Church and politics, more accurately Church and politicians, have had an uneasy relationship for many years. They have, at best, enjoyed peaceful co-existence in Uganda since the 1950s.
I remember when I was a student at Ombatini Junior Secondary School, 1959-1960, teachers regularly warned students against participating in politics because, according to them, politics was a dirty and dangerous game.
At barely 13 years old, I did not know what politics was, except for rumours we heard from grown-ups about two diametrically opposed political organisations called, “Congress” and “DP”. During the 1950s and early 1960s we were told that politics was “banned” in schools, whatever that meant.
After independence the image of politics improved and became acceptable, but politics did not completely shed its image as a dirty game. In the 1960s schools became fertile recruitment ground for politicians who turned their attention to the Churches which were and still are the most credible and influential organised institutions in Uganda.
Aware of the fact that a word or two from Church leaders about a political issue or a politician can have positive or negative consequences, politicians started to make noise, argue loudly and often unreasonably that organised Church should keep out of politics.
What our political leaders mean is that the Church as an institution should keep out of partisan politics and in the case of the Church of Uganda (CoU) which has historically been associated with the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), some Ugandan politicians have demanded that CoU should not directly or indirectly support UPC.
In the case of the Catholic Church, what politicians mean to say is that Catholic clergy should not directly or indirectly support the Democratic Party (DP) which was founded in 1954 initially to defend the interests of Catholics in Buganda who were being marginalised by the Kabaka’s government.
In an opinion titled, “Church leaders should calm down!” published in the Sunday Vision of January 7, NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo opined that: “However, Uganda is not ruled according to the Vatican Council regulations, but the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda as from time to time amended by Parliament.
The notion that religious leaders know it all is plain wrong and bankrupt as well, and unless they are naïve, it could further erode our religiosity if not exposed early enough.”
Such arrogant, ridiculous, shameless and unfair criticism by politicians would deny Church leaders their human and constitutional right to participate in the public affairs of a country of which they are bona fide and legitimate citizens.
Can the Church afford to be silent?
Against the background of numerous burning social, economic and political problems facing Uganda and Africa today, can the Church keep quiet, fold its hands and do nothing? Who will speak for the silent majority?
I believe it is critical for the Church, Christians and Church leaders to stand up for truth and justice and speak clearly about political issues which affect the country and let their voices be heard by all stakeholders in the community.
As people of faith prepare positions on political issues or as they prepare to cast their votes at national or local elections, it is important and necessary for the Church to take a stand and educate believers in line with Christian principles and teachings.
The Church can educate and guide members of congregations on particular pieces of legislation or topical issues. The Church can receive and distribute non-partisan voter education materials; the Church can allow candidates for elections and elected officials to speak on relevant issues during Church services; Churches can educate members of their congregations on pending Bills before Parliament or draft pieces of legislation before Local Councils.
The clergy can privately support and vote for particular candidates of their choice during elections, but Churches should, in my opinion, not make donations to political parties or candidates campaigning for elective offices.
Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat. [email protected]