COVID – When Churches Become the Civil Society

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

One of the world’s staunchest COVID-denialists, Tanzanian president John Pombe Magufuli, died of COVID – so the rumours say – on the 17th of March 2021. According to him, Tanzania was a COVID-free country as of June 2020, after three days of prayer. Instead of vaccines and masks, he suggested that COVID could be beaten by going to the church and inhaling herbal fumes.

As a politician, he was undeniably a populist, of the same ilk as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, two other former COVID-patients with questionable track records in fighting the pandemic. He provided the people with what they wanted: war against corruption, infrastructure projects completed on time and entertaining political show.

Swearing in of President of Tanzania John Magufuli | Dar es Salaam, 5 November 2015
Swearing in of President Magufuli in Dar es Salaam in 2015. Image: Paul Kagame, Creative Commons.

COVID denialism to the very end

There was, however, also a dark side to his presidency. He was namely able to carry out such authoritarian measures that his American counterpart only dreamed of. Political opposition was harassed and persecuted, and there occurred several uncanny deaths of people not pleasing the government. The media was muffled as was the society in general. Those warning of COVID were silenced, and those “spreading rumours” of the president’s ill health were jailed. Just hours before his death, his government claimed that the president was fine and working hard. The Tanzanian citizens’ rights have been considerably narrowed down.

The medical experts have done their best to remedy the situation, but with little success. President Magufuli sacked the health minister, Faustine Ndugulile, last year for not following his denialist policies. Medical professionals have been trying to caution the nation, but they have been silenced. Opposition politicians in the country and in forced exile have also raised the alarm. Meanwhile, the grim reaper has toured the nation, but there are only indications of how bad the situation is because the government has programmatically avoided creating statistics about the issue. There is also a law prohibiting the use of any statistics not sanctioned by the government.

Churches as the civil society

In such a situation, one would expect that the civil society – citizens who have no professional, commercial or party-political reasons to criticise the government COVID policies – would stand up and challenge the president. However, the risks involved for the citizens in freely expressing their concern are such that the voice has remained feeble – except in one direction.

The Catholic and Lutheran churches, the two largest denominations of the country, have again taken the leading role in protecting the civil rights – this time, the right to live. The Catholic archbishop Gervais Nyaisonga and the Lutheran presiding bishop Fredrick Shoo issued letters to their faithful on the very same day, the 26th of January 2021, prompting the Christians to take precautionary measures against the spread of COVID. While such letters could be counted as politically innocent admonitions in a free democracy, in Magufuli’s Tanzania, they clearly challenged the powers that be.

This was not the first time that the Tanzanian churches have stood up against the government and its mismanagement. While either apolitical or loyal to the young nation’s leadership, with Julius Nyerere at helm, after his long leadership, the situation changed. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s (ELCT) Bagamoyo statement in 1994 against the corruption and mismanagement of the government under the president Ali Hassan Mwinyi can be considered a watershed. After that, the governments have not been able to count on churches’ acquiescence no matter what they do. The situation between president Magufuli and the ELCT got tense already earlier when ELCT bishops wrote an open letter criticising the president for the narrowing down of the civil rights. By doing so, they took a considerable personal risk.

Why just churches in this role?

Why is it so that when the situation gets difficult in Tanzania, it is the churches that speak up? Why are the other actors of the civil society not willing or able to take that risk? In an increasingly authoritarian country, like Tanzania, the dangers related to challenging the government are real. You may lose your job, be jailed, tortured, and even killed. For an ordinary citizen, lifting up one’s voice may lead one to be eliminated even before too many people have heard you. Therefore, the one speaking up needs to have an existing platform in order that the protest may be meaningful in any way. Additionally, if you also want to survive after expressing your opinion, you need to have leverage over against the government.

Leaders of large churches have exactly these two: platform and leverage. They have a multi-million audience in their churches and in addition, they are public figures followed also in the wider society. Additionally, if the government turns nasty against a church leader, there is a risk that the church members stand up for him. Men of cloth are also respected in the society in general and touching them may be a red line that the government does not want to cross. Especially, when the protest is concerted and only covertly against the government, as was the case with the January letters of the Catholic and Lutheran leaders, it is very difficult for the government to take action against them. Additionally, the churches which have emanated from western missionary enterprise, belong to global church families. Were they targeted, international attention would be certain. This is yet another factor prompting the government to think twice.

Considering the above, it is little wonder why religious communities, and their leaders are the de facto civil society in many countries with limited civil rights. Large following of believers in a country where other societal actors have been muffled brings you a huge political responsibility, no matter if you want it or not. Even silence in front of tyranny is political action.

March 24, 2021

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