Our world, as we know it, has been turned upside down by the coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus has not just exposed our fragility as human beings, but has also raised our awareness of our interconnectedness as people sharing one planet with viruses and microbes.
First identified in China in November 2019, COVID-19 has since spread to more than 100 countries worldwide, including Italy, the USA, UK, Germany and 24 African countries so far.
The magnitude of this pandemic, as well as its fast geographical spread, has not only paralysed both rich and poor nations, but also caused global panic, creating gripping fear for our lives. On March 11, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 a pandemic. At the time of writing this article, the pandemic had killed 8,000 people and infected 200,000.
The virus, which experts says is most certainly passed from animals, in this case the bat, has already infected seven people in Kenya, if the government reports are anything to go by. Other African countries that have reported its presence include South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. For many Kenyans, it was not a matter of if, but when the virus would strike. The country is a major travel hub in East and Central Africa, with nearly every major global airlines stopping at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi.
After seemingly dilly-dallying for some time, President Uhuru Kenyatta, finally, on March 15, ordered schools and institutions of higher learning to close. He also banned political rallies and religious gatherings.
However, despite the ban, on Sunday, March 15, Kenyan churches were packed to capacity with throngs of people, apparently oblivious of the coronavirus pandemic and the risk of spreading the disease. They (the churches) dulled the congregants’ fears and cried to God for protection. My neighbours even held a prayer fellowship in my neighbourhood to pray against the demonic virus as many have christened it, except that COVID-19 is not a demon.
In a country whose easy dalliance with the supernatural is legendary, this is not surprising. In moments of political, social and ecological crises, Kenyans turn to God, supposedly for guidance. Such challenges are seen through the prism of religion. In a country with a highly educated and exposed population, pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDs are still said to be caused by the devil and other dark forces. Even when science is very clear on the genesis of the viruses, the majority of Kenyans and other people elsewhere will still interpret them as the invention of the devil. Not surprising in a country where nearly 85 per cent of the population is Christian.
Kenya, in particular, is a highly religious country with diverse religious groups with high levels of religious participation across various religious traditions. Belonging and participating in various religious activities is essentially important to many people across the country. A 2015 study showed that for 95 per cent of Kenyans, faith informs how they conduct their daily lives.
Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic that has already heavily impacted all of us. Already, the virus has killed 19 priests in Italy, which sadly means that no one is immune from the virus, not even our religious leaders.
Similarly, no amount of prayers and faith healing could cure this virus. African Christians have been praying for a cure for AIDS/HIV and Ebola for decades not but not a single person has certainly been cured of these dangerous viruses. The same logic should apply to COVID-19.
This is not to say that prayers and faith don’t work. Neither does it mean they have no significance in the lives of people. Faith is the glue that holds people together in moments of crisis like this. It is also a purveyor of hope in moments of immense anxieties and fears. Yet, in times of global pandemics like the coronavirus, science and medicine would seem the more reliable solution. After all, it is science that has continually sought cures for these epidemics. The antiretroviral drugs and the Ebola vaccine (not prayers and demon-bashing) have given a new lease of life to millions of people around the world. It is also science that will come up with a cure for COVID-19, not miracles and faith healing.
Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic…
Yet, science and religion are not enemies, neither are they in competition with each other. There is nothing wrong with people praying and casting out the demons of disease if that is how they understand it, even as they wash hands, self-isolate, self-quarantine and maintain social distance, as advised by science and medical practitioners. Faith and science should not be in contradiction with each other. Each plays important and significant roles in our lives. Faith and prayers hold us together in hope and community while science tackles the virus in scientific and practical ways.
Yet, the easy resort to religion and prayers as the only solution during times of crisis like this is not only problematic but is also risky and reckless. It takes away our focus from holding our negligent governments accountable. The Kenyan healthcare system has been struggling for decades, but the ruling elite does not care because it can afford to seek the best medical care abroad. Our blind religious faith does not allow us to question the massive inequality in our healthcare system, in particular, and in Kenyan society in general. We also do not ask why the poor lack sanitation and why they live in dehumanising conditions.
The national day of prayer and other diversionary tactics
This is not a far-fetched assertion: Every time we are faced with a crisis as a country, the government, in collusion with religious leaders, call for prayers. Saturday, March 21, 2019 was slated as a national day of prayer by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who asked Kenyans to pray for forgiveness. Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?
It seems to me that the government wants to divert attention from its inept and tardy response to the pandemic, while religious leaders are seeking for relevance and respectability at a time when the virus has rendered them impotent. The national prayer day called by the government is meant to dull our anxieties. It is a diversionary tactic to manage the public’s fears and soothe our anxieties as we are socialised not to squarely put the blame where it belongs: on the government.
Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?
Across the world, religious leaders are making hard and painful decisions to close their worship sanctuaries. Because religious services, by their very nature, bring together large groups of people, houses of worship in Africa are potential hubs for virus transmission. In developed democracies, religious leaders are scrambling to understand the COVID-19, even as they as find ways of protecting their congregations, while African clergy are either denying the virus or praying against the demons that cause the virus.
In Saudi Arabia, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca’s holy sites have been substantially reduced. The Vatican is streaming mass on television. Rabbis in many parts of the world are discouraging their followers from hugging and shaking hands. These are hard and painful decisions, but practical and important measures to keep followers alive.
Secondly, there is evidence in South Korea that the virus spread quickly because of the social interactions of the worshippers. South Korea was the first country to report significant coronavirus infections outside of China. In New Rochelle in New York, a synagogue, as reported by Slate.com, was the centre of an outbreak of coronavirus that eventually led to the summoning of the National Guard.
In Houston in the US, the world-renowned Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, which attracts upwards of 50,000 people, has closed his church. Similarly, the famous megachurch pastor T.D Jakes of Potters House suspended church services for his thousands of followers.
Church business as usual in Kenya
While there were only seven confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kenya, by the time of writing this article, there was general panic in the country, which suggest that everyone should avoid crowds. Yet, religious leaders across the country have yet to cancel church services. Only the All Saints Cathedral, Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Nairobi Chapel, Mavuno church and Jamia Mosque had suspended mass worship by the third week of March. Instead, many have provided water and soap for members to wash their hands at the entrances of the church compounds. While washing hands has been suggested as one of the ways to fight the virus, it does not cancel the benefits of social distancing. Are religious leaders feigning ignorance about the latter, or are they simply turning a blind eye to this important measure? I posit a number of theories to explain this lackadaisical behaviour.
First, church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities. This is the logic that underlies the majority of spiritual spaces, especially those that are prosperity gospel allied, where the church founder’s main concern is not to build a community, but to make money.
Second, Kenyan churches are generally small and crowded in mostly poorly ventilated buildings and semi-structures. Except for mosques, and the more established mainstream churches, the majority are in bad condition. Many Pentecostal/evangelical church services, for example, are held in tents or shelters made of iron sheets and with poor sanitation. These are hotbeds for the spread of the disease.
Why are the majority of Kenya’s popular churches in such dilapidated conditions? Why don’t tithers demand for safe and healthy spaces of worship? Don’t the poor tither have dignity? These are questions that the Kenyan religious population need to interrogate!
Church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities.
The majority of Pentecostal clergy rarely invested in building decent churches because they don’t think about the comfort and welfare of their members, but only about offering and tithes. Prophet Owuor of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, for example, hires school venues and tents, where his followers meet on Sundays. The reason he has given his followers for not building a permanent sanctuary is that Jesus Christ is coming back to rapture the church, hence there is no need for a physical church. However, he built himself a palatial home, complete with a bunker, where he can self-quarantine himself, while the millions of his followers who live a life of squalour can easily die from the coronavirus infection. Many other big and smaller churches have not invested in building decent spaces of worship yet their founders live in opulence and luxury. It is about them, not the people.
Yet the behaviour of the clergy in Kenya is hardly surprising. Rather, it mirrors class divisions in a country where religious elites, just like their political counterparts, have created heaven on earth for themselves, while ordinary Kenyans live in hell. The Kenyan clergy, just like our politicians, does not care for its members. It uses them to ascend to power (political and religious) and respectability. This is why the status of our churches mirrors the status of our public hospitals and schools and informal settlements. Many of our public facilities, just like many houses of worship, are in terrible condition, with no running water and poor sanitation. Yet pastors rarely raise the issue of the sorry state of our broken healthcare systems, even though some churches have built a semblance of health clinics to provide some form of medicare.
More importantly, religious leaders do not want to call off church services because they will be rendered irrelevant. Many a clergy use the pulpit, not just to mint money, but also to prop up their egos and advance their social status. The clergy are in the business of making money. Many churches in Kenya, particularly those of Pentecostal and charismatic church inclinations, are run like business enterprises, so closing a church has serious financial implications. In Africa, the church is an enterprise, just like the stock market: and their owners are afraid that their business empires will crash like stock markets.
Third, there is a fear that COVID-19 will expose the clergy’s dark underbelly and call to question Africa’s faith-healing and miracle industry. For so long, religious leaders have trafficked in miracles and faith-healing. COVID-19 has rendered them incapable of healing the sick and incapable of praying away the coronavirus. In fact, the virus has rendered them impotent and fragile; they have no power to pray away the disease or perform dubious miracles.
