As political tensions rise nationwide in Kenya, just months ahead of general elections, the country’s Catholic bishops are not sitting comfortably in their dioceses.
The East Africa nation is set to head to the polls in August, the sixth election since the adoption multi-party democracy in the 1990s.
The bishops are highlighting political tensions, which they warn are reaching dangerous proportions. Their greatest concern is that politicians are fueling conflict in ways that could lead to post-election violence similar to that which tore through Kenya 10 years ago.
Fear of such violence is intense among the people, with many speaking of confusion and betrayal by the leaders they voted for in the last general election.
From 2007 to 2008, election-related violence almost brought down the country, starting in December 2007, when former President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner and Raila Odinga, the main opposition leader, rejected the election results as rigged.
Attacks and counter-attacks ensued, with formerly-peaceful neighboring communities turning against each other. Within weeks, the image of Kenya as a stable African nation had vanished, and was replaced by footage of fleeing populations, shells of burned houses, and mobs brandishing crude weapons and marching through the streets.
It took the intervention of the international community to end the violence, but when it finally stopped in February 2008, more than 1,200 people had been killed, according to church statistics. More than 650,000 were living in Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps. More than 400 churches were also burned down.
Months later, church leaders—including the Catholic bishops—stood indicted. They were accused of failing to provide a moral and prophetic voice, as the shepherds of the people, while their country burned. The main allegation was that they had failed to speak against politicians who were inciting ethnic tensions. In the end, the bishops were perceived as mere spectators of the crisis, and their credibility while widely seen as having been lost.
Moving to the ease tensions
But the bishops of Kenya are keen to ensure that this sad past does not repeat itself. Recently, they started moving to calm the political climate; they have reached out to politicians on the both sides of the political divide, urging them to make non-violence a priority.
In the 1992, 1997, and 2007 elections, violence engulfed parts of the country as politicians sought public office. Each election year, the bishops welcomed into church compounds hundreds of refugees ejected from their homes by the violence. This year, the bishops are resolved that this disturbing pattern of violence be broken.
“[Elections are] one area that has always been a challenge to Kenyans,” said Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops in statement on January 10. “It seems our worst behavior—as a nation—comes before, during, and after the elections.”
Fragmentation continues and divisions grow along ethnic lines across Kenya. With political re-alignments starting to shape up, politicians and supporters are seen as increasingly confrontational in their language. Political positions are also hardening. These further threaten the fragile national fabric, according to the bishops.
In the last few months, key politicians—under the main opposition group Coalition for Reforms and Democracy—have fueled the tensions further, with allegations of early rigging by the ruling Jubilee Party.
“It now clear, if no strong action is taken, there is real concern the government might not be able to control the violence that may erupt during the election time,” said Bishop Anyolo.
The bishops have stated that the safety of millions of citizens is at stake. They have demanded that all involved in the election processes ensure a peaceful and credible election.
“This includes guaranteeing that all processes are fair, inclusive, and transparent,” said Bishop Anyolo.
In the 2017 elections, the main candidates are President Uhuru Kenyatta, a 55-year-old Catholic and son of Kenya’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and Raila Odinga, the 72-year-old opposition leader and the country’s former Prime Minister.
Kenyatta leads the ruling Jubilee Party. He is running on his development record and is counting on the solid vote in central Kenya. However, allegations that he is turning a blind eye to excessive corruption and tribalism complicate his second election bid.
Odinga leads the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), an alliance of several parties. He is running on his record as a reformer and a father of Kenya post-independence liberation. But he faces allegations that he is trying to use back-door methods—such as mass violence—to win the election.
A controversial law
The latest tangle is centered on which methods of voting, voter identification, and results-transmission the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should use. IEBC is the body charged by the government with managing the electoral process.
While Odinga’s CORD is agitating for use of a technology-based system only, Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party is insisting on the use of the technology with a back-up from a complementary system.
On January 10, tensions mounted after Kenyatta signed a controversial amendment to the election laws. The amendment, known as the Elections Laws (Amendment) Act, 2016, allows the use of a complementary back-up system for identification of voters and transmission of results as a back-up. He assented to the bill following its passage in December and January by the Parliament and Senate in special sittings.
Prior to the signature, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) rejected the amendments and urged Kenyatta not to sign the bill.
Bishop Cornelius Korir, the CJPC chairman, had urged the president to give political dialogue a chance so that mistrust among the parties, conflict, and possible violence in the election could be avoided.
“This (amendment) goes against the spirit of the jointly negotiated electoral reforms which were arrived at in August 2016, through the joint Parliamentary Select Committee,” Bishop Korir said. “We urge you not to sign the amendments into law, and that you give dialogue a chance.”
But with law signed, Odinga assembled his coalition members in Nairobi and warned Kenyatta that a rigged election would be most regrettable.
“Jubilee will try to steal the election, but we shall not allow it,” Odinga told his supporters. “We shall make it impossible for anyone to steal the election, but we are also sending a warning word to Jubilee that stealing this election will be regrettable.”
According to the bishops, even with the law, there is still room for dialogue. They want the opposition parties to shun demonstrations and calls for mass action, and to give negotiations a chance. They are appealing to politicians to take all measures to ensure the forthcoming election is peaceful and credible, and that all processes are fair, inclusive, and transparent.
“Compelled by our love for our country, Kenya, we your shepherds are ready to mediate and facilitate this process of dialogue in conjunction with other religious leaders and other people of good will,” said Bishop Anyolo in his January 10 statement.
For now, at the urging of the bishops, demonstrations and mass protests remain on hold, but the threat of elections violence remains.