The Mystery that is Mungiki: Part One

1 Apr
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Mungiki Arrested by Police Photo: 2006, News de Francais, Kenya

Much speculation has occurred lately in newspaper articles and television news programs throughout Kenya beginning in the fall of 2012 up to late February,2013 especially in the capital city of Nairobi about the dreaded “Mungiki” and whether it would return to wreck havoc in the March 4th 2013 presidential and general elections.  Would this secret Kikuyu society disorganize the elections of 2013 the way members had in the December, 2007 elections by organizing violent riots, murdering members of opposing tribes, and openly defying the Nairobi police?

Thankfully this was not the case on March 4th of this year but no one truly understands why. Opinions rule the day but no one has come forward yet to provide a viable explanation concerning their extremely noticeable absence. Was it because their favorite son, Uhuru Kenyatta remained one of the frontrunners during the entire presidential pre-election campaign polls so there was no need to show their disdain or was it because the men responsible for the violence in 2007 are no longer alive? Or maybe it all came down to a far more practical reason such as they were no longer paid by wealthy men to incite these riots, intimidate voters, or murder police officers? Whatever the case, the men and women connected to the illusive Mungiki society stood on the sidelines watching quietly as the current campaign ran its course. There is no evidence that they were responsible for disrupting voter registration by inciting violence as well as leading and murdering voters at any time during the 2013 election process – but if not, then why not?

Before tackling that question it is imperative that the reader understand just who and what Mungiki has come to signify in Kenya? The ideals espoused by the members of the Mungiki sect seem to have expanded since its inception in 1980’s but maybe not?  Maybe it’s merely the fact that the rest of the world has never quite understood the need to create something like Mungiki in the first place.  So it’s imperative that we begin by exploring each one of the stages in the development of what  is considered Mungiki in order to answer this question.

First there was Mungiki, the religion. In the late 1980’s the term Mungiki was first introduced as religious doctrine created by two teenage boys, Maina Njenga and Ndura Waruinge after they heard the God of their ancestors speaking to both of them. He told the boys to bring the members of the Kikuyu tribe back to their former way of worship. The Kikuyu were farmers who lived on the southern and western sides of Mount Kenya. This mountain located in Central Kenya had always been a holy place to them as well as  the other tribes living around the mountain. The Kikuyu believed that their God (Ngai ) lived on Mount Kenya when he visited Earth. There he met with Gĩkũyũ, the father of the Kikuyu tribe who climbed to the top of this mountain to visit with Ngai.  Mount Kenya was an integral part of Kikuyu life and a Kikyu farmer would be sure to construct the entrance to his home facing the mountain so that it would be the first thing he viewed as he offered up his morning prayer to Ngai. And so the boys began to retell the old tales about the gods especially Ngai and refashioned a new religion from the ancient oral traditions.  It did not take long before many members of the Kikuyu tribe living in the area joined them and began observing the old waysonce more. This revival of Kikuyu traditions eventually spread into the Nairobi especially into the slums of Mathare, Dagoretti, and Kangema brought there by Kikuyu families who had left their tribal lands in central Kenya and the Rift Valleyto seek out paying jobs in the city of Nairobi.

Second, there was Mungiki the tribal operative responsible for standing up for the rights of Kikuyu tribesmen by creating and arming a local militia in order to protect Kikuyu farmers from having their lands illegally confiscated. This was being done by members of the Maasia tribe living around Mount Kenya area who were supported by corrupt government officials in the administration of then president, Daniel arap Moi. The militia fought for justice for the local Kikuyu farmers and violent land wars began where Maaasi marked by the Kikuyu as “greedy land-grabbers” suddenly went missing from their homes. The appearance of these vigilante fighters using guerilla tactics around Central Kenya and the Rift Valley caused the Maasia and the dirty government officials to become far more wary in their illegal dealings with Kikuyu farmers.  

By the late 1980’s, the young people of Kenya had two choices: remain with their tribe and farm small plots of land or migrate to cities and towns and find employment for which they would be paid in money or comparable goods. Many young Kikuyu men of the most current generation had no desire to engage in subsistence farming like their parents before them, so left their tribal lands in order to find work especially in the city of Nairobi. The Kikuyu prospered in the market places of Nairobi quickly demonstrating that they were astute business men very adept at the art of “The Deal.” They earned reputations as shrewd barterers but men who were not always so honest in their negotiations with others.  But despite this they carved out highly successful careers for themselves in “town” -as Nairobi was and still is called. In time word filtered back to the tribe describing the “good life” many Kikuyu families had made for themselves in Nairobi and hundreds of young Kikuyu males followed suit – all seeking the “good life.”

