Impressionism, and focuses on issues such as race, representation, sexuality, and Black celebrity culture.

As a Black woman, it is the first time I have ever walked the floors of the AGO and have seen myself reflected back at me. However, something for Canadians like myself to note is that Thomas’s visioning of Black womanhood is from an American point of view.

(The last solo exhibition by a Black woman at the AGO took place in 2010 — “This You Call Civilization?” featuring the work of Kenyan-born, New York-based Wangechi Mutu.)

Blackness in Canada has often been framed through an African-American lens. This representation (or lack of) is an issue I fully explore in my book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.

For example, one of the reasons why Black beauty culture has not received much attention in Canada until now is because the task of locating Black voices in the Canadian historical record has been and remains a difficult challenge. Across the border, there are archival collections dedicated to African Americans, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, but we don’t have anything like this in Canada.

Media circulates African American experiences

When I started researching Black beauty in Canada, most people were shocked there was enough material for me to write about in a book. The assumption was that the topic would have to focus squarely on African-American women.

For decades, Canadian cultural institutions have consumed African-American desires and fantasies as stand-ins for Black Canada. As a result, Black Canadian representations in popular culture have been rendered invisible.

Throughout the 20th century, cultural and economic practices were co-produced through the circulation of “African-Americanness” through media. From African-American TV shows in the 1970s, films in the 1980s and beyond, Canadians probably know more about the African-American experience than they do about Black Canadians because of media culture.

A staging of, ‘da Kink in my Hair’ at Theatre Calgary and National Arts Centre. The play would later grow into Canada’s first TV show created by and starring Black women.

Canada’s media culture has participated in the creation of identities that privileged African-American images, products, and ideologies. These identities originally crossed the U.S./Canada border as desires and fantasies represented in advertising and, later, television and film, and today, art.

Black Canadian women are here

When Trey Anthony’s ’da Kink in My Hair TV series appeared from 2007-09 (based on the play of the same name), it was the first comedy series created by and starring Black women on Canadian national television. The broadcast of ’da Kink in My Hair happened nearly 40 years after Julia (1968–71) in which Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to star on a U.S. sitcom in a non-stereotypical role. The representation gap between African American women and Black women in Canada spans decades.

To make up for some of this historical invisibility, this month and throughout the winter, the AGO’s “In the Living Room” series will feature Black Canadian women engaging with Thomas’s art and discussing their experiences.

‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Twice on Sundays’ by Canadian artist and portrait photographer, Jorian Charlton.
Jorian Charlton

Each talk will be set in the Femme Noires’ living room space, which is modeled after Thomas’s childhood home growing up in New Jersey. The patchwork chairs and books from African-American women authors become the art installation. Visitors are called to engage intimately with the paintings, installations, and videos on the walls but also the productive space, the living room, that birthed Thomas’s art in the first place.

The first discussion in the series, “The Dis/Appearing Black Body,” will feature portrait photographer Jorian Charlton and Shantel Miller, an artist-in-resident at Nia Centre for the Arts in Toronto, to discuss Black bodies, power, and the gaze.

Black beauty is always political

While I can say much about the differences between Black Canadian experiences and African-American ones, there are universal Black beauty experiences that unite all women of African descent. For example, one of these experiences is the caring for and discussions around Black hair. Some of these public conversations are hurtful to many Black women.

The New York-based online platform, Hello Beautiful, which targets their articles toward Black women, recently asked why Black women should have to defend wigs and weaves more than other women. The article explores why Black women are constantly asked to defend being women and all the things we do, like our hair, to feel beautiful.

On the one hand, our hair is connected to many painful childhood memories of being teased by other children (and sometimes adults) about our various braided hairstyles. On the other hand, natural hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks or cornrows (tightly braided rows of hair) might denote a Black woman’s politics, but they can also be just a hairstyle or her preference, with no political meaning whatsoever.

Black women who wear hair weaves or wigs can also be the subject of ridicule. In 2017, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was forced to apologize to California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who is African American, when he made disparaging comments about her hair on the cable news program, Fox and Friends. He described her straightened hair as a “James Brown wig.”

