The Mungiki, the Taliban, and Me
Getting to Know Kenya’s Most Dangerous Gangsters
Jan 9 2012
Taliban member Caleb Yare said the Luos were unprepared for armed Mungiki raids in Mathare after the 2007 elections. They fought back with pangas and rocks, sometimes dropping cinder blocks from roofs to thwart assailants.
George Kamande rolled back his sleeves to show the scars.
“You take the oath. I cut myself, you cut yourself, we mix it. I suck your blood, you suck my blood, and then we are linked, and you can never surrender,” he told me.
In Kenya, this is the ritual gangsters go through before they head out on a mission, and it happens all too frequently among the residents of Nairobi’s Mwiki neighborhood in the Kasarani district. It’s one of those obscenely poor, sketchy places where people who know better do not wander around solo. I was there recently, on a screamingly hot afternoon, with an appointment to meet members of the Mungiki, Kenya’s most violent and notorious mafia/cult/political movement, which also might be the largest gang in the world.
It was atop a stool in a reeking pigsty where I first met Kamande, a shoe shiner by day who moonlights doing all sorts of thuggish business for the Mungiki. He was not shy about the particulars of his second job. “We’re just mercenaries,” he said when I asked about his assigned duties, which is exactly the kind of half-true answer I expected.
Founded in the 1980s, the Mungiki (which means “multitude” or “masses”) began as a rural religious movement within the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya’s Rift Valley, with an emphasis on anticolonialism and a return to traditional Kikuyu values. But as it spread to Nairobi, it attracted landless, poverty-stricken young men looking for a little extra cash and respect.
Gangsters in Nairobi generally make their living from exploiting illegal electricity hookups, extorting shop owners and taxi-bus drivers, robbery, and murdering people who cross them. But members of the Mungiki take things to another level. They’re shifty, often hypocritical, and occasionally psychotic, even by the standards of their fellow criminals. When there’s a riot that needs inciting, voters who require intimidation, or crimes against humanity to commit, they are the go-to guys, backing up their reputation with a track record of government manipulation, drinking blood, and beheading their enemies.
Kamande explained the Mungiki’s version of campaigning: For the low cost of 100,000 Kenyan shillings (about $1,000), officials can hire 30 to 50 men who will pay a visit to a neighborhood to exert a brutal form of political influence.
Leading up to the 2002 elections, Kamande was part of a group paid to attack opponents of Njehu Gatabaki, a former MP, in the Kangema district of Murang’a County. According to him, they invaded the homes of Gatabaki’s opponents, armed with clubs and machetes, and collected voter-ID cards.
When I asked whether anyone resisted, Kamande chuckled. “We beat them thoroughly. When you see your friend, your brother, your husband being beaten like a dog, you don’t say no.”
Gatabaki still lost, but the Mungiki continued to be a major player in Kenyan politics through voter intimidation and retaliatory attacks. Things got especially bad after the last general election in December 2007. Incumbent president Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner in a vote that split largely along ethnic and tribal lines, and he was sworn in during a super-secret nighttime ceremony. Meanwhile, opposition candidate Raila Odinga declared himself the victor, saying that the courts shouldn’t decide the election because Kibaki controlled them.
The resulting tension between political parties and tribes quickly boiled over, and soon there were reports of brutal murders and sectarian violence throughout Kenya—usually considered the developed, Westernized hub of East Africa. The Mungiki joined in, of course, and when the dust settled the following February, more than 1,000 people were dead. Four years later, the wounds aren’t even close to healing.
In Kasarani’s Ngomongo neighborhood there’s a bar called the Pentagon Pub that has a portrait of Odinga hanging on the wall. Although Kasarani is a stronghold of the Kikuyu tribe (which counts Kibaki among its ranks), this particular district is dominated by Odinga’s Luo tribe, who consider the Mungiki to be immoral savages.
I strolled through the doors behind a group of well-muscled young men. As we entered, everyone inside came to a dead stop, shook the hands of my chaperones, and then bailed immediately. I was hanging with the Ngomongo’s Taliban, and they owned this joint.
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