It may be urban legend, but the story is told of the much-respected late Catholic Prelate Maurice Cardinal Otunga. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s a driver’s car stalled on the hill where James Gichuru Road meets Waiyaki Way in Nairobi. Concerned that the defective vehicle would roll back into oncoming traffic the driver wondered what to do only to realise that someone was at the back pushing his car, essentially helping stop it from rolling back. When he’d secured his handbrake he got out to realise it was Cardinal Otunga assisting with all the strength he could muster. Once the crisis was averted he said goodbye and went quietly on his way.
In the 1990s the Kenyan church was at the forefront of championing the freedoms today enshrined in the constitution that was promulgated in 2010. Ironically, an ‘activist’ church was quite new to Kenya. Traditionally conservative, our Church has always preferred closeness to power and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ lobbying with all the attribution and causality challenges this poses when change happens. Through the 1970s and 1980s and, indeed, into the 1990s as the well, the Church was also one of the most generous beneficiaries of presidential patronage, especially vis-à-vis land. As much was revealed by the Ndungu Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land of 2003. Indeed, today, the Church is one of the richest landowners in Kenya.
By early 1990s too harambees had deteriorated into an extortion racket used by politicians as campaigning tools while ostensibly building churches, hospitals and schools – many overseen by the religious fraternity. In 2004 a Taskforce on Harambees chaired by Koigi wa Wamwere was established and eventually led to the banning of public officials officiating over harambees. Part of the underlying rationale for this was that much if not most of the ‘donations’ public officials gave at these events was extorted from the public or stolen from public coffers. A report by Transparency International - Kenya in 2002 had indicated as much. Indeed, the innovation of the Constituency Development Fund emerged out of this shutting down of what had become the crudest patronage devise available to President, ministers, MPs and political aspirants.
The ethnic clashes that accompanied the reintroduction of political pluralism animated the leadership of the Church. With the epicentre of the violence in the Rift Valley in what was to become the norm, churches become places of refuge as it emerged that the ethnic cleansing was being orchestrated by agents of the state and so victims found no succour with the police, provincial administration and the like. Indeed, later research found that the Provincial Administration and other such agencies directed the violence. The outspokenness of the Church between 1990 and 2002 was therefore something of an aberration. With the removal of the Kanu regime and its Kalenjin President in 2002 silence followed. Indeed, the Church reverted to more conservative posture, even opposing the new constitution of 2010.
Today, even the much-derided harambees with their garish displays by politicians dishing out millions in what most Kenyans believe are dubiously acquired resources are back. And church leaders are being pictured gleefully accepting the donations without question. Only the Anglican Primate, Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, in a statement just before Christmas last year, has expressly warned against mixing politicians and harambees. But the virulent incorporation of church leaders and religious narratives into the politics of the current Jubilee regime has been one of their most outstanding successes. It has been such a success it helped create the presidency of Uhuru Kenyatta into something of a cult among some of his supporters, injecting a dose of irrationality into the political milieu that is so massive it's become a spider’s web for the politicians too.
The lost decade since roughly 2007 Kenya has seen a proliferation of businesses masquerading as churches. Some of them so outrageous in the antics of their bishops, apostles, pastors, guides etc, that they have been the source of quiet embarrassment to Kenyans for some time. Indeed, some outright nutters and charlatans have successfully preyed on the vulnerabilities of Kenyans with such ruthlessness that some ‘pastors’ treat their female flock as part of their harem. Mix this in with a heavy dose of religious fundamentalism and some ostensibly religious entities are a threat to state security but as I said, the state has mixed their contrived religion with their politics so well that the toxic soup has to be drank by its cooks.
Last week, the President ordered the Attorney General to withdraw and review proposals in the Religious Societies Rules (2015) that the government wanted to enact. This was after a major outcry by both mainstream and other religious formations. In a deeply ironic turn the chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rt Rev Philip Anyolo, complained that the new rules as drafted were a violation of the freedom of worship guaranteed in the constitution the Church had rejected. Some other church leaders threatened to withhold their vote from Jubilee come the next election. It’s too much to hope that the Church has rediscovered their groove vis-à-vis their role in standing up for the poor and marginalised in Kenya. However, having gone into partnership with hyenas can really help convert one into an environmentalist with a clear sense of human-wildlife conflict!
John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. Email: [email protected]