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Ndingi, the humble bishop who risked his life for a better Kenya

By Special Correspondent | April 2nd 2020

Newly appointed Bishop of Machakos Ndingi Mwana A'Nzeki with President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in August 1969.

Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka famously said the man dies in everyone who keeps silent in the season of oppression. Graham Green, another Nobel literature laureate, said this is the man within – the man of conscience.

In the end, although the outward bodily frame may live on, the real man died. Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki refused to die in the season of anomy and tyranny. He held on to his conscience to the very end.

It should ordinarily be a misnomer, and a contradiction of sorts, to even begin imagining the clergyman being called to the test of conscience. Traditionally, conscience was taken as the cleric’s second nature. In the words of the Adventist Ellen G White, clerics were the kind of men “who called sin by its name, men whose conscience is as true to duty, as the needle is to pole; men who will stand for what is right, though the heavens fall.”

Speak for Christ and country

This, however, has not always been the case with the men and women of cloth. It is a huge tribute to those like Archbishop Emeritus Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki that it can be sincerely said of them that they kept the faith to the very end. For, by the very nature of his work, the cleric has been called to a hugely challenging apostolic and prophetic mission. Yet this assignment always teases him with the possibility of compromise.

The prelate is expected to walk in the footsteps of Christ and to refuse to trade in his conscience for anything in this worldly life. It is a difficult feat. It certainly was difficult in the epoch in which the late Ndingi began ploughing his way to the centre stage of Kenya’s national limelight, as a fiery prelate in Nakuru.

The 1980s easily represent the most prolonged troubled political times in the history of Kenya. The upheavals of the times called for men and women of courage and conscience to speak not just for Christ, but for their country too. These were the days of a political clampdown that teased a section of the Kenya Airforce into a military coup attempt against the government of President Moi. It was a season of unbridled detention without trial. Unexplained disappearances of people were also common.

In those days, strange suicides seemed to happen from Nyayo House. Individuals who were tired of living, apparently seemed to jump to their deaths from this newly constructed edifice in the heart of Nairobi. It would turn out later that these were not suicides. The State was complicit in the killing of citizens who were thought to be subversive. They would either be thrown down to their deaths, or be thrown down when already dead.

It was the dark night of political persecution, disguised as dispensation of justice. Courts sat at irregular hours to convict individuals who “confessed their role in subverting the State”. A man was presented in court at the crack of twilight. He instantly pleaded guilty. The sentence was pronounced the same evening. He was taken away to serve a 10-year term. The ruling party brooked no dissent. Even Cabinet ministers appearing before the Kanu disciplinary committee fell on their knees. They wept like children, begging to be forgiven for committing imaginary offences against the ruling party.

In the circumstances, the man died within many individuals, especially those who were expected to speak out. It fell upon the rare maverick to stand up to be counted. Bishop Ndingi was one such a maverick. In this role, he stood side by side with such other courageous prelates as Dr Henry Okullu of the Anglican Diocese of Maseno South, Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge of the Anglican Diocese of Eldoret and Reverend Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. These prelates preached not just the Christian gospel of salvation.

Gospel of liberation

They embraced and preached the gospel of liberation and political and economic emancipation. In their chosen ecclesiastical path, they were to be counted together with other prelates elsewhere in the world at that time. Immanuel Cardinal Sin of Manila stood out for his regular run-ins with the dictatorial dynastic regime of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda. In Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, stood up to the dictatorial Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). Baby Doc had inherited the country and a death squad (Tonton Macoute) from his autocratic father, François Duvalier (Baba Doc). Baba Doc had run roughshod through Haiti in the period 1957 to 1971.

Prelates like Ndingi were wary of their country going the same unfortunate way that countries like Haiti and the Central African Republic under Jean Bedel Bokassa had gone. They had sunk complete with what looked like the compliance, if not complicit, blessings of church leaders. The self-coronation of Bokassa on December 4, 1977, was for example, supported by a subsequent mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bangui. Moreover, the political class in Kenya had right from independence in 1963 never tired of telling the clergy to steer clear of civic affairs. A clergyman who commented on State excesses was accused of “meddling in politics”.

Clergymen were, however, praised when they were cozy with the State. Reverend John Gatu of the PCEA and Henry Okullu of ACK set the pace for the dissenting clerics in the 1960s. Gatu fell out with President Jomo Kenyatta on matters of perceived impropriety in government. In his biography, Fan to Flame, Gatu linked the Kenyatta government to abetting bribery, negative ethnicity and administration of divisive oaths.

It is within this docket of standing up for conscience that Archbishop Ndingi will forever be remembered. The cardinal guiding principle for such prelates is captured in the writings of St Paul, in The New Testament. In Romans 12:2, we read of his injunction to the early Christian faithful in Rome, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Rejected mlolongo system

Ndingi’s pulpit commentaries on civic matters were initially cryptic and guarded. They, however, began taking on a very bold and defiant tone when Kanu introduced the queue voting (mlolongo) system in 1986. The system was first used for the party’s own elections across the country in 1986 and later (in 1988) for the general and presidential elections. The system was thoroughly flawed. It was abused flagrantly. Those whose queues were openly shorter were declared the winners, while those who won were pronounced losers. It was a defiant challenge to conscience. Some in the political class fell over each other trying to capture public attention, in excessive praise of this abuse of democracy.