Fourth, the clergy has been averse to scientific discoveries because science makes their miraculous shenanigans questionable. Prayers for healing have not calmed a shocked and scared populace. Many a clergy has frowned on science, medicine and theological education, instead spiritualising even non-spiritual matters as serious as the coronavirus pandemic. Science shakes the foundation of their spiritual teachings. After all, and in the case of this pandemic, science has proved to be more practical and reliable than faith.
Watch: Religion in the Age of Coronavirus: Dr Damaris Parsitau Speaks
These fly-by-night pastors have also trafficked in guilt and false prophecies to shock people into a particular way of being religious. Self-proclaimed Prophet Owuor has trafficked in fear-mongering threats, and has even claimed that he had prophesied the pandemic. He also said it would kill people in Asia because the continent rejected his prophecy. In Kenya, a section of the public has cajoled him to unleash his “mighty prophetic powers” to fend off the virus. They have also called on him to pray it away.
Apostles James Maina Ng’ang’a’s video on coronavirus – where he is unable to pronounce the word coronavirus – showed not just his sheer ignorance, but also how ill-equipped he and his ilk are when it comes to offering solutions to such complex 21st-century problems.
A Meru-based Pentecostal clergyman with a huge following angered many Kenyans when he said that coronavirus is a global hoax and that God has instructed him not to cancel church service because there is no coronavirus.
Fifth, many of the clergy have not built an infrastructure that would enable them to continue their ministry in times of crisis like this. While many pastors have invested in TV stations, radio frequencies, social media pages, YouTube and websites, the intention has always been to win souls and tithes that will make them more powerful. Investing in sound infrastructure that would have allowed them to go online or on radio or televised church services at times of crisis like this was never part of their plan because their short-sightedness does not allow them to rethink about ministry for 21st-century challenges, including climate change and its links to our health. The available infrastructure has been mainly directed at international audiences, not local congregations. It has also never been about their congregations but about how they can use such platforms to minister to gain respectability, online audiences and donations.
The question is, where is that spiritual power to perform miracles and heal people of coronavirus when we really need it? Prophet Owuor, who claims to have caused the virus because the world has rejected his gospel of fear and threats, is impotent. A couple of Sundays ago, he preached without an interpreter, as many of his followers wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other for fear of catching a disease he supposedly brought to the nation for rejecting his message. His sermons have always been fear-inducing. He preachers about a dreadful God who kills people on a whim. It is interesting that a man who claims that the clouds clap for him and the glory of God descends on him while preaching cannot pray away a global pandemic that can infect him and his retinue of thousands of followers in Kenya and beyond.
More importantly is that religious leaders are no longer the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the nation and defenders of social justice. It is about them and not the vulnerable. I have not seen any statement or press conference by the interreligious forum or the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) or the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya or the Conference of Catholic Bishops to assure a nation in a moment of deep fear and frustrations.
Yet, many leaders have the audacity to force members to go to church. Where is the voice of religious leaders in Kenya? Who will call out the government’s bluff for putting the lives of Kenyans in extreme danger? Where is Prophet Owuor, Kenya’s “spiritual president” who “resurrects the dead” and claims to have prophesied about COVID-19? Where are the miracle workers who claim to have the powers to delete HIV/AID, cancer, and diabetes? The refusal of many churches to cancel church services must be questioned by all. But even more importantly, the Kenyan religious community must defy their clergy and stay at home for their own health and that of their families and communities. I suggest that in light of this moment of great social anxieties, all religious activities must be cancelled to help contain the spread of the disease.
Exposing the sham
If there is anything we have learned from this experience, it is that the miracle and faith-healing industry is nothing but a sham. No religious leader has the power to heal you. Science is our only hope. Going to church right now is not just the height of spiritual carelessness, but also an act of foolishness. When the virus is under control, we can all troop back to our houses of worship.
In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus. They have asked communities of faith to change not just their usual religious practices, but their worship as well. Parishioners are not only conducting mass online but offering online prayer support and educating congregations about the scientific ways of mitigating the virus.
More importantly, they have come up with spiritual resources to help their followers remain spiritually connected during such times. These clergy and churches are institutions that are congregation-centred, not individual-centred. They have invested in infrastructure for a coronavirus pandemic and 21st-century challenges. For such churches and congregations, God is not found in a physical church, but everywhere and God does not speak to the clergy alone.
There is need to deinstitutionalise the church and question our high dependence on the so-called men and women of God. We must re-evaluate their moral and intellectual standards, and we must critically debate the theological foundations of the church in Kenya.
