Church splits Kenya vote

Nairobi, Kenya - Religion and the debate between those who want a federal state and those who prefer centralised power have become key elements in Kenya’s election politics, which are heating up before the December 27 poll.

The Kenyan Catholic Church is openly backing incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, who is seeking re- election and who wants to maintain the current system in which power is concentrated in the executive.

Meanwhile, the two opposition Orange parties -- the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement Party of Kenya (ODM-K) led by Kalonzo Musyoka -- are calling for a move to federalism, a concept which Muslim and Protestant religious leaders say has the support of large elements their communities.

Odinga and Musyoka, both Christians, have managed to rally Muslims behind them. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Steadman Group in late-October, Odinga raced to an 11-point lead over Kibaki, polling at 50% against Kibaki’s 39%.

The Catholic Church, led by cardinal-designate Archbishop John Njue, said last week that it supported the centralised authority advocated by Kibaki. Njue added that federalism was a recipe for civil unrest because it had the potential to trigger ethnic animosities and religious intolerance. The prelate has since been accused of using the pulpit to campaign for Kibaki, who is a Catholic.

Peter Karanja, the secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), a protestant umbrella grouping, said this week that religion would “influence voter decision[s] on the ideological issues pursued by the parties”.

“Federalism and unitary government with central authority are serious ideological issues to which the church’s decision is important. Voters will take the cue from religious leaders and support whoever their religion supports,” Karanja said.

Karanja said the NCCK would state its official position on the matter after consultations with member denominations earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Al Amin Kimathi, the spokesperson for the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims (Supkem), told the M&G that Muslims would back the opposition’s calls for federalism. He added that the Protestant and Muslim groups’ political stances were motivated by the desire for social and economic equality.

“Muslims are going to vote as a bloc. The government, under the guise of flushing out terrorists, persecutes Muslims and has economically marginalised predominantly Muslim regions [the Coast and North Eastern provinces]. These elections will provide a platform to express Muslim fears through the ballot,” Kimathi said.

The Muslim community has held several public demonstrations this year in protest against what it deems as religious persecution.

NCCK and Supkem, both umbrella religious organisations, joined forces to crack former president Daniel arap Moi’s stranglehold on Kenyan politics. However, since a government-sponsored draft constitution was rejected in a 2005 referendum, the two bodies have been involved in a tussle to determine who ascends to power in this year’s polls. While Supkem supported federalism, the NCCK then backed the idea of a unitary state with central authority.

When Odinga launched his election campaign on October 6, he vowed to ensure that Muslim fears of being marginalised would be addressed through a federal system. Odinga’s pledge to dispense with punitive anti-terrorism legislation also won him Muslim support.

The Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), to which Odinga belongs, is one of the Protestant churches that support federalism. Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi, the ACK’s spiritual leader, says that past inequalities in the distribution of economic opportunities should be addressed through “economic federalism””