Mungiki: government promises more of the same

In its first cabinet meeting in more than a month, the Kenyan government vowed to crush the Mungiki sect especially in the sect’s strongholds in the Central Province and Rift Valley.

Paramilitary police from the Rapid Deployment Unit in an anti-Mungiki patrol in Nyeri. Picture by the Daily Nation.

Paramilitary police from the Rapid Deployment Unit in an anti-Mungiki patrol in Nyeri. Picture by the Daily Nation.

Following the cabinet decision, paramilitary police were deployed onto the streets of towns where Mungiki has a huge presence.

Analysts however say that the government is intensifying its war against Mungiki without a significant change in strategy. There will be greater use of such tactics as arresting suspected members and assassinating its leaders despite international criticism of illegal killings by the Kenyan Police.

There is very little talk about the political and social measures that will draw the mostly youthful membership of Mungiki into a constructive engagment with civilized society.

The government’s war on Mungiki has drawn more recruits into the secretive organization than before. Hardly a day goes by without police breaking up a Mungiki oathing ceremony. For every oathing ceremony detected by police, there could be many others that the police did not know about.

Though the Mungiki engages in criminal activity, its existence and continued persistence is a result of social and economic factors affecting the youth.

Economically, youth are the most disadvantaged in Kenya. They are the most affected by unemployment. They do not own property and therefore cannot invest in viable business. A recent study on small scale farms found that they are mostly owned by the over 50 age group. Young farmers are frustrated by co-operative societies dominated by men well past their prime.

Socially, the youth feel isolated from national political discourse. Young people feel ignored even within families, within the community set up and in the church. Contrary to what the country’s politicians believe, having young leaders will not quieten the Mungiki phenomenon. It is the introduction and implementation of new ideas that will drive the country forward and help create opportunities for the youth.

Feelings of disempowerment and isolation make groups like Mungiki very attractive. Gangs create a sense of purpose and belonging that every human being craves. Mungiki provides a basic social net for its members, who regard themselves as one big family. It provides social grounding to a dispossessed and angry youth and helps them to comprehend the difficult circumstances they find themselves in.

Instead of the government devising a creative, inclusive and long-term solution, it attacks the millions of poor and excluded youth with guns, jail terms and torture. By doing so, the government is confirming what the poor believe about it: that it is a tool of oppression used by the rich to suppress the poor.

The solution to the Mungiki menace should come with the admission that there are serious social, economic and political problems in Kenya. Mungiki is not a problem confined only to the Kikuyu. Other communities in Kenya have their own gangs created by the same circumstances that led to the growth of Mungiki. The difference between Mungiki and gangs from other communities is simply the scale of organization. Mungiki has been around for longer and this has given it a head start.

The Kisii have gangs like Abachuma and Sungu Sungu. The Kamba have localized gangs around the Machakos area that have made life a living hell for the affluent. At the Kenyan Coast, disaffected youth are joining movements whose ultimate objective is to secede from the rest of Kenya. In Northern Kenya, youth are joining cattle rustling gangs, while North Eastern Kenya is providing recruits for militant groups fighting in Somalia.

Assuming the government wins the war on Mungiki, will it apply the same methods against other communities in Kenya? And what will be the consequences?

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More killings feared as Kibaki vows new Mungiki war

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.

Development efforts frustrated by environmentalists

An irrigation project that would have turned 20,000 hectares of the Tana River delta into sugarcane fields for biofuel production, appears grounded by protests from environmental conservationists. Environmentalists insist that the present state of the Tana Delta is the best way of improving the economic status of area residents  – through tourism.

The use of the Tana Delta for sugar and ethanol production is supported by President Mwai Kibaki and local Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Danson Mungatana. The Kenyan government says the project will provide employment to locals while providing food and energy security to the country.

Mr Mungatana’s opponents argue that the proposed project will deny their people grazing land during the dry season. The Tana delta is home to both agrarian and pastoralist communities. Mr Mungatana represents agrarian communities while his opponents come from tribes that practice traditional type of cattle herding known as nomadic pastoralism.

The Kenyan government has given approval to several organizations to conduct sugarcane farming in the Tana Delta. The first was MAT International, a company linked to Arab investors but which is yet to begin operations. The second is Mumias Sugar, the country’s biggest sugar miller. Until now, Mumias Sugar had confined its production to Western Kenya. The National Irrigation Board, a state-owned corporation, also intends to revive irrigation projects along the Tana River.

The bulk of opposition to the sugar project comes from environmental conservationists who say that the Tana Delta is home to a wide spectrum of wildlife whose existence would be threatened by the mega project. According to Nature Kenya, the Tana Delta is a, “critical site for the conservation of birds.”  Nature Kenya also backs the pastoral communities agitating for the protection of pasture.

“The Tana River Delta supports several communities and enormous numbers of livestock, wildlife and water birds. The people have adapted their lifestyle to seasonal extremes. Farmers cultivate on receding lake edges, seasonally fertile floodplains, and where the river spills fresh water into their fields with the tidal flow. Other people raise livestock or engage in fishing. In times of drought, pastoralists bring livestock from as far as the Somali and Ethiopian borders to graze on the grasslands.”

