Cardinal otunga

Servant of God




by the Most Rev. Raphael Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki

Emeritus Archbishop of Nairobi

September 2006


Great religious leaders, like prophets, endeavour to translate their pastoral endeavours into dynamic urges that make impact at all times. It is therefore instructive that the contributions of such an eminent Shepherd like Maurice Cardinal Otunga who made significant in-put towards historical knowledge be undertaken. In the history of Kenya, a number of religious personalities have played pivotal roles in society. This paper focuses on Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga whose life and Apostolate are exemplary. Cardinal Otunga is well-known in Kenyan history as a principled person with moral convictions. That on several occasions, assumed the role of a pastoral custodian of justice to the marginalized.

Cardinal Otunga, though non-confrontational, lived in the world marred with social injustices, economic imbalance, political bias, moral decay and even cultural disintegration which he had to face head on. His further outstanding role featured in tireless struggle against all undemocratic government principles including the abuse of human rights. In the process of dealing with these issues, he occasionally appeared to interfere with the affairs of the State.

The Cardinal is well-known in Kenya as a principled person. His prophetic and moral convictions prompted him to vehemently oppose the introduction of artificial family Planning methods in Kenya thus enhancing the prominence of moral justice and good governance. As a civic teacher Cardinal Otunga consistently warned the government against its proclivity to slide into arbitrary rule, economic mismanagement, nepotism and corruption.

It takes moral courage, determination and persistence for one to stand up to his/her moral convictions and defend the weaker elements of society against all forms of injustices. This is what distinguished the life of Cardinal Otunga from many other Kenyans and brought him closer to the ranks of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Above all, Maurice Otunga was ordained priest at a time when the struggle for independence was at its peak. He became the first African Catholic Bishop of the first created African Catholic Diocese of Kisii in the post-emergency period and yet, while much has been written about the history of Mau-Mau veterans, independence and Post-Colonial Kenya nationalists, there is hardly any systematic and balanced account accorded to such a prominent person. In some of the existing works on Kenyan history, he is mentioned, at best, in passing. My fellow clergy, why is it that only the laity are producing marvelous work about this great man? Face this challenge.



Otunga was born from a traditional Bukusu set-up with a stable rhythm. But beyond the village set up, an inevitable rapid change was taking place with neither warning nor preparation. Nothing could halt third revolution or slow its tempo. “The man of Africa must get up and dance for better or for worse on the arena of the world drama. He or she had to make room for the changing ‘universal’ situation”.

From the historical assessment, in 1923, the year Otunga was born the British Imperial Government dealt the European crisis by declaring that the Kenya native interests were to be paramount. The declaration became known as the Kenya White Paper of 1923, or the Devonshire White Paper. The following id the extract of the Paper:

“Primarily, Kenya is an African territory. His Majesty’s Government thinks it is necessary definitely to record their considered opinion that the interests of African natives must be paramount. If and when those interests of the immigrant races should conflict, the one of the Africans should prevail. (But) there can be no room for doubt that it is the mission of Great Britain to work continuously for the training and education of Africans towards a higher intellectual, moral and economic level. That plan was reached when the Crown assumed the responsibility for the administration of the territory. As organized in the Uganda Protectorate, so also in the Kenya Colony. The principle of Trusteeship for the natives no less in the mandate territory of Tanganyika is unassailable.”

The declaration had a historical significance since it recognized, the genuine owners of the land would eventually rule themselves. Otunga who was destined to be the Black Prince of the Church was implicitly crowned at birth. He was born in the uncertain world of Africa in the throes of colonial conquest. However, the fruits of this social upheaval ultimately went on to benefit those who perceived what the winning side was and joined it. Otunga joined the Church that ultimately promoted him to the highest ecclesiastical rank.

