Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

The happenings in Shakahola, Kilifi County, involving Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, have got many talking. According to The East African, Mackenzie, leader of Good News International Church, is accused of ordering his followers to starve themselves to death as that was the only path to God. The Nation reported that by Thursday 27th April, the number of bodies exhumed from land belonging to Mackenzie had crossed the 100 mark after detectives found 11 more in mass graves. Other reports indicate that some of his victims sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to him.

Most outstanding has been the renewed pressure on the government to enact tougher laws to rein in rogue preachers; Mackenzie’s arrest was followed on Thursday 27th April by that of Ezekiel Odero of the New Life Prayer Centre, allegedly an associate and/or accomplice of his. The police arrested Odera over the alleged mass killing of his followers and closed his New Life Prayer Centre and Church. Regarding Odero, the Nation writes: “To his followers, Ezekiel Ombok Odero is a gifted spiritual leader who can cure HIV with ‘holy water.’ To his detractors, he is little more than a sophisticated conman preying on Kenya’s poor.” He is reported to have a 40,000-capacity auditorium south of the coastal town of Malindi. In December 2022, he told NTV: “People crowd my church because I am God’s chosen one.” According to the Nation, Odero claims that “holy” scraps of cloth and water sold at his mega-rallies for Sh100 can heal any disease, including HIV; but there is a rider: these remedies will only work on people “with strong faith”.

Religious leaders have been some of the loudest in condemning the happenings in Shakahola, keen to convince the public that the likes of Mackenzie and Odero are but part of a very few rotten fish among them. Nevertheless, the Shakahola outrage is just the latest in a series of exploitation scandals linked to religion going back several decades, including the “Stop Suffering” fad, the infamous “miracle babies” saga, and the “Panda Mbegu” (Kiswahili for “Sow a Seed”) teachings, among others. There have been incidents where some religious conman/woman is exposed, a public outcry ensues, the government talks tough, then things cool down and the country moves on, perhaps unconsciously awaiting the next outrage from religious quarters to be exposed.

In response to accusations from the executive that it has frustrated efforts to tame Mackenzie, the judiciary released a press statement on 27th April providing the status of all the Mackenzie-related cases that have been heard and/or those whose hearing continues. According to the press statement, Mackenzie was first charged in Malindi on 17th October 2017 “with radicalisation, for promoting extreme beliefs, offering education in unregistered institutions, failing to take his children to compulsory primary and secondary education and failing to provide the children with education”.

Psychologists, sociologists, historians, religious scholars, and journalists, among others, have offered all manner of explanations for Mackenzie’s and Odero’s nefarious doings. Yet, in the wake of the Shakahola horrors, at least three vital questions remain unanswered: How, in the first place, do rogue preachers thrive in their deception? Is there an essential difference between religious fanaticism and political fanaticism? What is the correct balance between respect for freedom of worship as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 and the warranted limitations to that freedom through subsidiary legislation necessitated by rogue preachers?

Three catalysts of religious deception

While society usually rises in anger and distress when something as shocking as the Shakahola horror is exposed, many are really not keen to delve into how such happenings come about. Yet there are at least three causes that readily present themselves.

First, it is a well-known fact that religion flourishes most among the poor, for it often gives them hope of reprieve from their misery beyond this world, and often even in it. It is no wonder that houses of religious worship are scarce in the leafy suburbs of our cities and towns yet numerous in poor neighbourhoods. Thus Karl Marx famously described religion as the “opiate of the people”: like opium, it falsely lifts them to realms of pleasure and power unimaginable in the material want and emotional distress in which they live. What is less well known is that Marx explained that religion is part of the false consciousness that arises from situations in which the few own the means of production and shape the material realm (the “sub-structure”) and the conceptual realm (“the super-structure”) to perpetuate the exploitative state of affairs. Indeed, Marx believed that once the capitalist order is swept away by the workers’ revolution and the workers themselves become the owners of capital, religion would be a thing of the past. Thus, as long as society remains grossly unequal, with a few captains of industries and the political clique wining and dining while only talking about lowering the price of maize meal instead of working to secure decent pay for decent work, there will sadly be many other outrages following in the wake of the Shakahola horror.

It is a well-known fact that religion flourishes most among the poor, for it often gives them hope of reprieve from their misery beyond this world, and often even in it.

Second, we human beings have a hunger for the spiritual. As one thinker put it, there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. It is this vacuum that many preachers exploit to get a following from both the rich and the poor, much as they do not fill it. How else can one explain the willingness of so many to sell their property and give away their life savings to preachers, many of whom have accomplished almost nothing in their professions, in business or in their farms? This fact confirms that Marx’s observance, much as it offers useful insight, does not tell the whole story; for if it did, the wealthy would never be among the deceived.