In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus.
The Kenyan Christian needs to be socialised not to depend so much on the clergy. God does not live in church but is everywhere. No clergyman has the monopoly and direct line to God. God lives in our minds and hearts. We can have church with ourselves and our families. The pastor has no magic to ward off coronavirus. He is as afraid as you are. But he can be a voice of hope and reason.
Many churches and clergy have denied science and climate change. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are the fastest growing churches in Africa, Latin America and Oceania, have always been at odds with science and climate change. One of the effects of climate change is the spread of pandemics like this. As human beings, we share the world with viruses and they attack us. Yet we have refused to be good stewards of the environment and we have denied climate change despite tremendous scientific evidence about its links to our human body.
The sheer magnitude and fast spread of the virus has paralysed the world and caused huge fear and confusion. For many religious people, it has caused an ecclesiological conundrum. Fear and confusion have taken over reason. Yet scientific data available calls us to do things differently; wash hands, minimise unnecessary travel, stay home while sick to reduce infecting others, keeping social distance, avoiding large crowds, such as church services, and maintaining social distance.
Different ways of being religious
What does it mean to be church in the age of coronavirus? How much should it matter that we continue to physically gather in spaces of worship in the midst of a pandemic that by its very nature is anti-crowding? Isn’t it the wise thing to do that the clergy should call off all religious activities to save lives and avoid mass spread of the pandemic? Is it not a death sentence to encourage people to go to church at such a time as this? Does it make any sense at all for people to continue to troop to churches, and other spaces of worship for prayer, fellowship and community making, when such actions put people in serious danger? Why do pastors have such a hold on peoples’ abilities to think? Is God only found in churches and mosques? Why are Kenyan churches clergy-centric and not people-centric? Can the African and Kenyan clergy spring to action and guide their congregations and provide the much- needed leadership in an era of crippling fear and uncertainties?
For many religious people, this time calls for many ways of being. It calls on us to deinstitutionalise faith and rethink innovative ways of being spiritual communities. It calls on us to decentralise the role of a clergy that does not think about us but about themselves. It calls on us to give science a chance, even as we continue to pray and hope and take care of each other. Taking care of each other is a spiritual exercise. This is the time to be good neighbours. This is the time for us to think about compassion and empathy, After all, science and faith are not in contradiction with each other.
Now is the time to ground ourselves in a gospel of social justice, not fake miracles and questionable cures.
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Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.
Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.
As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.
Adjudicating electoral fallouts
Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).
The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.
While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.
In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.
The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.
The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.
The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.
While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Supreme Court power grab
A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.
In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.
It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.
In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.
Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.
The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.
From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.
By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?
Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.
In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.
The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.
The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.
The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.
At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.
This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.
GMOs Are Not the Only Answer
In a country where agricultural production is dominated by smallholders, the decision to allow genetically modified crops and animal feeds into Kenya as a means of combatting perennial hunger ignores other safer and more accessible alternatives such as Conservation Agriculture.
Newly elected President William Ruto has, to use a much abused expression, hit the ground running. I am, however, not certain that he is running in the right direction. On 3 October 2022, during the second meeting of his recently (and unconstitutionally) constituted cabinet, Ruto announced that his government had authorized the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops and animal feeds, sweeping aside the grave concerns raised by Kenyans and lifting a ten-year ban with the stroke of a pen.
The decision was made at a time when Kenya is facing the worst drought in four decades that has left over four million people facing starvation. According to President Ruto, the adoption of GMOs is the solution to the recurring cycles of drought and famine that Kenyans have been increasingly experiencing.
I shall not go into the merits and demerits of what some call Frankenfoods here. However, it seems to me that Ruto’s decision is driven solely by the political imperative to bring down the price of maize through cheap imports of GM maize following the withdrawal of the maize subsidy.
Already, back in November 2018, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Greenpeace Africa had issued a joint statement raising “concerns over recent disconcerting developments in the country, that [suggest] the Government has made [a] unilateral decision to adopt genetically modified crops”, and adding that “an all-inclusive nationwide discourse through public participation, which addresses whether the technology is appropriate for us, is being circumvented”.
The group also voiced their suspicion that the report of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety that was set up by the Ministry of Health in 2013 was being withheld because it was against the adoption of GM foods. This suspicion may well be founded since, in making the announcement, State House said that the decision to lift the GMO ban was “made in accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force”, while failing to make the so-called Thairu report—which was submitted in 2014—available for public scrutiny.
The cabinet said that in reaching its decision to lift the ban it had also referred to reports of the European Food Safety Authority, among others.
