Kenya: Cooperation, Co-optation, and Confrontation

Most Kenyans consider religious faith to be a core part of their identity. Survey data suggests that religion is an important part of life for almost 90 percent of Kenyans, and places of worship are focal points of Kenyan communities large and small. Recognizing this reality, Kenya’s leaders consider it prudent to engage with the institutions and representatives of the main faith communities. Politicians are generally respectful of religious leaders and take care to cultivate support from religious organizations. Not only do they conduct business in their official capacity as public servants; they also attend the church or mosque as private citizens, where they informally influence—and are influenced by—spiritual leaders.
Under Kenya’s constitution, the state has a modest mandate in managing religious relations and religious discourse. Its main responsibilities cover four key areas. First, the state has a constitutional obligation to protect freedom of religion and freedom of worship. Second, it is responsible for registering and regulating religious organizations. Third, the state oversees an education sector that includes many schools that were founded by—and in some cases are still run by—religious organizations. Fourth, the state supports and participates in institutions for organized, regular discourse with religious communities.

Yet in practice, Kenyan governments and politicians, while generally respectful of religious communities and their leaders, frequently overstep the responsibilities mandated by the state. Ultimately, the state’s more robust approach to religious management stems from a desire to maintain political control. However, its increasingly coercive approach fuels interreligious tensions, particularly in the Muslim community, and has accelerated religious diffusion throughout Kenya. The current government of Uhuru Kenyatta has found that controlling religious groups is a harder task than ever before because of Kenya’s increasingly diverse, fragmented religious landscape. The government has followed the practice of its predecessors, adopting a strategy of divide and rule, rather than trying to promote cohesion among its religious communities. It favors the Christian majority over the Muslim minority, a stance that has become more pronounced in response to a terrorist threat that has attracted support from a small number of Muslims. Arguably, religious polarization helps the government consolidate control in the short term but carries long-term risks for social peace and Kenya’s stability.
This chapter is part of Faith in the Balance: Regulating Religious Affairs in Africa.

Richard Downie