Friday, May 15, 2009

How to "get rid" of Mungiki once and for all

Official response to illegal armed gangs is less than satisfactory if the handling of the headline act called Mungiki is anything to go by. In fact, it is unacceptable.

From the day the Mungiki sect emerged as a pretender to cultural revival 23 years ago when it insinuated itself with Kikuyu traditional religion, it has expanded, mutated and grown a beard. The casual observer is at a loss why former President Daniel arap Moi kept holding public meetings with this group’s so-called leaders and still failed to help the country understand it better. Even after the murderous night of slaughter in Nairobi’s Kariobangi slums in 2002, and the subsequent official ban, this group ended up holding a very public demonstration in support of the presidential candidacy of Uhuru Kenyatta that year. No investigation of its revival and daring was attempted.

Instead, it emerged the following year – after further slaughter in Nakuru following the elections – that this illegal group had gained use of vehicles from the military. Again, there were no reprisals and no investigations. In the meantime, the Mungiki kept changing into an extortion racket targeting transport and retail sectors as well as slums rents. The collection of extortion money that has revealed the Mungiki’s most ruthless aspect – in gruesome beheadings and other murders. At the height of these killings, a sitting MP claimed that his colleagues had been forced to take the Mungiki oath of allegiance. No satisfactory investigations were carried out. Instead, the police appear to have taken out a licence to kill – murdering between 500 (official figures) and 1,700 (human rights figures) young men in two years.

Last year, the BBC published a report claiming members of the Mungiki held meetings at State House to plan violence in relation to the 2007 elections. The denials from government were strident, but there was no independent investigation.

The Mungiki forced a shutdown of business in Nairobi and Central Province last year, and the police confessed they had been caught by surprise. Again, last year, Prime Minister Raila Odinga seemed to stretch out to the Mungiki by offering to listen to their grievances. The police dispersed a group of women who attempted to meet him, and he has never raised the matter again. Last month, villagers took the Mungiki problem in hand. According to Gichugu MP Martha Karua, 3,000 people rode past a market carrying axes and pangas as they went to seek out Mungiki members. They killed a few, and then the sect allegedly paid them back in their own coin. At least 40 people have died. So it was fitting that this matter should come to the attention of Parliament – as it did last week. The debate has side-stepped this rich history.

The casual observer instantly notes that the Mungiki has always had sympathies in the government. These sympathies have been so deep as to ensure that investigations are never completed. The sect’s leaders have access to powerful individuals and defenders within the system. Even in Parliament, the speeches left a lot to be desired. Perhaps it is fear that makes MPs forget that the Mungiki is a 20-year state security problem. Perhaps sympathy makes MPs not ask the hard questions about why investigations into this so-called sect have not yielded useful results. Perhaps indifference makes leaders not demand that someone pays for crimes committed by this group and others like it.

Yet, there is agreement on the table about demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of all militia after the 2008 crisis. That agreement has the signatures of the negotiators from the Orange Democratic Movement and the Party of National Unity. It has not been acted upon.

You cannot demobilise what you do not know. As long as membership of the Mungiki sect continues to be secret, attempts to break it up will not succeed. The government has tried to fight this group by driving it underground for over 20 years. It is time for a new approach: Mungiki should be invited to join the Kenyan community by registering as a movement of whatever nature. That way, its members can be made to account for acts committed in its name.

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