Prophetic Predictions and Politics in Africa, By Stan Chu Ilo
Religious leaders in Africa must move away from prophetic predictions and fortune-telling especially in political and economic matters to reading the signs of the times in the light of God’s dream for Africa. How for instance is the chaos in Burundi part of God’s dream for Africa? Is it God’s dream that presidents of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Gabon, Cameroun, Gambia, the two Congos and Zimbabwe should hold their countries in bondage because they have personalised power and the national constitution?
A man who calls himself a prophet, Dr. Akwasi Agyemang Prempeh, created a stir in Ghana on New Year’s Day by predicting that the incumbent president, John Mahama will win the November 2016 election. His prediction was, of course, welcomed and widely publicised by the ruling party, but many others questioned his credentials – much like the mingled faith and scorn associated with polls in U.S. presidential races.
The words of self-designated prophets are powerful and compelling in Christian parts of Africa. Many flock to churches and undertake vigils before the New Year to pray for a good fortune. No New Year is complete in Africa without the so called “big men of the big God” making predictions about what will happen that year. Those religious leaders in Africa who prefer not to make such prophetic statements at the beginning of the year tend to lose adherents. The Kenyan Communications Authority went so far as to ban all forms of on-air soliciting for money in order to contain this practice. When a preacher prophesies blessings to people, it can also be a profit stream.
With a 55 percent share of the population, Christianity is the strongest socio-cultural binding force in Africa today. But large numbers of believers also mingle their orthodoxy with belief in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, prophecy, traditional religious healers, reincarnation, and other elements of indigenous African religions. Many churches in Africa, especially the Catholic Church sometimes worry about the high number of their faithful and even priests who seek healing from sangomas, or alternative priests who invoke the ancestors for healing and prosperity. Why is it that many African ministers these days think that the only way they can be relevant is through prophecies, predictions, visions, claims of extraordinary power to give health and prosperity. According to a research from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, over 84 percent of Southern Africans turn to a sangoma more than once a year. According to a 2006 position paper from Catholic bishops, “In practice, among Christians who also embrace traditional beliefs there are no doubt that ancestral spirits enjoy more recognition than Jesus Christ.”
Africa is weary of bad political leadership, driven by false prophets who give religious cover to greed and ambition. It is time for the true reconciling power of Christianity to lead people out of the darkness.
What is sometimes called “enchanted Christianity” – which includes the televised prophecies of African Christian leaders – may be undermining order and the cause of democracy in developing countries, mainly because power-hungry leaders wrap themselves in the excuse of “prophecy” to hold on to their offices. Some African presidents are known to seek spiritual oracles and guidance by visiting prophets like Prophet T.B. Joshua and Prophet Enoch Adeboye of Nigeria. In the struggle for power, every angle must be covered. Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, driven by a Gospel-zeal, announced he would listen to prophecy and illegally seek a third term as leader for his impoverished but potentially rich nation. Chaos and violence resulted. Even though all international election observers have picked holes in the flawed elections results in the recent presidential race in Uganda, many of President Museveni’s prophets are already claiming that they had predicted his landslide through a prophetic vision!
As President Nkurunziza becomes increasingly desperate for religious justification for his unacceptable hold on power, he has found the Catholic Church a formidable foe, and it is not surprising that attacks against the Church have resulted. In September 2014, three Catholic nuns from Italy, aged between 75 and 83, were murdered at a convent north of Bujumbura. Like thousands of Burundians who are being slaughtered mindlessly on the streets of cities in Burundi, no one has been held responsible for their deaths. Africa is weary of bad political leadership, driven by false prophets who give religious cover to greed and ambition. It is time for the true reconciling power of Christianity to lead people out of the darkness.
Africa is dying from false religious narratives, and the deception and heresy that the ‘God narratives’ must be employed to fill the gaps in our personal and common life.
But this is a long way from the original meaning of a prophet. The Bible identifies the prophet as a legatus divinus, the messenger of God. From a biblical perspective, prophecy relates to the mediation, transmission and interpretation of God’s will in the daily words and actions of men and women. The prophets are standard bearers; they stand on the mountaintop as sentinels of truth and bearers of light and hope which can help illumine the dark places of history. Prophecy may refer to the future but only in a secondary way.
Religious leaders in Africa must move away from prophetic predictions and fortune-telling especially in political and economic matters to reading the signs of the times in the light of God’s dream for Africa. How for instance is the chaos in Burundi part of God’s dream for Africa? Is it God’s dream that presidents of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Gabon, Cameroun, Gambia, the two Congos and Zimbabwe should hold their countries in bondage because they have personalised power and the national constitution? The truth is that there can be no positive political changes in many African countries unless religious leaders become witnesses to truth, good governance, and justice, as well as prophets who read the signs of the times in the light of the suffering and hope of Africans and God’s dream for Africa. This is what Catholic Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa – one of the most vocal critics of the misrule of Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – tried to do before he was assassinated by Rwandan troops. His corpse was left on the streets for many days. We need religious martyrs in Africa rather than prophets; if they will be accepted as prophets it must be because they have died to selfishness, love of money, and pride; and that they exemplify the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ. Africa is dying from false religious narratives, and the deception and heresy that the ‘God narratives’ must be employed to fill the gaps in our personal and common life.
Stan Chu Ilo is Research Professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, IL.