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On the Road to Democracy

On the Road to Democracy
Pastoral Letter of the Kenya Catholic Bishops
12 March 1994

By the time this Pastoral Letter was written, the situation of security had improved in the country. Though most of the displaced people had not been able to go back to their homes and recover their property, the clashes seemed to have subsided. The discourse on democracy was quite popular, but it risks becoming empty if the reality is not well understood and put into practice. Neither the ruling party nor the opposition gave the impression of having a right understanding of democracy. Since democratic values were set as a condition by the "donor countries" who provide foreign help to Kenya, some political leaders tried to justify the "status quo" by declaring democracy a western imposition that does not fit with African traditions. This explains the Bishops' reflections on democracy in the background of African traditional values. The Letter was very well received by both Catholics and Kenyans belonging to other confessions. The Bishops' suggestion concerning the global revision of the Constitution found a positive echo. Towards the end of this year a proposal for a model Constitution was jointly produced and published by the Law Society of Kenya, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Commission of Jurists (Kenya Section).


  1. The political community, according to the Christian vision, is part and parcel of God's plan of salvation for humankind. By creating the human being, male and female, in his own image[1] God wanted their nature to be fundamentally social. Consequently he willed to save all, "not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness." [2] This is the origin of the inescapable political dimension of the human community which appears in the Bible since the outset of salvation history when God chose a particular community to be "his people."[3] This political dimension of human life was perfected and fulfilled in the teaching and work of Jesus Christ who left us his new commandment of loving one another as He had loved us. [4] This is the best source of inspiration for any form of Government of the human community.

  2. The second Vatican Council teaches that "the political community exists for the common good: this is the full justification and meaning and the source of its specific right to exist." [5] Far from despising political activity, the Church "praises and esteems those who devote themselves for the common good and take upon themselves the burdens of public life."[6] The Church by its nature cannot be identified with any political community, nor is it bound by ties to any political system. The Church and the State are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, this autonomy is not absolute, because both are devoted to the personal and social fulfilment of men and women and both have the moral responsibility of responding to the unique plan of God in history.

  3. It is, therefore, our duty and our right as shepherds of the Church and citizens of the country, to contribute to the common good with loyalty to the Gospel and in fulfilment of our mission, whose purpose is to foster and "elevate all that is true, all that is good, and all that is beautiful in the human community." [7] This, and no other hidden motivation, is the real intention that has moved us to write this pastoral letter. We address it not only to our faithful Christians but to all men and women who make up the Kenyan community and, in a particular way, to those who, by their public function, devote themselves to the common good. It is our hope that this intention is clearly perceived and that the Catholic Church will not be accused of "going outside her own specific field of competence and, still less, outside the mandate of the Lord."[8]

  4. Kenya's Vocation to Democracy

  5. Kenya is a republic by Constitution[9] which by definition, implies the recognition of democracy as the fundamental form of Government. It is, therefore, as a sovereign republic that Kenya has been from its foundation a democratic nation. In this sense we can say that Kenya is on the road to democracy since its independence. What is important, however, is to have a right understanding of what democracy is and what it requires in order to be a just and participatory form of Government.

  6. What is democracy? The term itself is derived from the Greek democratia, a word composed of demos, "people," anti kratos, "rule." The etymological meaning of democracy is, thus, "rule from the people," but this etymological meaning has been interpreted in different ways in the course of history and it corresponds to different realities. The most original interpretation of democracy indicates a form of Government where the political decisions are directly in the hands of the whole body of citizens, acting under majority rule. This form is known as direct democracy and seems to be found in many primitive societies according to modern anthropologists. This form of direct democracy was in use in ancient Greece and it was possible because of the limited size of the state that was usually confined to only one city and its rural surroundings.

  7. Representative Democracy is a form of Government where the citizens exercise their right to political decision-making not directly as individuals but through representatives chosen by and accountable to them. The basic institution in this form of Government is the representative legislature or Parliament. Constitutional Democracy is usually a form of representative democracy where the rights and the power of the majority are exercised within the limits of a Constitution in order to guarantee the minority the enjoyment of certain individual or social rights, such as freedom of expression and association and freedom of religion. This form of democracy is also sometimes called liberal democracy. A republic is understood to be a form of representative and constitutional democracy as is the case of Kenya. It is in this sense that we refer to democracy in this letter.

