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Will the dreaded Mungiki resurface for Kenyan polls?

© Denis Bouclon

Video by Leela JACINTO

Text by Leela JACINTO , , reporting from Kenya

Latest update : 2013-03-01

A secretive, banned Kenyan criminal group, the Mungiki does not officially exist, although the name is often used to elicit fear. Across Kenya, there is much speculation as to what role the underground movement might play in March 4 elections.

Sitting in a derelict eatery in a volatile Kenyan town just 20 kilometers west of the capital Nairobi, Steven K. claims he’s just lying low, biding his time - until March 4 elections.

Then, he says ominously, when the “calling comes, we will come out as one again”.

A strapping 31-year-old who works as a bouncer and private security guard, Steven K. asked that his name be changed because he says he is a member of the Mungiki, a banned Kenyan criminal group that enforces strict secrecy codes.

Across Kenya, there’s much discussion over whether the dreaded Mungiki actually exists today – and if it does, in what underground shape and form.

Steven K. asked that his name be changed because he says he is a member of the Mungiki, a banned Kenyan criminal group that enforces strict secrecy codes. © Leela Jacinto

It’s a question that sees Steven erupt in a face-splitting grin. “Everybody knows the Mungiki does not exist now. But our policies, our agendas, our commitments did not escape our hearts,” he says, cradling his cellphone in one hand and a chilled Coke in the other. “We have to wear our masks until the time comes when we can remove them and say we are here.”

The current state of the Mungiki may be the subject of much heated debate in academic, human rights and law enforcement circles. But all Kenyans are very clear about what the word “Mungiki” implies and it’s one that’s being frequently employed as the country tensely awaits next week's election – and its aftermath.

“It’s a name that has a certain meaning and elicits a certain response,” says Mutuma Ruteere, director of the Nairobi-based Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, who has done extensive research on the group. “Mungiki is a synonym for fear and violence. If you really want to elicit fear, you bring up the Mungiki.”

A ‘poison-pen’ letter from the Mungiki

That’s precisely what happened barely two weeks before the elections, when Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga revealed he had received a threatening letter signed by “the Mungiki Veterans Group/Kenya Sovereignty Defence Squad”.

While the authenticity and intent of the “poison-pen" letter has not yet been established, it sent shockwaves across the country, prompting the launch of a special investigation.

In a lurid - if not grammatically accurate - warning, the letter threatened Justice Mutunga of “dire consequences” if the courts barred presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta from contesting the upcoming election.

Click to enlarge letter
Scan of letter threatening Kenya's chief justice, Willy Mutunga.

Kenyatta is one of four prominent Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the disputed 2007 presidential polls. More than 1,000 people were killed and over 600,000 displaced in the post-electoral bloodbath, in which the Mungiki was believed to be heavily involved.

As a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe, Kenyatta would appear to be an obvious candidate to secure Mungiki support.

But in Kenyan politics, nothing is as simple as it seems.

From spiritual sect to criminal gang

Originating in the late 1980s as a religious sect in the Kikuyu-dominated areas of the Central and Rift Valley provinces, the Mungiki – which literally means “masses” – called for a rejection of Christianity and Western culture in favor of a return to traditional Kikuyu beliefs.

According to Ruteere, the movement traces its birth to the dreams of two schoolboys – Maina Njenga and Ndura Waruinge – who heard God’s voice telling them to “go and liberate my people”.

But by the 1990s, the Mungiki had morphed into a brutal mafia-style criminal organization, involved in vigilante operations and extortion rackets. By the mid-2000s, the group found itself under considerable pressure after a series of murky police crackdowns – including mass arrests and summary executions – fueling cycles of violence and intimidation.

While the foot soldiers battled it out on the streets, the movement’s top leaders were doing jail time. Both Njenga and Waruinge announced their “conversions” – they had several of them – to Christianity.

But little credence was given to these conversions and most Kenyans believed that Mungiki leaders were simply covertly directing the criminal organization under a new guise.

On the national political stage, the 2002 elections saw the defeat of longstanding dictator, Daniel Arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin tribe, and the victory of Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in a widely acclaimed, free and fair election.

By May 2007, a leaked US diplomatic cable noted, “The fact that Kenya is now led by a Kikuyu-dominated government has taken some of the wind out of the sails of Mungiki’s resentment-laden political rhetoric.”

A role in the 2007 post-electoral violence?

But months later, the Mungiki entered the spotlight again in the aftermath of Kibaki’s disputed December 2007 re-election bid against his main rival, Raila Odinga.