The European Union’s policy on GMOs “respects the right-to-know by ensuring clear labelling and traceability of GMOs. This requires reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification (for authorised GMO) in food, feed, and the environment”. There is zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs and stringent regulation of products originating from or containing GMOs.
A detailed risk analysis and the availability of a validated method for locating, identifying, and quantifying GMOs in food or feed are prerequisites for authorization. For any GM launch, biotech businesses that want to market their product in the EU must submit an application. A very precise way of detecting each unique GMO is included in the application dossier.
The terms of reference of the government’s GMO task force included, among others, assessing Kenya’s infrastructural capacities to monitor genetically modified products in the country; assessing the adequacy of qualified human resource capacity to monitor research, use and importation of genetically modified products into the country; and recommending approval procedures for imports of GM foods.
If we are to look only at the procedures established by the National Biosafety Authority for the importation of GM products into the country, then we may conclude that Kenya lacks the infrastructural and qualified human resource capacity to monitor their research, use and importation. In effect, an entity wishing to import a GM product into the country is merely required to provide the particulars of the supplier, the nomenclature of the GMO, proof that the GMO has been registered in the exporting country, its use in the country of origin, its intended use in Kenya, a summary risk assessment, methods and plans for safe handling, storage, transport and use, and the emergency response foreseen in the event of an accident with the GMO. The second of the two-page the application document is reserved for the applicant’s signature before a commissioner for oaths, a magistrate or a judge. Means of detection of GMOs are not mentioned.
It would seem then that Ruto’s government has fully devolved the responsibility for Kenya’s biosafety and biosecurity to the authorities of foreign nations. This is very frightening when you consider, for example, that the European Union Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU. This double standard is the reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU find their way to Kenya, poisoning our bodies and our environment, and destroying our biodiversity.
Maize is not the only ugali
The lifting of the ban on GMOs may have sounded the death knell for Kenyan small-scale maize growers; GM maize is to be found on the international markets at prices that defy all competition, which will now prove to be a boon for well-connected maize-importing cartels.
But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.
As Noel Vietmeyer observes in the foreword to the first volume of Lost Crops of Africa,
“Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.”
But with initiatives such as the Busia County Biodiversity Policy, which recognises the role that biodiversity can play in addressing food insecurity, the tide is turning and Kenyans are rediscovering and embracing the culinary habits of our forebears. You would think then that the GMO decision will not, in the main, affect the choices we make in the foods we consume. That those of us a tad squeamish about eating foods that have been genetically interfered with can opt out.
Were it that simple.
Many Kenyans are unaware that the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 prohibits farmers from sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds. Yet, to mitigate against the effects of perennial droughts and the escalating costs of hybrid seeds, community seed banks have been conserving indigenous seeds—that are demonstrably more climate-resilient—for sale during the planting season, in contravention of the law and at the risk of a one million shilling fine, or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity. Small-scale farmers are fighting back, however, with a group from Machakos recently going to court to challenge the legislation. It remains to be seen who between David and Goliath will prevail.
But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.
What is clear is that Kenya’s David, while remaining impoverished over the decades since independence, is the mainstay of the country’s agriculture in terms of productivity. The Economic Survey (2021) of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports that,
“The share of marketed agricultural output for small farms increased marginally to 73.3 per cent in 2020. This is a reflection of the continued dominance of the smallholder sector in the marketing of agricultural produce during the year under review. The value of sales through small farms increased by 9.4 per cent from KSh 341.4 billion in 2019 to KSh 373.6 billion in 2020. Similarly, the value of sales by large farms increased by 8.9 per cent from KSh 125.0 billion in 2019 to KSh 136.1 billion in 2020.”
The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.
The small-holder has consistently outperformed the large-scale farmer despite government policies that have since the 70s viewed smallholders as without agency beyond adopting technologies that are presented as capable of transforming agriculture and building livelihoods. The adoption of GMOs is likely to be yet another of these technologies that, together with unjust seed legislation, will increase rather than decrease Kenya’s food insecurity.
President Ruto worries about food insecurity but fails to consider the very ready solution available to his administration and recommended in the Agricultural Policy (2021) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, namely, conservation agriculture.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO – also quoted in Ruto’s decision to lift the GMO ban) recommends conservation agriculture as it is a sustainable system of production that conserves and enhances natural resources; enhances biodiversity; assists in carbon sequestration; is less labour and fertilizer intensive; improves the health of soils; and increases yields over time.
Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity.
The very promising results obtained among the small-scale farmers that have adopted the system following training under the FAO beginning in 2015 show that the government would do well to promote conservation agriculture among smallholders as a means of mitigating both against food insecurity and the effects of climate change, rather than hastily reaching for GM technologies that the country is ill-equipped to safely handle.
