Brutal Kenyan Sect Aims to Provoke Strife

A police officer uses a dog on fleeing youths in Nairobi's Mathare slum during a raid last month that targeted members of the Mungiki sect, suspected in a string of beheadings.
A police officer uses a dog on fleeing youths in Nairobi's Mathare slum during a raid last month that targeted members of the Mungiki sect, suspected in a string of beheadings. (By Karel Prinsloo -- Associated Press)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 2, 2007

NAIROBI -- An unimposing man known as Joe, alias Robertson Buili, alias Ndegwa, appeared about 2 p.m. at the Maxland Restaurant here, took a seat and ordered a warm beer. At least five bodyguards followed, and tailing them a few minutes behind, the area police chief.

Like some Kenyan Godfather in the pale sunlight, Buili, 36, was greeted by two bow-tied waiters who apparently recognized him as a leader in the Mungiki, a cultlike gang suspected of at least 12 beheadings and other mafia-style murders that have terrorized the Kenyan capital in recent weeks.

"The owner of this place has come to me," Buili explained, referring elliptically to a recent recruit. "We are the masses. We are the people. And we are just in a warm-up now."

Lately, screaming headlines in the bawdy tabloid newspapers of Nairobi have described the so-called Mungiki Menace. Dark tales of moonlight oath ceremonies have been followed by vows from politicians to end the violence and by police crackdowns targeting one of the city's sprawling slums, where members of the secretive sect extort money from the poorest of the poor.

Although the Mungiki claims thousands of members, it is difficult to say how widespread the sect is, much less what it is: the dying embers of a more violent 1990s Kenya or perhaps a sign of the growing urban poverty afflicting cities across Africa.

Kenyans pride themselves on their relatively progressive country, an island of calm in the turbulent Horn of Africa, and many dismiss the Mungiki as nothing more than a brutal if politically connected extortion racket.

To others, though, the Mungiki violence -- wrapped in the ideology of the dispossessed and a warped tribal identity -- has raised the question of whether the kind of large-scale civil unrest that the sect's leaders have promised to inspire this election year is possible in Kenya.

Pamphlets urging young people to "Arise! Arise!" have been circulating in the capital, while police have responded in a typically heavy-handed fashion, rounding up young men who wear dreadlocks or bear some other supposed hallmark of the Mungiki, at times simply to extort their own bribes.

Last month, police killed at least 21 people in a brazen raid in Mathare, during which dogs were turned against teenage boys and, residents say, dozens of innocent people were beaten or shot.

"The government doesn't have a clue how to stop this thing because they are dealing with an amorphous group with few known leaders," said Jogana Mutahi, a coordinator with the Kenya Human Rights Network, which condemned the violence. "So they're going after young men with boxer shorts hanging over their pants."

Young male residents of Mathare say they are not certain who is more terrifying -- the Mungiki, who beat them and take their money, or the police, who beat them, accuse them of being gang members and demand money from their families.

"The Mungiki act like another government," said Peter Ndegwa, 17, who ran for his life during the last police raid. "Us innocent boys would like to ask our president: Who exactly is our government? Because we pay taxes to the government for police, and we pay taxes to the Mungiki."

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