Intense succession politics within the Catholic Church in Kenya could be behind a sensational news report suggesting that the Vatican was unhappy with John Cardinal Njue, the archbishop of Nairobi and head of the bishops’ conference.
Church authorities in Nairobi seem to have concluded that the report appearing in The People newspaper last week indicating that Pope Francis was planning to remove Cardinal Njue by appointing him head of a minor organisation in Rome was based on information leaked by an unnamed priest to the reporter.
The priest’s motive is being investigated, we were told in confidence.
The leak appears to be connected with the Cardinal Njue succession. He turns 69 on December 31 and church rules require bishops to retire at 75.
Nakuru bishop Maurice Muhatia was named in the report as the possible successor of Cardinal Njue. But in the complex world of Catholic politics, clerics who are publicly speculated to be in line for some promotion are usually bypassed.
On this basis, it would appear that Bishop Muhatia’s name was deliberately leaked to the media by persons around Njue who are keen to manage the cardinal’s succession.
This theory is lent credence by the fact that the newspaper that “outed” Bishop Muhatia is owned by Mediamax Group, a company associated with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Cardinal Njue is widely believed to be a close supporter of the president, given their shared origins in central Kenya. Kenyatta is Catholic as well.
The story suggested that the Vatican was unhappy with Njue for his political biases in favour of Kenya’s ruling class, meaning the Kenyatta regime. But The People is unlikely to cast any of President Kenyatta’s supporters in a negative light – unless, of course, it is for some greater good.
That greater good would be in the shape of leaking Vatican plans, which would kill two birds with one stone: namely, stop the intended promotion of Muhatia to Nairobi and the transfer of Njue to Rome.
The new papal envoy to Kenya, American Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, was recently Bishop Muhatia’s guest in Nakuru during an ordination ceremony. It may not have been lost on Cardinal Njue’s handlers that the apostolic nuncio in any country plays a key role in Vatican appointments.
The Catholic Church has come out strongly to deny the newspaper report critical of Cardinal Njue. In a media statement this week, the Secretary General of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops Fr Vincent Wambugu said the story was “not only false but […] malicious and intended to taint the image of the Catholic Church in Kenya.”
He denied that Cardinal Njue, the KCCB chairman, was a source of division within the church, and instead held him aloft as “the centre of unity in all considerations having been elected by all bishops.”
But many observers in Kenya would disagree with this characterisation. John Cardinal Njue is without question a divisive figure within the Kenyan Catholic Church and society. Some of his public utterances and decisions have sparked substantial controversy not just in the archdiocese of Nairobi but nationally.
Whereas it is unreasonable to expect all the 26 Catholic bishops of Kenya to hold similar views on important questions on ecclesiastical and public affairs, the chairman of the bishops’ conference occupies a position of immense influence and his views and public actions cannot be seen as simply personal.
Cardinal Njue was openly close to the Kibaki faction of the coalition government with Prime Minister Raila Odinga, which was crafted after the disputed 2007 election that nearly plunged Kenya into civil war.
In the run up to that bitterly contested election, the Catholic Church under the newly created cardinal, was perceived to be pro-Kibaki, whose disputed re-election sharply split the country – and the bishops.
In one outstanding incident, Cardinal Njue two months before the 2007 rejected out of hand devolution of government, which was a major campaign pledge of the Odinga-led Orange Democratic Movement. Kenya’s government has since been devolved to 47 counties under the 2010 constitution.
Sources close to the Catholic hierarchy in Nairobi at the time said that following the 2007 election, the Vatican had to fly in Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze, then the most senior African at the Vatican (as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments), to help reconcile Cardinal Njue and his arch-enemy Archbishop Zachaeus Okoth of Kisumu.
The bone of contention was that the bishops had issued a statement condemning the re-election of President Kibaki as irregular. But a section of the bishops under the instigation of Njue withdrew that statement and issued a different one congratulating Kibaki and urging Kenyans to accept the result.