  8. A form of Totalitarian Democracy has also appeared in history. In principle it is a form of constitutional democracy, but in this case the Constitution has a merely legal value more than a practical one. The reason is that this form of democracy gives a prominent position and value to the ruling party, which is supposed to be the only recognised party. One example of this kind of democracy is the collapsed socialist regime of the former Soviet Union, based on the Soviet Constitution of 1936 which gave to the Communist party an absolute and unique power to rule the country. The purpose of this form of democracy is, usually, to perpetuate the success of a popular revolution by placing total authority in the hands of a small minority representing its most fervent and able supporters. As is clear, this system, in practice, goes against all the traditional concepts of real democracy.

  9. The Value of Democracy

  10. There is no perfect form of human Government. Abuses can take place in every system, but the fundamental value of democracy is to allow the participation of citizens in the Government of their country. In this regard, democracy as a system of Government is consonant with human rights and the respect of human dignity and freedom. In fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is explicit in affirming the value of political participation: "Everyone has the right to take part in the Government of his (her) own country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his (her) country. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of Government; this shall be expressed in periodical and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures. [10]

  11. The right to political participation is equally enhanced by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights approved by the member States of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in their meeting of June 1981 in Nairobi. [11]

  12. This ethical character explains why the Catholic Church, though having no preference for any concrete political party, has shown a clear option for democratic forms of Government. The reason is given by the Second Vatican Council: "It is fully consonant with human nature that there be politico-juridical structures providing all citizens without any distinction with ever improving and effective opportunities to play an active part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community, in the administration of public affairs, in determining the aims and terms of reference of public bodies, and in the election of political leaders." [12] In one of his recent encyclical letters (1991), Pope John Paul II has confirmed this option in very clear terms "The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate."[13]


  13. The Requirements for Democracy

  14. It is one thing to have democracy, theoretically, in the constitution; its practical implementation is quite another. It may happen that the system of Government is controlled and manipulated by a reduced group of top politicians who are not interested in the common good but in their own enrichment and prestige but who always claim to act in the name of the people. In this case what exists is a totalitarian democracy in which there is no real participation and the opposition is not allowed to take an active part in the political life of the country. Referring to this situation, Pope John Paul II writes: "The Church cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of' the State for individual interests or for ideological ends."[14] "It must also be restated that no social group, for example a political party, has the right to usurp the role of sole leader, since this brings about the destruction of the true subjectivity of society and of the individual citizens as happens in every form of totalitarianism. In this situation the individual and the people become "objects" in spite of declarations to the contrary and verbal assurances." [15]

  15. What the Pope says about totalitarianism refers probably to the socialist regimes, but it is also valid for any other country in which there is a similar situation. The danger of totalitarianism is more threatening in one-party systems of Government because there is no institutionalised opposition, but it can also happen in a multi-party regime. Multipartyism can indeed favour democracy but cannot always guarantee it. Democracy, like any other human institution, is vulnerable and fragile. "Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person."[16]

  16. A fundamental condition for the establishment of democracy is, therefore, the recognition of the rights of the person and social groups, be it children or adults, men or women, rich or poor, without any social or racial discrimination. A real democracy has to be built on the basis of justice and moral values and has to look to the common good. This common good is not simply the addition of individual particular interests; "rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and rights of the person."[17] Democracy is a demanding form of Government, and neither leaders nor common citizens are naturally prepared for it. A long process of moral and civic education is required in order to understand and to implement a real participatory democracy.

  17. Democracy and African Traditional Values

  18. Democracy is a new word in African dictionaries. Like any new reality coming from outside the African continent, democracy is also considered by many with some suspicion. Some African leaders, in their reluctance to accept democracy, justify the one-party or even one-man rule, invoking the African tradition in which, for sure, political parties never existed. They claim that there was only one chief for all, and he was usually recognised as a chief for life. They go on to say that democracy is just a disguised form of new colonialism because it is a condition imposed by the rich countries of the North in order to release their financial aid to Africa. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is a recent wind of democracy through the whole African continent. A select group of participants in a recent symposium on the Role of Religious Leaders in Peace making and Social Change in Africa [18] stated in this regard: "In our discussion it became clear that "democracy" makes its appearance in Africa as a response to the excesses of one-party, and in many cases, one-man rule ... People in Africa want change, with the expectation that a shift to more participatory governance will provide answers to the ills of their respective countries. Africa is undergoing a second liberation . One of the elements of this process is identified as democracy..." [19]

  19. It would be anachronistic to look for contemporary forms of democracy in the African tradition or even in the past history of the entire world. Since the disappearance of direct democracy in ancient Greece, democracy was forgotten in Europe. Monarchic regimes prevailed for centuries during the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution (1789). It was only with the creation and the independence of the United States of America and the French Revolution that the new concept of democracy started its gradual evolution to the present day.

