YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – On a visit to the small west African nation of Benin, a senior Vatican official and key ally of Pope Francis used the trip to denounce the tendency of some leaders to hold onto power even after their official terms of office come to an end.
An “unbridled taste for power,” said Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, “can lead to all kinds of strategies to continue to exercise or influence power and alter the smooth process of succession.”
Czerny is the Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and was speaking at a Jan. 19 Mass at the Eglise Saint Michel de Cotonou, the national capital. The Canadian prelate was in Benin Jan. 17-20.
“How is power won today? How are disputes between countries? How are today’s economic relations? How are social relations woven today, including in our Church?” Czerny asked.
Notably, Czerny’s trip was also the first visit to Africa by a senior Vatican prelate since a continent-wide controversy broke out over a Dec. 18 Vatican document, Fiducia Supplicans, authorizing non-liturgical blessings of same-sex couples. The bishops of Benin were among several conferences in Africa which issued statements appearing to challenge the Vatican document, insisting that “homosexuality is contrary to the will of God” and that neither Catholic teaching nor traditional African religions permit “unions between two people of the same sex.”
Czerny did not directly engage the controversy, though he did cite the pope’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality as an invitation to communion in the church.
“The synod invites us to walk together, to live in communion, in common participation in the mission of Christ, and common discernment that allows us to find and to accept the will of God,” Czerny said.
As far as leaders who take or maintain power in non-constitutional fashion, while Czerny did not cite any specific examples, there’s certainly no shortage of cases across Africa.
The past three years have seen a spike in military takeovers in West Africa, sparking concerns about a potential decline in democracy and potential regional unrest. Six nations in the region have seen successful or attempted coups that resulted in the removal of democratically elected presidents and the installation of military administrations since 2020.
The latest example came from Gabon, where Ali Bongo Ondimba was overthrown August 30, 2023, just days after he was declared winner of a contested presidential election. Bongo had been in power for 14 years, having taken over from his father, with the combined reign of the Bongos over the oil-rich, yet poverty-stricken country spanning nearly half a century.
The coup leader, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, who was once the bodyguard of Bongo’s late father, is now Gabon’s transitional leader.
In Niger, Président Mahamadou Issoufou, who had won a second term in a contentious election in 2020, was taken into custody by a group of soldiers who invaded the presidential palace in July 2023.
Disgruntled troops have also used force to seize power in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, and Gambia, citing security threats, corruption, poor management, and constitutional violations as justifications.
Many people had become disenchanted with their leaders and their inability to live up to their promises, and so some of the coups were supported by the public in certain situations. In other instances, civil society, opposition parties, and regional and international organizations all launched rallies and denounced the coups.
The international community, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional organization that supports democracy and integration among its 15 member states, has expressed alarm over the wave of coups. With a zero-tolerance stance for illegitimate government takeovers, ECOWAS has put the coup leaders under pressure to return to civilian authority as soon as possible and to demonstrate respect for human rights.
In a 2021 speech to the General Assembly, UN Secretary General António Guterres declared that “military coups are back,” expressing his alarm about the “explosion in seizures of power by force” around the globe.
Guterres linked the rise in coups to a breakdown of principles, a lack of trust in governments and institutions, and an increase in mistrust, which is made worse by geopolitical differences that impede international cooperation. He admonished the international community to protect the rule of law and popular will, warning that “a sense of impunity is taking hold.”
Military takeovers aren’t Africa’s only challenge, as leaders who were democratically elected also have sought to stay beyond their mandates.
In Cameroon for instance, President Paul Biya –the world’s longest serving leader in power now for forty years, had consistently changed the Constitution, and organized sham elections to extend his stay in power.
Czerny drew Biblical parallels to these trends.
“Like Saul, people can seek to remain in power even when their term of office comes to an end,” he said, in reference to the Biblical King Saul.
He also compared today’s leaders to Herod “who had innocent children killed with the sole aim of preventing a likely future competitor,” meaning Jesus Christ.
“Similar maneuvers can be seen in business circles, with the aim of eliminating competitors and dominating the market and economic life. This does not spare our Church, where management is sometimes marked by authoritarianism, egoism and exclusion,” Czerny said.
“The charisms with which God endows us are sometimes used to exercise domination over others,” he said.
Czerny called for “collaboration, inclusion and solidarity,” as values that are critical to fighting the tendencies of political apathy. He said the example of such inclusiveness comes from Christ himself, who chose his Apostles to go out and proclaim the Good News “with power to cast out demons”.
“Jesus, while having the ability, strength and privilege to carry out his mission alone, did not consider it appropriate to take this option. He associated his mission with the people he chose. He involved them in his fight against evil. …Jesus made the apostles his collaborators and the bearers of his fight against evil, and the bearers of his struggle after him against everything that threatens the authentic expression of human life as willed by God.”
“Jesus chose these people to collaborate in his mission, while he was alive but also to continue the same mission after his death, the mission for which he joined our humanity. Jesus calls each of us to take part in his mission today,” Czerny said.