Nairobi – The apparent resurgence of an outlawed violent cult among snuff-taking dreadlocked youths alarms authorities in Kenya, who suspect the group is trying to win legitimacy with the creation of a political party.
Mere mention of the Mungiki, a shadowy and secretive religious sect with alleged historical ties to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, evokes fear in many Kenyans who see it as a mafia-like criminal enterprise intent on fomenting chaos.
As the East African nation approaches a bitterly disputed referendum on a new constitution next month, Mungiki activities – believed to include ritual killings, carjackings and extortion – have come under increasing scrutiny.
Last week, the sect is alleged to have capped a 15-year reign of terror along Kenya’s roads and inside Nairobi’s slums with the formation of the Kenya National Youth Alliance (KNYA), according to police.
“The Mungiki are trying to conduct their operations under the disguise of the National Youth Alliance,” said national police spokesperson Jaspher Ombati.
No connection with the Mungiki
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A senior KNYA official, however, denied the group was affiliated to the Mungiki, maintaining the alliance has existed since 1992 and has more than 200 000 members.
“We don’t have any connection whatsoever with the Mungiki,” said KNYA vice-chairperson Lawai Wanbare.
But before its public denunciation of a commando-style police raid on a suspected Mungiki headquarters earlier this month, claiming the property was its own, the KNYA was an unknown entity.
The raid and the KNYA condemnation have reinforced police and public belief that the two groups are the same, according to officials, experts and others who have monitored the Mungiki since they came into being in the early 1990s.
“This is an outlaw group that will resort to any means to conduct its illegal activities,” Ombati said.
Many tribal beliefs
Composed largely of young, unemployed Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, the Mungiki are said to practice beliefs including initiation in a secret ceremony where they pledge lifelong allegiance to the group on pain of death.
Initiates to the Mungiki, the Kikuyu word for “multitude”, worship a god called Ngai and pray, facing the slopes of Mount Kenya, for a return to a traditional African culture that rejects the trappings of the West.
It is believed to have established a stronghold in central Kenya, the heart of the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, with recruitment and teachings harking back to the days of the independence struggle.
To finance illicit operations, the Mungiki invested in matatus – the ubiquitous minivans upon which most Kenyans rely for transport – and soon established a near monopoly, extorting money from drivers and charging tolls along roadways under threat of violence, according to Francis Owakah, a professor at the University of Nairobi.
Upset over government crackdown
A government crackdown on the matatu industry last year upset the group which, now subject to formal regulations, has sought other means of economic support, he said.
They are often identified by trademark dreadlocks and heavy marijuana and snuff use. According to a 2004 report in the East African Standard newspaper, a Mungiki militia – known as Bagation – has been training young men to be killers.
Graduates are said to pass through a rite that involves ingesting human urine and umbilical cords, according to the report.
The group turned to crime “at the behest of former president Daniel arap Moi to divert attention from his failings as a leader”, said Owakah.
“In the early 90s, when crime rates were high and the economy was flagging, the environment was ripe for a movement of organised violence to take hold and spiral out of control,” said Mwenda Njoka, a local journalist who has covered the Mungiki.
Possible link between KNYA and crime wave
The cult is thought to be behind a spate of carjackings and bank robberies plaguing the region, with Nairobi’s matatu drivers among the hardest hit by the crime wave, Njoka said.
To stem the violence, police remain focused on the eradication of the Mungiki network that has now morphed into the KNYA, according to Ombati.
“They must be dismantled by whatever means possible,” he said.
But the KNYA vehemently denies any affiliation with crime, insisting it is committed to “championing the rights of the poor and oppressed” in the face of “mispresentation and persecution” by the police, Wanbare said.
“We will not overthrow the government with violence but instead with a majority of the vote,” he said.