Political analysts have billed this year’s election as one of the most competitive in Kenya’s history, pitting deputy president William Ruto against the godfather of opposition politics Raila Odinga. There is already fear that the cut-throat competition for the top seat might fail to produce an outright winner hence forcing a run-off.
Although most Kenyans were merrymaking during last year’s holiday season, Kamau – a matatu driver – was locked up at his Nairobi County home nursing serious injuries. A week before Christmas, along the Githurai-town route, he was assaulted by three young men running a protection racket. They accused him of being “stubborn” for refusing to pay their toll, which can run upwards of KSh350 ($3).
“It was around 10 pm. I was walking home after buying a loaf of bread and a packet of milk from a nearby kiosk,” says Kamau, who shared only his first name for fear of further victimisation. “Three men approached me in a poorly lit section of the road and demanded to know why I am always hesitant to pay route fees.”
Before he could respond, a flurry of kicks and punches sent him reeling to the ground. “They then drank my milk and ate my bread before vanishing into the dark as I writhed in pain,” Kamau says. “Luckily my friend who was passing by heard my cry for help and took me to hospital.”
Injuries to his head, chest and limbs kept him out of work for a whole month. “I had to borrow money from friends and relatives for treatment and daily sustenance because I couldn’t drive,” says the 34-year-old father of two.
The role of violent and coercive groups has become so widespread in Kenyan cities that they even determine the cost and provision of urban services
Kamau has a pretty good idea of who’s to blame: The outlawed Mungiki gang, which Kamau says is not only thriving, but even enjoys police protection.
Any mention of the group strikes fear in the hearts of many Kenyans who remember how the banned ethnic organisation, which promotes a violent brand of Kikuyu chauvinism, went on a frenzy of murder, rape and extortion in the run-up to the bloody 2007 election. As Kenya enters full campaign mode for the next two months, is the government prepared to avoid a repeat of history?
The Mungiki first unleashed terror in Nairobi and its environs starting in the mid-90s before being driven underground in the late 2000s following a major security crackdown that targeted its members.
A Human Rights Watch report published after the 2007 post-election violence blamed the group for reprisal attacks in Nakuru and Naivasha that targeted non-Kikuyus. Reports at the time claimed the group had infiltrated the police with support from influential politicians from the Central Province to help clamp down on anti-government elements.
With the country once again in the throes of a heated political campaign, many Kenyans worry that the Mungiki and other like-minded criminal groups will only get bolder if ruthless politicians seek their support in key battlegrounds, such as the Mt. Kenya region.
“Some of the criminals are now fully involved in politics, providing security and mobilisation services to politicians seeking elective seats,” Kamau says. “That is scary especially in a situation where election results are disputed at the ward, county or constituency level.”
In Kiambu County, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s backyard, the gang is becoming more vicious. Cases of murder, rape, robbery and extortion linked to the sect have been reported in various police stations. The group is said to be active in Ichaweri, Mutomo, Kimunyu and Ng’enda.
They attack and rob residents with crude weapons
As far back as late 2019, increased cases of brutal murders and gang rape in the county by Mungiki suspects prompted Kenyatta to dispatch Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i and Inspector of Police Hillary Mutyambai to assess the security situation.
“I apologise for what has been happening,” Matiang’i told the angry residents at the time, “and I assure you that this will not happen again”.
Repeated crackdowns by police have forced many members of the group into hiding, but with elections around the corner, the criminals are re-emerging from their hideouts to take advantage of the usual confusion around Kenyan elections.
A bar owner who did not want to be named for security reasons says he was forced to pay “protection fees” after Mungiki members threatened his family.
“I had no choice but to pay the weekly protection fees of between KSh1000 ($8.6) and KSh2000 ($17) to keep myself and my family safe because I know they mean what they say,” he says.
He adds that many bar and liquor shop owners pay protection money to both the police and gang members. Resisting can prove deadly: The bar owner said a University of Nairobi student activist was killed in 2019 after protesting suspected Mungiki members who were demanding KSh10,000 ($86) from small traders selling their wares in Nairobi and Kiambu counties.
“They shot him dead at Club 36 market in Nairobi to send a message to anybody who plans to protest against their illegal activities,” the bar owner says. “Many businesspeople became very afraid after the incident.”
Gangs for hire
The proprietor also believes the rumours that some politicians have incorporated the Mungiki and other criminal gangs into their campaign teams in Central Province.
“They are being hired to disrupt rallies of rival politicians or heckle them,” he says. “It might turn ugly in areas where competition for political seats is a matter of life and death.”
The sect has re-emerged in other counties in the Mt. Kenya region. In 2020, former regional commissioner Wilfred Nyagwanga warned that the Mungiki were regrouping in Nyeri and Muranga counties, shocking residents who were still traumatised by the 2009 massacre of 29 villagers in what came to be known as the ‘Mathira massacre’. The incident in Nyeri County happened a few days after 15 members of the group were killed by vigilantes in neighbouring Kirinyaga County.
They are being hired to disrupt rallies of rival politicians or heckle them.
10 years later, the dreaded gang is back to controlling public transport routes and extorting local businesses.
“They attack and rob residents with crude weapons,” says a resident from Kandara sub-county who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals. “We don’t want the situation to degenerate to the 2009 level.”
According to a November 2020 report by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, since the 1990s, organised criminal gangs have assumed larger and larger roles in Kenyan urban spaces. The gang phenomenon, the report says, is tied to pressing issues facing many Kenyans, including violence and ethnic polarisation, widespread corruption and abuses by the security services.
“The role of violent and coercive groups has become so widespread in Kenyan cities that they even determine the cost and provision of urban services,” the report says. “They are now so entrenched in politics that aspiring candidates consider it impractical to enter the game without funding gangs of their own.”
Rumours and myth
Despite the anecdotal evidence, not everyone agrees that the Mungiki are seeing a rebirth.
“Not at all,” says former sect leader Maina Njenga, who is vying for a senatorial seat in Laikipia county on a Kenya African National Union (KANU) party ticket.
“There is nothing like Mungiki,” Njenga says. “It was disbanded by the government, and if there are members of such a group, then they should be dealt with by the state.”
However, a police constable in Nairobi’s Eastlands area confirms that remnants of the dreaded group operate in the poor neighbourhoods of the capital and beyond.
“There are remnants of Mungiki active in parts of Nairobi, Kiambu, Nyeri, Muranga,” says the officer, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the press. “Most of them operate clandestinely for fear of being noticed by security officers.”
Police warn of possible Mungiki resurgence https://t.co/nm2QPYjwXn
— Citizen TV Kenya (@citizentvkenya) October 29, 2021
Regardless, the government insists it’s not taking the threat lightly. Matiang’i, for his part, has vowed to emulate the tactics of John Michuki, the late internal security minister who presided over the suppression of the Mungiki in the late 2000s, in dealing with the group and other criminal gangs who could threaten national security during the elections.
“We will act firmly and decisively to deter criminals,” Matiang’i said. “We will not play around with the security of our people.”
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