A murderous sect terrorises the people of Kenya – and some say it operates with the consent of corrupt government officials
Police break down doors in search of members of the Mungiki sect.
Margaret Mugoiri calmly sews as she
tells us her horror story.
SHE SITS in her sunny garden in Muranga, Kenya, mending a dress – a normal, everyday activity that heightens the tragedy of the tale she’s telling. It’s easy to believe the measured motion of needle and thread is the only thing that’s keeping Margaret Mugoiri’s emotions in check, as she relates how her husband was hacked to death last night by a group of machete-wielding men.
She describes how her partner of 32 years was dragged from their home and butchered in the back yard. Trauma has left her stunned and her eyes barely flicker as she recalls her husband’s shrieks of agony. But mention the Mungiki – the outlawed sect behind a wave of death and dismemberment that was the target of a major police crackdown in early June this year – and her face twists in fear.
Once simply a religious group of dreadlocked, snuff-snorting youths who embraced traditional rituals such as female circumcision, the sect has fractured into a politically linked, violent gang involved in extortion, murder and intimidation. “I have never seen anything like this before,” says a top offi cer in the Muranga police department speaking on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know who these people are and we don’t know how to go after them, so everyone’s afraid – even us.”
The Mungiki – which means “multitude” in Kikuyu – are suspected of beheading at least half a dozen people in June alone and accused of the killings of more than 30 others, including several police offi cers, since March. In the June crackdown Kenyan cops slayed at least 21 suspected sect members in a Nairobi slum after the Mungiki was believed to have been involved in the murder of two police officers.
The heightened violence has drawn angry criticism from inside and outside Kenya, including from the Catholic Church and members of the Kenyan community abroad, who fear the Mungiki will deter foreign investment and slow economic growth. Mugoiri, whose husband was one of the four victims in an evening killing spree in Muranga district, 80 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, is gripped in silent terror at the possibility of Mungiki in her village. “This place is not crime-prone, incidences of violence like this are unheard of and out of the ordinary,” murmurs Alice Muthoni, a neighbour come to grieve her friend’s husband.
Although police blame the Mungiki for the attacks, Muranga locals are unable to identify a motive for the violence and refuse to openly point a fi nger at the sect for fear of retribution.
The activities of the Mungiki – who’ve also allegedly gained control of the public transport sector and charge elaborate extortion fees to operators – are thought to illustrate the growing gap between rich and poor in a country where more than 60% live in poverty. “Their actions call attention to the inequality in our society. We can’t just shut our eyes to so many poor who’re forced to eke out a living through means of violence,” says Mburu Gitu of the state-run Kenya National Human Rights Commission.
Many believe the Mungiki are in league with corrupt politicians and police – authorities are currently investigating four former members of parliament accused of links to the sect.
“One gets the feeling that some people in the government want to retain these vigilante groups as a way of enforcing power,” says Evans Monari, a political analyst. “Political power in Africa, in this country, is based on terrorising people,” he explained.
Recently, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki issued an order to kill perpetrators of Mungiki attacks following harsh public outcry against internal security minister John Michuki’s failure to exert control over the sect. But many officials play down the scale of the threat…
“Just like other phenomena, crime also has its seasons,” says police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe. “We’re not downplaying it, but Mungiki is nowhere near threatening the police, the state or the people.” Yet some police officers remained unclear about how they would eradicate the shadowy sect, primarily composed of members of Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu.
Nearly 3 000 suspected members of the sect – said to have its origins in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s against former colonial powers – have been apprehended in the Central and Nairobi provinces since the start of the year, according to government and police sources.
Despite recent police crackdowns many Kenyans remain paralysed with fear over what they regard as an ongoing battle between the Mungiki and the government. “We’re caught in a war that’s not ours and we never asked for,” says a dairy farmer in Muranga, declining to be named. He’s one of the few Although they’re made to suffer, most Kenyans are afraid to speak out against the sect. people to venture into the town centre the day after the attacks. “I just sit, hope and pray that these people won’t come my way,” he says, preparing to head home as shopkeepers shut their doors earlier than usual at the approach of dusk. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll hear about me being beheaded,” he adds, laughing nervously as he brushes dust off his trousers and quickly heads for home. [e]