Will Kenya's Christians Succumb To Tribal Loyalties In Tense Presidential Vote?

“Turn to your neighbor and tell him or her, 'I will still love you no matter who you vote for on August 8,'” Pastor Alex Ngui of the International Christian Center said in a service last month.

The pastor was delivering the last in a month-long series of sermons titled "Patriot" under which the Assemblies of God-affiliated church was teaching congregants the values of maintaining Christ as the focus even as the country goes into another round of general elections that could fracture the national psyche.

Pastor Ngui’s sentiments, although delivered in a humorous way, capture the mindset of Kenyans as the country waits with bated breath for the August 8 elections. As has become the norm in the past 10 years, the church - and Christians in general - are under close scrutiny as tensions mount.

Elections in Kenya are a highly emotive issue and contestants and their supporters often
see the events as a matter of life and death. The lowest moment in Kenya's recent history was in the 2007 elections when the country flared into hitherto unseen violence after a disputed polls result.

The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) declared then incumbent Mwai Kibaki and
his Party of National Unity (PNU) as having won the vote, sparking protests from his main opponent Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Party (ODM).

In the clashes that followed, the death toll was estimated at 1300. Up to 600,000 people were displaced.

”There is imminent fear that this year Kenya might experience a situation like 2007/08 because political temperatures are soaring very high.”
-Bishop Stephen Ndicho

The largest single loss of life was when rioters set on fire a church that was providing shelter from the violence to 200 people. The fire killed 35 people. The attack on the church outraged the world, although to many observers it was an expression of the mistrust some people had of the church.

The cycle of violence and deaths was only stopped after heightened mediation that saw UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, his predecessor Kofi Annan, and former presidents John Kuffour of Ghana, and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania add their weight to the process.

The negotiated agreement saw Kibaki take the presidency, while Raila took the newly minted position of prime minister.

With Kibaki having served his second and last term, the 2007 elections pitted Uhuru against Raila once more. These two have an interesting past and the histories of their two families have been intertwined with Kenya’s own history right from the days for agitation of independence from Great Britain to independence in 1963 up to the present day.

Erstwhile friends Jomo Kenyatta - Uhuru’s father and the first president - and Oginga
Odinga - the first vice president and father to Raila - soon fell out after independence with the elder Odinga, forming the opposition Kenya People’s Union to rival Kenyatta’s Kanu.

This polarized the country even further as the majority Kikuyu tribe (Kenyatta’s) moved in to consolidate power against their Luo rivals (Odinga’s tribe). Kenyatta senior was to die on 1978 while Odinga lived until 1994.

Following their deaths, their two sons picked their respective mantles and have continued the family feud since then. After the 2007 election violence, the International Criminal Court indicted Uhuru to face crimes against humanity charges at the Hague.

However, in a quick reversal, Uhuru and his co-accused, William Ruto, said Western countries who were keen on recolonizing Africa and working in cahoots with Raila were the main backers of the indictment.

Matters were further complicated for Raila since the then USA president Barack Obama strongly supported the indictment. Obama’s father Barack Obama senior was from Raila’s Luo tribe, thus pushing forward the stance taken by Uhuru and his co-accused. They were cleared of the charges, although the court noted witness interference, deaths, disappearances, and intimidation in the course of the trial. 

It is an open secret that Kenyans always retreat into their tribal cocoons when voting. Sadly, Christians are not immune to the pull of their tribes.

Having created a siege mentality Uhuru and Ruto running on the Jubilee Alliance ticket were elected in 2013 and are now fighting to retain their seats. On the other hand, with Raila now at 73 years of age, this will probably be his last realistic chance of ascending to the presidency and he has declared that he has "the last bullet" to use against the sitting president.

Raila selected Kibaki’s former vice president Kalonzo Musyoka as his running mate on the National Super Alliance (NASA) Party. As the campaigns heat up, there have been sounds of war drums as the opponents threaten violence against each other.

Already monitors from the European Union Election Observation Mission have warned of possible violence during the August 8 polls. Chief Observer Marietje Schaake noted that concerns had been raised by some Kenyans about possible chaos.

“It is no secret that there are concerns of a possible outbreak of violence. People in Kenya are concerned about this. The security and safety of the elections depends on the respective bodies,” Schaake said.

It is against this panorama that exhortations like that of Pastor Ngui stand out. It is an open secret that Kenyans always retreat into their tribal cocoons when voting.

Sadly, Christians are not immune to the pull of their tribes. Still, the many churches and church-affiliated bodies of The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body of Protestant churches, challenged presidential candidates to desist from spreading propaganda and instead tell Kenyans what they will do for them if elected.

"Presidential candidates should tell the public what they will do for them and not cause fear among them," he said, referring to claims that the opposition plans to revive International Criminal Court (ICC) cases.

“This is political propaganda and Kenyans must dismiss it,” Mr. Karanja said.

At the same time, the Kenya National Congress of Pentecostal Churches and Ministries
(KNCPM) believe the EU observers have a point.

"This forecast is real. Both sides of the political divide isn't ready to admit defeat. President Uhuru has however indicated that if he loses to NASA leader Raila Odinga, he will concede defeat. A similar statement from Raila Odinga would help in matters of a peaceful after election period.

There is imminent fear that this year Kenya might experience a similar situation like the 2007/08 because the political temperatures are soaring very high,” the deputy secretary general Bishop Stephen Ndicho told The Media Project.

According to Ndicho, the opposition NASA is not willing to accept defeat results laying down, and the ruling Jubilee coalition is not prepared to cede leadership.

If there is one person who can speak authoritatively about the state of the church and politics in Kenya then it must be Ndicho. He is a former political activist turned journalist who later became a member of parliament and is now a bishop. He once ran for senator for Kiambu County which neighbors Nairobi but lost in the primaries.

Ndicho offered a scathing rebuke to his fellow church leaders.

“Since politics in Kenya took a tribal dimension, church leaders from different tribal groups weren't left out. Don't be cheated or misled that church leaders are neutral. They are neutral outside but partisan inside. Different church leaders call politicians from their regions to pray for them to win but can't pray for their opponents in similar terms. Churches and their leaders are politically partisan as the politicians themselves as well as the general populace,” Ndicho concludes.