But clearly, the president is not on the same page as his Ministry of Agriculture and so, like others, I can only conclude that Ruto’s lifting of the GMO ban is for the benefit of the seed multinationals and their clients, the large-scale farmers who have taken over most of the productive land to grow cash crops for export, leaving small-scale farmers to exploit marginal lands for the production of food crops for local consumption. And for the benefit of maize-importing cartels.
Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya
Mary Kanyaman Ekai was a peace ambassador from Turkana County who lost her life in the course of saving her family’s livestock in Turkana East on September 24th 2022. Kanyaman’s case illustrates the complexity of “cattle rustling” at Kenya’s northern frontier from a gender perspective.
Following the recent rise of incidents at the border of Baringo, Turkana and West Pokot County, it seems timely to learn more about a strong female figure, a woman who dedicated her life to the fight against the frequent outbreaks of violence. By providing a short portrait of Kanyaman, we are able to illustrate the role of women in conflict resolution. Grounded in the authors’ ethnographic research conducted in both West Pokot and Turkana County, the article is based not only on an in-depth interview conducted in 2020 with Kanyaman, but also on the broad expertise of social scientists working in the respective areas.
It was pure luck that led to the meeting with Mary Kanyaman Ekai in December 2020. Mary was visiting Kapenguria on some errands for the Turkana County Government and I (Elizabeth Ndunda), on my part, was seeking information from influential elders from the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya. The tall lady in the elegant dress was introduced to me as mama wa maji na amani, Swahili for mother of water and peace. I immediately recognized Mary the moment she entered the room. I knew her from various news feeds and meetings with officials where she prominently acted as peace ambassador and environmental and gender activist.
On this December 2020, Mary was on a sad mission. The previous day, bandits had attacked the village of Lopii in Turkana East and killed three young men, taking off with a considerable number of livestock. Although these kinds of violent outbreaks often involve brutal, reckless murder and criminal marketing chains, they are commonly labelled “cattle rustling” or “cattle raiding”, with the act of stealing cattle portrayed as culturally intrinsic to pastoralist societies. Yet, the shifting nature of the raids, which are driven by economic logic and modern forms of violence, should more accurately be referred to as “predatory raiding”, according to international security advisor Dylan Henrickson.
Mary and her entourage were in Kapenguria to seek the County Commissioner’s help in following up the bandits and ultimately punishing them before more attacks occurred. This has been a continuous cycle between the government and the communities of north-western Kenya.
Later the same day, while we were enjoying a cold soda in the unforgiving heat of West Pokot, Mary remarked that, for this specific meeting, Kalya Hotel was very aptly named, as kalya means peace in the Pokot language. The objective of our encounter was to discuss the weaknesses and challenges of the current conflict resolution mechanisms in northern Kenya. These mechanisms usually include disarmament measures, peace barazas (Swahili for meeting), peace caravans and arbitration measures. Disarmament involves the military and police, a common state response to regain control after a period of violence. Peace caravans are the latest, trendy mechanism for peacebuilding. Professionals from each county organize themselves and move from county to sub-county gathering villagers together and speaking of the need for peace. The colourful events usually include a lot of entertainment in order to attract many participants. However, Mary’s biggest concern was that women were simply left out and not considered able to play an important role in conflict resolution. She is far from being alone in holding this opinion. In a 1991 book titled Women and Things: Pokot Motherhood as Political Destiny, anthropologist Barbara Bianco states that the majority of peace projects target the men. Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors. And yet they play a significant role.
So, who better than Mary Kanyaman Ekai, with her deep insights into these mechanisms, to be the perfect source of information on the subject? Born in 1979 in Turkana East, Mary learned the sad reality of raids early in her childhood, when she had to flee her home after the painful loss of family members to livestock rustling. Despite this stroke of fate, the girl’s athletic skills came to the fore in school as did her driven ambition to acquire an education. A Bachelor of Microbiology and Biotechnology and one of the few female Turkana professionals, Mary was predestined to become a public servant in the Ministry of Health. However, she didn’t rest on her laurels but pioneered the Golden Valley Cooperative Society, whose objective was to enhance resilience through improved and commercialized livestock production and to champion peaceful coexistence between neighbouring communities in the border areas of Baringo, Samburu and Turkana. Mary believed that peaceful coexistence among the pastoralist communities could be achieved if only pastoralists had alternative livelihoods and women had a greater voice.
Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors.
Although Mary immediately agreed to our meeting, it took us some time before we were able to settle down; Mary was constantly interrupted by many people claiming her attention. I could understand this as I too was drawn to her strong voice filled with emotion as she spoke of the deaths that cattle rustling has caused in the region. Her phone rang constantly during the interview, a reminder of the busy life that she led and the tight schedule that she kept.
