Two weeks before last Thursday’s rerun presidential election, Eldoret Catholic Bishop Cornelius Korir implored the rival Jubilee and Nasa coalitions to soften their hardline stands to help ease political tension that was rising to a deafening crescendo.
While he was against the timing of the proposed changes in electoral laws championed by Jubilee, Bishop Korir was equally critical of Nasa’s repeated calls for anti-establishment demonstrations.
This was his hallmark, a truly neutral arbiter.
“The laws are not necessary now, but could be changed later so as to reduce tension in the Opposition,” he told journalists after celebrating Mass at Majengo Catholic Church, Uasin Gishu County.
“I also appeal to the Opposition not to demand so much from the IEBC. They should see what they can take to cool down the nation,” he added, appealing to both parties to allow the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission “to conduct elections in a conducive environment”.
That was vintage Bishop Cornelius Kipng’eno arap Korir who died in the early hours of Monday as he underwent treatment at Eldoret’s Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital.
Indeed Bishop Korir, who was aged 67, will be best remembered as “the peacemaking bishop”.
“I’m shocked to learn of Bishop Korir’s death,” Kenya’s youngest Catholic Bishop, Joseph Obanyi, said from Rome, describing Bishop Korir as an “elder and counsellor”.
“We have lost a great shepherd at the time we needed him most,” Bishop Obanyi, 49, said.
“Every Kenyan has come to know him as a humble servant of peace and reconciliation.
“He earned the respect of all people who worked with him. Above all he worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation. We shall miss him a lot. May God receive him in eternal peace.”
Besides his vocal stand against injustice in national politics, Bishop Korir’s 27 years of episcopal ministry in Eldoret stand out for his efforts at preaching peace among the warring pastoralist communities of the north.
“Three quarters of my life has been about peace building,” he told me in an interview on the eve of his Silver Jubilee celebrations as Bishop of the Eldoret Catholic Diocese on June 2015, noting that his first major peacemaking role was at the height of the 1992 intertribal clashes.
“The 1992 clashes were political violence coupled with ethnicity as the political parties then were rallied along tribal lines,” Bishop Korir reminisced.
“Politics rekindled old enmity in the pastoral areas, and it was a sad situation when you see people killed, property destroyed and people burned inside their houses.”
Bishop Korir was instrumental in the distribution of relief food to families affected by the 1991-92 clashes, but no sooner had peace returned than a new flare-up between the Marakwet and Pokot broke in 1996.
“It was a war between pastoralists,” he recalled.
“They were all within our diocese, so I went to them to console them and ask what the Church could do for them.
“They told me to help them talk to each other, and that’s how I really got into peacebuilding.”
Unlike the politically instigated clashes of 1991, the Pokot and Marakwet were fighting over livestock.
“Some of the Pokot were armed while the Marakwet really didn’t have firearms but soon started acquiring them.”
To ease the tension and stop the fighting, Bishop Korir led the Catholic church in building schools and cattle dips on the border between the two communities.
“We also dug two dams in East Pokot, and donors came in to utilise river Lelan, which is shared by the two tribes.”
The Lelan developments will remain among the biggest legacies of Bishop Korir’s peace-keeping ministry.
“By good luck the Foundation run by (American billionaire) Bill Gates helped put up milk cooling plants, which helped both Pokots and Marakwets concentrate on milk production.
“The fighting has since stopped, and Lelan now is a leading producer of milk with up to 20,000 litres of milk daily.
“They have even formed a cooperative society jointly, and members of both communities sit on its management board.
“It’s the most successful peacebuilding initiative that I’ve been involved in. The Pokot and Marakwet are earning as much as Sh20 million a month from milk production.”
A church was also built at the foot of Kapsait Hill following efforts by the bishop.
Bishop Korir said that through dialogue, a lot was achieved among the warring communities, and this was the subject of a book he wrote in 2014 titled Amani Mashinani (Peace at the Grassroots).
The fourth-born in a family of eight, Bishop Korir was born on July 6, 1950, and while bringing prosperity to warring communities will remain his highest point, his lowest moment was dealing with the post-election violence of 2007-08.
“In 2008, I had to go from location-to-location bringing people together.
“I organised dialogue between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu people at the cathedral, and our major rallying point was to call for a ceasefire that would allow farmers to plant as it was the planting season.”
Bishop Korir and the Catholic Church then helped acquire seed, fertiliser and other inputs to plant 1,500 acres of maize in the midst of the clashes.
“We were planting and talking,” he recalled.
At one point, Bishop Korir accommodated 10,000 Internally Displaced People in the Eldoret cathedral’s compound.
It was a dark period he would never have liked to live through again.
In his final days, Bishop Korir helped organise several peace meetings between warring pastoralist communities, coming up with a number of resolutions, among them the 2015 peace caravans that brought together leaders and opinion shapers from Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Samburu and Baringo.
A firm believer of the importance of mass media, on October 2013, the bishop launched a radio station run from the diocesan offices in Eldoret.
Speaking in Eldoret on Monday, Fr Sospeter Kangogo, who is in charge of pastoral affairs at the Eldoret Diocese, said the bishop will be difficult to replace.
“He was a peace ambassador who tried to bring people together,” Fr Kangogo said in the company of the Kenya Council of Catholic Bishops head, Bishop Philip Anyolo, shortly after confirming Bishop Korir’s death.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who will fill his shoes easily.”
Leaders praise Bishop Korir as a peacemaker especially in Rift Valley.