  20. On the other hand, it is not completely right to invoke African Tradition in order to justify totalitarian or dictatorial forms of Government. In traditional African societies there were structures of dialogue and participation in the process of decision-making. The chief was usually assisted by the council of elders, and we cannot say there was no concern for the common peace and good. The traditional African "baraza" is a clear example of dialogue and participation in order to find a peaceful solution in cases of social conflict.

  21. The Winners and Losers Relationship

  22. Moreover, one of the elements of African tradition that can contribute today to the implementation of democracy is the way of establishing a healthy relation between the winner and the loser in the political field. Studies have shown that there was a proviso for losing and for the surrender of power to a person chosen through the consensus process. The participants to the above-mentioned symposium describe this very well: "Relinquishing power in many traditional contexts is compensated with face-saving devices. Patterns of power management, together with the various manifestations of shared power and compensation, are situated in the context of a community consensus process. In contrast, post-colonial political regimes, whether based on single or multi-party configurations, have yet to find their roots in widespread popular consent. Thus, when a political figure loses (rather than relinquishes) office, the loss is total and on occasion devastating. Obviously, in such situations leaders are reluctant to leave at once. They are tempted and often prepared to abuse power in order to retain it. "[20]

  23. Democracy, therefore, is not completely strange in Africa. What is required is that Constitutions of African countries, that were composed without full participation of people, be revised and endorsed by popular consent. Democracy can be meaningful only on the basis of such consent.

  24. The Situation in Kenya

  25. Is Kenya on the road to democracy? The repeal of article 2A of the Constitution accepting the multi-party system was a sign that gave so much hope to the Kenyan people that many thought then, and still think today, that such a constitutional amendment was equivalent to the establishment of democracy. But the multi-party system does not necessarily bring democracy.

  26. What Kenyan citizens have witnessed since that constitutional change in 1991 is far from leading to democracy. First of all, we can say that there is no noticeable change as far as the one-party system is concerned. Though there are several parties, after the elections KANU continues to ignore other parties. Not to be a member of KANU is interpreted as being against the Government of Kenya. This is the clear implication of the words pronounced by a Minister in the President's Office when he affirmed that only those areas that supported KANU Government would benefit from the national resources controlled by the ruling party.[21] It is important to notice that this is not an isolated statement, but the same has been repeated by many people in the highest authority of the Government. How could this statement be acceptable in a democratic society? We repeat here the words of a press release of our justice and Peace Commission: "If the ruling party cannot serve all people equally, irrespective of their political affiliation, then it is breaking the contract of service, and as such it has no business in being in power because ipso facto it loses the moral right to govern." [22] National resources such as education, public health, communications, etc., are a common right and not a gift from KANU.

  27. Contrary to our recommendation about "necessary collaboration among different parties even after the political victory of one of them," [23] the President not only did not call the other parties to collaborate in the Government but nominated some members of the KANU party who were losers in their own constituencies, as members of the parliament and even appointed them ministers of his cabinet. This is against the explicit will of the people.

  28. After 30 years of independence is it not the time for a serious and global revision of the Constitution in order to make it fit the new political circumstances instead of continually introducing amendments? Our Constitution was composed when there was a de facto one-party system in the country and it was suitable to the situation of that time. What we need now is a Constitution fitting the multi-party situation. A complete revision of the Constitution has to be entrusted to a large constituent body of experienced and competent citizens representing all trends of society and not just to a reduced group of politicians. The example of some of our neighbour countries that have been working on the revision of their constitution for the last year could be for Kenya a source of inspiration to do a similar exercise.

