By Jesse Masai
Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya says his nation of nearly 56 million is facing desperate times as it approaches a presidential election on August 9.
“This season is no different from the diseases and pestilence faced by the children of Israel. Returning to God is not an option. We must do it, and now,” he said during the nation’s annual prayer breakfast on May 26.
“The world has moved to a place where it does not listen to God, characterized by liberalism, capitalism, and self-sufficiency,” the archbishop warned. “We forget that he is above our capacity and capabilities.”
Drawing on 2 Chronicles 7:12-22, the prelate asked leaders to “heal the land” through a common devotion to God and a focus on his purposes for the nation, which transcend partisan loyalties.
“Let us return to this God. Let us not be shaken. He is in control. We will emerge victorious,” he said.
“Repentance is a call to return to God,” he added. “As individuals and as a nation, we must genuinely change our ways, including corruption, tribalism, [and] racial and religious bigotry. It is also a call to reconcile with each other, including the environment. Finally, it is a call to heal and revive our land, including congregations and communities.”
The August election is the latest face-off between Kenya’s major political factions. Past disputes, which initially focused on land rights, gave rise to prolonged ethnic conflict. In violence that followed the 2007-08 election cycle, an estimated 1,000 people were maimed, raped, or killed and more than 500,000 displaced.
Deputy President Dr. William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga lead in polling for the presidential race. They are joined on the ballot by lawyers David Mwaure and George Wajackoyah. Governors of 21 of the nation’s 47 counties will also be decided. Kenya’s electoral commission is racing against time to render judgment on 252 petitions, which could alter ballots at both levels of the East African nation’s government.
An evangelical Christian, Ruto supports what he calls “bottom-up economics.” Odinga, the longtime opposition leader and a member of Nairobi’s All Saints Anglican Cathedral, favors a reformed welfare state.
Odinga has the backing of outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, his opponent in the nation’s last two contests, in a striking reversal of loyalties among Kenya’s historic political elite. Kenyatta is a scion of Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who favored the global West, and served from 1964 until his death in 1978. Jomo Kenyatta fell out with Odinga’s father, founding Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who supported strengthened relations with Communist China and the Soviet Union.
The election is also seen by some as a referendum on Kenya’s reforming constitution of 2010, which was approved by wide margins in an August 2010 referendum. The constitution, which seeks to overcome ethnic rivalry by decentralizing power and resources to the 47 counties, also includes significant anti-corruption measures and human rights protections that have been praised by civil society activists around the world.
Mr. Odinga, who championed the reforms, now wants Kenya’s American-style presidency reviewed to provide more centers of power in the executive branch for representatives from different ethnic groups, whose strained relations are a continual challenge. Kenya’s first four presidents have been drawn from the dominant Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes. Mr. Odinga has often identified himself as both ethnically Luo and Luhya, from Western Kenya, while Dr. Ruto is Kalenjin, from the North West.
The proposed changes have been criticized, though, by Dr. Ruto, who claims the country’s economic situation is more urgent. Dr. Ruto led evangelicals in opposing the 2010 reforms, claiming in part that they were extremely liberal.
Mr. Mwaure, on his part, is pushing for stricter law enforcement, while Wajackoyah has caught the public imagination by advocating for the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
Archbishop Ole Sapit’s homily at the prayer breakfast is the latest sign that Kenya’s Anglicans are returning to their historic watchdog roles in Kenya’s fluid public square after what observers had considered an unnecessary retreat of the church from public affairs before the disputed 2007 polls, which were marked by alarming levels of hate speech.
On May 31, the country’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission launched its inaugural Conflict Hotspot Mapping Report, in which it warned that Nairobi, Nakuru, Kericho, Kisumu, Uasin Gishu and Mombasa counties are likely to experience electoral-related violence.
Ole Sapit has consistently warned against divisive talk by politicians, and continues to lead congregations in holding peace walks across the country.
In September 2021, he also controversially banned politicians from speaking during worship services in the Anglican Church of Kenya, a practice that had grown in popularity in recent decades.
In his announcement of the policy, Ole Sapit said, “The pulpit is for clergy and pews for everyone else. We have to make the church a solemn place of worship. No politician will be allowed to use the Anglican Church of Kenya’s pulpit for political expediency.”
He added: “We are no longer going to announce the amount of money contributed by politicians in our church. That is going to be the norm from now onwards. They can address the press after services.”
Ole Sapit explained in a subsequent interview with Nation Television that in earlier generations, politicians had offered brief words of greeting when being recognized by church leaders for their gifts, a practice common with fundraising activity across Africa. Increasingly, politicians have turned these brief greetings into stump speeches, abusing the purpose of the gesture.
Away from domestic and international cameras, however, some Anglican congregations continue to provide a platform for politicians and to receive funds from them.
The conversation about the church’s place in Kenya’s public square continues in other faith communities, including the Roman Catholic Church. The nation’s Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a June 10 statement that called for improvements to polling procedures and voter education, and urged candidates to use more respectful rhetoric and heed the needs of the country’s most marginalized citizens.
“Peddling lies, unnecessary personality attacks, inciting voters against opponents and sheer demeaning attitudes towards voters, because they are poor and lowly is going against the spirit of responsible leadership,” they said.