In the bloody aftermath of the December 2007 elections, there were numerous reports that the Mungiki was involved in the carnage, with witnesses relaying account of gangs of Kikuyu youths identifying themselves as Mungiki conducting attacks.

But Steven K. maintains that while individual Mungiki members may have participated in the attacks, the movement itself was not responsible for the violence.

“It was not the Mungiki,” he asserts. “We were just staying put. By then, anyone speaking the Kikuyu language was being called Mungiki. They were just using the term Mungiki to mean the entire Kikuyu community.”

Steven himself had just emerged from three years in jail for his Mungiki activities, only to find the movement shattered – with several fellow members dead, in jail or in hiding.

With the end of the heady days of revisionist discourse punctuated by adrenalin-charged violence, Steven started the process of reintegrating into society – shaving his identifying Rastafarian locks, hiding the snuff, and taking daily showers (bad hygiene was a mark of Mungiki pride).

According to Steven, the strategy coming into the 2013 poll is similar to what it was in 2007:  “watch and see if later, we are needed to pick up the pieces”.

When asked what exactly that means, Steven responds with a huge smile, followed by a laugh. But he declines to provide further details.

Mungiki for peace

Just days before the election, the revamped bouncer is in his element in his hometown, loudly greeting almost every client entering the eatery in the hamlet of Zambesi, not far from Kikuyu Town – which, as the name suggests, is in the Kikuyu heartland of Kenya’s Central Province.

Sporting a red T-shirt proudly emblazoned with the acronym “TNA” for Kenyatta’s The National Alliance party, Steven looks like any other campaigner on an afternoon break.

But when it comes to discussing the March 4 poll, the 31-year-old’s discourse gets considerably muddled.

For a Kikuyu living in the tribe’s heartland, overt displays of Kenyatta loyalty are almost mandatory in these parts.

Mungiki co-founder Maina Njenga is supporting Kenyatta’s archrival Odinga in the 2013 presidential race. © Denis Bouclon

But Mungiki co-founder Maina Njenga – out of jail and converted again – is supporting Kenyatta’s arch rival Odinga in the 2013 presidential race.

Njenga has publicly renounced violence and launched a political party last year called Mkenya Solidarity. But his name is still associated with the Mungiki. At a Nairobi peace rally last weekend featuring all the country’s main presidential candidates, Njenga made a spectacular late arrival, entering the rally with a substantial group of thuggish youths efficiently pushing their way to the front of the thousands-strong crowd.

The unruly group proudly carried a sign, crumpled and twisted by the intense jostling, which read, “Mungiki repents and renounces violence”.

If the Mungiki has ceased to exist, clearly its former members are as guilty of misappropriating and exploiting that dreaded name as ordinary Kenyans.

Ruteere, like most experts, is puzzled by the ever-morphing force the Mungiki represents. “The Mungiki is different things,” he notes. “If you mean the Mungiki carrying out violent attacks, that’s not seen anymore. If you mean young people with allegiance to Maina [Njenga] and working in politics, yes there’s a significant group of young people loyal to Maina. The youth are a force that can definitely be mobilised – the question is how.”

In the end, a closely kept secret

The murkiness in the 2013 campaign is underscored by the fact that Njenga, the founder of a Kikuyu chauvinist group, is supporting Odinga, a Luo with historic grievances against the Kikuyu domination of Kenyan politics.

Maina Njenga attended a Nairobi peace rally featuring all the country’s main presidential candidates last weekend. © Denis Bouclon

On the one hand, it could be viewed as a break from the tribal-centrism of Kenyan politics. On the other, it could also characterize the cynical power-brokering that marks Kenyan politics.

Despite repeated attempts to reach the former Mungiki leader, Njenga did not return FRANCE 24’s calls.

Steven, however, is not puzzled by the seeming inconsistency of Njenga supporting a Luo against his favored Kikuyu presidential candidate.

“I can tell you why Maina Njenga is supporting Raila [Odinga]. When the police extrajudicial killings were at thier peak, Raila was the only one who stood up against the excesses and urged the government to sit down and talk to us. We will never forget that,” he says.

We? But isn’t the TNA paraphernalia-bedecked young man supporting Kenyatta?

It takes hours of patient cross-questioning. Only when the burly bouncer steps outside the eatery into a quiet football pitch does he carefully look around before confessing the truth. “What I do in the voting booth only God and I know,” he says slowly. “And I am going to vote for Odinga. We Mungiki, we wear masks. When the day comes, I will take off my T-shirt, Maina Njenga will take off his T-shirt and we will all be one.”

Date created : 2013-03-01


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