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A wave of kidnappings in Kenya

Video by Athanase MAKUNDI , Stéphanie BRAQUEHAIS

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-08-10

Since the beginning of this year, an estimated 200 people have been kidnapped in in Kenya. The police suspect the Mungiki sect to be behind this new worrying phenomenon, but others say the group is a convenient scapegoat.

It has been three months since Winnie Waitherero Maina last saw her husband. Kidnappers asked her for a 20,000 euro ransom. Unemployed and with six grandchildren to look after, she was only able to send 200 euros. Not enough, replied the kidnappers.

Winnie now trembles with fright every time she sees the kidnappers' number come up on her phone. With no money nor any help from the police, she wonders whether she will ever see her husband again.

"I feel really bad, because I don't even know whether he is dead or still alive," she says. "Now I can't even talk to him. Before, I was still in contact with him; at least I had a hope. But now they are saying that I won't talk to him unless I send the money."

Hillary Kimutai Koin was luckier. The businessman was driving home when he was kidnapped, but he was released two days later because the kidnappers had in fact been targeting another, wealthier businessman.

"It's a really nasty experience," he said. "Everybody in the group had a firearm, or one or two. It is scary. They are pointing a gun at your head, at your back. You can expect anything."

The Mungiki: kidnapping ring or scapegoats?

Eleven kidnappings have been officially reported to the Kenyan police, but according to several sources, there have been more than 200 kidnappings since the beginning of the year.

"The illegal group Mungiki is responsible for the kidnappings," said Eric Kiraithe, a spokesman for the Kenyan police. "This is the worst type of aggression which has ever been mounted on innocent citizens in Kenya, I think since independence."

The Mungiki was declared illegal in 2002. The Mungiki emerged in the 1980s as an anti-Western religious group that espoused the traditions of the Kikuyu ethnic group but now are seen as being involved in political violence and mafia-like criminal activities, particularly protection rackets in Nairobi slums.

Njuguna Gitau Njuguna, spokesman of the Kenya National Youth Alliance, the political arm of the Mungiki, rarely gives interviews to the media. Wanted by the police and flanked by armed bodyguards, he denies any implication in the wave of kidnappings.

"So many crimes have been attributed to Mungiki. But the police have never been able, even once, to prosecute anyone," said Gitau Njuguna.

In an interview with France 24, François Grignon, director of the Africa programme for the International Crisis Group, said that Kenyan authorities found it “convenient” to blame the kidnappings on the Mungiki.

“You do have criminal gangs within, I would say, the Mungiki family. You have people who are specialised in racketeering, in harassment and indeed in kidnapping,” said Grignon. “But to allege that the Mungiki are responsible for the rise of criminality in the country, I think, is very convenient because you have an easy scapegoat. But it is not reality.”

Grignon said that there are many ethnic-based militias and youth-dominated movements that are involved in such activities, but the government lumps them all together under the label of Mungiki.

“Every gang of young men which has organised itself to fill the gap left by the collapse of state authority is usually identified as Mungiki,” he said.

Date created : 2009-08-10