Kenya had continuously suffered from a severe shortage of jobs causing  a very high unemployment rate. This rate measures the number of people actively seeking a job as a percentage of the labor force. From 1999 until 2011, Kenya’s Unemployment Rate averaged 22.4%. It reached an all- time high in December of 2011 of 40% and a record low in December of 2006 of 12.7%.  At the same time as thousands of young Kikuyu males were flocking into the city, Kenya’s unemployment rate continued to rise because improvements in water quality and medical care had caused rapid population growth. Thousands of young Kikuyu males and their families found themselves trapped in the slums of Mathare, Kangama, Kibera, and Dagoretti with no place to work and nothing meaningful to do.

Third, there was Mungiki, the secret criminal society. By the 1990’s this organization had been introduced into the slums of Nairobi. The society borrowed much of its ideology and structure from Bolshvik literature prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The group used a “cell” structure based on the communist cells at the beginning of the twentieth century. Each contained 50 members who then were divided into “platoons” composed of ten individuals. It based its protection and collection methods on scenes from the film, “The Godfather” using the same extortion tactics employed by Italian immigrants arriving in New York City in the early 1900’s who eventually founded “The American Mafia”. Hundreds of estranged, unemployable Kikuyu youth living within the slums of Nairobi pledged their lives in ritualistic initiation ceremonies in order to become part of Mungiki because membership in this organization ensured power on the streets, a cultural as well as a political identity, and the money they required  to live their lives as they chose.

So around the early 1990s, their leaders devised a grand plan to extort money from local businesses throughout the city. They initiated their racketeering endeavors by demanding monthly protection payments from the matatu drivers then the “Taxi –Cab drivers working in Nairobi . Matatus are privately- owned, government –licensed vehicles  similar to Volkswagen buses that carry small groups of about twenty people back and forth on the main roads from town to town all over Kenya but the largest number of Matatus transport workers to and from the city of Nairobi. Most begin at sunrise and operate well into the late evening hours. Cities and towns are also filled with privately-owned taxi cabs that convey passengers, day or night but at a cost far greater than a Matatu ride.

It was well known out on the streets that Mungiki’s extortion schemes had been blessed by the President at that time, one –Daniel arap Moi because Mungiki began handing out monthly pay-offs to him and his corrupt ministers. The society continued to grow and local newspaper articles at that time claimed that the membership in this criminal faction had increased to half a million members. That estimate was vehemently denied by the government but the group’s use of brutal violence and torture made it a highly feared organization on the streets of Nairobi. In time, it widened its extortion  ring demanding payments from other businesses located in the city such as trash collection, construction, and even charged their neighbors in the slums of Mathare individual fees to use the electricity, public toilets and water services there.

Fourth, there was Mungiki the political “fixers”. By 2002 Mungiki had begun a new criminal venture aligning themselves with local politicians who wanted to win their election race by means of intimidating their opponents into removing their names from the ballot. And Mungiki was willing to terrorize even severely beat these rivals for a price. They agreed to injure competitors so severely that they would be sent to the hospital but demanded money and political favors in return. Kenyan newspapers reported stories of politicians running for election in local campaigns for MP (Minister of Parliament) who along with their families had been threatened with death if they did not withdraw from their campaigns immediately. Those who resisted incurred injuries or broken bones that often prevented them from continuing on with their campaigns. Entire slums like Kangema were intimidated and threatened with dire consequences if the people did not vote for the candidate of Mungiki’s choice. It was whispered that Mungiki’s influence had increased considerably with some government officials and word on the street was that they were closely connected to officials serving in the Kenya African National Union ( KANU) the first political party formed in Kenya and those who had served  in President Moi’s administration. But the newly- elected president, Mwai Kibaki had not used Mungiki’s services during  his campaign for president of Kenya and vowed to end their criminal activities once and for all- as soon as his presidency commenced.

