Kenya's secretive Mungiki sect

BBC/May 24, 2007

Followers of Kenya's outlawed Mungiki sect were once known for tobacco sniffing, trademark dreadlocks and praying while facing Mount Kenya.

But the sect, which was banned in 2002, has undergone a metamorphosis since it first emerged in the 1980s.

It was inspired by the bloody Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s against British colonial rule.

Thousands of young Kenyans - mostly drawn from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu - flocked to the sect whose doctrines are based on traditional practices.

One theory has it that Mungiki was formed in 1988 with the aim of toppling the government of former President Daniel arap Moi. The sect was, at one time, associated with Mwakenya, an underground movement formed in 1979 to challenge the former Kanu regime.

However, the sect members have now turned to horrific crimes leaving behind mutilated corpses and a trail of blood and trauma.

In May, Mungiki followers are said to have brutally murdered six people in the country's central region, in what is said to be a revenge attack on people who had leaked information about their activities to the police.

For weeks, the outlawed sect members have been battling with public transport operators who refuse to pay protection fees to them.

Following the crisis, a crackdown on them was ordered by Security Minister John Michuki.

Police say the latest victims of the sect members were abducted and tortured before being hacked to death and their bodies dismembered.

Underworld gang

Today, Mungiki followers no longer sniff tobacco in public and have traded in the dreadlocks and unkempt appearance for neat haircuts and business suits.

They extort, engage in fraud, robbery, murder and even kidnap their victims.

Media reports say the sect has evolved over the years into an organised and intimidating underworld gang with bases in the capital, Nairobi, and parts of Central and Rift Valley Provinces.

They control public transport routes and demand illegal levies from operators.

Mungiki followers reign supreme within city slums, notably Mathare in the east of the capital. Here they provide illegal water and electricity connections to hundreds of makeshift shacks.

Residents of the slums also have to pay a levy to the sect to be able to access communal toilets and for security during the night in the crime infested slums.

Political connections

Following the latest gruesome murders, the government has vowed to wipe out the group but many Kenyans feel there is a lukewarm approach to counter activities of the sect.

Its leadership has openly claimed to have two million members around the country and to have infiltrated government offices, factories, schools and the armed forces.

"Mungiki is a politically motivated gang of youths," says Ken Ouko, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

"The religious bit is just a camouflage. It's more like an army unit. During the previous regime, they seemed to be complementary to the government. But now they seem to be antagonistic."

Mr Ouko suggests that security forces should infiltrate Mungiki to be able to counter its growing influence in Kenya.

But the sect is known to operate in secrecy, a fact that is complicating efforts by the police to identify its members as the crackdown on them continues.

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