The call for prayer came when he was in a daze; his mind reeling in disbelief and shock. For a clergyman who has spent decades offering countless prayers in difficult moments, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit was bereft of words. What tumbled out of his mouth felt foreign and unfamiliar. It took rewatching that footage on TV to realise what he had said.
It was the evening of August 15, 2022, the day the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced William Ruto as the president-elect. Together with other religious leaders, they had set camp at a Catholic pastoral centre in Karen to follow the proceedings of the election results.
Occasionally, he would step out of the room to attend training on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Two independent organisations had head-hunted him as a mediator if one party denounced the results amid fears that vote-rigging allegations could lead to bloody scenes like those that followed the presidential polls in 2007 and 2017.
“We were following the proceedings on TV when we saw that the auditorium at Bomas of Kenya was being set up in readiness for the declaration. It was the last day as stipulated by the Constitution to announce presidential results. We came into an agreement that a representation from different denominations and religious faiths should head to Bomas in readiness for prayer before the announcement,” Archbishop Sapit says.
In a convoy of three cars, which had about 20 religious leaders, they headed to Bomas, where the national tally was happening.
“While on our way, the former chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) called one of the religious leaders in our company and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. He was at his residence, and he wanted prayers. That was the first sign of a day that could go wrong in many ways. We pulled over at a petrol station to deliberate and we decided to go to his residence first. After prayers, we left together,” he says.
The archbishop sits pensively in his purple vestment inside a gazebo that’s built outside the Anglican Church House next to the State House. It’s built with intricate stonework and graceful arches and has a cross towering above it. It dates back to the colonial days.
On the ground floor, the few pews are arranged in neat rows, and a small altar stands at the front, adorned with religious iconography. The bishop and his family occupy the upper floor of the building.
Chaos and confusion
At Bomas, the clergy huddled together in one room as they awaited instructions, oblivious to the chaos forming in the corridors. “The room had no TV so we couldn’t tell what was going on,” he says.
Once cleared to enter the conference hall, the five members of the clergy selected to pray were positioned to sit behind the IEBC commissioners. “As the time set for the announcement passed by, we were reeling with tension on the inside. It sparked and grew with each passing moment. Some of us decided to leave but I and a few others remained seated. In a moment, the cacophony of noises snowballed from shouting to throwing items matches,” he says. “It was one of the most difficult moments of my life.”
By the time the situation had calmed down, many invited guests had walked out. “When I was asked to pray, I took to the podium while still reeling in shock and confusion. Up to that moment, I didn’t know who had won the election,” he says.
The 2022 presidential election was highly charged with followers of each candidate taking to social media to voice their opinions and concerns. His presence at Bomas put to question his neutrality as a man of faith on matters of politics in Kenya. Some quarters concluded that he was in bed with the ruling party.
The once adoring comment section on his social media pages mostly by ACK congregants was replaced by a wave of vitriol and hate; a deluge of loathing and disdain. These mean comments stalk him to this day.
“The attacks were so intense that my family was concerned for my wellbeing. My chaplain, who manages my social media accounts, suggested that we quit social media, but I was against it. I was not only being vilified on social media but also in my hometown and wherever I went to minister. I was at Bomas to represent all Kenyans, and I don’t regret my presence. There are moments of reflection about the day’s events but none of it comes as regret. My truth is that I am not bought by any political force, and I hadn’t met privately with any of the candidates prior to the announcement,” he says.
The trolling has made the leader of more than five million ACK members stronger. “Even if the church voted a vote of no confidence in me, I would still go home a happy man. I will not relent to say the right things,” he says.
Mr Sapit wears this burden easily. Maybe because it is not the first time, he has found himself at the crosshead with the church. Enthroned in 2016 after his 12 years of service as a bishop in Kericho, his era has been marked by flames of chaos.
“I came in at a time when some quarters led by Raila Odinga were pushing for the removal of the then IEBC chair, Ahmed Issack Hassan. Among other religious leaders, we had to separately do shuttle diplomacy from President Uhuru and Raila Odinga until they agreed on a framework to select a new IEBC chair and retire Mr Isaac Hassan,” offers the father of seven.
This was followed by the 2017 post-election protests.
“I made a statement regarding Raila Odinga’s plan to swear himself in and I was misquoted. The media reported that I was in support of his actions. I remember getting many calls and texts. People would ask, ‘Where have you put the church?’
Days after the declaration, we began making inroads—we met the president-elect, the former president, and Raila Odinga and they all committed to peace-building. Mr Kenyatta said he had no problem handing over power.
Working with government
A concern from his critics is that he is a man orbiting too close to the sun on his engagements with the ruling party. “From where I sit, we cannot afford to not work with the government of the day because we are running programmes that are complementary to what the government is doing. As a church, we have a robust mission agenda where we want to attend to the needs of a person in terms of health, food security, and education. If people see that as being too close to power, I don’t mind because I know we are working for the common good,” he says.
However, the 58-year-old archbishop says that the church will continue with its prophetic role of correcting and guiding those in leadership.
Now in his seventh year and with six more to go at the helm of the church, Mr Sapit spends his free time in Narok County where he farms and has kept livestock.