Christianity came to Africa carrying the revolutionary Gospel as well as the complex phenomenon made up of western culture, politics, science, technology, medicine, schools and new methods of conquering nature. Missionaries established schools everywhere and these schools became the nurseries for change and eventual revolution. The history of formal education in many African countries is inextricably interwoven with the history of Christian missions. The youth who went to these schools assimilated not only religion but also science, politics and technology. Those attending schools became the vehicles for the new changes and introducing them to their villages. Maurice Cardinal Otunga was no exception to these groups.

The change meant that individuals are pulled out and separated from corporate morality, customs and traditional solidarity. He/she breaks from the solidarity that supplied security, land, customs, ethics and rites of passage. On the religious sphere, the 20th century saw millions of sub-Saharan Africans in their millions abandon the ancestral God or gods and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, the transformation in the sub-Saharan socio-politico-religious matrix was dramatic.

The life and times of Maurice Cardinal Otunga captures the fascinating aspect of Africa’s rapid, deep and positive transformation which manifest the breaking from the traditional life and making a shift paradigm of process.



Racial discrimination did not spare the Church during colonial time. By and large the first African priests had a hard time. They knew how to survive by peaceful means. They gracefully received whatever was given to them. Whatever was forced on to them unkindly they suffered without too much protest. They knew how to bend under the power of the mighty, but once the terror had passed, they adjusted themselves and possessed whatever they wanted. The first African clerics and religious with their peaceful and passive attitudes of non-retaliation showed the way of how the battle for good race relations was fought.

Otunga was not spared the colonial wrath. Just a few indicators manifest to his experience. When in Mombasa as the Private Secretary to Archbishop James Knox, the Apostolic Delegate to the British East and West Africa, he went to swim with two European priests at the beach then reserved for ‘whites’ only. An African ‘Askari’ accosted him and asked, “Who told you that you could come here?” when Archbishop Knox heard about the confrontation, he was very angry and wanted to take serious steps against the Beach Management. Otunga made the following plea “I told him, ‘Your Excellency, it doesn’t bother me. It is only a question of time anyway”. When travelling to Nairobi by train in the company of the late Ronald Ngala and a Sikh gentleman, they were denied supper at Midland Hotel Nakuru. “Ngala was disgusted and promised to take further step. Otunga was not bothered. When you know a bit of history, you can understand people’s behavior”. These are but some of the many racial discriminations which Otunga experienced.



On the debate regarding Church-State relations, Maurice Cardinal Otunga remained very firm in support of the teachings of The Catholic Church. Asked whether there was a possibility of drawing a line between politics and religion, Otunga had this to say: “The line we can talk of is only distinction, but not separation. We can hardly distinguish between what is purely politics and that which is directly religion.”

Otunga argued that religion and politics concern the human person who is body and soul, matter and spirit, temporal and eternal. The spirit is concerned with the eternal things and the body with temporal things. “When you take care of the needs of the spirit, you have to take care of the needs of the body. You cannot leave one out for they constitute one and the same person”.

Otunga referred to the teaching of the Apostles Paul to the Romans, who when threatened by the Jewish leaders preferred to obey the Lord rather than man. This was the foundation of the faith of the Christian martyrs. So then, when man opposes God he opposes the Lord of lords. Who is greater, man or God? Otunga conformed to the view that the Church’s authority is supreme to that of the state. He however detested the Church’s direct participation in politics such as vying for a parliamentary seat or directly aligning to a political party. All the same, he insisted that Christians ought to be committed to their earthly responsibilities.

In trying to justify his pastoral role in the Kenyan society, Otunga stated: “I would be interested to see that justice prevails in all directions of life so that every Kenyan enjoys his or her human rights in full”.



During the Kenyatta regime when he was the Bishop in charge of the Education portfolio within the Kenya Episcopal Conference, the Cardinal had this to say: “The confrontation I had with the Kenyatta Government refused to respect the Church’s role as Sponsors by arbitrarily publishing the Education Bill of 1967. This Bill deliberately and practically ignored religious education. The Kenyatta Government therefore tried as much as possible to eliminate all the principles of Sponsorship by the Churches.”

