Kenya: The Mungiki mess

Kenyan peace protesters with placards

Protesters in Kenya calling for post-election peace.

The increasing power of a religious sect-turned-criminal network and recent accusations of government collusion with the violent group must be dealt with by a return to the rule of law, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Edoardo Totolo for ISN Security Watch

For the past decade, the clear escalation of the power of the Mungiki organized crime group has posed a serious threat to security and development in Kenya, and now, new details have emerged on that suggest a rather sinister relationship between certain government officials and the group.

Since its establishment 20 years ago, the Mungiki group has transformed itself from a religious sect defending the culture and traditions of the Kikuyu tribe into an underground economic power with thousands of members, practicing extortion and racketeering against Nairobi's slum-dwellers and informal sector businesses.

National security agencies, high-ranking government officials and prominent Kenyan businessmen have been accused, simultaneously, of human rights violations against the Mungiki and of collusion with its leaders during the ethnic conflict of January 2008. The accusations were made in two recent reports published by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), also known as the "Waki Commission."

If the United Nations and Kenyan authorities heed the accusations made by the two commissions, key politicians and numerous members of the Kenyan elite could lose their power or even be sentenced to prison terms. If no action is taken, the commissions may also refer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The Mungiki metamorphosis

Inspired by the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, the Mungiki group was established in the late 1980s to promote a return to African roots by preserving culture and traditions as well as by contrasting the spread of Christianity and westernization among the members of the Kikuyu tribe.

The group also aimed at defending the Kikuyus' economic and political interests. In the early 1990s, then-president Daniel Arap Moi allowed the people of his own tribe (the Kalenjin) to launch attacks on property belonging to the Kikuyu in the disputed lands of the Rift Valley region. For the first time, the Mungiki acted as an armed militia in defense of Kikuyu land and economic security.

Soon after the tribal clashes in the Rift Valley, the group moved to Nairobi where it began to play an active role in the slums of Mathare and Kibera. Initially, the Mungiki attempted to fill the void left by inefficient public institutions. Besides fighting the corruption of local authorities, they provided public services such as access to water and electricity.

But the group's metamorphosis into an organized criminal network was quick. The group's main target became the private minibus taxi industry, known in Kenya as matatu.

"Our problems with the Mungiki started already in the early 1990s," Simon Kimutai, chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, told ISN Security Watch. "Initially, the Mungiki were not violent; they were looking for passengers and 'selling' them to the Matatu drivers for a commission. But they soon decided to take over the whole industry. The gang started recruiting idle youths, normally school drop-outs, and they promised them a profitable job: extorting money from the matatu owners."

Even though the sect was outlawed in 2002 after a violent conflict with matatu owners, the escalation of violence did not stop. Over the past five years, hundreds of people, including police officers, minibus drivers and slum-dwellers, have been murdered. The peak of brutality was in 2007, when the Mungiki publicly beheaded several matatu drivers who refused to pay, mutilating their corpses with machetes and clubs.

"The government is not doing enough," said Kimutai. "The only way the state can win the war against the Mungiki is to equally apply the same force. When the police started secretly arresting the Mungiki, the security for the matatu industry improved. Justice should not work in that way. But it is difficult to fight the Mungiki with common court procedures, because nobody wants to bear the risk testifying against them."
The Mungiki also forced slum dwellers and micro-businesses in the Nairobi slums to pay "protection fees" and other "taxes" on property. The gang also forced female circumcision and publicly stripped women wearing trousers or mini-skirts. Whatever their initial goal, the group turned into a brutal criminal organization driven by unclear moral beliefs.

Collusion and complicity

Two reports, published in September and October this year, portray a contradictory relation between the Kenyan government and the Mungiki.

The first report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) investigates the government's crackdowns against the sect. In its published results, called "The Cry of Blood," the commission accuses the police and national security agencies of extra-judiciary killings of alleged Mungiki members. According to the KNCHR, since June 2007, more than 500 Mungiki members were killed or disappeared after police raids.

"You cannot break the law in order to enforce it," a KNCHR spokesperson told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity. "We do not condone the crimes of the Mungiki, but denying a fair trial and committing extra-judiciary executions clearly represent a human rights violation."

The document contains post-mortem examination reports and official records from the mortuary and hospitals. Security agencies strangulated, drowned and mutilated the suspects in order to make the public believe that the murders were perpetrated by the Mungiki themselves, according to the report. However, numerous eyewitnesses interviewed by the KNCHR saw the police using rudimentary arms such as metal bars, ropes and machetes. Different case studies also show that police officers tried to extort money from the suspects: For 50,000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 620)) alleged Mungiki members could have bought their freedom. Many of the victims, however, could not afford this, the report said.

"The state in Kenya no longer has the monopoly on instruments of violence. We demand accountability for the acts of the Mungiki as well as for every other criminal gang operating in the country. But at the same time, when a government uses the same tactics that it is supposed to fight, there is really no difference between the state and organized crime," said the KNCHR spokesperson.

The KNCHR sent its report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture and to the relevant Kenyan authorities, and now is waiting for these institutions to take action.

Only one month after the publication of the KNCHR report, more accusations were leveled at the government of Kenya.

An international commission presided over by Kenyan judge Philip Waki conducted research on the roots and main actors involved in the post-election violence. The report concluded that the tribal conflicts that erupted in several municipalities were pre-planned by politicians and criminal gangs.

The report makes accusations of collusion between the government and the Mungiki sect. It states that high-ranking officials and prominent businessmen met with Mungiki leaders on two occasions in order to prepare the attacks against rival political groups in the municipality of Naivasha.

"The Commission received credible evidence to the effect that the violence in Naivasha between the 27th and the 30th [of] January 2008 was pre-planned and executed by Mungiki members who received the support of Naivasha political and business leaders," the report states. "The Commission also has evidence that government and political leaders in Nairobi, including key office holders at the highest level of government, may have directly participated in the preparation of the attacks."

The 500-page document drafted by the Waki Commission analyzes the violence in numerous other municipalities and accuses both the political parties running in the election of similar crimes and of collusion with other criminal militias.

A sealed envelope containing a list of names of ministers, politicians and businessmen involved in the violence was sent to former UN secretary-general Koffi Annan. The names have not yet been published.

Threat or opportunity?

Kenya finds itself at crucial crossroad. The country may continue to maintain a culture of impunity, which has allowed for the spread of violence and corruption over the past 20 years, or it may opt for an unexplored road and follow the rule of law - an unknown concept for numerous members of the Kenyan political and economic elite.

The increasing violence of the Mungiki and the subsequent investigations made by the two commissions have highlighted a seriously dysfunctional political structure. Whether this disclosure will turn into a threat or an opportunity for Kenya will depend on the decisions of Kenyan institutions and on the capacity of the international community to advocate for justice.

Edoardo Totolo is a freelance writer and academic researcher based in Amsterdam. His fields of expertise are private sector development and the impact of informal economies on human security in Sub-Saharan Africa.


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