Not long ago, an African regional association of bishops representing some ten countries held a conference in a certain capital. The event lasted ten days. We have it on impeccable authority that the government of that country footed the entire cost of the event.
The men of God and other delegates were all chauffeured around the city in sleek government Mercedes Benzes, booked in top hotels, meals and other expenses paid. The conference venue, a government facility, was made available free of charge.
That country is one of the poorest in Africa.
Obviously, the government spent colossal amounts of money on the event. That was taxpayers’ money. It was not budgeted for or approved by the citizens – through Parliament.
That was corruption. Misuse of public money. The state treated the bishops with money that was probably meant for the sick, education of children and underpaid civil servants.
As per the current debate in Kenya, the bishops should have declined the government offer. It wasn’t money from the proceeds of crime but it was public money.
Yet how could they have stopped the hospitality? How many guests ask their host to declare the source of the goat slaughtered for them before they dig their teeth into the juicy ribs? Or the source of the big bottle before they split it?
The church in that country is very influential and the government saw a great opportunity to buy the silence of the local bishops. Once the state had shown such magnanimity, were the bishops likely to criticise the government in future?
In recent weeks, the media has promoted a false – and largely illiterate – debate on corruption. Long before certain apparently clean politicians started asking the church to stop accepting donations from their corrupt colleagues, the media had raised the issue.
About five years ago, former Nation columnist Gabriel Dolan, a Catholic priest, wrote a piece titled, “Politicians paying Church to remain mum”. He questioned Deputy President William Ruto’s huge donations to the church, likening his seeming generosity to that of former president Daniel arap Moi.
“The contribution however comes at a price and may explain why the church has little to say on grave national issues and confines its statements to matters of the bedroom and administrative affairs like marriage fees and school uniforms,” Dolan grumbled.
The question, as he and many others saw it then, was not that Ruto was making donations from suspicious sources but that he was using his money to buy the church’s silence on pressing national issues.
In subsequent columns, Dolan would query the source of Ruto’s apparently bottomless pockets – which is the current debate.
In March, the Star published an editorial urging the church to reject gifts from politicians. The editors at Lion Place wrote:
“There was a heightened rate of gift presentations to churches last year in form of millions of shillings at harambees. Indeed, politicians of dubious backgrounds were on a roll in pulpits donating millions. For this, they were accorded opportunities to greet the faithful and advance their political agenda.”
Now politicians have taken over this debate, piling pressure on churches not to accept donations from “corrupt” politicians.
The Observer has dealt with this issue before. We reiterate that this debate is false and illiterate.
It is false because it deflects from the reality that the “war” on corruption declared by President Uhuru Kenyatta with lots of fanfare has not yielded the quick victories as many people assumed.
The churches are being scapegoated. They are innocent. As the Observer and certain level-headed analysts have pointed out, churches have no way of determining the sources of funds donated by individuals, whether politicians or other church members. It is patently unfair – and diversionary – to insist that they reject money/gifts from allegedly corrupt persons.
The debate is illiterate because corruption is a crime. There are numerous agencies paid by the public and mandated to fight corruption: the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, Parliament, Executive, the Auditor General and the entire justice system.
If indeed there are politicians going around donating huge monies obtained through corruption as alleged, what is the sensible thing to do? Ask the churches to decline the donations or investigate and prosecute the persons who have stolen money? Why are those allegedly corrupt politicians roaming free?
Finally, corruption takes many forms. Even what might look like genuine philanthropy could in fact be a scheme to buy silence – like the African bishops who received celebrity government treatment in a poor African nation.
The onus is on watchdog institutions, investigative agencies and the justice system to do their work. That is the rule of law.
President Kenyatta said it in his State of the Nation Address: the fight against corruption must follow the law, not lynching of perceived corrupt politicians.