During the Nyayo Era, Otunga challenged the Government in the way education was being handled. He criticized the introduction of 8-4-4 system of education and posited, “The 8-4-4 curriculum is too vast to be fairly examined; the content too shallow to make an impact and the syllabus was unmanageable.” Otunga further described the 8-4-4 system of education as “drilling rather than educating the students. The citizens must understand the practice and tenets of education in order to recognize educational goals. He further explained: Teachers could not cope with the wide syllabus. They are overworked and have no time to mould the moral and spiritual characters of their students. The 8-4-4 system is a technique of the government to control, form and train the youth but not consider the desire and rights of the Church and parents. Christian education is diluted and it is getting worse. 8-4-4 system is cramming to pass exam.” Otunga recommended thorough revision of 8-4-4 system and challenged the current Church leaders to revitalize their role in education for the holistic formation of the entire human person.



On 5th July 1969, Tom Mboya was assassinated in Nairobi near a chemist shop. There were demonstrations from all corners condemning the Government. Otunga attended and conducted Mboya’s burial. The occasion of the burial on July 11th 1969 pitched Otunga into what appeared to be confrontation with the Kenyatta Government. During his sermon, Otunga, the then Bishop of Kisii Diocese, commented:

“Sincere people cannot see the justification for such an act of killing the person who played an important role in Kenya’s struggle towards independence. If a cabinet minister can be openly murdered like this, where is the security? How could the assassin escape the police security in such a busy street? Where were the bodyguards? Nobody, no man is allowed to take away the life of another person. God forbids us from doing so.”

Though there was no direct response from the Government, indirectly the Kisii Diocesan activities that involved Government participation were constantly thwarted by the authorities like the District Commissioners (D.C), District Officers (D.O) and the Local Chiefs.

Otunga remembers that day with sadness

It was a terrible shock. People moaned. Kenya lost her Kennedy. It was a tense moment when the body reached Mbita. The wave of security was tight. But God worked miracles. The unexpected happened. The people of the Rusinga Island, through their spokes-person gently told the police to handover to them the responsibility. The spokesperson said, it is okay you can now go we can take over. The whole funeral ceremony went on smoothly without a hitch.

Another area of pastoral intervention was the 1969 oathing which the Church considered an immoral act affecting all the Christian fraternity. Together with Anglican Bishop Obadiah Kariuki and Rev. John Gatu of the Presbyterian Church and Otunga confronted Kenyatta on the issue. Otunga began the meeting with a prayer, then asked Kenyatta only a question.

Do you know that your people are going around and forcing people to take oaths and say that nobody other than the Kikuyu must lead this country? If you know, then you must stop it. We cannot afford to have a Kenyatta Dynasty created out of blood, flesh and soil, and bananas to soil the national flag. You must stop this criminal act. I believe you are a national leader, and you can live beyond Kikuyu-land. That is what we have come to tell you.

Kenyatta thanked the prelates for their visit. The same afternoon Daniel Arap Moi, the then Minister for Home Affairs, announced the end to the Kikuyu oathing.



On the 8th December 1973, Maurice Cardinal Otunga together with the other members of the Kenya Episcopal Conference wrote a Pastoral letter on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of Kenya’s Independence. Progress in the country, mainly in the field of economy and development was visible during this decade. The letter highlighted the achievements of the first decade of independence. The major issues included the improvement of the general standards of living, and the great extension of educational facilities. Social welfare and health benefits had multiplied. Kenya’s voice was being heard with respect in the Council of Nations. The Kenya nation was regarded as one of the most stable and progressive nations in developing Africa.

The Bishops called for the idea of reconciliation for the entire nation necessitated by the previous events, which had not been satisfactorily solved. It was for these incidences that the Bishops cautioned against tribalism and nepotism. The visible grounds for fear and instability still prevailed in the country. The emerging concern was accentuated by the fact that the following year 1974, was the year for the third general elections. The Bishops stressed on the message of love and peace as fundamental to survival, and growth of the nation. “A nation united in purpose in the pursuit of true ideals such as justice, truth and self-reliance, cannot fail to enjoy the blessings of peace”.

