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On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.61 n.2 Durban  2016 



"Pulpit power" and the unrelenting voice of Archbishop David Gitari in the democratisation of Kenya, 1986 to 1991



Stephen Muoki JoshuaI; Stephen Asol KapindeII

ISenior lecturer and a chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Pwani University. Research fellow at the University of South Africa
IIAdjunct lecturer at Pwani University




This article sets out to analyse the role of pulpit preaching in the struggle towards the re-emergence of multi-party democracy in Kenya. It argues that through "pulpit power", certain clerics, notably David Gitari, Alexander Muge, Henry Okullu and Timothy Njoya, initiated a process of transformation as individual activists at a time when the state had effectively silenced voices that demanded political change. It then moves on to chronicle David Gitari's sermons as a case in point to demonstrate that his political sermons promoted a culture of defiance in the country and marked the genesis of the so called "second liberation" in Kenya. It relies on archival sources and correspondence material as well as a number of searching in-depth oral interviews.

Key words: David Gitari; clergy; Daniel arap Moi; political sermons; democracy in Kenya; activism; Anglican Church.


Hierdie artikel ontleed die rol van preekstoel-prediking in die stryd om 'n veelparty-demokrasie in Kenia te laat herleef. Daar word aangevoer dat, deur "die mag van die preekstoel", sommige geestelikes, vernaam David Gitari, Alexander Muge, Henry Okullu en Timothy Njoya, as individuele aktiviste 'n proses van verandering teweeggebring het in 'n tyd waarin die staat vir alle praktiese doeleindes daarin geslaag het om stemme wat op politieke verandering aangedring het, stil te maak. Daarop word 'n kroniek van David Gitari se preke gegee om sodoende te wys hoe sy politieke preke 'n kuituur van verset in die land aangewakker het, en die sogenaamde "tweede bevryding" in Kenia ingelui het. Die artikel steun op argivale bronne en korrespondensie, sowel as 'n aantal diepgaande onderhoude.

Sleutelwoorde: David Gitari; geestelikes; Daniel arap Moi; politieke preke; demokrasie in Kenia; aktivisme; Anglikaanse Kerk.




On 22 August 1978, Daniel Torotich arap Moi came to power in Kenya following the demise of the founding father of the nation, Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978). Moi's formative days in office were quite promising, especially with the release of political detainees.1 Early in his first term in office, President Moi, a Kalenjin by ethnic group, called for peace, love and unity. This call was well received by most Church leaders because they felt that it was in keeping with Christian principles.2 It is on this basis that the Church, via the National Church Council of Kenya (NCCK) under David Gitari as the chairman, became involved in certain state activities that were aimed at poverty alleviation and the integration of the various Kenyan communities.3 This cooperation, which was only witnessed during the nascent days of Moi's rule, commenced in 1978 when the NCCK formed a committee chaired by Gitari to look into the biblical relevance of nyayo philosophy.4 Later, NCCK operated like any other state department, in other words, it lacked a critical voice that was in a position to raise the alarm over state malpractices that were emerging day by day, such as the "Kalenjinisation"5 of the military and the civil service.6 Changes such as this were made because Moi had inherited a civil service, military and other professional bodies that were predominantly composed of officials from the Agikuyu ethnic community.7

In his consolidation of power, although Kenya had been a de facto one party state for some time, Moi felt that growing opposition, mainly from the Agikuyu power elites and Luo community, was a threat to the establishment.8 On 9 June 1982, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) rushed through an amendment to the constitution that made Kenya a de jure one-party state, thereby criminalising the formation of any political party to rival KANU. The urgency of this step was compounded by the fact that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and George Moseti Anyona, aware that Kenya was still a de facto single-party state, were planning to register a new political outfit, to be named the Kenya SocialistAlliance in June 1982.9 In the long run, Moi perpetuated corruption, oppression of political competitors and any pro-change elements, while at the same time flirting with mass line populism under the guise of nyayo,10thereby entrenching political patronage in a manner similar to that ofhis predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta.11

Consequently, an attempted coup d'état was organised on 1 August 1982 by junior Kenya Air Force (KAF) officers drawn mainly from the Luo and Agikuyu ethnic community.12 They challenged the officialdom of Moi and put his legitimacy as the head of state to the test.13 According to Throup and Hornsby:

The motivation behind this coup is very obscure, but the dissatisfaction of the Agikuyu power elites with Moi and the political alienation of the Luo community by the Kenyatta and Moi regimes seem to have been the main impetus which drove the two ethnic political adversaries to converge in an attempt to oust the incumbent.14

It appears that political opportunity rather than ideological issues were behind the coup. However, many commentators place the reasons for the failed coup on the deteriorating economic situation; the politics of clientilism; state unaccountability; and human rights abuses. The aftermath of the coup was disastrous - it led to total disorder, provoking several days of political upheavals and unrest throughout the country, although these were largely spontaneous in nature.15

Galia Sabar is in agreement with Throup and Hornsby that the coup attempt awakened the state and transformed Kenya's political landscape.16 She observes:

Moi embarked on a coercive centralizing process like his predecessor that entailed the curtailing of free expression in parliament and the limiting of the autonomy and independence of the judiciary.17

She further argues that political persecution as well as the criminalisation of opposition groups and restrictions placed on political gatherings were moves calculated to strengthen the de jure one-party state.18 What followed was limitations placed on the activities of professionals, including student and academic unions, ethnic groups and religious organisations.19 Simply put, alternate political voices were mercilessly suppressed.20Under such conditions, the true ideals of nyayoism as captured by Gitari and others in their work on the "biblical relevance of nyayo" were compromised.

In an interview which Stephen Kapinde conducted with Ephantus Muriuki, an Anglican priest who served in Mount Kenya East diocese in the 1980s, Muriuki succinctly observed that true love, unity and peace evaporated into political hatred, disunity and betrayal, making Moi out to be the main pillar of nyayo philosophy.21Similarly, Franz Fanon contended that "single party states ... [are] nothing but the name, the emblem, and motto and they ... [are] used to immobilise the people and become a means for self-advancement".22 Joseph Ng'awatha, a political analyst who was also interviewed, summarised this self-advancement when he noted that "Moi earned the infamous slogan nyayo and nyayo became synonymous to Moi - a clear sign of personalisation of power and centralisation of the presidency under a one-party system."23 Indeed, this was a fulfilment of Henry Okullu's24 earlier warning that:

Politically most African states were ruled by military dictators with every individual's life expendable at any time the ruler may decide ... Powerful bureaucracies rule the few remaining states. Leadership is personalized and this personalization leads to idolization of the leader to such an extent that people are made to believe that their rights come from the generosity of that leader.25

Okullu illuminated this trend of personalisation further by arguing that "power is sought and maintained, often by unjust means, for its own sake". As a result of this, he goes on to say, Africa is involuntarily experimenting with something new, a system of government which can best be described as one-party dictatorship.26 In this line of interpretation, David Kodia said that a system such as this nullified all possibility of having an accountable government in Africa.27 It is indeed an antidote to democratisation in Africa.

Okullu and Kodia's observations have also not escaped the writings of O'Donovan that have spelt out the general character of political leaders in modern Africa as follows. He is more often than not:

...a big man who looks like this. His face is on the money. His photograph hangs in every office in his realm. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals and universities after himself. He insists on being called "doctor" or "... the big elephant" or ... "the wise old man, or the national miracle". His every pronouncement is reported on the front page... He scapegoats minorities to shore up support. He rigs elections. He emasculates courtjustice. He cows the press. His enemies are detained or exiled, humiliated or bankrupted, tortured or killed. He uses the resources of the state to feed a cult of personality and defines himself as incorruptible, all knowing ... and kind to children. His cult equates his personal well-being with the wellbeing of the state.28

