President Mwai Kibaki has vowed to crack down on the Mungiki sect even as torture and disappearances undermine ongoing government efforts of eradicating the sect.
The President is enraged by the killings of at least 10 people in his parliamentary constituency. The dead are believed to have been executed by Mungiki adherents, who are known for demanding protection fees from retail business, land owners and transport operators across Central Kenya, Nairobi and parts of the Rift Valley.
Since June 2007, at least 600 youths have been killed for alleged involvement with Mungiki. Scores of others have simply vanished after they were arrested.
Survivors and civil society accuse the Kenya Police for the deaths and disappearances, a claim the police Commissioner has denied several times. However, former internal security minister, John Michuki, was quoted last year saying that funerals of Mungiki youth would become a common occurence.
Mungiki is an underground movement among the Kikuyu ethnic group, drawing its membership from youths in squatter settlements and urban slums. The group advocates a return to Kikuyu traditional customs saying that modernity has failed to ease human suffering.
Mungiki leader, Maina Njenga, is serving a jail sentence for drugs and weapons possession but the sect describes the charges as a fabrication meant to curtail its activities.
Njenga began Mungiki in the mid 1980s in the Rift Valley province. His movement grew in numbers in the 1990s following clashes inflicted on the Kikuyu by forces loyal to President Daniel arap Moi.
The 1990s were a period of rapid economic liberalization in Kenya coupled with globalization, resulting in massive unemployment coupled with the loss of societal values. Rising crime and crumbling state authority added to the difficulties.
Within the shanties of the Kikuyu homeland and the capital city Nairobi, Mungiki restored order and provided basic social services in exchange for protection fees by households and businesses. By the early 2000s, Mungiki membership was estimated at over 1 million.
Since then, the Kenyan government has worried over the motives of Mungiki and sees the sect as a threat. Sections of the government are convinced that Mungiki’s goal is to capture power through its political wing, the Kenya National Youth Alliance.
Mungiki is not a movement of angels either. Dozens of people have been killed by the sect for either exposing the group’s secrets or refusing to pay protection fees. Mungiki does not allow revocation of membership and recruitment procedures are rather nasty.
Whereas President Moi kept the group in check through negotiation, his successor President Mwai Kibaki has pursued a hardline stance. Ironically, Kibaki is also a Kikuyu whereas Moi was not.
Being a phenomenon of the underclass, Mungiki does not enjoy the complete loyalty of the Kikuyu. Majority of upper and middle class Kikuyu support Kibaki’s crackdown against Mungiki, leading many social commentators to draw similarities with the Mau Mau war of the 1950s. Like Mungiki, Mau Mau drew its membership from the poor whereas the educated Kikuyu working for the colonial government opposed it.
Incidentally, John Michuki, the man who predicted Mungiki funerals in 2007 worked as a colonial administrator in the 1950s where he was tough against Mau Mau. Its worth noting that Mungiki draws its inspiration from the Mau Mau rebellion.
The rest of Kenya’s ethnic groups fear Mungiki and support the government’s campaign despite the violations of human rights. With Mungiki’s membership being exclusively Kikuyu, the rest of Kenya’s tribes see the group as an ethnic militia championing Kikuyu interests.
Consequently, there has been little condemnation of the government from the rest of the population. However, this apathy may change as the Kenyan government spreads its tactics to other parts of Kenya.
Security operations in Mount Elgon and the Somali border have been marred by similar allegations of torture, death and disappearances. It may seem as though the Kenyan government is adopting tactics last seen in Latin America back in the 1970s.
Perhaps, Kenyan leaders and security chiefs should familiarize themselves with ongoing legal procedures in Latin America. More than 30 years after the era of leftist groups and right wing paramilitaries (usually backed by military governments), trials are currently underway for those responsible for the disappearances.
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