Catholic parishes within Nairobi whose majority members were Luo (Odinga’s ethnic group) were especially openly hostile to the cardinal. He is still reluctant to visit them.
Throughout Kibaki’s second term, Cardinal Njue scarcely concealed his disdain for Prime Minister Odinga. In September 2011, during a low-key public lecture and fundraiser at the Holy Family Basilica for the beatification of the late Cardinal Maurice Otunga, where Odinga was chief guest, Cardinal Njue hardly said a word to the PM on his arrival and shortly thereafter excused himself and left the hall, clearly embarrassing his guest.
The bad blood between Njue and Okoth (a Luo like Odinga) apparently persists to this day. It was Archbishop Okoth as chairman of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission who recently issued a strongly-worded statement urging President Kenyatta to attend his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he is charged with his deputy William Ruto and radio journalist Joshua arap Sang with committing crimes against humanity during the post-election violence of 2007-8.
The Catholic bishops had for months refrained from commenting openly on the subject even as Kenyatta’s close allies urged him to boycott the trial, which has been moved to February 2014.
When Kenya’s ruling party-dominated parliament passed a motion urging the country to withdraw from the Rome Statute that created the ICC, Archbishop Okoth issued a sharply worded statement, saying:
“That the passing of the motion to withdraw Kenya for the Rome Statute was a vote for impunity, one that could hamper the court’s ability to investigate crimes in Kenya now and in the future; one that strips the Kenyan people of one of the most important human rights protections and sets the stage for crimes to be committed with impunity. It is a dangerous move.”
Kurunzi Afrika understands that this statement caused considerable friction within the bishops’ conference, with Cardinal Njue’s bloc distancing themselves from it.
But to give the impression of a united episcopate, the bishops tactfully appeared to endorse Archbishop Okoth’s statement during their plenary meeting in Kisumu early November. But their view of the matter, in a statement to the media, was far too tepid in comparison to Okoth’s. They said:
“The ICC cases facing our President and his Deputy are causing a lot of anxiety. While we appreciate that the ICC tribunal has considered to make the timetable fairly flexible, we urge all Kenyans to be calm, united and patient allowing the court process to run its course.”
Outside national politics, cardinal Njue has had difficulties with his own priests in Nairobi, with the archdiocese coming out to deny numerous reports of rebellion by the clerics who accuse him of heavy-handedness and insularity.
And for over a year the cardinal has been embroiled in an ugly and much-publicised property dispute with Fr William Charles Fryda of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Society of the United States over the ownership of St Mary’s hospitals in Nairobi and Nakuru.
Cardinal Njue and Sr Marie Therese Gacambi of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi were sued last year for trying to kick out the owners of the hospitals with the intention of taking them over.
Fr Fryda was later dramatically suspended from the priesthood by his congregation in unclear circumstances.
In a move that surprised many people, at one point during the court battles Cardinal Njue petitioned the court to block journalists from covering the case, a petition the magistrate dismissed in April this year on grounds of the constitutionally protected freedom of the media.
Cardinal Njue has been involved in other controversies. In early 2009, he banned the activities of the Charismatic Renewal Movement in his archdiocese, accusing the fast-growing largely lay global Catholic movement of engaging in “activities that are contrary to the doctrine of the church.”
The Charismatics, like evangelical Christians, believe literally in the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, miracles and faith healing – a belief that appears not to excite the heart of the rather traditionalist Njue.
Whether Pope Francis will “promote” him to the Vatican as alleged remains to be seen – although this is highly unlikely now that the matter is in the public domain.
But what is certain is that in the six years since he was made cardinal, Njue has remained a divisive figure: unashamedly pro-establishment, a social justice turncoat, inclined to tribal loyalties and ultimately unable to cultivate a national constituency in ethnically diverse Kenya like the country’s beloved first “prince of the church”, the legendary Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga.