It is not for nothing that Kenya is described as a God-fearing nation. The infinitely long traffic lines which snaked their way from the capital city to the rural areas for Christmas is enough evidence. In Nakuru, static traffic jams extended tens of kilometres either side of the town. Residents are holding their breath for a worse disruption as the ‘pilgrims’ troop back to Nairobi this week. The town badly needs bypasses.
Statistics corroborate the fact that ours is a most pious nation. Some 85.5 per cent of Kenya’s 53 million citizens claim to be Christians, and 10 per cent of these attend church regularly. Historian John Lonsdale would categorise ours as a case of ‘Africa’s rule of energetic Christianity’.
Kenya’s religious sphere is a veritable oxymoron. Overwhelming religiosity exists side by side with a globally competitive corruption index, tribal animosity, police brutality, political violence, blatant abuse of human rights and other no-nos of civility. Our constitution emphatically enshrines equal protection for all religions and we have virtually no history of religious persecution of any faith. This makes Kenya on the surface one of the safest havens for the devout, especially when contrasted with countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and nearby Somalia, which are virtually at war with their religious minorities.
However, we submit that rampant corruption indirectly translates to immense pseudo-religious oppression of some citizens. On paper, corruption is heavily legislated, the BBI juggernaut being the latest claimant to possessing a snake-charmer’s solution for sleaze. The Public Officers’ Ethics Act, Public Procurement and Disposal Regulations, Public Finance Management Act, Anti-corruption and Economic Crimes Act and other constitutional legislation made decent attempts before it. Yet, to read Joe Khamisi’s Kenya: Looters and Grabbers, 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, is to recoil in horror at the truly dirty underbelly of a ‘God-fearing nation’.
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To imagine a Christian – or indeed any citizen- suffering religious oppression in Kenya seems preposterous, that is, until one comes face to face with realities of daily living, which often shoehorn poor citizens into choosing between cheating and perishing.
For demonstration, we classify religious Kenyans as Type 1 and 2. Type 1 have their cake and eat it. They are only conveniently religious. They will never miss a worship service, but once outside the sanctuary, they drop their improvised halos and become Mr Hyde, the evil character in Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Resolutely ravenous, these will not let any moral constraints stand between them and a good deal. Their heaven is here and now. They exhibit an amazing mix of religiosity and larceny. In this superset belong most of our politicians, who, after stealing public money, ‘cleanse’ it by giving tithes to churches, and the tainted clergymen who gratefully receive this loot into ‘God’s storehouse’ knowing well that a dying patient was denied treatment or a poor child ceased schooling when the politician carted away the money.
We have all probably bumped into the earthy folks who sometimes terrify us with the fiery gospel of a ‘heaven to win and a hell to shun’, but who would rather be arrested and jailed before indulging in vices such as giving a bribe. For all their irritant antics, these seem to have a possession alongside their profession. Call them Type 2.
The scene is a typical police roadblock. A Type 2 citizen on a very urgent errand is stopped by policemen because one of his new vehicle’s brake lights is faulty. He quickly pleads guilty and offers to fix the light at once, with the supervision of a policeman, if necessary. His naivety is promptly ridiculed, and he is asked to wake up and smell the coffee. When he refuses to give the Sh500 bribe, he is promptly dragged to the cells to spend the weekend, awaiting a court appearance on spurious charges related to ‘driving an unroadworthy vehicle’.
Is it possible that laws in Kenya are made overly stringent because nobody is expected to obey them, anyway? Why – as they say – hire a lawyer when one could buy a judge? Following recent law amendments, the court fine for the offence of driving an unroadworthy vehicle is Sh400,000 and two years jail in default, or both.
Yet it is a fact that all vehicles, if sufficiently scrutinised, will have some unlawful blemish. This way, a cash cow has been inadvertently created for wayward policemen, who can now falsely charge any motorist with dangerous crimes, and then dangle the grim choice of a lengthy jail term, or a bribe. This puts law-abiding citizens in a great dilemma.
Of course, Kenya subscribes to the civilised norms of modern nations and will never go the Emperor Nero’s way of persecuting believers for entertainment. Yet the psychological duress endured daily by conscientious citizens is no less daunting.
Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University