Mickalene Thomas, Los Angelitos Negros, 2016. Four HD video monitors: four two-channel HD videos, sound. 121.9 x 137.2 cm, 23 minutes, 18 seconds. 121.9 x 137.2 cm.
Courtesy of the artist. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018), Author provided

Black hair is constantly debated, politicized and misrepresented in media, art, and popular culture. A simple decision about wearing it natural or straightened could result in punitive action — not in America, but right here in Canada. This was the case for a waitress-in-training who lost her job at Jack Astor’s because she wore her hair in a bun, and not “down” as required by female wait staff while working at the restaurant.

Black hair stories resonate with Black Canadian women, too. But resonance is not the same as representation.

Why have Black Canadian women artists not been given the same opportunity to exhibit their work as solo artists in Canada? This question about Black Canadian artists and how Black art has been represented and circulated has become prominent in Canadian media lately.

In an article for Canadian Art, Connor Garel wondered why no Black Canadian woman has ever had a major solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Curator Ashley McKenzie-Barnes wrote an article for the Toronto Star, and argued that Canadian art fairs, public art installations, festivals, major institutions, and galleries need to make space for Black Canadian artists. She is right. We’re doing the work — now we need the space to get recognized for it.The Conversation

Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Remembering Lamin Sanneh, Yale expert on world Christianity

Remembering Lamin Sanneh, Yale expert on world Christianity

Video Courtesy of Yale Divinity School


Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, died unexpectedly from a stroke on Sunday (Jan. 6). He was 76.

In the words of Simeon llesanmi, “An African Academic Elephant has indeed fallen”— meaning that a great individual has died.

Sanneh’s scholarly contributions spanned more than 20 books as author and editor, and over 200 scholarly articles through the course of 40-plus years of academic scholarship on four continents. He represents a particular kind of scholar that is hard to come by in today’s academy: a rigorous polymath who cared about not only the theoretical work of theology and history but the everyday lives of those who believe.

Born in Gambia to a royal lineage, Sanneh grew up as a Muslim but later converted to Christianity. Earning his graduate degrees from the University of Birmingham (M.A.) and the University of London (Ph.D.), Sanneh would go on to teach at the University of Ghana, the University of Aberdeen, Harvard Divinity School and, since 1989, at Yale Divinity School. He worked with Andrew Walls setting up World Christianity Conferences and was a member of the board at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Yale Divinity School. He has served with extraordinary distinction in many areas, including holding a lifetime appointment at the University of Cambridge’s Clare Hall and holding the John Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress.

Lamin Sanneh meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Feb. 9, 2017. Photo courtesy of Yale Divinity School

In September 2018, the University of Ghana established the Lamin Sanneh Institute, which will promote scholarly research on religion and society in Africa, emphasizing the areas of Sanneh’s expertise, Islam and Christianity.

Many of us know Sanneh’s work as a pioneer in the field of world Christianity. His writings on African Christianity and Islam in Africa are important works for theologians and religious studies scholars alike. Among his many writings and books, two particularly stand out for their impact on the field of study: “Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture” and “Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West.”

In “Translating the Message,” Sanneh upends the argument that Christianity — as a missionary religion — wipes out the cultures it enters. Rather, Sanneh asserts that Christianity is unique as a missionary religion because it is translated without the language of the founder (Jesus) and invests itself in every language by forsaking the language of Jesus (Aramaic). Christianity is, according to Sanneh, a preserver rather than a destroyer of indigenous languages and cultures. In “Whose Religion Is Christianity,” Sanneh answers questions about Christianity not from a Western perspective, but from the perspective of, as he puts it, “the movement of Christianity in societies that were previously not Christian and societies that had no bureaucratic tradition in which to domesticate the gospel.”

Here lies the crux of Sanneh’s scholarship.

About 15 years ago, several of us were working on a project about the history of world Christianity. At that time, there was an academic debate over what term to use: world Christianities, global Christianity or Christianity in the non-Western/majority world.

None of those fit, Sanneh told Dale Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary, in an email. Christians outside the West had an equal claim to the word “Christianity.” They are not from a different faith.

“(T)he fight about what name to give to the subject is really a fight of the west and its surrogates to contest the right of Christians elsewhere to consider themselves as equals in the religion,” he wrote. “The countermove with the inclusive title ‘World Christianity’ is intended to force a reckoning with ‘tribal’ view of the west.”