Third, the Shakahola victims did not invest in studying the Holy Bible to which they claimed to pay allegiance. As I often say, partly in gest, the most popular version of the Bible is the PDV—Preachers’ Distorted Version. If only they had studied the Holy Bible, they would have seen through the fraud, because numerous passages in it warn against deception and exploitation by false prophets and false teachers. Many of those passages identify the characteristics of false prophets and false teachers—the very kinds we regularly see around us. For example, the victims of the Shakahola fraud would have read the words of Christ just before he was executed:

“… false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance (Matthew 24:24-25).

They would also have read the words of Peter, again just before his demise:

“… false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Besides, Paul’s words to the elders in Ephesus would have been of great use to them:

“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts.20:29-30).

Religious fanaticism and political fanaticism: Any difference?

While both religious leaders and politicians holding public office are scrambling to display their zeal to crush religious fanaticism of the Shakahola variety, it should be noted that there is a close connection between religion and politics. The numerous prayer rallies, prayer breakfasts, and Sunday morning services attended by highly influential politicians—with the frequency of their attendance rising exponentially just before elections—is highly instructive. Such gatherings have been central to politicians’ strategies to build their following. There were thus massive prayer rallies prior to the referendum that ratified the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, prayer rallies that watered, and perhaps even fertilized the Jubilee tree in the run-up to the 2013 elections, and prayer rallies associated with both major parties before and after the 2022 elections, among others.

Besides, politicians are sure to be there when key leaders of religious movements (such as arch-bishops) are being installed in office, knowing very well that such religious leaders can sway political opinion. Yet, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch: the politicians offer political and legal protection and even financial rewards to religious leaders in return. Religious leaders also often land plum jobs through politicians, such as being appointed to key roles in the process of constituting the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, as well as in public institutions tasked with fighting corruption. Apparently, despite the string of religion-based scandals, the belief, genuine or otherwise, still holds firm that religious leaders are the bastion of integrity. All this must surely explain how religious leaders at the centre of past scandals have often enjoyed soft landings.

Furthermore, quite often when politicians attend religious gatherings, they reiterate that the “church” is in partnership with the government in the endeavour to catalyse “development”, despite the fact that both religious leaders and politicians live large on the sweat of the masses (whether in the form of taxes or “tithes and offerings”), while the masses they claim to deeply care for continue to languish in abject poverty. No wonder Karl Marx thought that politics would eventually fade away alongside religion once the exploitative structure that sustains both is swept away.

Despite the string of religion-based scandals, the belief, genuine or otherwise, still holds firm that religious leaders are the bastion of integrity.

Thus it is evident that politicians have learnt well from Niccolò Machiavelli, who, in The Prince, advises those who seek to acquire and retain power to appear to be deeply religious while at the same time being adequately able to do whatever is considered unethical (such as murder and deception) in pursuit of their goal. Indeed, the cocktail of politics and religion renders many people even more susceptible to deception, further validating the words of Machiavelli: “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

Yet most sobering is the fact that both religious fanaticism and political fanaticism are grossly destructive and often deadly.

Religious fanaticism has caused many deaths in our country and beyond, the Shakahola horror being only the latest outrage. On 18th November 1978, Jim Jones, self-proclaimed messiah of the Peoples Temple, who had promised his followers a utopia in the jungles of South America, ordered his followers in the Jonestown commune in Guyana to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink, resulting in the deaths of more than 900 people in an event that is commonly referred to as the Jonestown Massacre. On 20th March 1995, there was a coordinated multiple-point attack in Tokyo, Japan, in which the odourless, colourless, and highly toxic nerve gas sarin was released in the city’s subway system, resulting in the deaths of 13 people, with some 5,500 others injured. Members of the Japan-based Aum Shinrikyo (called Aleph since 2000), were soon identified as the perpetrators of the attack.

“Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

Nevertheless, both at home and abroad, much greater numbers of deaths have been caused by political fanaticism than have been caused by religious fanaticism. Approximately 1,500 Kenyans were killed, over 400,000 displaced, and an unknown number of women raped following the disputed 2007 Kenyan elections. Lives were lost and property destroyed in election-based violence in Kenya from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s as well as during the 2013, 2017 and 2022 polls. Further afield, there are the 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded during the 1914-1918 European inter-ethnic war commonly referred to as the First World War, the 35,000,000 to 60,000,000 who perished during the so-called Second World War, the more than 800,000 civilians who perished in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, and the bloodbaths in Sudan and South Sudan. All of these are politically rather than religiously motivated. Yet quite often it is difficult to distinguish between wars instigated by religion and those instigated by politics because, as earlier pointed out, religion and politics are frequent bedfellows.

