Deputy President William Ruto when he hosted a delegation of bishops from Narok County led by Presiding Bishop of Covenant Church International Simeone Simpai and Narok MP Soipan Tuya in Karen, Nairobi County on August 31, 2020.
Deputy President William Ruto when he hosted a delegation of bishops from Narok County led by Presiding Bishop of Covenant Church International Simeone Simpai and Narok MP Soipan Tuya in Karen, Nairobi County on August 31, 2020.
Image: DPPS

By Reporter

Sharp divisions have rocked churches over the push to amend the Constitution as Deputy President William Ruto plots an anti-referendum showdown.

In contrast with the 2010 constitutional change moment when the church united to campaign against the referendum, religious leaders are currently reading from different hymn sheets.

Their differences are likely to trigger a groundswell of confusion among their followers.

Lawyers and civil society also are split, setting the stage for a political confrontation.

The Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian church, has already sent signals that it could oppose a plebiscite, saying it could be divisive, expensive and wasteful.

“Any self-serving short-term proposals having the interests of just a few privileged and highly placed individuals must be rejected,” the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops said on Sunday.

However, the Anglican Church of Kenya, one of the biggest Protestant churches with a loud voice in the country’s reform agenda, said it was time to amend the Constitution.

Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit told the Star it is time to re-examine the document and improve it.

“There is need to relook at our Constitution, see what has worked for us, isolate particular areas that did not serve us well, look at the areas we have watered down like Chapter Six [on integrity] and tighten it so we have an opportunity of electing leaders who have integrity,” he said.

Sapit said  Kenyans should not fear a referendum on grounds it would create acrimony and divisions while it addresses the shortcomings of the 2010 Constitution.

“I think it is high time we evaluate the Constitution and then change [it]. I know the fear of many people for a referendum at this time is the fear of acrimony and division. But already we have elections that always cause divisions in Kenya,” he said.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya has indicated it would support a referendum but warned the process must be “people-focused”.

The umbrella Protestant churches organisation said in a statement the country should hold a referendum that will bring Kenyans together. Its statement was signed by chairperson Archbishop Timothy Ndambuki and general secretary Canon Chris Kinyanjui.

“We urge the Constitution review process be formalised, structured and anchored in law. Adequate civic education should be provided so Kenyans across the country understand the referendum questions and make informed choices,” the statement said.

The NCCK wants a referendum to create an inclusive system of government and a vibrant and dignified opposition to hold the government to account.

Bishop Mark Kariuki, head of Deliverance Church of Kenya and former chairman of the  Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, warned against the clamour to expand the Executive, saying it would be rejected.

“We talked about bloated government, now they even want to make it even larger. How is that going to benefit Wanjiku?” he asked.

He went on, “If those issues are not articulated, then the church would have no alternative but to say ‘No’.”

Kariuki said the time is not right to amend the supreme law, given the soaring public debt and effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“As for changing the Constitution, [it] is agreed but the timing is not right. The church will also want to find out if our proposals are captured. If they are not captured, then our position remains ‘No’,” he said.

With the divergent views, a major clash is looming in the push to amend the 2010 Constitution as key players take hardline positions that could thwart efforts to build a national consensus

In 2010, the churches joined forces with Ruto’s ‘NO’ campaign brigade and mounted a formidable challenge against the ‘YES’ team spearheaded by the whole government under President Mwai Kibaki.

At that time, Christian leaders urged a negative vote after failing to remove a provision allowing for legal abortion in some rare cases.

However, the final vote on August 4, 2010, delivered an overwhelming victory for the ‘YES’ team at 68.6 per cent, ushering in the new Constitution.

Religious organisations play a critical role in society, not only in spiritual nourishment but also in greatly influencing the choices their faithful make.

The Catholic Church is the country’s single largest denomination by followers at 33 per cent.

In a public statement on Sunday, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops termed a plebiscite an “expensive and wasteful” exercise at a time when the country is roiled in economic trouble and in need of democratic development.

“We will be hesitant to legitimise a process that will further hurt the people,” the 26 bishops said in the statement signed by chairman Phillip Anyolo.

The bishops said the Catholic Church will support “only solid and transparent plans, adopted with a clear converging national consensus, if and when the referendum takes place.

“In reflecting further, we caution that a referendum can also be expensive and maybe wasteful while we find ourselves as a country with the pressing issues of the people’s unmet, economic, social and democratic development needs,” they said.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga outside Harambee House on March 9, 2018.
HANDSHAKE: President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga outside Harambee House on March 9, 2018/COURTESY

They proposed that if a referendum is to be held, it should be done after a national consensus has been built to avert plunging the country into the kind of deep divisions that marred the 2010 referendum.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his political soulmate Raila Odinga, backed by their Handshake proponents, have made a passionate pitch for a constitutional moment ahead of the 2022 polls.

However, the Uhuru-Raila led push to amend the Constitution faces a litmus test, not just from churches.

The Law Society of Kenya, a section of civil society and political heavyweights led by Ruto have said they will oppose a referendum.

Already, Ruto and his troops have given the clearest signal they will lead the ‘NO’ referendum campaign.

However, divisions have rocked groups within the LSK and civil society.

Firebrand LSK President Nelson Havi has warned against a push to amend the Constitution, saying Kenyans should be worried when a sitting President leads the clamour for change.

“We cannot entrust the amendment of the Constitution to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition chief Raila Odinga. They will defile the Constitution more than they have in the last eight years,” Havi said.

Amnesty International chair Renee Ngamau says those pushing to amend the Constitution are hell-bent on consolidating power in the long term.

Ngamau, for instance, criticised the President’s suggestion the Constitution is a work in progress .

“That suggests that 10 years later, we are still in draft format. Why is the Constitution up for amendment? I suggest [it] is reconsolidation of power,” she said.

Pointing to cracks within civil society, Thirdway Alliance boss Ekuru Aukot said Kenya is ripe for a constitutional moment.

He said, however, the problem with the country is that leaders in office are not committed to fully implementing the Constitution.

“For you to implement any Constitution anywhere in the world, you must respect it, protect it and uphold it. This regime does not respect the Constitution. The President violated it by appointing politicians to the Cabinet,” Aukot said.

The President and the Civil Society Reference Group said the time is ripe to amend the Constitution.

“It is time to amend the Constitution. It is not easy to amend [but] there is overwhelming support by leaders who think there is need to amend the Constitution,” he said.

He warned, however, that Kenyans must be protected against people pushing for parochial short-term interests that do not benefit the people.