  29. The so-called majimboism or political regionalism, denying the human rights of the citizens to choose their own place of dwelling and their freedom of movement, was preached by some KANU leaders before the elections and continues to be implemented with violence through the wrongly-called ethnic clashes. The Government has not spared any efforts to persuade public opinion that the clashes are caused by the opposition leaders, but Kenyans now have the conviction that these clashes could not have taken place nor continued for such a long time without the passive and sometimes active collaboration of the authorities. Should Kenyans believe that our numerous, well-trained and well-equipped army and police can be defeated by a small group of village warriors armed with pangas and rungus? Should we believe that the police and the army did their best but unfortunately always arrived late? It is well-known who ordered the demolition of Maela camp and of Nakuru kiosks. It is well-known who sent bulldozers to Buru Thessalia Holding ground to evict people who had been in due right of tenancy of the land for more than 50 years. We could add many other names to the list: Enoosupukia, Likoni, Molo, Kapenguria, Siritsia, Oloongoroni, Turbo scheme, Rironi, etc. The President himself visited some of the affected areas and called for peace, but soon after his departure the clashes started again. Should we believe the words about national unity pronounced by our President during the past celebration of Kenyatta Day or the words inciting to tribal revenge pronounced in Parliament by one of his Ministers with total impunity and even the support of many KANU members of Parliament? We confirm here what we expressed last year in one of our press statements: "The exchange of information only served to make us realise that... never before in the history of Kenya have conditions been so bad for our people."[24]

  30. The situation in our universities is a chaotic one. "No matter how much the Government would wish the public to forget the University problem, that is just not going to happen. A problem which is postponed is not solved. Let it dawn on those concerned that justice delayed, is justice denied." [25]

  31. Our country is presently experiencing hard times because of food shortage and the Government itself has accepted this reality. "While it cannot be denied that weather conditions have greatly contributed to this situation, it is also true that political factors have had a hand in it. While we appreciate the efforts of the Government to contain the situation, we must also thank our donors who are generously responding to our situation on humanitarian and Christian grounds. What must be the concern of many, however, is the issue of the distribution. Care must be taken that this food aid reaches first and foremost those who are most in need." [26] Our thought goes to the victims of the clashes in the areas we mentioned above because if the need of food is urgent for all, priority most be granted to those most in need.

  32. The words pronounced during a concelebrated Mass on the Day of Prayer we, the Catholic Bishops of Kenya, organised on the seventh of June 1992, in Eldoret, continue to have all their value and relevance: "Let it be heard and let it be understood that multi-party is not synonymous with discord. Multi-party must be seen as an expression of maturity in our political life and must be given a chance to become a true manifestation of a democratic system."[27] It is not that the opposition parties are blameless. Their internal divisions and struggles for personal power and prestige and a visible orientation towards tribal membership are also a source of confusion and disappointment to our citizens. People were expecting a more national orientation and electoral campaigns, not based so much on individual candidates, but rather on programmes for national reconstruction and mutual collaboration. The main responsibility, however, rests not with the political parties but on the members of the Government who have the power and the duty to protect our national unity. The main responsibility is, in a particular way, on the President of the Republic who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Kenya and, therefore, can change the situation. "As President he cannot escape his responsibility. He cannot escape the judgement of history." [28]

  33. Conclusion

  34. Only one year after multi-party elections the hopes of Kenyans have been shattered by this evident derailment of the democratisation process. There are visible signs of the unwillingness of the Government to fully accept the democratisation process in Kenya, as it was pointed out earlier this year: "There have been calculated moves to silence the voices of democracy, as seen in the arrests, confinement in police cells, and arraignment in court of protagonists of democracy under flimsy charges. Such acts are aimed at intimidating and defaming the victims as well as other potential supporters of justice and peace. The continued harassment of a section of the media and the banning of some publications are but some of the incidences of the Government's efforts to barricade the corridors of democracy that had began to open. "[29]

  35. The road to democracy is not an easy road. Let it be clear that democracy is far more than just a multi-party system. It requires respect and protection of the human rights of each individual and of all groups, especially minority groups. A country in which the press is muzzled to the point of seeing printing machines dismantled by the police is not on the road to democracy. A country in which legitimate title-deed holders are violently driven off from their land is not on the road to democracy. A country where Kenyans are told that they are foreigners if they originate from other parts of the same country cannot be said to walk on the road of democracy. A country in which the authorities cannot be accountable to the citizens in case of public financial scandals and political murders is certainly not on the road to democracy. A country in which the Government is still spending billions on luxury projects whilst the education, health and social service system has become a scandal to the tax-payer and a burden to wananchi (citizens) is far from the road to democracy. Democracy is not compatible with the current discriminatory policy of development against regions of the country where the KANU party was not a winner in the elections. Democracy is not possible without respect for diversity and the acceptance of pluralism in authentic dialogue and collaboration between the ruling authority and the political parties. These parties are not to be called "opposition parties," as if their sole vocation was just to oppose the decisions of the Government. The role of opposition parties is rather to positively cooperate with the Government for the common good, to ensure that the Constitution is respected, and to be informed and inform about the way public funds are employed. Their political manifestos should contribute, with constructive criticism, to the progress and good Governance of the country.

