June 27, 2008

Religion Matters: Mugabe Plays the God Card

The runoff "election" is underway in Zimbabwe today and Sokwanele will be posting updates if you want to track the voter turnout or lack thereof. What more can you say?

Not much I thought, but writing in The Globe and Mail, Daniel Morris gives a new perspective on Mugabe and the election through the lens of Zimbabwe's religious landscape:
In perhaps his sincerest admission of how he has regarded today's runoff presidential vote, Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe recently told a group of businessmen in Bulawayo: "Only God, who appointed me, will remove me."

The not-so-veiled threat of more violence was the last straw for beleaguered opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who promptly announced his withdrawal from the race. In southern Africa and beyond, even the usual apologists for Mr. Mugabe's behaviour were moved to issue condemnations. More vocal critics were appalled at his craven demagoguery.

But his words would have been heard differently in Zimbabwe itself. Religion plays a major role there, especially in politics. Indeed, in many respects, God is an active player in this campaign.
Morris then goes on to relate how Mugabe has often invoked Nehanda, the spiritual guardian of the Shona lands and thus an important anti-colonial symbol, in his rallies and how an anti-Christian sentiment has emerged in violence perpetrated on his opponents and an anti-Nehanda strain has emerged among Mugabe's opponents:
Twenty-five years later, Nehanda continues to play a role in Zimbabwean political debate. On June 14, Mr. Mugabe told a crowd of supporters: "We are prepared to fight for our country if we lose it the way it was lost to Mbuya Nehanda." Editorials in the state-run Herald newspaper regularly claim Nehanda's endorsement of government policies. For many people accustomed to consulting a spiritual medium for everything from weather forecasts to medical ailments, the divine sanction resonates.

But there is a twist. With the rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Zimbabwe in recent years, some Zimbabweans who are fed up with Mr. Mugabe have come to reject Nehanda as a demon. One blogger - an admitted supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change - recently indicted Mr. Mugabe as a new "host" of Nehanda.

In any case, when Mr. Mugabe said that "only God" can remove him, it was not just an empty provocation. It was a well-calibrated speech to the many Zimbabweans who believe there is a certain legitimacy that only God and the ancestors can provide.

The world already knows Mr. Mugabe is cynical and dangerous. But to understand the enduring, if waning, support he has been able to maintain for decades, the story goes beyond modern politics. The current battle for the presidency of Zimbabwe is taking place in the spiritual world as well, where the soul of a religious ancestor continues to be used as a political weapon.
I would like to read more on this angle. For instance, how has Mugabe's relationship with the religious establishment in Zimbabwe evolved, as by all accounts he was a very devout Catholic in his youth? As his anti-Western rhetoric has increased has that been reflected in a more vocal embrace of the traditional spiritualism represented by Nehanda? Again, religion matters.

1 comment:

JAM said...

Obviously Mugabe found the Catholic "faith" of his youth a hindrance on the road to despotism.

But he is more correct than he realizes--the God who raises them up (kings) and brings them down will have the final say in
Zimbabwe. I pray daily to see it.

Blog Archive