Kenya: Politicians using churches as political battleground to bypass rally ban

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 18:12, updated on Thursday, 16 September 2021 09:20

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and Raila Odinga pose for a photograph after a ceremony at the All Saints Anglican Church in Nairobi, Kenya November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

After the Kenyan government banned political rallies terming them as Covid-19 super spreaders, the church has now become the new battleground, at times violent, for politicians ahead of the 2022 polls.

A small church in a sleepy village in central Kenya recently became a battleground between two rival political groups leaving worshippers with serious injuries.

The 5 September incident occurred after a disagreement between supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta and those of his estranged deputy, William Ruto, who had gathered to worship inside the iron sheet structure that measures no more than 100 square feet. Earlier, two other churches had turned down requests to host the deputy president for a service, ostensibly for fear of violence.

Determined to ensure that Ruto would be hosted in Kieni constituency within Nyeri County, his allies made a last-minute request to religious leaders of the little-known Mbiriri Full Gospel Church and they accepted to host him.

In a show of defiance, some of Ruto’s point men mobilised residents to attend the church service, a move that angered their adversaries, resulting in a fierce battle that left several people with serious injuries. Riot police had to intervene to quell the violence, which threatened to spill over in neighbouring areas.

The deputy president, whose convoy was stoned en route to the church, pointed an accusing finger at powerful officials in government. He said they were hell-bent on stopping him from vying in the next presidential election. “Those opposing my church meetings are courting trouble,” he said. After which he donated Ksh1m ($9,000) to the church and promised to visit again.

The president’s allies denied instigating the violence, accusing their rivals of stage-managing the incident to win public sympathy. It is not the only violent incident arising from the potent mixture of politics and religion, which Kenyans have witnessed.

Two people killed

In October 2020, two people were killed and scores injured in Muranga county, when supporters of Kenyatta and Ruto clashed outside a church where the latter was to attend a fundraiser.

Riot police had to be called to contain the violence which also left many businesses destroyed. In the ensuing melee, police officers lobbed teargas canisters into the Africa Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA), forcing worshippers to scamper for safety.

“What happened was an embarrassment and it will not happen again,” said the deputy president who also offered to finance the honeymoon of a couple whose wedding ceremony was disrupted by the violence.

Fight over microphone

In central Kenya in September 2019, legislators allied to Kenyatta and his deputy fought over the microphone in another church fundraiser in Muranga county after disagreeing on who should lead the function.

In the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government imposed strict containment measures, among them, a ban on public rallies.

In light of this, top politicians hoping to succeed Kenyatta have been visiting churches across the country, every weekend, to win over worshippers ahead of the August 2022 general election. Aside from Ruto, others on the campaign trail include Raila Odinga (the former prime minister); Kalonzo Musyoka (leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement) and Musalia Mudavadi (leader of the Amani National Congress).

It is unfortunate that the pulpit has become the latest campaign platform for politicians and a toll station where they pay their way to parliament or county assembly.”

Most political campaigns come under the guise of fundraisers with politicians as chief guests, a scheme that gives them the latitude ‘to speak to God’s people’ as clergymen take a backseat.

Speaking at a church fundraiser in 2019, the then Kiambu governor Ferdinand Waititu, who was later turfed out of office for alleged corruption, defended the trend saying politicians should be allowed to “include a line or two about politics’ when speaking in places of worship.

If our boss [the deputy president] is here, we [politicians] must repent the way pastors repent when bishops are present. Kiambu residents are with you, deputy president 100%,” Waititu said at the function that was held in Kiambu county and attended by Ruto.

However, the increasingly visible invasion of churches by politicians is beginning to worry many Kenyans who fear a possible repeat of the deadly violence that was witnessed during the 2007 and 2017 general elections, when churches were used by politicians and their lackeys to spread fear and ethnic hate.

Campaign platform and a toll station

Retired Reverend Timothy Njoya, of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, is one of the many Kenyans who have expressed disappointed with the embarrassing scenes witnessed in some churches. “It is unfortunate that the pulpit has become the latest campaign platform for politicians and a toll station where they pay their way to parliament or county assembly,” Rev Njoya says.

He accuses some clergymen of allowing politicians to desecrate places of worship “because of an insatiate appetite for money donated by politicians”. Legislator Adan Keynan concurs that politicians are setting Kenyans on a dangerous trajectory ahead of the 2022 elections.

“It is very unfortunate that politicians have taken their bad behaviour to churches. The church has become the latest platform to spread hate, confusion and even [the] Covid-19 virus. Churches should ensure rules are adhered to and cannot be bent in favor of politicians,” Keynan told Citizen TV.

Spiritual leadership is a calling

Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome, a Muslim scholar and a member of Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque, says he is equally disappointed. “Fortunately, we do not allow mosques to be used by politicians. We believe religious institutions are there to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil.”

According to David Oginde, Bishop emeritus at Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), some religious leaders are in the pulpit for money and not to serve God. “Spiritual leadership is a calling. Some of them (clergymen) have no calling to be spiritual leaders. They have taken up the job to enrich themselves and not to serve God.”

Unfortunately, he says, politicians’ bad behaviour is a reflection of a dysfunctional society and it is up to Kenyans to rectify the problem. “The politicians we are talking about did not grab power like the Taliban did in Afghanistan. They were elected by Kenyans,” Oginde says.

To remedy the situation, the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, an umbrella body that brings together all evangelical churches, has begun a programme to educate Kenyans on the importance of choosing leaders who have integrity and are God-fearing.

Situation room

The alliance is also establishing a situation room to monitor the behaviour of politicians right from the grassroots to the national level to ensure that they do not involve themselves in acts that threaten peace and security of the country. “We are forming teams in every region, which will act as mediators and moderators between rival politicians and groups to avoid politically instigated violence,” Oginde says.

If this country sinks we sink all of us, if it floats we float all of us. We have that moral responsibility as religious leaders to ensure the country floats.”

Sheikh Lethome emphasises that religious leaders must be conscious of the power and influence they wield and use it to put things in order before it is too late. The concerns have prompted both the Catholic and Anglican churches to ban politics in their houses of worship.

In fact, on 12 September, Raila and Mudavadi were denied the chance to speak to worshippers – in Kakamega county – who attended the consecration service of the first female archbishop in Kenya. “We welcome everyone but we have to make the church to be the church. We have many leaders in attendance who we shall just recognise,” the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Jackson ole Sapit, said during the service.

The decision forced Mudavadi and his coterie to leave before the end of the ceremony, saying they had other engagements.

The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) also reiterated that they will not allow the church to be used as a political platform. “Politicians will not be allowed to address the congregation inside the church. The same will be restricted outside the church,” said Bishop Philip Anyolo, the organisation’s chairman.

Sheikh Lethome welcomes the move and urges others to follow suit, to help send a strong message to politicians. “If this country sinks we sink all of us, if it floats we float all of us. We have that moral responsibility as religious leaders to ensure the country floats.”

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