Once again, there is conflict between the desire to conserve the environment and national needs for industrialization and employment creation. Across the African continent – and by extension the entire developing world – environmentalists funded by industrialized countries have intervened against development projects.

Still in Kenya’s Coast Province, a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Tana Delta, a massive project aimed at extracting titanium ore has stalled for a decade. Just like in the Tana Delta, environmental concerns and political infighting has ruined what would otherwise have been a major income earner for a country struggling at the lower ranks of global social indicators. Local people in Kwale were continually made to demand higher compensation fees.

The opposite corner of Kenya is also witness to yet another troubled project, thanks to environmentalists and politicians. The Dominion Group of Oklahoma, USA, was granted the rights to undertake commercial farming in the Yala River swamp that drains into Lake Victoria. The area has massive rates of poverty and it was believed that the entry of the Dominion Group would help raise living standards. Yala swamp is also ideal for rice and cotton production and initial tests yielded a huge harvest. But interference by politicians and non-governmental organizations turned the local communities against the project.

By early 2008, the Dominion Group was threatening to pull out from the area due to extortion from local leaders. The announcement was made by the group’s CEO who had flown from the United States.

Communities from Meru, Nyeri, Laikipia, Kwale and Taita Taveta Districts constitute the forgotten victims of environmental conservation. Human – wildlife conflict in areas surrounding national parks has largely been ignored as the country rushes to win internation accolades in wildlife conservation. With people killed by marauding wildlife and crops destroyed, life next to Kenya’s national parks is nothing close to what is portrayed in tourist brochures. Killing an elephant in self defense is likely to attract the wrath of law enforcers and a lengthy jail sentence. However, if a wild animal kills a human being, the survivors get only Kshs30,000 (US$447) in compensation.

“You cannot expect to get grand children if you insist on your children remaining virgins,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said on several occasions. The message here is that the country cannot hope to increase food production and boost employment without modifying the ecology. Farms, schools, towns, homes, roads and industries all require land, water and fuel. All these must come from the environment.

In neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the government to proceed with construction of the Bujagali Hydro-Electric Power station. Protests by environmentalists had delayed the project for years, resulting in 12-hour power rationing in Uganda. President Museveni said that national economic goals could not succumb for the sake of conserving a rare frog.

Perhaps, Kenya’s environmentalists should insist on sustainable development rather than total conservation. Otherwise, as Mr Odinga figuratively points out, Kenya’s people are bound to witness widespread hunger, homelessness, disease and death in the near future. Ultimately, it is better for a country to become self-sufficient than to depend on handouts from elsewhere.

Raila anointment facing difficulty

The planned anointing of Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a Kikuyu elder ran into fresh controversy this weekend, even as Raila was in Central Province pleading for national forgiveness.

Kenyan Prime Raila Odinga in traditional dress.

A number of prominent Kikuyu leaders said they were unaware of plans to anoint Raila Odinga as a Kikuyu elder. The ceremony is scheduled to take place at Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri. The anointment was announced last week at a Nairobi restaurant by Raila himself accompanied by former attorney-general Charles Njonjo. Also present during the announcement were Mr Peter Kuguru and gospel musician, Joseph Kamaru.

On Saturday, Member of Parliament for Nyeri town, Ms Esther Mathenge, said she is unaware of the planned annointing. “I have been told that there are a number of criteria that an individual must fulfill in order to become a Kikuyu elder,” Ms Mathenge told a national TV station, implying that the Prime Minister had not fulfilled the criteria. Ruringu stadium is in Ms Mathenge’s constituency.

On the same day, the Prime Minister Raila called on Kenya’s communities to forgive each other over the violence that killed 1,500 people early this year. Raila was in Nyeri to witness Bishop Peter Kairu officially taking over the Mt Kenya Catholic diocese. At the same function were Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Cardinal John Njue.

Vice President Musyoka congratulated President Mwai Kibaki for the peace talks that led to the giant coalition. Cardinal Njue on his part called for greater commitment by coalition partners to ensure lasting peace.

Raila Odinga comes from the Luo tribe to the west of Kenya. Mr Odinga ran for Kenya’s presidency in the December 2007 General Elections against President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. When Kibaki was declared winner, Odinga’s supporters from the Luo, Kalenjin and coastal tribes attacked Kikuyu-owned homes and businesses. The Kikuyu later launched their own retaliatory attacks in Naivasha and Nakuru. By the end of the violence in March, at least 1,500 people lay dead and close to 500,000 made homeless.

An internationally brokered peace deal resulted in a coalition government with Kibaki as president and Raila becoming the Prime Minister. However, ethnic tensions remain.

The Kikuyu blame Raila for anti-Kikuyu rhetoric during last year’s campaigns, hence the controversy surrounding the proposed anointing of Raila as a Kikuyu elder.