Ndingi did not mince his words. Speaking from his base in Nakuru, the bishop lamented about the killing of democracy in the country. The Weekly Review of 29 April 1988 quoted him as expressing concern about the future of democracy in Kenya. He was “alarmed over a party and government that (was) increasingly intolerant of the people’s views and wishes.” As if on cue, Bishop Muge of ACK Eldoret took over the bugle. Muge decried the open intimidation and bribery that informed the queue voting.

The call of the reform bugle was from now on in earnest, with the Church at the forefront. The prickled conscience of the Church was awakened, clearly by the boldness of Ndingi, Muge, Okulu and Njoya. Occasionally, some of their colleagues in the pulpit would throw snide and even sinister remarks their way. They rebuked what were unnamed clergymen who were “going astray into politics, instead of preaching the gospel.” It was not difficult to see whom they were talking about. The PCEA defrocked Njoya, returned him and defrocked him again. Muge paid the ultimate price when he was killed in a freaky accident in 1990. A Cabinet minister had promised him death, that very day, if he dared to take his advocacy to Busia. Muge defied him and went to Busia, regardless. He was killed in a car crash in Kipkaren, on his way back from Busia.

Life of risks and dangers

In spite of such risks and dangers, conscientious clergymen did not relent. In days to come, Father John Anthony Kaiser would be killed in August 2000, near his mission station in Morendat in Nakuru District. He had testified before the Akiwumi Commission on electoral violence in the 1997 General Election. He also testified about two girls who were being oppressed by powerful politicians in the Rift Valley. Like Muge’s death, Father Kaiser’s demise was not entirely out of the blue. He had a few days earlier raised the alarm about the possibility of being taken out. But all that would be in the future.

By the time Kenya went to the 1992 elections, the Church had a critical mass of ordained Christian soldiers, marching as to war – with the cross of Jesus going on before. The credo seemed to be borrowed from the early Church historian, Tertullian, who wrote a treatise titled “Apologeticus,” in which he said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The killing of Muge and the beating up of Njoya in the streets of Nairobi only emboldened Christian leaders. It was now common to see street demonstrations led by the Church. Even originally reserved clerics like Archbishop Manases Kuria of the Anglican Church came out boldly to speak for Kenya. The State responded with more violence. The Kenya police would beat up the clerics and follow them all the way into the shrines, where they continued pounding them.

The period 1992-1997 was particularly telling for the clergy as the conscience of the nation. In January 1989, just a few months after the infamous mlolongo elections, Okullu had boldly told President Moi, in a press release, that the time to end the one party rule had come. He asked the President to prepare the country for political pluralism and the way for greater democratic change.

“If you do not lead the way to change, change will change you,” Okullu told the President.

From this moment on, there was no stopping the Church in the democratisation process in Kenya. The faiths-led calls for democracy, however, continued jarring the State, its agents and system politicians. Some of these began calling for federalism (Majimbo) as the counter offensive to restoration of multiparty democracy. This was especially so after politicians like Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Oginga Odinga, Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro, Paul Muite and Gitobu Imanyara, picked up the clarion call and began organising the political wing for change – an initiative that saw the birth of the original Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford) in 1991.

The Majimboists began evictions of people considered to be non-indigenes from the Rift Valley. There were thoughtless killings, arson and other forms of destruction of life and property. Once again, Ndingi was at the forefront of defending democracy. In November 1991, he accused the State of being behind the violence. In the Nairobi Law Monthly of that month, he was quoted as saying, “These happenings are orchestrated.” He blamed those whom he said, had made “irresponsible statements in Kapsabet, Kapkatet, Kericho and Narok.”

Clerics of the Ndingi strand stood firmly against political intimidation to bring the country back to political pluralism, even if some like Bishop Muge paid for this with their lives. They would go on to push for reform of Kenya’s constitution, through what came to be known as the Ufungamano Initiative. From the interdenominational efforts of the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK) and the Catholic Episcopal Conference, the Church reached out to the leaders of other faiths, to find a faiths-based working formula towards a reformed constitution for Kenya. The Ufungamano Initiative kept the State on its toes all the way to the formation of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) under Yash Pal Ghai in November 2000.

No more Ndingis today

Regrettably, towards the 2005 constitutional referendum, the faiths-based community began taking what were clearly ethnic-based partisan positions. The principles that they had fought for in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to count for nothing as the tribe now took over. It is in this unfortunate place that the Church in Kenya is still sitting, so many years later. The good work that Archbishop Ndingi did remains crying for continuity. Ndingi has moved on at a time when the Church in Kenya is in the grip of what can only be described as mouthed pieties. It is a fashionable watered-down Christian faith, with celebrity clerics almost everywhere. Few, if any, speak for the people, and less still for Christ.

Elsewhere, Ndingi will be remembered for his controversial, but very firm stands on things like birth control and safe sex. He was adamantly against the use of contraceptives, condoms and anything that remotely resembled non-natural birth control mechanisms. This often led him into controversy with human rights groups and with the State. He will also be remembered for controversially trying to remove some literature set books from the Kenyan classrooms in 2003, ostensibly because they offended social and Christian morals. In all, regardless, the demise of the Archbishop Emeritus leaves you asking with William Shakespeare, “Whence commeth such another?”

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