In Kenya, “shepherding the sheep” has become a delicate task for bishops, amid repeated election crises that threaten to suck clerics into ruthless political intrigues.
Since mid-August, Church leaders have found themselves yet again on unfamiliar ground, having to ponder action following turn after controversial turn in election politics.
On August 8, Kenya held a general election, but the process of electing the country’s president quickly descended into a familiar, contentious pattern: a large turn-out, peaceful voting, a winner is announced, the loser protests that the election was rigged, some violence follows with deaths reported.
On September 1, the country’s Supreme Court threw out the election results, calling for another race in 60 days. It was the first time an African country has overturned the election of an incumbent presidential candidate.
Now, with each passing day, ordinary citizens say they feel disappointed and discouraged as the seemingly never-ending political circus continues to unfold. But the situation has not escaped the attention of the bishops, who have moved to assure Kenya’s citizens.
“As your shepherds, we are available to accompany and pray with you at every stage of the journey as we endeavor to build our country together in one accord,” said Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement released on September 6.
Observers warn that prolonging the process of electing a president could further split the East African country, which has long struggled under the weight of serious ethnic divisions.
“This is our moment of patriotism and we must show that our minds have been renewed and transformed,” Bishop Anyolo said. “Let us pray for our country and live up to the call of our faith.”
Election disputes are nothing new for the largely Christian African nation. In 2007, a disputed presidential election ignited deadly violence that left at least 1,000 people dead and about 600,000 displaced from their homes. The violence was sparked after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner and Raila Odinga, the main opposition leader, rejected the polls as rigged.
Temperatures were once again running high before and after this year’s election. Odinga, again the opposition candidate, had petitioned the court claiming that the computers tallying votes were hit by hackers who manipulated the results to favor his rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta. The electoral commission had declared Kenyatta the winner with a 54 percent of the vote.
“The election held on August 8, 2017 was not conducted in accordance with the constitution and the applicable law, rendering the declared result invalid, null, and void,” said Chief Justice David Maranga in the September 1 ruling throwing out the election results.
The ruling was backed by four of the six High Court judges. It did not blame Kenyatta or his Jubilee Party, but said the electoral commission had committed irregularities and illegalities.
Kenyatta has said he personally disagrees with the ruling, but he respects it. He did not stop there. He criticized the judges, saying six people seated in a court in Nairobi had decided to go against the will of the Kenyan people. He also called on Kenyans to remain peaceful.
“The man and woman who sits with you, who resides next you, shall still be your neighbor, regardless of their political affiliation, their religion, color, or tribe,” Kenyatta said. “My message today to every single Kenyan is peace. Let us be people of peace.”
Odinga hailed the ruling, saying the Kenyan court had set an example for Africa.
“This decision is precedent-setting,” Odinga told a jubilant crowd of supporters outside the Supreme Court building in Nairobi. “It will reverberate across Kenya, the African continent and the rest of the world through generations. Never again will impunity reign in Kenya.”
Odinga has contested the last three elections and lost each time. In each, he has claimed that his votes have been stolen. In his strongholds—especially in the western and coastal regions—his supporters feel marginalized in the allocation of state resources and services.
According to the Catholic bishops, the Supreme Court ruling was a welcome relief for the country, as it stopped attempts to take the political dispute into the streets. At least 24 people died last month, most at the hands of security forces, in the initial protests following the election results.
“The act has enhanced the place of our institutions, especially the Supreme Court, in dispute-resolution,” said Anyolo.
The bishops have been urging the politicians to respect the court decision, abide by it, and implement the orders.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission announced the new president election would take place October 17 as new date for presidential elections. The commission also unveiled a new team to run the election. Neither candidate was happy with the announcements; the opposition immediately rejected the date of the election, saying they had not been consulted, while the ruling party rejected the new team as non-representative.
With these developments, the bishops have urged the politicians to dialogue.
“They should find an amicable way of solving these problems. I want to remind that violence begets violence. Dialogue is the way,” said Bishop Cornelius Korir of Eldoret.
While the Supreme Court’s decision has been hailed as supporting independence of civil institutions, such as the courts and the electoral commission, many Kenyans remain nervous as they wait for the election. The new election is, among other things, costly, with reports suggesting it may cost between $100-150 million.
However, Catholic bishops are urging Kenyans to turn out in large numbers to vote in the next election, as they did in August.
“Ensure you engage in peaceful and respectful campaigns and turn out to exercise your democratic right and responsibility of electing leaders and government to serve you,” said the bishops.