Church leaders step up as mediators as Kenyans go to the polls

08 August 2017

PA

Civic duty: Kenyans cast their ballots at a polling station in Nairobi, on Tuesday

Civic duty: Kenyans cast their ballots at a polling station in Nairobi, on Tuesday

RELIGIOUS leaders in Kenya are organising to keep the peace as the country goes to the polls, amid fears of a resurgence of the sectarian violence of 2007.

A close race is predicted between the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who has in the past accused his opponent of electoral fraud, and is running for a fourth time.

“In this election, the stakes are very high,” Christian Aid’s Senior Humanitarian Adviser based in Nairobi, Mbaraka Fazal, said on Monday. “If the opposition don’t win this time, they may well become irrelevant; so they are especially keen to mobilise the electorate. At the same time, the current sitting government are not ready to give up their political position.”

In the wake of the elections a decade ago, more than 1000 people were killed and 600,000 were displaced as ethnic violence flared up. More than 30 women and children were burned to death in a church where they had sought sanctuary (News, 4 January 2008). The Archbishop of Kenya at the time, the Most Revd Benjamin Nzimbi, called for a recount (News, 11 January 2008) and was accused by another bishop of having failed to confront the President, Mwai Kibaki.

Ms Fazal spoke on Monday of efforts by both the government and the Church to prevent violence. Much would depend on the success of electronic voting, she suggested. If results were successfully transmitted electronically, that would reassure people of the transparency and truth of the process.

“I cannot say what is in heart of politicians, but, as far as the Commission is concerned, my opinion is they have created as far as possible a system that is free, fair, and transparent. The only thing is if the technology fails.”

In the 2013 election, similar technology faltered, and the result of manual count was contested. Last month, the official in charge of the computerised voting system, Chris Msando, was found dead. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, Wafula Chebukati, said that there was “no doubt he was tortured and murdered”.

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After the violence of 2007, the International Criminal Court charged President Kenyatta with instigating violence, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Religious leaders had a “unique role to play” in preventing violence, Ms Fazal said. “They are respected by people across tribal groups, and are known to be impartial and able to mediate. Christian Aid is helping them to facilitate dialogue between different factions, to encourage people to recognise others’ opinion and see things from a different perspective from their own.”

Christian Aid is overseeing a project in Marsabit County, in the north of the country, which was a hotspot for violence in the 2013 election (News, 8 March 2013). It has helped to set up local peace committees, whose members are selected by the community. Religious leaders are working with them to identify shared issues of concern. Christian Aid is also preparing to send emergency help should conflict flare up.

The Church had learned lessons in the past decade, Ms Fazal said. In 2007, it was “very aligned in terms of political parties and ethnic grouping. After that election, the Church realised how much she had compromised herself, and so many people suffered. The Church lost her voice in that period. Right now, the church groupings have reorganised themselves and are pledging peace and promoting peace.”

She referred to a World Vision study, conducted last month, which reported high levels of trust in the Church as a body that would mediate and promote peace.

Looking ahead, she expressed hope that the government would prioritise economic regeneration and the creation of employment and business opportunities, particularly for young people, of whom one in six was unemployed. “We also feel corruption would need to be tackled and food prices come down. . . Inequality is so high, and the poor seem to suffer the most.”

Her personal impression was that the Church was “not so strong” in speaking out against corruption.

“The government has a way of throwing a wet blanket on corruption cases,” she said. “Evidence gets distorted; so nothing really comes to a conclusion. [There are] too many people in high places who are very influential; so they kind of silence the voice.”

In 2016, Transparency International ranked Kenya 145th in its Corruption Perceptions Index, out of 176 countries. It speaks of “widespread corruption that is evidenced in most sectors of public life and has led to an apparent culture of impunity”.

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