AS election fever gradually but surely grips Zimbabwe, parties across the political divide are jockeying for the support of local churches which draw thousands of followers to their worship services.
Report by Elias Mambo
Most local churches have been infiltrated by politicians who have turned places of worship into political rallies as the struggle for the religious vote takes centre stage.
The church, seen as an important constituency in the power matrix, is now infiltrated and used in what Zimbabwe has become well known for: political theatre to woo voters shunning rallies which are increasingly turning tiresome and violent.
Due to the economic meltdown, starvation and social problems that saw Zanu PF losing its political grip in the 2008 elections, most Zimbabweans have turned to religion in their thousands for salvation. Churches are mushrooming all over the place.
President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF’s election loss to the MDC-T and its leader Morgan Tsvngirai shook them to their foundation. As a result Mugabe and Zanu PF are pulling out all the stops to mobolise voters. Churches are mushrooming around the country’s open-air spaces and sports arenas where thousands gather to seek divine intervention for different problems they face.
Political parties are particularly battling to entice the United Family International Church, led by Emmanuel Makandiwa who draws up to 60 000 to his Sunday services. For politicians, these numbers if harnessed are a jackpot.
Makandiwa drew about 100 000 people at his Easter rally dubbed “Judgment Night” in which politicians such as Zanu PF political commissar Webster Shamu joined Mahendere Brothers on stage at the National Sports Stadium in a bid to identify and belong. No one has ever attracted such a crowd there.
Although Makandiwa has tried to steer clear of politics, he, like many other men of the collar, finds himself surrounded by politicians who have no interest in the word of God but like a chameleon stretching its tongue to catch a fly want to woo the voters to win elections.
Mugabe and senior Zanu PF leaders have been trying hard to endear themselves to churches.
MDC-T leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has also joined the fray and has been on a religious crusade attending a series of “prayer for peace” rallies, mass prayer meetings mainly organised by the Zimbabwe National Pastors’ Conference, a grouping of mostly Pentecostal church leaders.
An increasingly religious Tsvangirai, who has previously visited Nigerian famed pastor and prophet Temitope Balogun Joshua — popularly known as TB Joshua — has been on a national campaign to promote peace in the country.
Extensively quoting from the Bible, the MDC-T leader is exhorting Zimbabweans who shun political violence, to stand for what is right and be ready for change because “it was within God’s plan to bring leadership change in the country”.
The battle for the church vote intensified in 2010 after Tsvangirai was forced to cancel his scheduled visit to the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) Mbungo Shrine in Defe, Gokwe, after state security agents reportedly threatened and intimidated the church with unspecified action.
While Tsvangirai’s meeting was scuttled, Mugabe went on to address the Johanne Marange Apostolic church at Mafararikwa in Marange to mark the sect’s annual passover.
Completely clad in white robes, Mugabe appeared at an open-air mass gathering of the populous Apostolic sect, holding a stuff that is the trademark of the group worshippers in a desperate attempt to win the hearts of close to its two million members.
Earlier this year Vice-President Joice Mujuru retraced Mugabe’s footpaths to Mafararikwa for the church’s ceremony where she addressed more than 300 000 people.
Mujuru however did not come back empty-handed as she was assured of more than a million votes. Whether this will materialise or not remains to be seen.
Since then Mujuru, who is a member of the Salvation Army, has been crisscrossing the country addressing several indigenous church gatherings like the ZCC and the Vapostori sect.
However, Zanu PF’s involvement in the Anglican Church has returned to haunt the party as the church’s pews at its main cathedral in central Harare stand largely empty most Sundays because of the ongoing political battle for its control.
Typical of the Zanu PF behaviour, Bishop Nolbert Kunonga refuses to hand back the Harare Cathedral, offices, buildings, schools, church bank accounts and vehicles he seized with the protection of police loyal to the Mugabe regime.
Controversial and self-styled clergymen such as Obadiah Msindo have also used the church platform to spearhead Zanu PF campaigns.
Msindo, who uses his Destiny of Afrika Network to mobilise voters for Zanu PF, recently handed over 1 200 residential stands to party supporters in Mutare in an attempt to entice electorates ahead of elections.
Not too long ago, Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa publicly declared that he had become a born again christian.
Police Commissioner-General Augstine Chihuri has also done the same while many politicians have mastered the art of lacing their statements with Biblical quotes to appeal to multitudes of churchgoers attending different houses of worship.
However, it remains to be seen whether worshippers would prove to be swing voters in the next elections which are expected in March 2013.