The landslide victory of an evangelical presidential candidate in Zambia could mark a turning point in African politics. The country’s new president, Frederick Chiluba, regularly attends Lusaka Assemblies of God Church, a congregation of 1,200 in the capital city.

Chiluba defeated Kenneth Kaunda, who had ruled the country since its independence in 1964. The vote, which was monitored by an international team headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, was the first open election in 18 years. Western observers predicted that the peaceful outcome of the Zambian election would give a much-needed boost to democratic reforms in countries throughout southern Africa.

Kaunda had banned all opposition in 1973, and in 1981 detained Chiluba for his critical stand against the government. It was during this detention that Chiluba made his Christian commitment. The 46-year-old trade unionist came out of jail preaching the Bible side-by-side with a call for democracy and social justice.

Churches were heavily involved in the campaign for the October election, and a Christian Churches Elections Monitoring Group was formed. Joseph Imakando, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ), served as the committee’s secretary. About 3,600 ministers and lay people were trained to be independent observers at polling stations.

Imakando said that EFZ did not get involved just because one of the candidates was a professed evangelical, but because of the deeper issue of social justice. “We felt that we should stand in for the people who for a long time have been oppressed by a one-party dictatorship,” he says. The Christian Council of Zambia, the Catholic Zambia Episcopal Conference, and EFZ jointly called for special days of prayer.

The Zambian experience sets a new precedent for African evangelicals, who have usually stayed away from national politics. At the same time, evangelicals in Zambia are careful not to be overly enthusiastic. “We will continue to give the new president our prayer support, but will also remain the ‘conscience’ of the government,” Imakando said. “When they go wrong, we will speak up.”

By Isaac Phiri.

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