So Kibaki ordered his police commissioner, Major General Hussien Ali to find and arrest these Kikuyu criminals and the Nairobi police began a monumental crack-down on Mungiki by raiding Mathare, which had been confirmed as a Mungiki stronghold in the city. They arrested anyone they suspected of being a member of or working for Mungiki. They used paid informants to help them identify these men but these “rats” were criminals themselves and began fingering innocent people just to provide the police with names in order to earn their cash rewards. The Nairobi police didn’t care about the truth and grabbed anyone who had been identified as Mungiki making countless mass arrests. They threw piles of young males into the back their trucks and drove off with them to jail. The police force tolerated no opposition and shot anyone who they even thought was resisting arrest, many times in front of their wives and children. Hundreds of Kikuyu men died before they could stand trial.

By the time the police had moved their raids into the slums of Kangema and Dagoretti both Njenga and Waruinge had been arrested on other charges and were already serving time in a Nairobi prison. Why they had not been murdered by police as they served out their time testifies to the influence they both exerted within the slums of Nairobi. The government was very wary of the possibility of the riots that might ensue if either one of these Mungiki’s leaders were assassinated in prison so kept them alive when so many other young Kikuyu men had been  mercilessly gunned down.  Word on the street was that these men continued to dominate every operation in which Mungiki was involved but the two publically swore to the Kenyan press and anyone else who would listen, that they were only ever involved in Mungiki, the religious sect. They continued to explain that they had no connection whatsoever to Mungiki, the secret society or Mungiki, the political ruffians and about a year later even confessed that they had stopped practicing the old religion entirely and had become Christians again. But no one believed them- especially not the police.

Fifth, There was Mungiki, the terrorists, prior to 2006 Mungiki had gone farther “underground” than ever before in order to elude the police. They continued to keep a low profile and lay off the matatu and taxi cab drivers for a time although they continued to receive pay-offs from their other extortion activities. But by January 2006 a significant change occurred in Mungiki and it came back with a vengeance and doing something no criminal organization in Nairobi had ever done as a group before- they began shooting back and killing the Nairobi police.

Three police officers were gunned down by armed men that sped by in a matatu at the Globe Cinema Roundabout as the officers tried to disperse a riot composed of angry matatu drivers and touts. The Police Commissioner later identified the assassins as members of Mungiki and went on to threaten all members of this society.He firmly announced that  “every last one of them” would be hunted down “once and for all” including the sect’s sympathizers and financiers. This was the first time that a public official openly admitted that the government was aware that people with power and money had been supporting the illegal activities of the Mungiki Brotherhood. The Minister of Security, John Michuki pledged on local news stations that the government would “never relent in its war to eliminate Mungiki” stating that he would personally  “increase security details for Members of Parliament who been recently threatened by the criminal society.”

“Word on the street was that this drive-by shooting has been carried out by Mungiki in retaliation for the hangings of five men along Thika road in Kagunduini the previous week because the police had “suspected” them of belonging to Mungiki. And this was the prelude to the violence that would soon escalate into dramatic proportions during the summer of 2007. But all that and more will be included in my next posting. Kenyatta & Mungiki: Kenyan Elections, Part Two

Kat Nickerson                  Kingston, Rhode Island            USA  

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2 Responses to “The Mystery that is Mungiki: Part One”

  1. Rieke September 25, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Hey, I hope your page is still active and you see this comment.
    Do you have any sources to this post? Where did you get all the information from? I’m gonna write a paper about the Mungiki for Uni and I still search for sources with the basic information about the Mungiki.
    Thanks a lot, Rieke

    • katsafrica September 25, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

      Hello Rieke, My blog is still very active as it seems there are more and more terrorist incidents occurring in Kenya lately especially along the coast. First of all, I was in Nairobi working at the university the entire summer of 2006 while the election riots were going on so got to witness Mungiki’s violence up close and personal. I always check my facts for accuracy against three different sources before publishing my final posts. I do not include references though because if I did, each post could be used by enterprising students as a ready-made research project that could be submitted as a class assignment but I always include an entire set of references with my personal article post. Most honest and accurate reporting of all the news sites is Al- Jazeera English- Africa, just type “Mungiki” in Search Bar. Then KTN, Standard Digital News, Kenya, The Star, The Huffington Post, then Reuters. According to my notes I used articles from each of these to support my major points about Mungiki. Sometimes I’ll use BBC Africa but only as a last resort- I have found them in error many times when reporting East African news. Also Mungiki is always closely connected to the 2007 Presidential election in Kenya so articles about this will usually have news on Mungiki as well. Good Luck to you in your endeavor and I hope this information helps. Kat Nickerson

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