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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 1 January 2001

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Christian-Muslim relations and constitutional reform

By Cathy Majtenyi

An unusual thing happened on the way to constitutional reform in Kenya. In the midst of a struggle to press for changes to the outdated and sometimes-repressive document - and despite rocky experiences in surrounding countries - an unlikely alliance has formed between Christians and Muslims, primarily within the Ufungamano Initiative. And, even stranger, this alliance continues to tighten despite attempts to break it up, such as the recent mosque and church burnings in Nairobi.

Ironically, the sight of flames shooting up into the sky from Nairobi's South B mosque on November 30 and the image of the burned-out shell of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church the following day cemented the Christian and Muslim leadership co-operation. Anglican Archbishop David Gitari's experience of being hit on the head with a rock and barely escaping with his life after Muslim religious leaders and faithful whisked him away from an unruly mob, personifies the deepening cooperation between the two. This was followed by a December 1 joint press conference and statement by nine Christian, Muslim, and Hindu Ufungamano leaders from such places as the Kenya Episcopal Conference (KEC), the National Council of Churches of Kenya, and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence that is increasing in our country," especially the mosque and church burnings, they said. "We strongly suspect that the violence is instigated or allowed to divert people's attention from the real problems affecting Kenyans and the urgent need to review their constitution. We also suspect that there could be a scheme to move from the painful ethnic clashes that have been witnessed in the past to equally devastating religious clashes in an endeavor to cause divisions in the country." And the most telling of all: "We wish to inform all and sundry and especially those with such schemes that we shall continue working hard and in unity to the very end."

Change is needed

The Ufungamano movement - an initiative of more than 52 religious and secular organizations formed in December of last year with the aim of reviving an earlier unsuccessful constitutional process - is the most high-profile and widespread attempt to change the country's constitution right from the grassroots level. Within Ufungamano, the People's Commission of Kenya (PCK) is the structure that collects views from people in villages and cities through open fora and other methods. The aim is to change Kenya's constitution before the 2002 elections.

Constitutional reform has been high in the minds of Kenyans, particularly this past decade. Following Kenya's first multi-party election in 1992, there was national consensus that the constitution needed to be changed to address power imbalances that result in human rights abuses, corruption, mismanagement, and other ills, and to reflect changes that have taken place since Kenya's independence in 1964. Kenya's original constitution was drawn up in Lancaster, England, in 1963.

Just before the 1997 election, the government published a bill that would have set up a commission to hear peoples' views on constitutional reform, with the aim of changing the constitution. The opposition rejected the bill, saying that the proposed commission was not inclusive or independent enough. Following the election, a group of parliamentarians from all political parties agreed to initiate talks that would amend the original bill. Representatives from the religious community, political parties, non-government organizations, and women's groups hammered out a draft bill, which was signed by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and became law in October 1999.

But when it came time to nominate representatives for the new commission, the political parties couldn't agree who to nominate, despite the best efforts of the church to reconcile the political parties. Several months later, religious representatives tried to reconcile everyone at a meeting at Ufungamano House in Nairobi, where the initiative was born. Constitutional changes that groups are pushing for include: separating the powers and independence of Parliament, the executive, and the judiciary; outlawing detention without trial; striking capital punishment off the books; and giving Parliament the power to impeach or force the resignation of the president.

Co-operation by default

The religious community - made up of Christian, Muslim, and Hindu representatives - is responsible for resolving conflicts in the Ufungamano discussions and "providing leadership to steer the process to its logical conclusion," says Zein Abubakar, Ufungamano commissioner and PCK spokesperson. "The reason why the religious community was entrusted with this is because people still have trust in religious institutions in Kenya," says Abubakar, adding that this multi-faith partnership - particularly between the Christians and Muslims - is the first of its kind in Kenya's history.

