Religion has long figured prominently into Kenyan politics. But the great lengths presidential candidates and their supporters have gone to connect themselves to the Bible and its heroes in the lead-up to this month’s presidential election have disturbed many religious leaders and scholars.
Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta, the 56-year-old incumbent from the Jubilee Party and a Roman Catholic, compare him to David, as in the slayer of Goliath. They point out that he likes music and is left-handed, as many believe the biblical David to have been.
Kenyatta’s challenger, Raila Odinga — an Anglican who leads the opposition National Super Alliance — has referred to himself as Joshua, the Israelite who succeeded Moses and delivered the people of Israel to the Promised Land.
Politicians are trying to use this religious imagery to give force and legitimacy to their campaigns, but no one should be fooled, said the Rev. Wilybard Lagho, the Mombasa Roman Catholic archdiocese vicar general.
“They want their supporters to believe this is a divine call, which is not. I think they are manipulating their supporters.”
Electoral politics in Kenya — which is 80 percent Christian — have been particularly tumultuous lately, and the candidates may find it worthwhile to promise deliverance from the chaos.
The Supreme Court annulled the presidential election held on Aug. 7 — which had been called for Kenyatta — over voting irregularities. The new national election is slated for Oct. 26. On Oct. 10, Odinga, 72, announced he was boycotting the new elections.
Before he announced the boycott, Odinga had warned his supporters of the difficult journey to “Canaan.”
“Many will fall by the wayside. Many will fall for the good things in pharaoh’s backyard and forget that we are leaving Egypt to Canaan,” he said at a news conference in Nairobi on Monday.
He told his supporters that voting for the ruling party meant remaining in “Egypt” under bondage of poverty, corruption, and ethnicity.
In May, Odinga, carrying a Bible, visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he donned a kippah — the skullcap worn by Jews to show respect for God. Then he posted on Twitter: “The site is sacred to all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — and to me it is a very strong symbol of strength and unity.”
Some Odinga supporters have branded minibuses, cars, and bicycles “Canaan Express.”
“When they use these names of the Bible heroes, it brings peace to the people since religion is for peace,” said Julia Oganda, 48, a Nairobi businesswoman. “We are going to Canaan,” she chanted during a short interview.
Joshua Bosire, 30, who attends a Seventh-day Adventist church in Nairobi, also appreciates Odinga’s references to Joshua and Canaan. “I think he has a point. People are struggling. Corruption has increased, we are seeing more strike by workers, and the economy is not doing well.”
Kenyatta, for his part, has been kneeling on church pews and receiving blessings from church leaders.
Early this year, in central Kenya, Kenyatta’s short prayer for rain was followed by a heavy downpour. His supporters praised him as a prophet.
Many scholars and religious leaders in Kenya reject the candidates and their supporters’ reliance on biblical imagery.
Religion and politics should not be mixed this way, said Jesse Mugambi, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi. “The objectives of the two discourses are very different. This is worrying and misleading.”
“But the abuse of religion is common across the world and Kenya is not the first,” he added.
Abdullah Kheir, a religious scholar at Umma Muslim University in the coastal city of Mombasa, said politicians are using what works. “They know Kenya is a religious country and religion is one of the easiest ways to reach the people,” Kheir said.