State failed on Shakahola trajedy and why we must engage clerics

Kenya Red Cross staff offload a body from a police Vehicle at the Malindi mortuary. The body was recovered at Shakahola farm on April 30, 2023. [Victor Ogalle, Standard]

Eight years ago, former Attorney General Prof Githu Muigai published the Societies (Religious Societies) Rules 2015 in what was seen by many as a reaction to the much-publicised potassium permanganate antics of Pastor Victor Kanyari.

The rules were quite innocuous in content and simply required registration of all churches together with full particulars of their members, leaders and places of worship. They also required registration of Trustees who would hold church property in trust for members.

The rules also decreed regular reporting of their financials, changes in leadership and other significant information necessary for regulation of quasi-public institutions. The hue and cry against the rules was vociferous and unrelenting.

I remember attending one of the meetings church leaders and Prof Muigai called, and the air was thick with conspiracy theorising as to what sneaky thing the government was up to. I had no doubt the professor, a card-carrying member of the Anglican communion, had meant well but due to a bad history of state regulation of churches, few accepted his bonafides. I believe the issue went to court and fizzled out.

Eight years later, we are back on the same grind, this time informed by acts more morbid than Pastor Kanyari could ever have conjured. More than 150 congregants are dead, buried in shallow graves deep in Shakahola forest courtesy of a gospel that encouraged them to fast to death, as a testament of their faith. Would the regulations have saved these poor folk and many others who have suffered under the hands of shepherds turned wolves? Maybe not.

But there is no doubt that the entire regulatory process requiring registration and reporting would sieve some of the more dangerous elements taking advantage of people’s desperation to scam them or even worse, send them to early graves.

As the Reverend Mutava Musyimi team works this path it must warn itself of the many obstacles it will meet on its way. Some obstacles will be lodged by well-meaning church leaders and laity, genuinely concerned about the state entering its regulatory head-on issues divine.

Previous attempts have sometimes demonstrated lack of understanding of these matters, for instance requiring that all who lead churches must have a theology degree. But the bulk of the complaints will emanate from those who have harvested personal and family benefits from a non-regulated environment.

These are the ones for who there is no separation between themselves and church, the church’s resources are their resources, and they account to no one. Their word is the final and unquestionable “thus sayeth the Lord”.

While it is impossible to eliminate all manner of charlatans hiding behind the good book, the Musyimi taskforce must ensure sufficient regulatory safeguards that at least expose such characters before they cause too much damage.

The Muigai rules are a good starting point. However, it is important that sufficient consultation be undertaken before the final policy and regulatory framework is defined. Fortunately, in Chairman Musyimi you have a levelheaded, wise church and political leader who can be trusted to look at all aspects of this matter before dotting the final “t”.

Having said that, it is important to recognise that societal abuse requires greater attention. I remember the vibrant film classification Czar Ezekiel Mutua complaining that while we were out seeking to regulate churches, all manner of fake “Mgangas from Tanzania” were exploiting desperate Kenyans promising them elixirs for “nguvu za uume” and “bwana kutoroka”.

That these characters roam the cities unbothered by the law is a testament to state failure. While these other characters are not within the express mandate of the Musyimi team, the team must take a more global approach to ensure those who seek to prey on desperate citizens, constitutional right to conscience, including the right to be foolish notwithstanding, are blocked.

But honestly, Shakahola is more about government failure than church regulation. That hundreds of Kenyans can die in such a manner despite presence of the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, Nyumba Kumi, National Police Service, National Intelligent Service, Kenya National Human Rights Commission, and the Provincial Administration requires a taskforce by itself.

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya