East Africa boasts of some unique things. You wouldn’t think one of them would be its praying presidents. But it is. It seems in this region we do it more than others. Whether we do it better or are more pious people, righteous even, than others is, of course, a different matter. Some would find this strange because certain things do not mix very well. Piety and the rough and tumble of politics, for instance, where the latter often involves cunning and deceit and other kinds of fraud, and sometimes the elimination of rivals, real or perceived. But somehow, some of East Africa’s leaders have found a way of accommodating both. It is, of course, a different question whether they are successful or not. And the latest to join the league of East Africa’s praying presidents is Kenya’s new president William Ruto. On November 2, before sending a contingent of Kenya Defence Force (KDF) troops on a peace-keeping (some think, peace-enforcement) mission to the troubled eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he made a prayer in public, commending them to God for protection. The troops are part of an East African Community force that is supposed to fight and finish off rebellion in the east of the country and stabilise the region. As we all know, it is likely to be a difficult and dangerous mission. Many have tried and ended up being part of the mess there. And so perhaps it was in order to seek divine protection before embarking on it. It has been done in the past in parts of this region. A little differently, though. In similar circumstances divine guidance would first be sought through professional intermediaries. Leaders would have gone to a diviner to enquire if it was safe to go to war at a particular time and whether victory would be secured. If the moment was found to be propitious, then it was fine to go ahead. But if it wasn’t, going to war was postponed or further divination sought for a remedy to ensure victory – usually some sort of sacrifice or other extraordinary acts of bravery. That, of course, was in the past before our diviners were declared heathen and hounded out of the business by rival divine intercessors. Competition, even in matters of religion, can be fierce and deadly. Apparently there could not be room for coexistence. We hear, though, that they were not completely vanquished and still practice quietly in some areas. Anyway, President Ruto wished his troops Godspeed. He probably knows that they are likely to get mired in the Congolese security and political mess in its eastern provinces. And so the intervention of a higher power might be necessary. But maybe he should have said a prayer for peace in the region first. Ask the almighty to show the Congolese leaders the light to a path to peace. Plead with him to drum some sense into their heads that scapegoating and playing victim cannot help, that instead they must take responsibility for the situation in their country and so seek the correct solutions. That would certainly be a less costly way than getting embroiled in a complex conflict. Maybe he did, away from the cameras. Good if he did and if not there is still time. There has been another praying president in Kenya before. Daniel Arap Moi was frequently pictured in church on the front pews, hymn book in one hand, his famous rungu in the other, singing to the glory of God in his gruff voice. The respective symbols of piety and raw power, though clearly incongruous, did not appear to bother many. Discerning readers of the country’s papers had a different view, though. The papers duly carried the pictures and stories of the president’s church attendance. But they carried others as well, of political opponents brutally arrested and sent into detention, or an accident in which the most vocal opponent of his rule was killed. The public prayer bug does not bite only in Kenya, however. It does in other countries as well. In Burundi, for instance, President Pierre Nkurunziza was known for his passion for two things: sports and prayer. He was often pictured playing football or praying at some public event, for rain or giving thanks for a bumper harvest, and so on. He would urge his compatriots to take their problems to God. Even the covid-19 disease that is thought to have done him in could be effectively managed through prayer. But he was also known for his ruthlessness in politics. When things did not go his way or when he thought his rule was threatened, he turned, not to prayer and God, but to a viciousness in dealing with the perceived threat. He had created and then unleashed the imbonerakure militia on the population to whom they did the most unspeakable things. In next door Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli, perhaps because he was very Catholic, did not dabble in public piety. Still, he believed in the efficacy of prayer. It could even ward off the dreaded covid-19 that likely claimed his life. Interestingly, the professional religious men, who also double as political leaders, keep their piety and politics apart. We have not heard much in this sense from Seychelles president Wavel Ramkalawan who is also an Anglican priest. He probably spends more time working on the security and attractiveness of the islands and privately praying for more tourists. Not much has been heard from Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera either. He is also a theologian and churchman and must have other pressing secular preoccupations. Perhaps they know something the others don’t, for instance, the perils of mixing the two. Or they know better what works best, when and where, in what circumstances. That notwithstanding, and the evidence showing otherwise, we will still have our praying presidents in East Africa.