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Major rift on BBI as church drifts to no side in referendum

By Wilfred Ayaga | November 15th 2020

Bishop Mark Kariuki (centre) addresses the press last Wednesday at Biblica Hotel in Nairobi on contentious issues in BBI report. He is flanked by leaders of evangelical churches. [File, Standard]

The church once again finds itself caught in the middle of competing political interests as the road to a second referendum in 10 years looks increasingly likely.

Last Thursday, the Catholic Church said it opposes the proposal of a powerful presidency which does not augur well for the principle of inclusivity, a key cog of the latest referendum drive under the Handshake deal.

A day earlier, Evangelical churches under the umbrella of Kenya Council of Church Alliances and Ministries said the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) process had ignored the church’s input and vowed to mobilise its membership to vote against the proposed new law once it is presented at the referendum.

Issues ignored

They claimed issues touching on abortion and homosexuality, which they are against, had been ignored in the final report.

“We are of the view that the task force deliberately took the church for granted… But let it be made clear that as per the last census, we have a representation of 82 per cent and we have the ability and the capacity to rally ourselves to mobilise and have candidates who will carry the interests of the Church in every constituency,” said the evangelical churches in a statement read by Redeemed Gospel Church presiding Bishop Kepha Omae.

The Catholic Church said the proposals for an all-powerful presidency is a return to the old days when the president held sway over all aspects of public life.  

“To give the president the power to appoint the prime minister and two deputies risks consolidating more power and creating an imperial president. This will create the same problem BBI set out to solve. The expanded Executive was supposed to reflect the face of Kenya and tame the winner-takes-it-all structure. As it is in the report, this will not be achievable since all powers lie with one person – the winner,” said the Rev Philip Anyolo, Conference of Catholic Bishops chairman.

But having declared its opposition to some aspects of BBI, the church has thrown itself in the middle of a raging debate, pitting allies of President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga on one side against those of Deputy President William Ruto on the other.

It also raises questions on whether the church has capacity to influence a possible referendum, especially if its views are not taken into account.

In 2010 referendum, the ‘No’ side lost despite strong backing from the church, which joined hands with Dr Ruto to oppose the document.

At the time, the church opposed the document on issues of abortion and the inclusion of Kadhi’s courts in the document.

This time around, the church once again finds itself on the same side with Ruto who is also opposed to the expanded Executive on claims it does not cure the winner-take-it-all conundrum. 

“The concerns of our spiritual leaders on BBI are merited. No doors should be shut, no walls built to shut out better ideas, no group left behind. We must continue to build only bridges towards a consensus,” Ruto tweeted hours after the evangelicals issued their statement.

On Friday, Raila indicated the pro-BBI side was ready to start collecting signatures in readiness for a referendum.

This in effect means the train has left the station and sets the stage for a bitterly contested vote pitting Raila’s allies and those of President Uhuru one one side, against DP Ruto and the church.

On Friday, Raila’s allies amplified this message. 

Power sharing

“The document has recommended sharing of the powers of the president with five people. I don’t see any contentious issues in that,” said Rarieda MP Otiende Amolo in Homa Bay in response to the church’s position.

Yesterday, interviews with a section of church leaders reinforced their position in regard to the BBI document.

“We are not opposed to BBI but there are things we need to be addressed. And we are not the only ones, there are many groups that want their issues addressed. BBI cannot however be only about Uhuru and Raila. We feel that the process is not all-inclusive and this is not going to help the nation. The process should not have ignored the views of the church,” said All Saints Cathedral Provost Sammy Wainaina, who added that the church is a powerful voice in matters of governance.

“This is about winning and losing. The politicians can have their way, but we will also have our say. And do not underrate the power of the church. And let us not demonise the church because we have raised issues that need to be addressed,” he said.

Retired Presbyterian Church of East Africa minister Timothy Njoya also supported the church’s position, adding that the BBI process was faulty from the beginning.

“The document is a vehicle to bring more people into the Executive. I fought the imperial presidency but they are returning it. It means they are idolising themselves. In any case, if Uhuru believes he did something wrong in the last elections, he should resign, and not build bridges with Raila. They are rooting for a referendum to legitimise an illegality. This is the logic that the church should have followed. The church should demand for respect to the Constitution,” said Dr Njoya.

Kiminini MP Chris Wamalwa said the issues raised by the church cannot be ignored.

“The church has raised fundamental issue that need to be addressed. However, we cannot say whether that can influence the direction of the referendum because the church does not do politics. However, as politicians, we will campaign to advance the position of the church,” said the MP, who is also the chairman of the Catholic MPs Spiritual Support Initiative.

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