Thus, fanaticism is destructive whether it be labelled religious or political, or whatever else. Yet politicians frequently wag their fingers at religious leaders for instigating religious fanaticism, while religious leaders wag theirs at politicians for instigating political fanaticism, in both cases with noticeable vigour. Yet in either case, as the saying goes, one finger points at the other party while four point at the party wagging it.

Stopping Shakahola without causing new horrors

As we agonise about how to ensure that the horrors of Shakahola do not recur, we must be guided by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 which is categorical that “There shall be no State religion” (Article 8), thereby departing from the tradition of Kenya’s colonizer, Britain, where the Anglican Church is the state religion, with the monarch as both Head of State and Head of the Church. The purpose of this more enlightened provision in our constitution is to ensure that Article 27 (4), which proscribes discrimination on a number of grounds including religion, is respected; for a state religion would enjoy a privileged position in comparison to other religions. Besides, Article 32 of the constitution upholds “freedom of conscience, religion, belief and opinion”. This right includes the freedom to believe or not believe, which means that the constitution even contemplates the possibility of some of the citizens having no religious affiliation whatsoever.

Thus, according to our constitution, the government has no mandate to determine which religious organisations and doctrines are acceptable and which are not. If it were to do so, it would have formed some kind of state religion, however rudimentary, contrary to Article 8, and would thereby be discriminating against the other religions contrary to article 27 (4). What the government can do, and is indeed obligated to do, is to enforce the law by restraining any group, religious or otherwise, which, by word or deed, encourages its followers to destroy life and/or property.

Religious fanaticism has caused many deaths in our country and beyond, the Shakahola horror being only the latest outrage.

For most of Kenya’s history, most religious organisations have been registered under the Society’s Act, but more recently some have been registered as foundations, non-governmental organisations, or companies limited by guarantee, thereby obligating them to conduct their business in line with the legislation under which they are registered, including the requirement to hold annual general meetings and regular elections. The requirement for such registration is reminiscent of the talk in the Roman Empire during the first century about the distinction between religio lecita (“permitted religion”) and religio Illicita (“unpermitted religion”). A religion typically acquired the status of religio licita by showing its willingness to worship the emperor as one of its gods; the Christians refused to comply and so were persecuted, burned at the stake, and thrown to ravenous beasts. This was reminiscent of the record of the Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar who required that everyone in his kingdom worship the golden image that he had made or else be cast into a furnace (Daniel 2).

Similarly, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in the late 1940s, it sought to have all the religions in the country pay allegiance to it. For example, it worked with compliant Protestant leaders to establish the Three-Self Patriotic Movement which advocates for self-government, self-propagation and self-support. Those believers who were unwilling to join it had to operate underground at the risk of long prison sentences or even death. The movement remains China’s preferred version of Christianity.

One of the corollary discussions around tougher measures to reign in rogue preachers is the requirement that anyone setting up a religious organisation go through theological training. Such a requirement presumes that there is a universal, high-quality theological training that religious leaders who operate within acceptable parameters undergo. However, theological training is as diverse as the doctrines that the numerous religious organisations profess. Besides, the government is not suited to judge the quality of theological training because such training focuses on the spiritual realm while state power operates on the physical one. For example, how would the government determine the acceptable way of dealing with doctrines about angels, demons, curses or forgiveness of sin? Various groups teach highly divergent views about all these matters, and Article 32 of the constitution acknowledges their right to do so. Furthermore, even religious leaders with theological training have been engaged in some of the past scandals, including sexual impropriety and embezzlement of funds. Moreover, some theological trends taught in theological institutions are repugnant to some religious organisations, as is Higher Criticism which purports to analyse not only the Bible’s primal literary sources, but also the assumptions of the biblical writers themselves, and endeavours to “demythologise” the Scriptures by attempting to explain the supernatural elements in them in natural terms.

When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in the late 1940s, it sought to have all the religions in the country pay allegiance to it.

Some religious leaders have already sensed the dangers of the unfettered state control of religion, and are seeking to pre-empt it. Thus, on Saturday 29th April, the Mombasa Church Forum, while condemning the happenings in Shakahola, called for a framework within which all religious organisations would be required to join clusters in which they would engage in self-regulation.

In sum, we must walk the tight rope of restoring sanity in the religious sector without handing the state unfettered powers that politicians could use in the future to silence opponents. What is needed is for both government and religion to each stick to its own realm as much as possible without causing disruption in the realm of the other. We must stop Shakahola without causing new horrors of state high-handedness in the guise of preventing religious fanaticism. In the words of Odili’s father in Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, “… the hawk should perch and the eagle perch, whichever says to the other don’t, may its own wing break.”