“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.” Her brother, the lawyer Dr Ekuru Aukot, vied for the presidency on a Third Party Alliance ticket in 2017. Laughing, Mary says, “Here in this pastoralist culture, it is difficult for a woman to have her own identity, she is either a daughter or a wife of someone. I sit in the County Government yet even there I’m known as Ekuru’s sister.” With some resignation in her voice, she goes on to explain that it is this mentality and culture that has led to the role of women in conflict resolution being ignored by many peace projects and NGOs. Women from pastoralist communities are often considered victims, not active participants in the conflict. She asked me, “Isn’t it common to assume that women have little role to play in conflicts since northern Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society with archaic beliefs and supposedly harming norms including early marriage and FGM?” Mary declared this point of view faulty.
“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.”
Yes, women are victims of conflict and often face the highest security threats during periods of violence, being exposed to both physical and sexual violence. However, Mary was convinced that women play a significant role in motivating men to engage in livestock rustling. She explained that for a young man and woman to lead an accomplished life, they must marry and have children. While undergoing initiation is one important step in the journey from childhood to adulthood, young men are also required to show their courage, and acquire wealth which in turn attracts the “best wife”. This wealth is in the form of livestock—cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys—that can be grown through careful breeding of animals, or simply through raiding. Dowry is often daunting and young men have little to show, and the list of fathers (every paternal uncle) who expect some livestock in exchange for their precious daughter is long. Their wives-to-be, in turn, encourage and motivate them to acquire the needed wealth and prestige as rapidly as possible.
This view is shared by officials of the county government’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. They state that while women understand the disadvantages and the calamities brought on by raiding, they are quick to defend and praise the sons and husbands who participate. This seems understandable, as men are expected to avenge death and destruction by recovering stolen livestock. Of course this creates a cycle of violence as each group feels the need for revenge. However, to simply assume pastoralists do so to impress their women would be to ignore the lack of security and justice in northern Kenya. The responsibility to recover stolen animals that are crucial for their livelihood is often left with the victims. Therefore, the women are not defending or praising violence per se, but are trying to ensure security, justice, and continuity.
Although “beaded” girls and mothers challenge their men to participate in raids through mocking and praise songs, they also want their husbands to come back alive. Lal is a ceremony during which returning warriors are anointed with oil held in a lal, a cattle horn of high symbolic value that has been blessed by spiritual elders. The honouring and cleansing of warriors with the lal after raids is done exclusively by women. It is the women’s duty to spread the oil in the lal on the warriors after a battle or to carry it to the areas where the warriors congregate. Mary encouraged women to stop the cycle of violence by refusing to protect the men during livestock rustling.
So, is it all women’s fault?
It is a little more complex than that. Professor Kennedy Mkutu, an expert in the field of violence and guns in northern Kenya, argues that pastoralists are under threat from inadequate policing, pressure on land and common resources, and the proliferation of small arms. The number of small arms circulating within the region is concerning; spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation. Another factor that adds to the complexity is the devastating long-term absence of rain. The pressure on communally owned and unregistered land is not only high due to the changing climate but is further exacerbated by outside interests in resources such as crude oil, gold or sand. And as if all this was not enough, politicians exploit the precarious situation.
“Now”, I ask Mary, “with declining resources—over which women have little to no control—and the increase in small arms, and as disarmament measures fail and guns become more common, what can women do?” I was surprised to see Mary laugh heartily, “You look at women as weak and lacking control. Women are the instigators of violence between the Pokot and Turkana. The men fight because of us. I may not have control over the use and ownership of cattle, animals or property but I do not want to be married to a poor man, worst of all a coward. Until their [women’s] participation is seen and understood, we cannot adequately address conflict.” For instance, women have begun playing a vital role in armament. With disarmament measures being stepped-up, and with constant checks and increased patrols along the borders, women transport small arms and ammunition from Somalia and Uganda, hiding them in their clothes and undergarments. It is easy for the women because they are not as thoroughly searched as men are.
“Spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation.”
Mary must have seen my eyebrows rising and was quick to reassure me that women are indeed quite vocal in encouraging their men to engage in livestock rustling. However, they remain timid on issues of peace and collaboration. “Older women who have a strong standing in the community may become vocal about peace, but the younger women are more supportive of their raider husbands, arguing that this is the only means of gaining wealth, economic and social status.” Elderly women have probably seen more destruction from the violence, the lost sons, brothers and husbands. They have faced highly volatile situations throughout life and have become more inclined to peace. Their participation in peacebuilding stems from the knowledge and experience that violence has devastating effects notwithstanding the wealth gained. The younger women are more desperate to find a “suitable partner”, one who will bring them pride and wealth, and earn them respect.
