Wednesday, September 23, 2020

“Strategic Essentialism” on Faith Issues should anchor Transparency

The neatest name is Botswana Network of Christian Communities (BONECCO). Apart from the name, nothing rings with sweetness where the founding document is mentioned. BONECCO is fashioned out as an amalgamation of three distinct organizations that have existed for decades in one shape or form, namely: the Organization of African Instituted Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship Botswana and the Botswana Council of Churches (OAIC, EFB and BCC). However, the draft constitution of this proposed network is a convoluted piece of work that has resulted in contradictions and paradoxes to give a sense that it was conceptualized with building harmony and unity among the Christian communities. At the outset, I should qualify that I am the head of New Temple of the New Jerusalem – a denomination that affiliates under the OAIC Botswana Chapter, and as a member of OAIC International communications team responsible for southern Africa, brand management and stakeholder relationships for the ecumenical body is indeed my brief to advise on and ensure a positive projection at all times.

To the contrary, there has been a groundswell of excitement and euphoria among the leadership of the three umbrella bodies comprising OAIC led by Pastor Tebogo Philemon Motlhagodi, BCC represented by Rev Bishop Metlhayotlhe Beleme and the EFB under the watch of Pastor Moffat Lubinda. Diminishing individual identities to present a single unit agitating for recognition on a specific demand is a post-colonial theory (Spivak, 1983) known as “strategic essentialism”. Nowhere else do the values of sincerity, integrity and openness matter more than when strategic essentialism is pushed forth by faith-based communities, because the failure to have them central to the purpose to which the bargaining power is set in motion, the quicker it blows up things and has the potential to plunge the nation into an untold state of chaos.

These core values have been missing in the draft constitution put together in 2016, and four years down the line, a loose formation that has been in existence even before such a framework was approved by the Registrar if it is a society or by the Master of the High Court if turns out to be a trust. Still, there is no cure for the defects that have riddled the constitution that is believed to be ready for ratification, approval and registration to pronounce BONECCO a legitimate entity. The proposition to function as a collective is predicated on a memorandum of understanding.

Pretty early in the constitution, a case is laid bare for a corporate to define the legal status of BONECCO as opposed to it comprising non-profit making churches to be registered as a society. Surprisingly, under the same proviso, it is described as a non-profit organization. Moreover, the document mentions a “Board of Trustees” in the running of the organization. A doubting Thomas wonders immediately just how possible it could be for the crafters of the document to have different models presented in one body. They want the best of both worlds!

One might infer that BONECCO should follow the society’s model – but it cannot be ignored that once the board of trustees is pronounced clearly, this might lend itself to being a trust, in which case, it should seek the approval of the Master of the High Court who requires financial security for those acting as trustees because of their fiduciary duty to the members and beneficiaries. In that case, it would require that there should be evidence of who the founders of the trust are, their intent to accrue any benefits to a target population by putting down a nominal amount, and also indicating the trust property (movable and immovable). Immediately, I am struck by the reality that nowhere in the constitution is a trace of evidence of these three prerequisites, yet BONECCO is to be run by a Board of Trustees?

But that is not the only contradiction – the layers of operational structures in a single entity duplicate roles and heighten the already existing confusion. For example, there is mention of the General Assembly, National Council, Executive Committee, Board of Trustees, Secretariat, Sub-committees and Ministers’ Fraternal. The framers of this constitution are extremely experienced with drafting legal frameworks, and could not have missed the understanding that the Registrar of Societies or Registrar of Deeds or Registrar of Companies, whichever they choose, has a clear-cut role to work with specific bodies, therefore, it should be clear what BONECCO is and is not.

A case is made clear that the three main players desire to foster a community that can leverage on its expanded constituency to press for the demands, particularly on the government to set aside a place at the table during high-level engagements. It is no wonder that while BONECCO is not legally registered yet, they have managed to locate their seats at the Presidential Covid-19 Task Force. Besides being counted as the shakers and movers in these high-level structures, BONECCO is binding the three entities through their members to assume liabilities for financial transactions that the single network would undertake in the execution of its mandate. In simple terms, BONECCO is the apex of the three autonomous organizations, whose business should diminish because “they cannot continue to work in parallel…if they were to be included in national development issues as well as in high-level governance structures.” The powers of BONECCO are sweeping and commit the separate faith-based organizations to responsibilities that naturally compel each umbrella body to go back and thoroughly engage with their membership through consultative workshops to educate and empower them on the benefits that might accrue to them as a result of this merger.

