Church and State in Africa
Charles Prempeh argues that the while the church and state are involved in advancing development in Africa, the church should not be blamed for the ills of Africa.
Africa, particularly the so-called sub of the Sahara, has been independent for the last six decades. During the struggle against colonialism, visions were birthed that inspired many Africans to persevere in the struggle against colonialism. The definition of Africa was framed against the racial Other – the European colonisers. Consequently, in the fight against colonialism, the colonisers were framed and conceptualised as the cause of all the challenges that had burdened the continent. The popular refrain that came to animate the struggle for self-determination was "Get rid of the whiteman and economic prosperity would follow." In fact, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was so upbeat about the prospects of decolonisation that he said "Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things shall be added unto you." This obvious inversion of the Bible was to invest hope in self-determination. While it showed the Bible’s influence on the nationalists, it pointed to the hope that independence would be accompanied by economic prosperity. In short, political independence and economic prosperity were considered coterminous.
The aspiration and conflation of political independence and economic prosperity that sustained the anti-colonial struggle appears not to have been realised. Six decades of political independence, the continent of Africa is burdened with some developmental challenges. These challenges include poor sanitation and squalid living conditions, illiteracy, extreme levels of poverty, low-intensity violence in some areas, and famine. Equally true is that the absence of the colonisers has resulted in retribalisation in some African countries, leading to prolonged unrest.
The underachievement of Africa has attracted the concerns of some prominent individuals. Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said that Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. Ali Mazrui, a renowned African scholar, was apt in observing that Africa is the richest continent and yet poorest. The paradox of Africa continues to remain enigmatic in the minds of many individuals.
Several individuals have diagnosed Africa's predicament. Scholars like Jared Diamond have pointed to the geographical location of Africa as one of the reasons for the continent’s multiple challenges. According to this geographical determinism, the abundance of “natural resources” on the continent does not stimulate Africans to think creatively. This argument is predicated on the assumption that necessity is the mother of invention. Consequently, it is assumed that if Africa were to have a scarcity of resources, Africans would be compelled to think creatively and innovatively.
Certainly, some Africanists have observed that the geographical determinism theory remains oblivious to the totalising impact of slavery and colonialism on the continent. For most of these Africanists, slavery denied Africa the benefit of its human resources, while colonialism exposed the continent to external aggression and exploitation. Consequently, slavery and colonialism are said to have visited epistemic, cultural, and economic injustice on Africans.
Economic challenges and the rise of Neo-Pentecostalism
Amid all these discussions is the place of the church. Since the last few decades, many scholars, including Philip Jenkins, Andrew Walls, and Kwame Bediako, have observed that the centre of gravity of Christianity has progressively shifted from the Global North to the Global South, including Africa. Christianity has made its home in many African countries. This is to the extent that the force of secularisation has not undermined the pervasiveness of Christianity on the continent.
Christianity remains one of the popular religions in Africa. Its pervasiveness in the face of the continent’s underdeveloped has provoked many questions. In the last few years, some groups have emerged who are challenging the relevance of the church in Africa. In Ghana, a humanist group, known as The Common-sense Family, led by a young man called Avraham Ben Moshe, is contesting the relevance of Christianity. This group is questioning, not just the truths of Christianity, but the role of the church in birthing development. Elsewhere in Nigeria, some of the youths are contesting the theological basis of tithing.
The lifestyle of a few of the leaders of the so-called charismatic churches has also raised concerns about the place of the church in the rubric of development in Africa. Since the 1970s, the rise of the charismatic churches (or neo-Pentecostal groups) on the continent has come along with the wealth and health gospel. Given the economic challenges of the 1970s in Africa, the Prosperity Gospel resonated with the aspirations of most Africans. Indeed, in the face of the economic downturn in Africa in the 1970s, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), collectively known as the Bretton Woods Institutions, compelled most African states to implement neoliberal policies. These policies fundamentally required African leaders to remove subsidies on agriculture, education, and health in the 1980s. The result of this was the deepening of poverty on the continent.