There are areas which eventually called for Otunga’s intervention like dissidences which were prevalent in the institutions of higher learning, mainly the University of Nairobi, and the murder of J. M Kariuki. In reaction to these situations, Cardinal Otunga, then chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, sought audience with Kenyatta.

The following proposals were tabled for discussion

  • A need for dialogue to provide an opportunity for honest, deliberation on the emerging situation. Violence negates the human fundamental right to freedom.
  • A sincere reflection on self-understanding based on the Government’s ministerial role. The spirit of service should prevail and not brutality.
  • Cooperation in dealing with the fundamental problems affecting Institutions of Higher learning; involve the government, professional associations like lawyers, doctors and also religious bodies
  • The University students to be reminded to strip off the non-essential ideological differences in the learning disciples.

Otunga advised the Kenyatta Government to use dialogue in dealing with human beings for the sake of peace in the country. Otunga had this advice to the Mzee: “You succeeded in uniting the people of Kenya towards independence; why are some people now being eliminated in cold blood?” Otunga’s team called upon the Kenyatta Government to adhere to the words of the National Anthem i.e. Unity, Peace and Liberty. They strengthened their message by referring to a phrase from the previous letter: “A nation united in purpose in the pursuit of true ideals such as justice, truth and self-reliance, cannot fail to enjoy the blessings of peace”



Otunga stressed that corruption is a structured sin that perverts the moral order in all ways. True to preaching the Gospel, Otunga never failed to carry out his prophetic role whenever the need arose. The 1977 situation of growing injustice prompted him to speak again. He vehemently spoke against corruption and other shoddy deals in business. During that year, an illegal coffee trade from Uganda became a normal phenomenon. The Cardinal condemned the practice when conducting a Confirmation Mass at the Holy Family Basilica on the 10th July 1977. It is this illegal trade that created the term “Magendo” that has become a household name for corruption in Kenya.

During the same occasion, the Cardinal spoke of the irony behind the bank robberies, which were rampant at the time. Cardinal Otunga challenged the Government to publicly declare whether the police had lost control of the cases concerning national security. Rev. Bishop Lawi Imathiu of PCEA who was then a nominated Member of Parliament supported Otunga’s stand when he called for the retraining of police to combat the unbecoming thuggery in the country. This kind of intervention would be only be deemed necessary for a man of Otunga’s status as a religious leader and a patriotic citizen. From other sources, corruption is snuggly embedded in Kenya’s social fabric.

Looking at the state of corruption, there seems to be a clear indication that the Kenyan society had actually began to deny itself the desired independence on account of this evil act. There was need for firm voices like that of Otunga to rekindle the people on their God-given rights. Otunga constantly emphasized that corruption perverted the human moral order in all ways.



Maurice Cardinal Otunga advocated for religious education as the core of moral values. He stressed that all ethics needed religious base to give it authority. Lack of a well-founded ethics constitutes a basis for social disintegration and in the long run, degeneration of the quality of life. On his advisory message to the Government, Otunga constantly advocated for the reinforcement of Religious Education as an essential subject in the school curriculum. If the country is to be turned back from the road to disaster, there is an overriding need for dialogue and co-operation. In 1995, Otunga challenged the way the Ministry of Education was handling family life education system.

As Religious leaders, we have repeatedly called and call again now for the reinforcement of Religious Education as the essential subject in school curriculum. If our country is to be turned from the road of disaster, there is an overriding need for dialogue and co-operation between the Ministry of Education, Religious leaders and the parents.



Otunga had a tough mind characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. The Cardinal was firm in purpose and solid on commitment. On this account, his messages made impact on the people whom he encountered. Before commenting on any issue he did proper search for truth with critical and analytic mind before reaching a conclusion. Otunga believed in the saying: “Hurry, hurry has no blessings.” This approach instilled confidence in him and enhanced intellectual and moral satisfaction in his followers.

