Kenya: Constitutional endorsement of Muslim courts provokes anger

A meeting of church leaders in Kenya has been called to discuss how they can remove a clause in the draft constitution that recognises Muslim courts - also referred to as Kadhi's courts.
Church leaders say Islam is the only faith explicitly mentioned in the draft, and that the provision for Muslim courts gives Islam precedence over other religions.
"No faith should be seen to be superior (to) the other," David Githii of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa told IPS. "We are determined: let there be no Kadhi's courts." (A kadhi is a Muslim judge.)

The controversy surrounding Islamic courts came to the fore last June at the start of the National Constitutional Conference (NCC), when more than 600 delegates from around Kenya met to discuss a draft constitution drawn up by the Kenya Constitution Review Commission.

At the request of Muslims, the commission had included a clause in the draft that extended the jurisdiction of Kadhi's courts to the national level, also allowing them to rule in commercial and civil disputes.

The courts already enjoy recognition at the local level, where they deal with matters relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance. These tribunals have been in existence for several decades.

After protests from the Christian community, the NCC resolved to maintain the current status of Muslim courts. A group of Christian clergy then tried to have mention of Kadhi's courts removed from the draft constitution - and replaced with a more general reference to religious group courts.

This motion was denied on Mar. 11, and it now appears certain that Kenya's new constitution will acknowledge Kadhi's courts. The draft is expected to be adopted later in March.

On Mar. 8, about 300 Christians demonstrated outside the venue of the NCC to protest its decision. Certain ministers see the ruling as a blow to the future of their faith.

"This has created (a) way for the country to be ruled by Islam. What is it that will prevent (the) northern, north-eastern and coastal provinces from taking advantage of Muslim law to hurt their Christian brothers?" asks Reverend Charles Kivevo of the Redeemed Gospel Church. Of Kenya's eight provinces, the three named by Kivevo are predominantly Muslim.

"If the government yields to this, it is selling this country into chaos and I'm not ashamed to say they will take blame for the bloodshed," he said, adding that Kenya risked going the way of Nigeria and Sudan.

To date, 12 of Nigeria's 36 states have adopted Islamic law - or 'shariah' - despite concerns about how this might infringe on the rights of people who support other faiths. Over 60 people were reported to have been killed towards the end of last month in the central Plateau state during clashes between Christians and Muslims, while hundreds fled the scene of the violence.

In Sudan, tensions between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south led to a 20-year civil war in the country that claimed more than two million lives.

However, the latest round of peace talks between government and the main rebel movement in the south has yielded progress. On Jan. 7 of this year, the two groups took an important step forward when they signed an agreement on sharing the wealth generated by oil reserves and other revenue sources.

Abdulrahman Andati, executive director of the Muslim Consultative Council in Kenya, says Kadhi's courts are necessary because national laws differ from sharia in important respects when it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance. "For example, on inheritance upon death, the Quran outlines clearly who can inherit from who and in what proportions, and this cannot be altered whatsoever," says Andati. "But (with) national law, this is dependent on how one writes his will. Using this law, one can also disinherit his wife or children. Islam does not allow this."

Al-Hajj Yussuf Murigu, vice chair of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, says the existence of the courts will bolster Muslims' status as a minority group in Kenya. "Furthermore, Kadhi's courts have been in the constitution all this time. I do not understand what the hue and cry is all about," he said.

According to Andati, there are varying statistics of the number of Muslims in Kenya. "The church says Muslims are 11 percent, government puts them at eight percent - while we (Muslims) say we are 30 percent," he told IPS.

(End/Copyright IPS)