O'Donovan's observation is married to the assertion by Kodias that the common denominator between African dictators and advocates of a single-party system is being praised like gods on earth.29 Moi, in particular, perfected this feature with songs being composed in his honour.30 Such songs were termed "patriotic" and healthy for national cohesion.31 Using African metaphor, Kodia referred to African leaders as "the only cock that could crow", the inference being that other mature cocks were clamped down by unorthodox means.32

With a crackdown on dissidence and the limited political space characterised by detention of opposition politicians; arrest and harassment of journalists and academics; and a clampdown on political associations or debates (except those for the glorification of Moi and the presidency) there were many schools, streets, stadiums and airports named after him. Moi explicitly qualified O'Donovan's description of "presidential cult-dom".33 There was an environment of fear and it became nearly impossible to set any social movement against the state.34Galia Sabar observed that limited political association paralysed the process of transforming information and ideas into action.35This gave credence to the rise of informal individual activism and the culture of defiance that was growing day by day.

In the frontline of individual Church activism were Rev. Henry Okullu who served as the bishop of the Maseno South Diocese of the Anglican Church; Rev. Alexander Muge, an outspoken Anglican bishop of Eldoret diocese, who was assassinated in 1990; Rev. David Gitari, the Anglican prelate of Mt. Kenya East diocese; and Rev. Timothy Njoya, a moderator in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), who was later demoted by the Church leadership due to his unrelenting criticism of the state. This "quartet" was commonly referred to by politicians, as "a thorn in the flesh" to Moi and his political ilk.36In her study, Galia Sabar gives credence to the Anglican Church (formerly the Church of the Province of Kenya) as the architect of a reform agenda in Kenya. Sabar's work was based on her wide network and financial independence.37But at the same time, she also gave attention to the three Anglican clergy within the reform train alongside Rev. Timothy Njoya of PCEA. In her writings, she painted a picture of the clergy as playing a secondary role in the struggle, contrary to other findings that locate the individual clergy as the primary driving force of the game of change.38 However, her perspective is of great significance considering the historical context under which these clergy were emerging as voices of reason and the Church as a shelter of immunity against state backlash.

The involvement of the clergy in political discourses was largely motivated by the absence of opposition parties and the crackdown on dissidents, which was marked by severe state surveillance and censorship.39Therefore the Church and semi-professional bodies such as the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), became the only independent institution(s) that could speak out against state malpractices.40Galia Sabar, while invoking the importance of the Church as an independent institution said:

from then on, the churches, and especially the Church Province of Kenya (CPK), became one of the few remaining channels to express discontent and the desire for change in the country. Furthermore, the opportunity for the clergy to speak freely to their congregations and the possibility for CPK members to exchange views within the physical shelter of the Church thus acquired grand strategic significance.41

This article narrows down the discussion to a single cleric, the Rev. David Gitari and attempts an analysis of his sermons and their influence in motivating democratic space in Kenya during the period under review.


Pulpit power and David Gitari

On 18 May 1987, the then president, Daniel arap Moi, announced that the registration of voters was to commence on 15 June 1987 and that only members with identification cards and KANU membership cards would be allowed to vote.42This state declaration did not go down well with Gitari, as observed by Ephantus Muriuki, John Mararo and John Kangangi in an interview with the two authors of this article.43

According to Gitari, the state had flagrantly violated the constitution. This move, he said, was a contravention of section 43 of the (former) constitution which laid down the qualification and disqualifications for registration as a voter. The 1987 declaration disenfranchised a huge chunk of voters.44 To prove his case, Gitari delivered a sermon titled "Harassed and Helpless" - an exposition based on Matthew 9:35-38 which reads:

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.45

In his hermeneutics, the prelate claimed that the citizens of Kenya were harassed like sheep without a shepherd because they were being blocked from exercising their democratic right.46 In this sermon, Gitari addressed a