The Shakahola tragedy in Kilifi County is President William Ruto’s first test as a moral leader.
Whether he likes it or not, Kenyans look to him to embody the terms of our social contract. This is especially true since he likes to cast himself as a religious man prone to liberally citing scripture.
Will President Ruto rise to the occasion in his administration’s handling of this case and its aftermath?
Before proceeding further, it is important to spell out what ought to be his formal response. First, this tragedy happened under his watch.
Consequently, he bears full responsibility as the leader of a national security apparatus that failed to detect the mass murder of Kenyans.
He must make amends by explaining to Kenyans why his administration failed, and what he is doing to make sure this never happens again.
Second, he must ensure that those responsible – from the criminal leaders of the cult to security and judicial officers who might have been complicit in their negligence – are punished to the full extent of the law.
Leniency is simply not an option. Third, the president should allocate whatever resources are available to provide material comfort to the survivors of this tragedy and their families.
It is the least that we could do for having failed them so terribly.
The religious aspects of the crimes committed evoke thorny moral questions that the president must help the public process. What explains the levels of desperation that led so many of our people to place their lives in the hands of a cult leader?
Answering this question requires us to look in the mirror and not turn away.
If we are honest, we shall readily admit that the only shocking thing about the Shakahola cult is the severity of its effects on believers: dozens of people died.
Without the deaths, we would remain blithely tolerant of the quack Christian theologians and religious leaders that dot our lands pretending to perform all manner of miracles.
Can the president persuade churches to engage in credible self-regulation? If not, is the government willing to step in with a process of certification/licensing?
How should we deal with the problem of gullibility among a public who, because of economic precarity, is wont to fall for stunts like the Shakahola cult?
How should the country mourn the dead? On all these questions, Kenyans expect leadership from their president.
- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University