  36. We, therefore, call on all those in authority to put the common good of the country before their personal political and financial ambition. We humbly acknowledge that our words would perhaps be more credible if we were more faithful to the evangelical ideals of participation and communion that have to prevail within the Church that Jesus Christ founded as a fraternal community. But our appeal is not based on our own justice and perfection as a Church; its foundation is the dignity of human beings as revealed by God himself and the ideals of justice and mutual love preached by Jesus Christ. Our words are not founded on the holiness of the individual members of the Church but on the justice of the Kingdom of God. For this Kingdom we must pray to God every day: "Your Kingdom come." Should we wait until we are perfect so that we may start preaching the Good News to others, this Kingdom would never come at all.

  37. The call is for all Kenyans to fulfil their democratic vocation in sincere collaboration between the Government and the political parties, without judging any form of dissent as destructive opposition. The call is to all ethnic groups, who have lived together in peace for long years, to come together and build up a Nation as before: a Nation which will be blessed by God because it is seeking the ways of justice, peace and reconciliation. We address our appeal in a special way to our Christian brothers and sisters to commit themselves to the building of our Kenyan Community. In the spirit of the words of the prayer composed for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops in this Special Assembly for Africa, we pray:

    Loving Father, where there is ignorance give knowledge; where there is fear, courage; where there is indifference, love; where there is oppression, justice; where there is conflict, peace.

Questions for Reflection and Sharing

  1. What is democracy for the common citizen? Compare the popu¬lar notion of democracy with the notions explained in this letter.

  2. Is democracy a good form of government for African countries? Is democracy in the line of African traditions or against them?

  3. Why does the Catholic Church prefer democratic forms of government?

  4. By the time you read this letter can you say that Kenya is on the road to democracy? Why?


[1] Cf. Gn 1:27.
[2] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No.9.
[3] Cf. Ex 3:7-12.
[4] Jn 13:34.
[5] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church, No.74.
[6] Ibid. No.75.
[7] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 13 and Pastoral Constitution on the Church, No. 76.
[8] Cf. Pope John Paul II, The Social Concern of the Church, No.8.
[9] Cf. Constitution of Kenya, Art. 1. 
[10] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art.21.
[11] See Art.13.
[12] Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No.75. See also No. 68
[13] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter On the Human Person at the Centre of Society, No. 46.
[15] Pope John Paul II, On the Social Concern of the Church, No.15.
[16] Pope John Paul II, On the Human Person at the Centre of Society, No.46.
[17] Idem No. 37. See: Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 26 and 74.
[18] A Symposium co-sponsored by the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the Association of Members of Episcopal Conferences of East Africa (AMECEA) and the group Nairobi Peace Initiative (NPI) that took place in Nyeri (Kenya) from the 18th to the 23rd of July 1993.
[19] "Summary Statement of the Symposium," in AMECEA Documentation Service (ADS), No. 20/1993, No. 400, p.2.
[20] Ibid.
[21] See the declaration of Hon. Kipkalia Kones published in the Daily Nation, 20th of January 1994, p.15.
[22] Kenya Episcopal Conference, Statement of the Catholic Justice and Peace Com¬mission, 24 February 1994. See: Bishops of Kenya, Pastoral Letter Kenya 1992: Looking towards the Future with Hope, (6 January 1992) No. 20-b.
[23] See: Bishops of Kenya, Pastoral Letter, Kenya 1992: Looking towards the Future with Hope, (6 of January 1992), No. 20-b.
[24] Catholic Bishops of Kenya, To Serve Peace Reach Out to the Poor, (14 September 1993), No.2.
[25] Kenya Episcopal Conference, Justice and Peace Catholic Commission, Press release of the 24th of February 1994.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Sermon given by Bishop John Njue, Chairman of the National Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, published in AMECEA Documentation Service 12/92, No 367, p.3.
[28] Catholic Bishops of Kenya, To Serve Peace Reach Out to the Poor, No. 9.
[29]Cf. Kenya Episcopal Conference, Justice and Peace Catholic Commission, Press release of the 22nd of January 1994 in the Daily Nation of the 26 of January, p.13