Otunga urged the Church to play the prophetic role. That is, talk about the necessary issues without fear of the consequences. The politicians need to be sensitized in the need for integrated participatory and social action in matters that affect human dignity and integrity. The main institutions and mechanisms that are concerned with social justice like juridical and legal system, the constitution of the country, and the system of education must transmit the values of justice and fairness. In examining the body of the constitution, the government should do proper consultation before any change is made. All the peaceful mechanisms need to be explored for collective decision-making activities that concern the whole society.

In 1989, the Cardinal faced some crucial confrontation. This time, the Nairobi City Council was demolishing some settlements at Kangemi area. The Assumption Sisters of Nairobi had put up a building for a project of rehabilitating the disabled in the same venue where demolition was being carried out. This building was not spared the wrath of the City Council. Cardinal Otunga, together with the then chairperson of Catholic Justice and Peace Programme and the then Coordinator of National Economic Development were eyewitnesses of the demolitions. The Cardinal was so upset that he opted to protest to the Nairobi Provincial Commissioner himself. He termed the activity as satanic, inhuman and must be stopped. The damage was already done but the Cardinal did not let it pass by without intervention. He later challenged the government to provide recreational facilities to the slum dwellers.

Finally, Otunga led a very simple life manifested by clear detachment from worldly affairs. By staying among the aged at the Nyumba ya Wazee at Kasarani run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, Otunga showed the meaning of the life of selflessness. These are necessary criteria to merit the study of the paradoxical life history of the late H.E. Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga.



The Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes articulates many principles that lie at the heart of Catholic Church teaching concerning economic justice. In response to the economic needs of his people, the Cardinal initiated self-help projects in most parishes in Nairobi Archdiocese. This initiative has made it possible for the members to access loans at very low interest rates and without too many requirements. Cardinal Otunga felt that it would be helpful to relate evangelization, mission and justice. Having gone through transition of Vatican II Council, the Cardinal gave a new dimension to development and mission. He trained both the laity and priests to initiate and maintain economic development in Nairobi Archdiocese.

This strong economic foundation in the Nairobi Archdiocese gave Otunga the moral authority to condemn the commercial atrocities being committed in the Country. The Church needs to play her prophetic roles as the conscience of the state. In Kenya, the embezzlement of public funds undermines economic activities. It is nearly impossible to win a lawsuit and emerge as a successful bidder on a project, whether public or private without offering a bribe. Mismanagement of resources and waste of public funds on ill-defined projects and misplaced priorities contribute towards continued moral corruption”. Regarding land ownership, deliberate ambiguity and uncertainty about land ownership combine with bribery leads to speculation, profiteering and displacement of people from their homes and businesses. It defeats normal human reasoning for the Government to switch blame to the opposition on economic wastage yet it would use the machinery at its disposal to stop it very fast. The godfather syndrome, promotions on ‘technical know who’ and the establishment of economic tribes has killed justice in this country. If we adhere to the words of our National Anthem, ‘…may we live in unity peace and liberty….’ there would be no political murders or commissions of inquiry.”

The commissions of inquiry have become a waste of time when dealing with sensitive issues. He branded these commissions as a waste of tax payers’ money. He challenged the Government’s sincerity in appointing Commissions whose findings are never revealed.

The purpose of the commissions of inquiry is questionable since they do not tell Kenyans the truth. The Commissions tell Kenyans ‘How people have been killed, but not who has killed them. The Government promises that no stones will be left unturned, but they turn only wrong stones. If we all love each other we would not dream of Commissions. Let the Government stop wasting taxpayers’ money on Commissions. This is uneconomic which will ruin the poor men and women forever.

In April 1997, the news appeared in the press that Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga had retired and that his retirement had been accepted by Pope John Paul II. He had by then been the Archbishop of Nairobi for 28 years. He had taken the weight of that responsibility squarely on his shoulders and defended the faith and the rights of his flock.

Cardinal Otunga’s legacy is left for us to perpetuate even as we continue to respond to our Christian calling in our own unique ways.