In Kenya, Catholic bishops have joined with leaders of other faiths in an effort to reform and stabilize the East African nation, amid concerns that public, social, and private institutions are facing a serious legitimacy crisis.
In the country where the bishops hold sway on many matters of national interest, deep-seated bitterness and divisions have proved crippling for nearly two decades. The resentment has resulted in many unresolved political, social, and economic issues, some of which are re-current while others are historical.
But now, the bishops—who care for nearly seven million baptized Catholics, or 23 percent of Kenyans—are taking a lead in the search for a new beginning. For the clerics, if the current challenges are not tackled soon, the country risks falling into chaos and paralysis.
Already, there are wide ethnic divisions that have frequently ignited cut-throat competitions for power before degenerating into deadly violence. Inequality is at a critical levels, with the rich growing wealthier and the poor growing poorer and more desperate each passing day. Unemployment has reached alarming levels, with the cost of living skyrocketing in recent years.
“We have pondered on our past, that has continued to haunt the country, and have come to the conclusion that for us to move forward, we need a structured and genuine dialogue with our past and current issues,” said Archbishop Martin Kivuva of Mombasa, the chair of the Dialogue Reference Group, in Nairobi in mid-September.
The group is a religious leaders’ forum that brings together Catholic and Protestant churches as well as representatives of the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.
It is with this group that the leaders launched a national dialogue process—a series of forums—to give citizens a chance to agree on ways the country can achieve national cohesion, equality, and justice. The faiths are convening public meetings across the country—in churches, mosques, and temples—where ordinary people and their leaders will discuss the challenges the country faces and offer solutions. In the end, they will come up with a framework that will help guide the country’s renewal.
According to the archbishop, Kenya needs to hold the discussions, so that the citizens can participate in the search for concrete solutions to the challenges their nation faces.
“We know our problems, we know where they originate from and we also know the solutions,” Archbishop Kivuva said while urging citizens to take interest and actively participate in the forums. In his view, citizens should to show concern about the political and economic issues that divide the country.
At the top of the agenda is tackling corruption and embezzlement of public funds. With reports of serious financial scandals in which large amounts of public funds have been stolen, the bishops have recalled that Pope Francis has spoken strongly against corruption in Kenya.
“He urged us to root out this vice and he reminded us of the disastrous effects it has on a nation and her people,” Bishop Philip Anyolo, the president of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, told journalists at a news conference in August.
The bishops—while appreciating what they see as President Uhuru Kenyatta’s resolve to go after those involved in the corrupt deals—want the exercise carried out in an organized and systematic manner.
“They should not spare those found to be engaged in the vice [of corruption]; beginning with those in the top position to the lowest in all sectors of the Kenyan society,” said Bishop Anyolo.
The bishops and other faith leaders are also concerned about the violence that has often been ignited by Kenya’s general elections. Early this year, the bishops expressed sadness after the country’s second general election under the 2010 constitution led to serious political disputes, general chaos, and violence.
Although the constitution is viewed as progressive, it did not stop a peculiar pattern from repeating itself; the electoral commission conducts peaceful elections, but chaos erupts when the results are announced.
In December 2007, deadly tribal clashes broke out cross the country soon after the elections. In 2013, the election result was quietly challenged in court amid tensions. In 2017, when a presidential election petition was presented in the Supreme Court amid violent protests, a brutal police crackdown, and deaths in opposition zones, the bishops expressed extreme concern. In the ensuing violence, the bishops found themselves caring for and housing thousands of displaced persons in church compounds. At least 100 people were killed in the widespread violence between police and citizens.
Faith leaders also want the government to stop foreign borrowing to avoid what they see as possible “re-colonization” trap.
In the last year, many faith leaders have become increasingly concerned that national debt is taking a toll on the citizenry, the majority whom are poor and now have to contend with an extreme rise in the cost of living.
For the leaders, the increased appetite for foreign loans is becoming unacceptable.
“We are concerned that our [Kenyan] borrowing has gone past the roof and we owe a lot of money,” said Rev. Peter Karanja, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya at the end of national faith leaders’ conference in Nairobi on September 13. “We are asking, do we have a limitless carrying capacity for debt?”
In addition to the faith leaders’ initiative, President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga have been implementing the Building Bridges Initiative. Like the faith leaders’ efforts, this project seeks to address several issues, including ethnic antagonism and competition, inclusivity and corruption.
“The initiative has brought hope to the people, and who still hope that it will address that divide as a people and a country, but we must agree that the momentum has slowed,” said Archbishop Kivuva.