Prior to the Ufungamano Initiative, there has been little or no cooperation between Christians and Muslims on common projects, observers note. The experience of Christian-Muslim conflicts in such countries as Sudan and Nigeria, the nature of Cold-War politics, and changing East-West world views could have "easily" induced Kenya to "become a battlefield," says Otieno Ombok, constitution and land coordinator with Chemi Chemi ya Ukweli, an inter-faith advocacy group. For instance, there was also one point in mid-1998, where tensions between Christians and Muslims were running very high following the public blaspheming of the Prophet Mohammed by an American preacher, the attack of a Catholic nun in Wajir, and the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi. But Christian and Muslim leaders met on August 25 of that year to discuss, and defuse, the tensions. Religious leaders and politicians can also manipulate religious teachings and practices to meet their selfish goals, says Ombok. "All that one has to do is to invoke some of those readings and the just war theory in Catholicism or Jihad in Islam"

However, the controversy over introducing sex education in schools - which resulted in Muslims and Catholic Cardinal Maurice Otunga jointly condemning the move - laid the groundwork for future Christian-Muslim cooperation, says Ouma Akoth, a program officer with the Kenya Human Rights Commission. He said Chemi Chemi is in the process of setting up a permanent inter-faith commission that will help build relations between the two.

This cooperation was very ad-hoc and happened almost by default at first. Ibrahim Lethome, Nairobi advocate, legal council for the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, and Ufungamano commissioner, recalls how Christians and Muslims came in as separate stakeholders representing their respective communities and were lumped in together under the category of "religious organizations." After talking a bit, the two discovered they had a lot in common. "Most of the problems affecting this country are problems that are related to morality," says Lethome. "We believe that the churches and the mosques have a big role to play in correcting the evils and wrongs that we are seeing in society today." Interestingly, theological and practical differences between Christians and Muslims are hardly ever an issue within the work of constitutional reform, he says - both parties are advocating for measures in the constitution to ensure freedom of worship, and stamp out corruption. "None of the two religions preaches violence," says Lethome.

Violence was not spontaneous

This latest turmoil in South B is an attempt by Kenyan security forces to create what appears to be a religious conflict, says Anthony Njui, national executive secretary of the Kenya Episcopal Conference's Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. He says it is related to what happened at the PCK meeting in Kisumu on November 26, where youths - reportedly loyal to National Development Party leader Raila Odinga, a political party opposing the initiative - attacked participants with pangas, clubs, and axes. "Divide and rule is the name of the game." Religious fighting like this between Christians and Muslims has never happened before in Kenya, says Njui. "This violence was not spontaneous," notes Njui, adding that multi-faith cooperation and the whole constitutional reform process "is a threat to the political establishment." "That violence was meant to divert the opinion of the people from the issue of the constitution," agrees Akoth. "It was meant to associate the Ufungamano Initiative with anarchy."

The conflict in South B actually started when Muslim officials and youth attempted to put a fence around land they owned near their mosque, telling traders from the nearby slum - who had built their kiosks in the area - to vacate the land. The traders, in turn, claimed that the government land office had allocated the plots to them. A mob of traders and slum-dwellers gathered and surrounded the Muslims, and threatened to burn the mosque. But police blocked Muslim youth attempting to guard the mosque while traders broke into the mosque and started the fire, says Abubakar. "When the mob burned the mosque, the police were watching and laughing." And, when the driver of Gitari's car ran to police standing nearby to tell them that the mob was going to kill the Anglican archbishop, a police inspector said, "What did he come to do here? Let him be killed," reports Abubakar, who himself was slightly injured in the melee.

"We think that there was a third force," says Abubakar. "This third force was organized by the Kenyan intelligence." He says he recognized one of the main inciters of the violence on the Muslim side as being a policeman attired in Muslim dress.

At first, government and political party leaders appealed for calm and told people not to interpret the conflict as a religious war. However, several days later, Cabinet Minister Shariff Nassir told Muslim youth to "hit back with greater force if they are provoked because I am a leader who is ready to sacrifice myself for my people and I do not like cowards," as reported in the December 4 Daily Nation. "This is not the first time that the government of this country tries to play off various categories of people [against one another] for it to rule," says Akoth.

The Kenya government has denied any involvement in the South B fighting, and maintains that the police did their best to stop the violence. "What has the government to gain from inciting religious clashes?" Security Minister Marsden Madoka told the December 2 Daily Nation. "There is no shred of evidence. The government is not that naive."

Despite the challenges, the Christian and Muslim leaders have vowed to continue the struggle hand-in-hand. "Both religions preach tolerance," says Lethome. "I believe if the Christians are true Christians and the Muslims are true Muslims, then there will be that peaceful and harmonious coexistence between the two."

Cathy Majtenyi, a Comboni Lay Missionary, is Managing Editor of Africanews in Nairobi.

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