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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

5 February 2001

Democratization of Africa difficult, but participants express hope for future

African nations with recently established democratic governments have experienced trying times through the process, but church representatives from two of those countries say the people want to make their representative governments work. Their views were expressed at a February 3 press briefing on the "democratization" of Africa, held during the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, Germany.

Speakers included Dr Agnes Abuom, one of the presidents of the WCC, Anglican Church of Kenya, and Bishop Michael Kehinde Stephen, Central Committee member, Methodist Church Nigeria. They were joined by Dr Sam Kobia, director of the WCC Cluster on Issues and Themes.

Despite challenges in Nigeria, "people still are very enthusiastic," said Bishop Stephen. "We will do everything in our power to make it work."

"People cherish democracy versus going back," Abuom said. The Kenyan people are also concerned that they create processes in which all parties feel their views are valued and considered, she said.

Churches in Africa may play a mediating role in nations where democratic governments are young, Kobia said. "The church provides the possibility and framework for dialogue" in confrontations between political factions, he said.

As an example, Nigeria's democracy, formally established in 1999, emerged from a military dictatorship. Churches and the media helped the country move toward democracy, Bishop Stephen said. One of the tasks of Nigeria's new president is to gain international respect for Nigeria.

"Putting democracy in is not as easy as winning elections," he said. The country is working to "settle down" into the democratic process, Bishop Stephen added. One role for the churches is to work to diffuse confrontation. "The way to peace is not through confrontation," he said.

In Kenya, plural politics is disempowering some people, Abuom said, adding that the Kenyan people have learned some of the limits of the Western (democratic) experience. For example, she said experience of Kenyan women is also not positive. Women who enter politics encounter violence, both verbal and physical, Abuom charged. Churches in the country are trying to help through education and seeking ways to reduce violence. "Violence in the continent (of Africa) stands to wither away the gains made in the last 10 years," she said.

While there have been gains in some African nations through the establishment of representative governments, Kobia said current processes have led to the "legitimization of disempowerment." One result is that some people have become disillusioned and don't vote any more, he said. "There's a great value attached to democracy if there is meaningful, interdependent participation," he said.

Kobia added that the aftermath of the recent presidential election in the United States - which resulted in a long dispute over counting of ballots in Florida - was a "blow" to democratization in Africa. The controversy over procedures in counting votes showed Africans that democracy has its shortcomings, he explained.

Photos from the Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.