Therefore, for women leaders in the pastoral regions such as Mary Kanyaman, women hold the answer to sustainable peace. Mary held onto the belief that cooperation among the pastoralist women would “silence the guns”. To illustrate, Mary showed me an intricate belt, made from cow hide and decorated with shells. This belt is known as leketyo and is a powerful symbol for some pastoralists women. The belt is given to a woman during her first pregnancy, to protect the child she carries. It ultimately connects her with the child and its lifeline. Interestingly, so explains Mary to me, when a warrior goes to raid, he requests his mother to wear the belt, to ensure her child is protected. “Every pastoralist woman, even we who are modern, has their belt,” says Mary, seemingly lost in thought, brushing away some imaginary dust from the shells on the belt.
During the March 2020 POTUMA peace campaigns that took place in Kapenguria, Kainuk and Marich, organized by the former Minister of Immigration, Linah Kilimo, women, both old and young, publicly removed the belts, a symbol that they would no longer be active participants in the conflict. Those going for war could rely on themselves for protection. By removing their belts, the respected elderly women had placed a curse on those involved in violence and especially in acts of rape, which is taboo.
“There was so much crying from 2019, so many of our children died as they fought for cows,” Mary said. Indeed, statistics from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) records show that in 2018 alone 11 raids and 4 fatalities occurred. In 2019, ACLED records more than twelve dead in the first raid, followed by various massacres that brought the fatalities to a total of 47. Only deaths were recorded. The injured, the traumatised and the destroyed families and livelihoods are not reflected. “Enough was enough. We toured hotspots including Kainuk and Sigor and we challenged women to take up the mantle of peacebuilding. The lal was silent, there were no songs composed for warriors that season. Women did not go to ceremonies honouring warriors and therefore there was no singing”.
According to Mary, this peace campaign had a significant influence because the women were finally involved. “While government officials were searching for the bandits, we women knew exactly where they were hiding. They rely on us for food and water as they prepare to raid. We told them clearly; we will let the police know where they are when asked. This ultimately led to a long period of peace and collaboration”. It seems it was a peaceful time; people travelled from Lodwar to Kainuk to get products for sale, and to do business. Women from Loyaa went all the way to Kapenguria to shop and sell milk. It was a good time. However, according to Mary, problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew. The seeds of hatred grew fast. “Within weeks, we were back to fighting again.” However, contrary to other times, there has been a growing number of women actively involved in and participating in peacebuilding. For instance, the current Bunge la Wananchi grassroots assembly in Kapenguria holds the highest number of women from Marakwet, Turkana and Pokot participants ever, who are working towards peace-making and peacebuilding within their villages. This is an achievement for Mary. However, there is still a lot to be done.
Problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew.
That day in Kapenguria, I would never have expected that the energetic peace ambassador seated in front of me in the Kalya Hotel would become a victim of livestock rustling herself. After her brother Ekuru Aukot announced Mary’s death on September 24th 2022, social media channels reported that besides Mary, eight General Service Unit (GSU) police officers, one Senior Chief and two civilians were found dead after they were ambushed by bandits at Namariat Kakiteitei in Turkana East. The story of her death reads like a crime novel. In the night of Friday to Saturday, the village of Ngikengoi was searched by armed bandits who stole livestock and murdered two people. Mary called for security backup to recover the livestock and volunteered to have the law enforcement officials use her vehicle to pursue the suspects. But, for whatever reason, the bandits got wind of the operation and laid a trap for the two vehicles.
Social media channels were awash with devastating pictures of the crime scene, with some commentators crying for revenge, while others called for an end to the violence. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the picture of a mother of four, a wife, a government servant, and a peace ambassador—a role model for women—laying there shot dead. Would we fall into another cycle of violence and revenge?
It has become obvious that current state mechanisms are not effective enough. The short-term disarmament followed by highly publicized peacebuilding barazas seem nothing more than a cosmetic solution to an internalized problem. Mary’s death should be a lesson to both local and national leaders and calls for an immediate change in the response to the violence. Within a society where women have been both victims and motivators of livestock rustling, they must become actively involved in peace-making. As Mary said, “Women are in a unique position, but largely ignored. They can reach their husbands within their homes, they can admonish their sons. Men informally seek the advice and approval of their wives, and sons seek to bring their mothers joy and pride. Therein lies an opportunity that is yet to be explored in order to shift the tide of violence in northern Kenya”.
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