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The Bishops and the Ballot in Africa

“The Ballot or The Bullet” is the title of the public speech delivered by Malcom X on April 3, 1964 at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. He claimed that African Americans have the right to vote. In many countries in Africa, that right is not denied but the conditions for fair elections are far from being fulfilled. In many African countries, Catholic Bishops call for the reform of the electoral process. This paper is an analysis of the action of the Bishops during the electoral crisis in some African countries:  What do they do? and what questions can we raise from their actions?

What is the mission of the Church in Africa and what is the position of the Bishop within that Church? Pope Benedict XVI defines the Church in Africa as a sentinel to watch over men and women in their struggle for a better life. “The Church,” he wrote, “feels the duty to be present wherever human suffering exists and to make heard the silent cry of the innocent who suffers persecution, or of peoples whose governments mortgage the present and the future for personal interests”(Africae Munus, 30). In a tormented continent, not only does the Church stand prophetically at the side of the oppressed, but she also carries on the mission of giving a reason for the hope she bears within her (Africae Munus, 30). How does she operate during the threatening period of controversial elections? In response to the question, we focus on the leading role of the Catholic Bishops during the elections. One may object that the Church is bigger than this caste of prelates, but there is no Church without the Bishops. Pope Benedict XVI quotes Saint Cyprian stating in the middle of the third century: “The Church rests on the bishops, and all her conduct follows the direction of those same rulers” (Africae Munus, 101). As a human institution, the Church is run by people. Concerning elections as a political matter, the Bishops act like leaders of religious communities.

These communities constitute the countries where elections are taking place. This year, twelve African states have gone or will go into the electoral process (presidential, legislative, or parliamentary): Togo (February 22), Burundi (May 20), Malawi (June 23), Ethiopia (August 29), Guinea (October 28), Seychelles (October 22-24), Tanzania (October 28), Ivory Coast (October 31), Burkina Faso (November 22), Ghana (December 7), Central African Republic (December 27), Niger (December 27). Normally elections are an opportunity for political and open debate among citizens and any discisison is legitimate. But in Africa, there is a bad pattern of the elections: falsified enrolment, rigged elections, constitutional change, illegal third term for the incumbent president. Democracy in Africa suffers from personal interests of political leaders. In the post-synod exhortation, Africae Munus, Pope Benedict was clear about and aware of elections: “If conducted well, elections call forth and encourage real and active participation by citizens in political and social life. Failure to respect the national constitution, the law, or the outcome of the vote, when elections have been free, fair and transparent, would signal a grave failure in governance and lack of competence in the administration of public affairs” (Africae Munus, 83). Thus, the Pope invites the Bishops to act with the State for reconciliation, justice and peace (Africae Munus, 81) and implicitly to resist government authorities and public and private institutions that don’t build up the common good (Africae Munus, 81). What a delicate mission !

How did the Church carry out that mission over the last three years? Four countries illustrate the complexity of the issue: DRCongo, Ivory Coast, Togo and Guinea – Conakry.

In the DRC, elections took place in December 2018. The Catholic Church, with her observers, received the results and warned the incumbent president to comply with the truth of the ballots. But President Joseph Kabila ignored the will of the Congolese electors and the warning of the Episcopal Conference (CENCO). He came up with his favorite candidate Felix Tshisekedi. The Episcopal Conference refuses to accept such a verdict from the Constitutional Court. But the Bishops of Kasai (the province of origin of the new President) celebrated the nomination of their son. Msgr Gerard Mulumba, the uncle of the nominated president, was appointed head of the Civil House of the President. In the end, bishops gave up on the truth of the ballots and complied with the new regime despite the evident fact of electoral fraud.

In Ivory Coast, the people still live with the stigma and painful memories of the 2010 war. In Abidjan on February 8 this year, Cardinal Jean Pierre Kutwa called for a day of prayer, but the politicians warned him about a potential clash. He backed down. When President Alassane Ouattara announced his candidacy for the third term, Cardinal Kutwa declared that the candidacy of Ouattara was unnecessary. The Opposition declared it illegal. But the President went on and eventually won the elections. He arrested the opposition trying to install a government of transition. For the Cardinal, Ivory Coast was more in need of reconciliation than elections.[1]

In Togo, the Eyadema family has run the country for more than half a century, and suffers from a lack of public confidence. On February 22, the incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe was declared the winner of the election with 72 percent against the 18 percent of his opponent Agbeyome Kojo. But 89 year-old Archbishop Philippe Fanoko Kpodzo of Lomé urged the people to “rise up as one and make a final assault on this clan of thieves.” The retired bishop was placed under house of arrest.

In Guinea, on August 15, the Archbishop of Conakry, Vincent Coulibaly, reached out to the political leaders involved in election-related violent conflict and urged them for an inclusive dialogue for peace: “I beg the government and the opposition to put Guinea above all personal interests. No injustice, no attack on people can remain indifferent in the church’s eyes.” The incumbent president Alpha Condé decided to run for a third term. A constitutional change cancelled the two-terms limit. He won his third term.

As we can see, bishops have spoken up against fraud, violence and arbitrary imprisonment. But sometimes the truth of the ballots could not prevail over the realism of power politics. More often the sharp radicality of the Gospel seems less effective than the flexible ethics of responsibility. An external observer may ask these questions:

-Moral extrinsicism: Bishops write pastoral letters that are read in parishes without any follow up. In these letters, they proclaim that they stand at the side of the victims, but they don’t weigh the political consequences of such a position. In order words, on one hand, they claim to be at the frontline of the battle for human dignity; on the other hand, they back down, arguing that the Church does not do politics. Such moral extrinsicism weakens the Church and makes the Bishops less credible: they enjoy the omlette of power without breaking the egg of struggle. They express the power of the structure (institution) without accepting the internal structure of power. Their idealism is fruitless.

-Political realism: politicians are Machiavellian. They see religion as a mean for an end (power). Machiavelli never brought God onto his philosophy. His advice to the Prince was that pretending to be pious is a good thing to keep the masses happy. Politicians use religion when it helps them to grab power and to keep it; otherwise, the Church is a social force that must be tamed. The Congolese Conference of Bishops was used by a cynical man in power to legitimate his controversial extension;

Ontological primacy of agonistics: during the elections, there are quarrels, clashes, violence. Bishops call for reconciliation in an irenic language and approach. But elections are in the conceptual fields of domination and power, even when we take the option of depoliticizing social relations. Nevertheless, the ontological primacy of antagonism remains. At the heart of a pluralist society there are conflicts, and the results of these conflicts are not always negative. The question is not about yearning for reconciliation; rather it’s about learning to live with our intractable differences, our conflictual interests. To the pastoral agenda of reconciliation one may add a philosophy of agonistics. [2] An agonism different from antagonism.


[2] cf. for example Chantal Mouffe, “Democratic Politics and Conflict: An Agonistic Approach,” PoliticaComun 9, (2016).