It was in the acme of these economic challenges that some of the charismatic leaders, including Benson Idahosa and Nicholas Duncan-Williams of Nigeria and Ghana, respectively propagated the Prosperity Gospel. These leaders encouraged Africans to invest in faith and trust in the Lord. Some of them also established themselves as “Big Men” who could connect their church members to the political elites. But to demonstrate that these leaders are the epitome of the prosperity they preached, some of them later invested in ostentatious living. Over time, especially since the 2000s, some of these leaders, including Bishop David Oyedepo, have expressed opulence in owning private jets.
As these individual church leaders demonstrated opulence in the face of grind poverty, some individuals have raised concerns about the role of the church in bringing development to Africa. In Ghana, since 2017, there have been discussions inviting the churches to pay taxes. This discussion has become part of the political agenda as most of these charismatic churches involve themselves in economic activities, such as selling anointing oil, handkerchief, and Florida water.
But it must also be mentioned that since the re-democratisation of Africa in the 1990s, most of the churches have invested in social facilities, such as schools, clinics, and recreational centres. Some of the churches also offer scholarship packages to their members and people in their constituency to pursue higher education.
The Church and Africa’s Predicament
Despite the role of the church in supporting development, it is fashionable for some individuals to continue to critique the church for the ills in Africa. One of the major burdens of Africa's development is economic and political corruption. Corruption has robbed Africa of socio-economic development. But given the increasing number of Christians on the continent, some of whom occupy offices that are accused of corruption, the church has become the whipping boy in the discourse on corruption.
While it is true that corruption remains a major challenge in Africa, it is preposterous to blame the church. This is precisely because the church does not control the instrument of governmentality to punish members who are involved in corrupt practices. The logic of secularisation in contemporary governance in Africa is such that the church and state operate on different political spheres. While the church wields influence on its members, the church does not have juridical powers to enforce its teachings.
It is becoming common practice for the churches in Africa to speak against corrupt practices. But the church is unable to apply force in compelling its members to comply with the rules of governance. The best most of the churches are involved in is to excommunicate members who evidently flout the rules of the land. Beyond ex-communication, the church could report such members. But it is the state that has the judicial role and prosecutorial powers to arraign corrupt members.
I specifically argue that the church is not obliged to perform the duties of the state and the state is not expected to perform the duty of the church, though sometimes there are overlaps. At least from the perspective of the church, its primary duty is evangelism – framed around shaping the moral lives of its members, while social and economic development activities come secondary. The state, on the other hand, is mandated to provide a legal framework to govern the lives of its citizens and also pursue developmental activities to meet the needs of its citizens. The church is not to usurp the role of the state and the state is not expected to supplant the church.
The failure to see this boundary, which may not be neatly defined, because of the developmental challenges in Africa, has resulted in some individuals – including church members and politicians – accusing the church of doing little or nothing to push for the socio-economic development of the continent. This implies that while the state and the church may complement each other in advancing the development of Africa, the two institutions are not the same in terms of their primary responsibilities. But certainly, the separation between the church and state has been tense and sometimes conflictual especially as the church and the state seek to cross the lines of demarcation to invade each other’s sphere of influence.
I have pointed to the need to nuance the accusations some individuals level against the church for Africa’s underachievement. Most specifically, I have argued that the church and state are separated, though not mutually exclusive, in the roles they perform to advance the progress of Africa. But in all of this, however, the church needs to intensify its role as the moral conscience of society. The state is responsible for passing laws to regulate the activities of citizens in the public sphere. But since the law and morality are not necessarily the same – the law governing public actions, while morality governing one’s conscience – the church must act as the moral agent of society. As part of registering its contribution to the socio-economic development of Africa, the church must provide the moral compass for individuals. As the church engages in this moral restitution of its constituents, chances are that corruption, a nagging challenge in Africa, would be drastically reduced. This would most likely pave way for Africa to take off in its quest for socio-economic transformation.
Image: Ghana President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo (image from Ghana News Agency)