With Zimbabwe and other African nations heading for elections in the coming months, churches in the region recently reflected on their role in strengthening democratic governance and electoral process.

From May 15-17 some 50 representatives of the African churches, ecumenical organizations and civil society gathered at a consultation here to address the theme “Democratic governance and electoral reforms in Africa.” The consultation was organized by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

As Zimbabwe recently adopted its new constitution, church leaders stressed the need for a stable government that can focus on development and economic recovery.

In his opening address, Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda, president of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, explored how churches can ensure an environment suitable for free, fair and credible elections. This is possible, he said, “given that Christians account for some 80% of the population in the country.”

“The process which led to the new constitution has been long and painful. The draft constitution has been fairly well received, but uncertainty still exists,” said Mukuwanda. He continued to say that due to these challenges “we seek to counsel our brothers and sisters in Africa and walk through this journey together with them.”

Nigussu Legesse, the WCC program executive for advocacy on African issues, described the purpose of the conference as assessing experiences from previous elections in various African countries. On the basis of this assessment, he said the consultation sought ways of working towards stronger democracy and governance.

“Elections are one of the core pillars for democratic governance and rule. This is achieved through an electoral system that determines impact on the governance,” he said. “This is why it is important for churches to work together.”

Legesse explained that the WCC’s involvement in democratic governance is through its peace building initiatives coordinated by its international affairs program and the CCIA.

“The church must therefore call attention to the abuse of power and electoral malpractice. Attention must be paid to the electoral process throughout the transition of power,” he said.

“Therefore, it is necessary to set up strategies at all levels of church structures; hence the interest of the WCC in elections and democracy in Africa,” added Legesse.

Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Zimbabwe and staff at the Human Rights Watch, spoke on both strengths and limitations of churches in enhancing democracy and good governance.

He recalled the leading role played by the churches in the 1880s at the onset of the colonial era, when churches were parties to the signing of key treaties such as the Moffat charter.

“In Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, the church played a significant role supporting those involved in the struggles, who received spiritual guidance and stewarding from the church.”

“The church as part of the society has a central role to ensure that Zimbabweans are not just subjects but citizens with rights. Therefore the church has a role in answering the questions such as, do people have a clear right to participate in democratic processes; are they able to freely choose who should govern them?” added Mavhinga.

“The church must be the unifier not divider, to shepherd the flock despite different political orientations, speak the truth about power using its moral grounding. With extreme polarization, the challenge will be whether the church is prepared to take this role,” he observed.

Among other main speakers who made presentations at the consultation were Terence Chimhavi from the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust in Zimbabwe and Tsungai Kokerai from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network.