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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Between a rock and a hard place

Living in Kirinyaga district is akin to being asked to make an impossible choice. You are either with the Mungiki or against them. There is no in-between.

A preliminary report by the Kenya Human Rights Commission says the outlawed Mungiki sector requires residents to pay monthly protection fees, graduated according to the standard of one’s house – Sh500 for a permanent stone house and Sh400 for a semi-permanent one. Those who run kiosks must pay between Sh50 and Sh100 every month, depending on the size of the business. If you keep dairy cows, you owe Sh20 every day – or Sh600 a month. In short, if you live in a permanent house, keep a dairy cow and have a milk kiosk at your gate, you owe Sh1,200 every month – or Sh14,400 a year.

Should you get into a dispute, the Mungiki usually arbitrate, at a fee. They also collect debts and charge a percentage on the principal sum, levy tolls on matatus and a flat 5 per cent on all dowries. They reportedly work closely with police officers stationed in the area, paying junior and senior officers alike.

Those who join the Mungiki cannot leave and live. Those marked for death are beheaded. As a counter to the Mungiki terror, local vigilante groups have sprung up in the tradition of self-help. These groups reportedly enjoy wide community support. One shows their commitment to the vigilante, who operate openly, through materials. You can give a panga, an axe or a club as you contribution to killing members of the Mungiki.

Those who are in business also fund the vigilante so that they can wipe out the Mungiki. Since the Mungiki are reputed for snorting snuff, the vigilantes have a foolproof test for smoking them out. They stop young people at random and order them to sneeze. Should the mucus turn to be brown or black, one is taken to a place called “The Hague”. It is a kangaroo court in the bush that does not do the International Criminal Court’s reputation any good.

The choices are two – hang yourself or be cut down by machetes. The vigilantes are also becoming sophisticated in their hunt for Mungiki. They could undress you to check if you are wearing a certain type of underwear.

If you wear shorts under your trousers, you are guilty. If you have tobacco stains on your nails or teeth, you are also guilty. If you do not have these signs, then you must join the vigilante – by force. In this district, either you are with the Mungiki or you are with the vigilante. It is a situation the police are reportedly reluctant to arbitrate in.

Both are murderous gangs – so the only real choice is which one is less objectionable. As beneficiaries of the extortion money Mungiki collects, they would not want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, so to speak. It is suspected that some of the officers are members of the Mungiki.

Yet, to appear neutral, they also receive money from those who fund the vigilantes. Police enjoy such little trust in the local population that they hardly receive reports of what is going on. This has always sounded like a Central Province problem, but there is nothing to stop it playing out in Coast Province, Rift Valley or any other area of Kenya.

So when the Minister for Internal Security and Provincial Administration visited the area last week, my expectation was that he would have some concrete plans to of taking away the impossible options residents have been given. Nothing of the sort was forthcoming.

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