Churches Ask for Changes To Clean Up Kenyan Politics
President's strongest opposition may be Protestant, Catholic leaders
NAIROBI, KENYA — A confrontation appears to be looming between churches and the government of Kenya, as church leaders head up a campaign for political reform and the curbing of presidential powers.
In separate documents published in August, Kenya's Roman Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), which represents 35 Protestant churches, called for a series of constitutional reforms before the next elections.
President Daniel arap Moi, who has ruled the country for the past 18 years, will be seeking reelection in a vote due to be held sometime before the end of next year.
The churches say the Constitution puts too much power in the hands of the president and the ruling Kenya African National Union party (KANU) and denies opposition parties a fair chance. Without certain minimum changes, they argue, the elections cannot be democratic and should therefore be postponed.
But the government has reacted strongly to criticism from the churches, which in this predominantly Christian East African country are a powerful institution influencing the lives of the majority of Kenyans.
Immediately after the release of the documents, KANU Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho accused church leaders of having a "revolutionary idea of overthrowing the Constitution." He suggested that the churches were acting together with the political opposition in an attempt to cause civil unrest and disorder.
Speaking at an agricultural show in his home Rift Valley area last month, President Moi himself issued a warning to civil servants to "keep away" from NCCK officials and not to give them any support.
But leading churchmen like Catholic Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki, who says he recently received death threats because of his persistent criticism of the government, have not been cowed.
"If I am acting like a revolutionary, why don't they take me to court?" he says. "All we are asking, for goodness sake, is to allow the people to look at this document. The Kenyan people are behind us, and it's a force to reckon with."
Kenya's Constitution, drafted at the time of independence from Britain in 1963, contains a number of laws instituted by the colonial government as emergency measures to control the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. These include laws of detention without trial, sedition, and treason. They have been used liberally over the last few years by the Moi regime to suppress opposition and silence dissent.
Other laws specifically aim to restrict the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. For example, under the Public Order Act all meetings require a license from a local government official appointed by the president. Opposition members of parliament are frequently denied permission to address their electorate in their own constituencies. There have been numerous cases of members being arrested and charged for holding illegal meetings.
President Moi also enjoys the prerogative of appointing judges and the head of the electoral commission, in addition to undefined powers that afford him almost complete control over the security forces.
The churches have reacted strongly against criticism that they should not be getting involved in politics.
"We know our niche and our unique contribution, and something we are good at is calling the country to moral accountability," says the Rev. Mutava Musyimi, general-secretary of the NCCK. "We have a Biblical mandate."
The church played an important role in pressuring for an end to one-party rule, which culminated in Kenya's first multiparty elections in 1992. But since his victory then, President Moi has consolidated his power at the same time opposition parties have fragmented, divided by tribal and personal differences.
Increasingly, the church has been taking the initiative in speaking out on issues such as constitutional reform while opposition parties have failed to voice a common opinion.
Leading clergymen from all denominations are working with lawyers and other representatives of civil society to organize a national convention to debate the issue of political change.
The potential for conflict with the authorities is clear. The churches, with vast independent financial resources and huge memberships, pose a threat to Moi that is no longer silent.
Unless minimum changes are made before the next elections, they say, the results of those elections, which Moi is widely pegged to win, may not be accepted as valid. Organized campaigns of civil disobedience, perhaps couched as "special prayer sessions," have been suggested as a possible response.
The government, however, has warned that it will not stand idly by and let this happen. Church leaders are prepared for the eventuality that the very laws they are campaigning to have removed may be used against them as the political climate intensifies.