For myself and many other students and scholars, this emphasis on world Christianity opened the doors to scholarship that was not simply focused on Western ideas and theologies. It opened the doors to new ways of thinking about the historical and present-day impact of Christianity in cultures around the world, as well as Islam and other indigenous religions.

I remember when, as a graduate student, I stumbled onto Sanneh’s book “West African Christianity.” Years later, I was delighted to meet Sanneh while I was a junior professor on a project working with world Christianity for Orbis Press. He was cordial, distinguished and welcoming to me, as well as many others.

Lamin Sanneh. Photo courtesy of Yale Divinity School

Sanneh’s loss is deeply felt among his colleagues.

“Africa has lost a great scholar and a public intellectual, whose foundational works on Islam and Christianity vividly capture the religious identities of millions of Africans,” wrote Jacob K. Olupona, professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School. “Sanneh’s scholarship transverses the two dominant religious traditions on the continent, Islam and Christianity, and has provided significant insight into how they define contemporary politics, identities and civil society.”

Olupona, writing from Nigeria, also expressed his own grief at Sanneh’s passing.

“I have lost a dear friend, a senior colleague and a fellow sojourner in the common quest for African religious space in the global religious community,” he said.

Irvin, who also serves as professor of world Christianity at New York Theological Seminary and as editor of the Journal of World Christianity, called Sanneh “one of the most effective and insightful interpreters of world Christianity in the past century.”

“He was a persistent critic of the entrenched territorial Christendom of the West and the accompanying tendency to reduce Christianity to its Western tribal forms,” Irvin said. “He never tired of asking why should he as an African be considered accountable for the failures of Western colonial Christianity. His brilliance was to see beyond the arrogance of the West to uncover a deeper spiritual truth about the faith he so deeply embodied. We have lost a major prophetic figure.”

Dana Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University, spoke of Sanneh as a “giant in the field of world Christianity.”

“His loss sends a tidal wave across multiple fields, institutions and continents,” Robert said. “He will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with him and called him a friend, as well as by people who knew him only from his powerful writings.”

Greg Sterling, dean of Yale Divinity School, said he recently gave Sanneh’s autobiography, “Summoned From the Margin,” as a gift to the school’s major donors.

“He had no idea that the gift would become the final testament of his life,” wrote Sterling.

In his autobiography, Sanneh wrote: “When someone dies, people say he or she has run out of rains. Life ends when we run dry.”

Anthea Butler. Courtesy photo

The rains may have run out for Sanneh, but his memory and scholarship will continue to refresh us for many years to come.

May he rest in peace.

(Anthea Butler is associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Congo’s Catholic church says data show clear election winner

Congo’s Catholic church says data show clear election winner

 

The Catholic church in Congo announced Thursday its data show a clear winner in Sunday’s presidential election, and it called on the electoral commission to publish the true results in “respect of truth and justice.”

The church, a powerful voice in the heavily Catholic nation, deployed some 40,000 electoral observers but could not say who the clear winner appeared to be, as Congo’s electoral regulations forbid anyone but the electoral commission to announce results.

Observers have reported multiple irregularities as the vast, mineral-rich Central African country voted for a successor to departing President Joseph Kabila. This could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

The ruling party loyalist whom Kabila put forward as his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, already has said he expected to win, while polling before the election had top opposition candidate Martin Fayulu ahead.

The electoral commission’s president said it had collected results from about 20 percent of polling stations, while some Congolese expressed doubt that the first results would be released on Sunday as expected.

“We are working hard to announce them as soon as possible,” Corneille Nangaa said.

The internet remained blocked in the country in an apparent attempt by the government to calm speculation about the results.

The United States urged Congo to release accurate results and restore internet access, warning that those who undermine the democratic process could face U.S. sanctions. The State Department noted the reported troubles on election day and said results should be compiled transparently, with observers present, so that the votes of millions of people “were not cast in vain.”

The internet outage has hampered the election observers’ work. No Western election observers were invited to watch the vote, which was meant to occur in late 2016, after Congo’s government was annoyed at international pressure amid concerns that Kabila was trying to stay in power.

“The decision to cut internet and text messages hampered the transmission of data from the field,” said Cyrille Ebotoko, technical supervisor of the Catholic church’s observer mission. “It delayed our work by three days and considerably increased the cost since everything had to be done by phone.”

