Sunday July 26 2015

If witch doctor shrines bring votes, it’s okay to visit them

By Bernard Tabaire

It is one of those little yet rich news reports that leave a reader smiling.
The Daily Monitor on Thursday reported Anglican Archbishop Stanley Ntagali advising Ugandans aspiring for various political offices in the unfolding campaign season to stay away from witch doctor shrines.
Let’s sidestep the loaded use of the word “witch doctors” and ask: how does the archbishop know that candidates for political office in Uganda run to “shrines” for concoctions and blessings to get votes? Do they confess to him or his bishops, reverends and canons?
He sets up God/church/organised religion in opposition to witch doctor/shrine/witchcraft. For him, obviously, his God wins out. “You should have trust in God because he is the one who gives and takes away,” he said.
A vast majority of Ugandans are religious – by that I mean they profess Islam or Christianity or some version of organised religious faith. It’s therefore safe to conclude that political candidates too are religious people, believers, who visit churches and mosques for prayer and worship and related things. That being the case, why does the archbishop think these same Ugandans visit those “pagan” witch doctor shrines in quest for electoral success?
It could be the mosques and churches do not deliver the goods. So candidates are forced to diversify sources of inspiration and support.
Unlike Archbishop Ntagali, I have no problem anyone visiting a witch doctor’s shrine. I see no difference going to a church/mosque or shrine or both for intercession from some invisible power to deliver success at the ballot box.
Politicians want to win regardless. They operate in a system that most often requires desperate measures to round up votes. So actors will buy votes, get their supporters to beat up the opponent’s supporters, reject results where they have lost. Some even kill opponents.
The archbishop may want to address these things. We have a politically permissive culture. It enables and feeds corruption. It is fundamentally amoral.
So politicians, indeed other Ugandans as well, see nothing of going to church and shrine. They have collapsed these places, if not into one, then into overlapping sources of strength, insight and moral support. The archbishop says it is God that gives and takes away. Our politicians, however, want a God that only gives and keeps giving. Not one that takes away, even if only sometimes.
The fact is that both church and shrine come up short. Regardless of the number of trips some politician may make to either of these places, victory may still remain elusive. This is something that flattens the difference between organised Western religion as practiced by the archbishop and his likes and traditional African religious practice, or witchcraft for that matter.
Praying for and advocating inclusive politics, complete with a transparent and fair electoral process, are areas that need champions. The archbishop could lend his heft in calling for the necessary reforms.
An electoral process that delivers a credible result will take some of the zero-sum venom out of the politics. It will lessen the need to visit the shrine, on top of the church/mosque.
It will mean that when one loses this time, there is a reasonable chance he or she will be triumphant the next season. Credible hope matters.
But the situation is so muddled politically that candidates have virtually no choice but to run around looking for help. If witch doctors, shrines and witchcraft are people, places and things that they think will produce favourable results, so be it, Archbishop Ntagali’s sermonising and demonising to the contrary.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.