Kenya under Growing Pressure to Regulate “Spiritual Fraudsters”

This commentary is part of a year-long study examining how states in Africa seek to manage religious affairs. The project is made possible with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

In late August, a prominent Kenyan televangelist, James Ng’ang’a, appeared before magistrates north of Nairobi to answer charges of issuing death threats against a journalist. Ng’ang’a had been enraged by a television panel discussion in which media personality Linus Kaikai said, “the people behind these so-called churches have gone rogue in the name of Jesus, in the name of God. We are dealing with thieves not men of God.” Kaikai concluded by calling for tighter regulation of religious institutions and suggested emulating Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s controversial decision to shut down 6,000 churches.

Ng’ang’a’s outburst—for which he apologized in court—suggests that a lively public debate about the appropriate sources and uses of church financing has struck a raw nerve among some of its leaders. Ng’ang’a represents the kind of modern businessperson in charge of evangelical churches in many parts of Africa. Dubbed by their critics as “churchpreneurs,” these figures have amassed influence, large congregations, and considerable personal wealth by monetizing religious belief among Africa’s highly devout populations. Their message draws heavily from the prosperity gospel, a self-help doctrine that makes the attractive argument that spiritual health will lead to financial wealth.

One possible response to sharp financial practices within the church is closer scrutiny by the state. In February, a member of parliament with Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Party, Muturi Kigano, introduced a motion in the National Assembly to increase accountability and financial transparency among religious institutions. Kigano wants to strengthen the Societies Act, which requires religious organizations (and other clubs, associations, and companies) to register with the authorities and file annual returns. He said his aim was to weed out rogue pastors and target the commercial practices of what he called the modern-day churches rather than the mainline denominations that provide schools, clinics, and other social services.

Similar proposals from 2016 were opposed by several organizations representing the main Christian denominations as well as Muslim bodies. The plans would have required religious institutions to register with a recognized umbrella religious organization, submit their articles of faith, and list their charitable activities. In addition, their leaders would have been obliged to provide proof of their theological qualifications.

Religious leaders, however, argued that they should be allowed to regulate their own affairs, pointing out that individuals who committed crimes could be dealt with under Kenya’s existing laws. In their view, additional regulations would represent government overreach and breach the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. Many recalled the abuses of the 1990s, when President Daniel arap Moi responded to criticism of his leadership from the Protestant church by transferring its authority to register its own member organizations to the attorney general’s office.

Kigano’s proposals, even if they stall, represent a potent warning for the church to clean its own house or face a tougher operating environment. President Uhuru Kenyatta has recently stepped up his anticorruption campaign perhaps with a view to securing his legacy and shaping succession as he prepares to leave office in 2022. He has been especially uncompromising when targeting politicians linked to his colleague and rival, Deputy President William Ruto. In July, Kenya’s finance minister, who is seen as a Ruto ally, was charged with bribery, abuse of office, and other crimes. In the same month, a ruling party governor considered close to Ruto was also detained in connection with a procurement scandal. Kenyatta so far has avoided a confrontation with the clergy, even shelving the idea of tighter regulations in January 2016. However, political imperatives may spur him to reconsider. Ruto has a history of parading himself in front of congregations bestowing gifts of cash and in-kind contributions to grateful church leaders. In January, he made a public gift of a car to the newly-installed Catholic archbishop of Kisumu, in western Kenya.

The church recognizes the threat of collateral damage from this political power play and some denominations are trying to place their political benefactors at arms’ length. The Anglican Church of Kenya announced it would no longer allow church premises to be used for fundraisers that involve politicians. But the issue has exposed divisions within the church. The main umbrella organization for Protestants, the National Council of Churches of Kenya, is more reluctant to shut off a lucrative source of funding. One of its members complained that the church should not be expected to refuse all contributions because some of the money might be dirty.

When Kaikai said some pastors “preach prosperity but only they profit,” it almost certainly resonated with the Kenyan public. The question is whether the state will start to police the church’s business dealings and—if so—will it be for the right reasons?

Richard Downie is a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Richard Downie