Zimbabwe: Churches are a battleground for politicians seeking to entice voters

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 14:17

Congregants cheers as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe addresses a national church interface rally in Harare
Congregants cheers as Zimbabwe's then president Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe addresses a national church interface rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, 5 November 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe's politicians are canvassing churches because they are important constituencies ahead of the 2023 general elections.

On 16 April, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his wife Auxilia and vice-president Constantino Chiwenga attended an Easter conference at the United Family International Church (UFIC) in Chitungwiza, a town 30km from the capital, Harare.

Emmanuel Makandiwa, who leads the church that has about 60,000 followers, used his sermon to praise Mnangagwa.

The self-styled prophet said even if Mnangagwa “desists from campaigning”, his works will speak for him and people should not criticise his administration.

God and Caesar

This is despite the fact that Mnangagwa has failed to deliver on many of the promises he made when he took over power from his mentor, the late Robert Mugabe.

Many Zimbabweans are poor, unemployment is high, salaries are stagnant and the cost of living is on the rise due in part to economic mismanagement and corruption.

A day after Mnangagwa attended the UFIC service, Job Sikhala – the interim deputy chairperson of the opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) –  also attended a service at the same church.

Religious leaders have influence

Statistics from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency show that more than 80% of Zimbabweans identify as Christians and thus, politicians often use the church to court people who shun political rallies.

Political analysts say that endorsements from religious leaders are going to be decisive in the 2023 general elections.

“When people are too religious, in the context of Zimbabwe, they lose themselves and [their] independence. They leave everything to the religious leaders, who most often abuse their positions and take advantage of their sheepish followers,” Maxwell Saungweme, a political analyst tells The Africa Report.

Ahead of elections, we see politicians suddenly finding religious robes in order to court these potential voting blocks…

“The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Mnangagwa know this; and that if they cosy up with religious organisations, they get the unquestioning block vote, as religious followers will vote for the choice of their religious leaders. This is very retrogressive and removes self-agency for people.”

A long history

In 2013, ahead of the July elections, former president Mugabe went to Johanne Marange, an apostolic sect with thousands of followers, in Manicaland Province to ask for support.

A barefoot Mugabe was clad in Johanne Marange’s white clothing and held a staff, as is required when entering the group’s holy shrine.

Mugabe was also close to some leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, including Father Fidelis Mukonori.

This is the legacy that Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF party have continued in their quest to lure voters.

Courting Christians

Mnangagwa has courted the support of Zion Christian Church leader Nehemiah Mutendi, who has thousands of followers.

Mutendi often urges members of his church to support Mnangagwa at their pilgrimage at Bikita, a rural area 371km from Harare. In return for their unwavering allegiance, some of these church leaders have received favours from the state.

There is something called ‘captured communities’ in electoral politics, a section of society whose political choices can easily be swayed by a single individual or a system.

When the country was on lockdown in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of Covid-19, the Johanne Marange sect continued with their annual gatherings in Marange and were ‘untouchable’ despite a clear violation of Covid-19 rules.

Johanne Marange sect leader, the late Noah Taguta, who had led the church since 1992, was accorded a state-assisted funeral by Mnangagwa.

Capturing communities

“There is something called ‘captured communities’ in electoral politics, a section of society whose political choices can easily be swayed by a single individual or a system – be it traditional leaders or religious leaders or any other form of cultic opinion leader,” says Farai Gwenhure, a political analyst.

“What it means is that electoral politics is not […] on those communities’ priority lists. They just want to be left alone and move on with their lives […], so given advice on which path to follow by a cultic leader for them to peacefully continue with their lives, they are most likely going to follow the advice through persuasive talk.”

Vivid Gwede, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report: “Ahead of elections, we see politicians suddenly finding religious robes in order to court these potential voting blocks whose votes can be decisive,” he says. “But not all intrusions of the church into political discourse have been positive, as religion has also been used to justify oppressive rule.”

A vocal opposition

Not every church in the country is being used to support oppressive regimes.

For years, some churches under the banner of the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD) have spoken out against oppression, corruption and human rights violations by the ruling ZANU-PF.

In 2020, Mnangagwa’s government used the military and police to commit human rights violations under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 lockdown measures. ZANU-PF then accused the Catholic bishops of being anti-government after they had issued a communique condemning the government.

The ZHOCD, in a recent statement, said they were encouraging members to participate in the electoral processes.

“We must, as a church, encourage all our members [who are] eligible to go and vote. Choosing leaders is a Christian responsibility. In voting, Christians are not only exercising their individual rights or civic duty, but they are also preparing a future for their children and generations to come,” part of the statement says.

Man and God

Gwenhure says there are churches involved in the politics of liberation and nation building.

“The Zimbabwe Council of Churches continues to work on convergence and on another hand, there are church-based rights movements like the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. Whoever plays an elaborate role between the pro-oppressive rule and opposite church groups might as well contribute significantly to the electoral outcome,” the political analyst says.

Most politicians in the country, like CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, have mastered the art of lacing their statements with biblical quotes to appeal to multitudes of churchgoers.

Gwede says ahead of the 2023 elections, churches will play a critical role in electoral outcomes as politicians seek to gather as much support as they can.

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