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Religion and political mobilisation in Kenya

By Babere Chacha and John Wahome | September 29th 2020

Participation by the clerical class in Kenyan politics is not new. During the ‘UhuRuto’ dispensation, however, clergymen have unreservedly wallowed in the muddled water of tribal politics to an unprecedented degree while formerly fiery mainstream Christian denominations have retreated to the periphery of Kenyan public affairs.

We explore how religious experience has been used by politicians, most notably by Deputy President William Ruto, as a deux ex machina for political and ethnic mobilisation. Can the religious institutions vote as a block in Kenya? Can this eventuality be harnessed positively to enable Kenyans to transcend ethnicity so that religion or churches become units of political change? Can ‘God’ conceivably vote in Kenya’s next elections?

Religion has been a strong correlate of Kenya’s and Africa’s political orientation for more than five decades. But the precise analysis of its impact in the society depends on how one defines the public’s degree of ‘religiousness’. According to Harvey Sindima, religion is the heartbeat of African ways of life, but VY Mudimbe sees it as ‘a practice of cultural metisse rather than the sentimental essence of a continent’.

In examining the strength of Mudimbe’s assertion, one quickly captures its evocative discussion of the politically significant ways in which African intellectuals, as well as politicians, practice their religious faith. Most important is his biographical passages on the narrative of one Rwandese priest and scholar–Alexis Kagame, the author of Bantu-Rwandan Philosophy of Being in 1956. Mudimbe shows how Kagame’s practice as seminarian and then as an “indigenous clergy of Rwanda” served to challenge racism within the colonial seminary.

Kenya, like elsewhere in Africa, inevitably features this promiscuous mix of religiosity and daily life, and fits the mold which John Lonsdale refers to as the African rule of energetic Christianity. It is estimated that almost 85.5 per cent of its 53 million people claim to be Christians, and of these, no less than 10 per cent attend church regularly.   

Consequently, like other Africans, ‘it is largely through religious ideas that Kenyans think about the world today’. Religion and politics are topics that obsess Kenyans, from bars to bus queues. Hence, the role of religion as an organisational base for political mobilisation does greatly colour and shape the final outcome of elections. Not only do candidates choose to make appearances in churches, synagogues, or mosques, but leaders of such religious bodies can and do mobilise their worshippers through various means: Incentivising them to register and vote, providing members with transportation to the polls, permitting voting guides to be distributed within the religious setting and publicly addressing political issues in the religious setting. Religious physical precincts are often used as centres of electoral activities.

Precisely, Londsale holds that Kenyans are notorious in the use of biblical imagery and metaphor almost in all aspects of their lives. He asserts that the premises are twofold: The fact that Kenya is predominantly Christian and because the Bible has become the nearest thing to a national narrative, a storehouse of universally recognised moral and political images. Political songs are often rendered in gospel tones. Take, for instance, the Narc anthem, Yote Yawezekana bila Moi (corrupted from a religious tune, Yote yawezekana kwa imani) that had a notable positive impact on political change. 

The Mapambano, Vijana musilale - an ODM anthem - took the country by storm. At some point, Yote yawazekana bila Moi made a comeback with a distinctly Kibaki-phobic flavour, Yote yawezekana bila Mwai. The ODM hordes memorably enjoyed the Bado mapambano, tune with Mbita MP Otieno Kajwang’ as the indefatigable lead soloist. All the music resonated with biblical imagery and was deftly used as an essential organising factor of political lifeblood. On the other hand, PNU seems to have settled on more laid-back Christian hymns accompanied by the old-fashioned electric guitar and vigorous dancing.

Conventionally, churches should provide a place for dialogue between individuals. They should be places where those who have a common Lord can converse about touchy issues and walk away with mutually satisfying solutions. Ideally, Christians should individually play any role they feel compelled to in the political process outside of congregational processes and settings. Churches can and should teach regularly on moral/ethical subjects such as integrity, sanctity of life and prejudice. Churches should encourage their members to be appropriately engaged with culture, including participating in the political process. However, churches should remind their members that they are ’Kingdom People’ who just happen to live in this particular democracy, that their responsibilities and levels of accountability transcend Kenya.

By 2018, in a span of just six months, Dr Ruto’s generous giving was reported to have been over Sh60 million, mostly in cash, to various churches and religious organisations. Recently, he hosted more than 4,000 pastors from the church popularly known as Roho Maler for a prayer service and the launching of African Divine Clergy Sacco. Ruto, who was adorned in the church’s regalia, joined the clergy in their signature praise, and worship, dancing with the agility of a seasoned member as the ecstatic adherents pounded their drums and stamped their feet.

Lately, Ruto has frequently appealed to religious citizens to advance his agenda using three methods: Separately approaching religious denominations (such as Catholic, Methodists, Adventists – each in in turns); changing frequency of his religious behaviour (attending services or prayers, rituals and or events or hosting them); or publicly citing, reciting fundamental beliefs of those organisations (including singing, drumming, reading scriptures in churches, citing verses and wearing ecclesiastical regalia).

But, pray, why do politicians use religion to advance their political agenda? 

First, churches or religious organisations are meeting points of large numbers of people. They are the only places where an opportunity to speak is guaranteed at least once a week and as such the churchgoers are low-hanging fruit for politicians’ predatory behaviour.

Secondly, in Machiavellian counsel, the leader uses religion to sanctify his self and project - to paraphrase - almost all Kenya’s problems through a spiritual lens. Machiavelli’s understanding of religion is that it acts as a binding force. It shoehorns the people into following morals mandated by its dogmas, ensuring the ruler’s legitimacy ad infinitum. The ruler should shrewdly exhibit a pious exterior sheen while simultaneously being free from religion. This makes religion a very effective mind control tool for the Machiavellian ruler. In short, “the end justifies the means”.

Thirdly, some politicians use religion to rank their peers using a homemade spiritual barometer, placing themselves at the apex of the spiritual food chain while deliberately casting his opponents as immoral, immersed in the occult, or as hopeless drunks.

Fourthly, by identifying themselves with multiple religious groups, they seek to have spiritual legitimacy and identity.

For instance, every Sunday they may choose to consort with different churches. And that’s not all. They are also spotted fellowshipping with the Muslims, Hindus and other influential religions.

That said, some politicians use religion as a cover for some personal warts. The Church is an ideal venue of camouflage. Appearing hyper-religious is a creative way of getting exonerated from social culpability. Some politicians have mastered the art of exploiting religion to mask the sources of their wealth and alleged corruption.

Donations to churches are a classical disaster of capitalism. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, churches have been seriously threatened by penury, thus becoming vulnerable victims of exploitation ravenous politicians.

Both Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University

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