Thirty-eight percent of the some 40,000 polling stations the mission observed were still missing electoral materials more than three hours after polls opened on Sunday, the mission said. And 23 percent of its observers’ reports noted that voting had to be suspended at some point because of troubles with voting machines.

Overall, however, the irregularities did not considerably impact the voting, said Father Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the church organization known as CENCO.

Shadary, a former interior minister, is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on Congolese who protested the delayed election. Kabila, blocked from serving three consecutive terms, has hinted he’ll run again in 2023, leading the opposition to suspect he’ll wield power behind the scenes until then to protect his vast wealth.

The other leading candidates were Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker in Kinshasa, and Felix Tshisekedi, son of late opposition icon Etienne and head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party.

Some 1 million of Congo’s 40 million registered voters were barred from Sunday’s election at the last minute as the electoral commission blamed a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east. Affected people in Beni and Butembo cities protested as some observers warned that not allowing them to vote undermined the credibility of the election.

The cities’ residents can vote in March, months after Congo’s new president is set to be inaugurated on Jan. 18.

Election day was largely calm. Life in the capital, Kinshasa, had returned to near-normal on Thursday, though some residents expressed frustration at the internet outage.

“We are waiting and trying to adapt, searching for places where we can still find network because we need it to work,” businessman Paul Odimba said. “I can understand the government’s decision because fake news was spread indeed, but some of us that are impacted are able to make the difference between fake and real news.”

Church leaders in Congo urge the country to go to the polls

Church leaders in Congo urge the country to go to the polls

Congo is preparing for a crucial vote to elect a successor for President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001. A successful election would mean the first peaceful transition of power for a country whose rule by dictators has been broken only by coups and civil wars.

But church leaders have put the stakes higher for Sunday’s vote (Dec. 23), demanding deeper change for Congo’s 81.5 million citizens.

“What is at stake is unity of our country, the integrity of our national territory, justice, peace and the improvement of the people’s living conditions,” said the country’s Catholic bishops, spiritual leaders to half of the population, in a statement last month.

Two years ago the bishops brokered a pact between Kabila and the opposition that allowed Kabila to remain in power until his successor is elected.

The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Now the bishops, joined by leaders from other churches, are urging their followers to turn out in large numbers to elect leaders who can defend the country, guarantee freedoms and do not steal the country’s resources, among other qualifications.

“We are urging the people to elect those who stand for progress and those (who) would not steal people’s mineral wealth,” said Bishop Josue’ Bulambo Lembelembe of the Church of Christ in Congo.

The bishops say they do not support any particular candidate but instead want the people to vote their conscience and elect a leader they deem trustworthy.

“We have told everyone to prepare to participate in the elections. We have urged them to ensure the process is carried out in a peaceful atmosphere,” Archbishop Marcel Utembi, president of the Congo Catholic bishops conference, told Religion News Service.

More than 40 percent of the country’s people are Roman Catholics, while a similar proportion is Protestant. An estimated 10 percent are Muslims, while others follow an indigenous group known as Kimbanguist.

While rallying people to the polls, religious leaders have been leading prayer vigils and preaching against the violence that has marred the electoral campaigns.

On Dec. 13, a mysterious fire burned down the electoral commission’s warehouse in Kinshasa. Police reports indicated that nearly 8,000 of the 10,000 electronic voting machines and ballot boxes to be used in the capital for the election were destroyed. The computerized voting system, purchased from a South Korean firm, has been met with mistrust after a similar system was abandoned in Argentina because it was vulnerable to hacking.

Bishop Marcel Utembi in Kinshasa, Congo, on Dec. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)

In eastern Congo, people are also dealing with an Ebola outbreak, posing a further obstacle to getting people to the polls.

“I think some people are running out of patience,” said Lembelembe. “This raising (of) tensions days before elections is not good.”

The race has attracted 21 presidential candidates, with Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, widely viewed as Kabila’s proxy, as a front-runner. The opposition has fielded two main candidates, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu.

The Rev. Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the bishops conference, stressed that the bishops only want to ensure that the election is credible.

Church leaders have urged the international community to accompany the people of Congo in this process.

“We want them to be there and tell the truth and defend the truth when the results are released,” said Utembi.