Miracle facts: God and public policy in Africa

> Ranga Mberi

IN THIS age of religious fanaticism and other such beliefs, how many serious decisions are being made based on beliefs and not facts?

The examples are many, and they are rather alarming.

While on a campaign trail back in 2013, a leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC-T gathered some senior officials around.

A report by the party’s technical team had conducted on-the-ground research, and their findings showed the ruling Zanu PF party was an increasing threat in some of the opposition’s stronghold constituencies. The team, led by then Secretary General Tendai Biti, recommended that the party focus its campaigns on those areas, or the party would lose the poll.

But, while campaigning in Bulawayo, senior party officials were told a different story. The MDC-T’s win was inevitable. It had been revealed in a dream. There was no need to worry.

“In a conversation with members of the technical team in Bulawayo, (then party Organising Secretary Nelson) Chamisa stressed that the MDC-T was going to win, and when asked to substantiate his claims, he said: ‘God showed me in my dreams that Morgan Tsvangirai is going to win with a close margin, between 53 and 56 percent.

The small towns are the ones that are going to make a difference, not the big towns. I have since told Tsvangirai this’.”

This account is according to a paper by Phillan Zamchiya of the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, who was embedded in the MDC-T campaign for research.

According to Zamchiya, “divine intervention made it easier for Chamisa to push through some of his political positions without labouring logic, reasons and evidence. Those who opposed him could have their moral standing in a largely Christian community questioned”.

And so the data-based recommendations of Biti’s technical team were thrown out the window.

Biti, it was said, was “presenting flawed analyses in order to demoralise (Morgan) Tsvangirai in the campaign as part of a perfidious plan to take over the party with a group of intellectuals after the election”.

Needless to say, the MDC-T lost, and Zanu PF won in some those same constituencies that Biti’s team had forecast.

They did not like the facts, and they ended up losing.

There are more such examples in Zimbabwe’s recent history.

In 2007, a newspaper story reported that “pure diesel” was pouring from a rock near Chinhoyi town. Days later, a group of Zimbabwean government ministers were sitting barefoot at the bushy base of a nondescript hill. Our benevolent ancestors, they were told, had taken pity upon a country then facing serious fuel shortages.

A local spirit medium, we were told, had our ancestors on speed dial. A shout to them and a wave of her magic stick, and diesel came gushing out. And so that is how we found ministers, immortalised in pictures they must be wishing will just go away, sitting on the ground, barefoot, clapping as they were showered with diesel from the lady mystic’s pipe. It was all fake, as if we need to say it.

Later, President Mugabe, while opening a bio-diesel plant near Harare – a plant that actually produces diesel – was to mock the ministers for the episode. “Now, this is real diesel. Not the stuff you had poured on your backs,” he said, to much laughter.

We all knew no pure diesel could possibly emerge from rocks. But the group, possibly pushed by desperation, did not like the facts. They too ended up losing.

It is happening all over.

Basic rules of running economies are being abandoned for beliefs, many of them based on nothing more than a teaspoon-deep grasp of religion and traditional beliefs. For a long time, religion was something we could look at as a social event, far-removed from public policy. Today, many of our administrators across the continent are increasingly caught in mysticism, rejecting plain old facts and pragmatism.

We are becoming like Americans, at least its tribes in the South.

Yes, religion, for those of us that do believe in it, is relevant to morality even in the corridors of power. In the absence of an ethical code, one can only hope people in leadership look to their faiths to restrain themselves when they have the uncontrollable urge to mismanage our affairs.

However, when scientific and economic data is abandoned entirely for bones and prophecies, we lose.

A few years back, in Zimbabwe, two prophets – Emmanuel Makandiwa and Uebert Angel – visited the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, after rumours they were producing “miracle money”, cash that would magically appear in bank accounts, wallets and pillow cases after a few waves of the hand.

Thank God for Arthur Mutambara, then Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister. He was forced, for some reason, to comment on this in Parliament. His riposte was sharp and brief: “We respect our prophets. But public policy is informed by, and rooted in, science and law. Not miracles.”

When even public officials sit back and relax, and refuse to work, simply because the prophet declared a year the Year of Great Overflow for the Country, we lose.

Our beliefs are important to us, but they surely must not always supersede our facts.

Good economic decisions come from facts and figures. It is only in the numbers that we find where our lack is, and what we need to fix things.

We love and respect our pastors, and some also love their bone-throwing seers (three cheers for African traditional religion).

But when it comes to planning our economies, running our institutions, and making decisions, surely our statisticians should be more important to us than our spiritual leaders.

November 2016
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