My denomination has affiliated under the OAIC since 2012, and as one who was privileged to assess the founding document in its draft form, I bear witness that the umbrella body has dismally failed to engage in stakeholders’ consultative meetings throughout Botswana to get the buy-in of these member churches. This is despite repeated advice to go in that direction. The chapter committee of the OAIC receives its mandate for further collaborations and partnerships from the member churches for the simple reason that without individual members joining the chapter, there is no OAIC. The devolution of power from the committee to the member churches was borne out of the realization that the agreements reached with the heads of the member churches should be adopted as the decision of the General Assembly of the OAIC, and therefore, support the implementation by the chapter committee. Without engagement, the committee is putting a noose around the necks!

BONECCO spells out as rights for each of the participating organizations to have access to leadership on a rotational basis as that may concern the structures mentioned. Assuming the principle of equity is real, last week’s event during which OAIC handed the presidential baton of the National Council to the BCC – leaves the sceptic asking why the Secretariat which from inception four years ago, has been in the hands of the BCC, has not rotated to either EFB or OAIC? Better still, should such a situation where the same organization seizes “patriarchal” and “administrative” powers have been made possible in the first place? What does it say about the partnership? And what are we to conclude in terms of governance principles being propounded here – probity, due diligence, integrity and so forth? Now that our leaders have placed the cart before the horse by operationalizing the coalition, answers must be provided as to who recruits staff for the Secretariat, and what method is being employed to ensure equal opportunity to employment for members of these three partners? Who is sustaining the wage bill; could it be from the annual subscriptions by the cooperating bodies through their members? If the BCC has retained the Secretariat when the National Council presidency exchanged hands, what should the other partners understand from such an attitude, whereby the same organization has seized absolute control and power, while they are spectators? “Absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” goes an axiom!

It should not escape our minds that the BCC has always played out the power dynamics in a paternalistic way when collaborating with fellow Christian bodies from the days of the Botswana Spiritual Church Council when they lured a few churches of the African heritage to join them to weaken the cause of our forefathers, who were agitating against the registration of churches as societies, while the mainline churches were not subjected under the 1973 Societies’ Act. To this day, there are about 15 such churches affiliated under the BCC banner which BCC is holding very close to the chest because they have bloated their numbers. The BCC has always needed the numbers to transform from the Botswana Christian Council to Botswana Council of Churches – the latter being a chapter of the ecumenical global body known as the World Council of Churches. Under the WCC, there are specific numbers of registered member churches that translate to a threshold for a country to be recognized as a chapter. Once treated as a chapter, the WCC mobilizes financial resources and technical assistance, the reason the mainline churches have seemed to be better organized than the African instituted churches.

The BCC has had to its constitution to include the third vice-president as representing the OAIC family of churches. This is chicanery given the truth that since 1985, there exists an autonomous organization that represents the interests of such churches. The reality is that what is being fashioned out now as BONECCO is the reaction to the guilt that has accumulated over the years in the conscience of the mainline churches, who have treated the chapter of the WCC as their exclusive property, while the BCC should encompass all the Christian formations with a rotational leadership among the Christian communities, not just the mainline churches as it has been over the 54 years; and not just the three Christian families proposed in the BONECCO coalition, but to include the IPCC, LDS, ZCC, and SDA as well, currently non-aligned.

This lack of transparency when dealing with fellow Christians is endemic in the DNA of the BCC to the extent that they always presuppose the higher moral ground when in fact, by now, they should have learned that to foster cooperation with others, demands uprightness and transparency. Who can forget the P1, 7 million doled out by the UNDP to the same three Christian organizations in 2002 to fuse HIV/AIDS sermons in the pulpit, which the BCC did not disburse, claiming her strategic partners could not carry out the mission? Really? It became the UCCSA money as two of its flamboyant ministers crisscrossed the vast terrains, spending nights of blissful pleasures at hotels and entertaining friends. These tragic happenings are not isolated, therefore, should not go unnoticed. We should take cues and not gloss over them in the ecstasy of fraternizing to give an impression of unity of faiths.

As leaders of individual denominations, those entrusted with the leadership in the EFB, BCC and OAIC must slow down considerably, return to full-throttle stakeholders’ consultative meetings to unbundle the conundrum that BONECCO is and articulate the sticky points raised here. Only then should the umbrella bodies commit their member churches to such a heavy and burdensome undertaking with dire ramifications. On the side of the OAIC, such engagement has not happened, and therefore, the chapter committee cannot arbitrarily decide on behalf of the members what to do with their organization. They should be mandated by the member churches through robust exchanges with the heads of these denominations who are their principals before endorsing such decisions. That conversation might end up having to reach the international office.

Whichever Registrar among the three I have mentioned will ultimately be seized up with the mammoth task of turning BONECCO into a registered entity – there is need to be meticulously circumspect before approving the organization as embodying the aspirations of the member churches from the three traditions.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.