The Mungiki, the Taliban, and Me
The Mungiki are not only Kenya's most violent and notorious mafia/cult/political movement, they might be the largest gang in the world.
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.
LEFT: The Pentagon Pub is a Taliban stronghold in the Ngomongo neighborhood of Kasarani. Note PM Raila Odinga’s photo on the wall. Folks here are really not fans of the current president, Mwai Kibaki.
RIGHT: At the end of this road lies the dividing line between Luo/Taliban and Kikuyu/Mungiki territory in Kasarani. This was the site of some of the most brutal postelection violence in the region.
The Nairobian Taliban may have appropriated their moniker and hardcore ethos from their Afghan namesake, but they’re more concerned with local politics than religious doctrine. An offshoot of a defunct group known as the Baghdad Boys, the Taliban are the Luo tribe’s answer to the Kikuyu’s Mungiki and have been roving the seedier parts of Kenya for close to a decade.
At the moment, the Taliban’s moneymaking activities aren’t too different from the Mungiki’s: extortion, illegally siphoning and selling electricity, and lots of beat-downs. They are also known for their public executions, during which the culprit is stoned until he’s unable to walk and then burned alive.
“Everyone here knows the rules. Everyone has seen someone burned, even children. This is how it is,” said Joash Oluande, the Taliban’s leader.
Oluande, a born-again Christian despite his employment, told me the Taliban are far superior to the Mungiki because Taliban violence is defensive in nature. “Once you become a Mungiki, you would kill even your own mother,” he said. “Taliban fight when the fight is there. We only defend. We take taxes, but there is no extortion. We will not force you to pay.”
“What happens if a vendor refuses the monthly 200-shilling [about $2] protection tax?”
Oluande looked at me as if I were a complete idiot. “No one says no, of course.”
With the 2012 elections looming, Oluande and the boys expect another round of sectarian violence. They’re hoping their man Odinga will win the presidency this time around, a goal they’re prepared to accomplish by any means necessary. “The campaign is dangerous, more than the elections, even,” Oluande said. “That’s when the politicians are paying for work. Many people will leave for the rural areas, but we will stay.”
People will flee for the country because staying in Nairobi could result in getting caught in a brutal crossfire between factions. Last time around, the Kibera and Mathare slums (among others) became unofficial war zones.
Kibera, which is dominated by Odinga supporters, saw hundreds of Kikuyus driven from their homes, many of whom became victims of widespread assault and murder. In Kikuyu-populated Mathare, it was the Luos who were displaced and killed.
In Kasarani, many residents claim that local police and the Mungiki joined forces following the elections. According to Taliban member Caleb Yare, the Mungiki donned police uniforms and were armed with army-issued rifles when they stormed into Mathare.
“The only way you could tell police from the Mungiki was that the police don’t carry pangas [East Africa’s version of a machete],” Yare said. “It was so bad you couldn’t leave your house for fear of being hacked.” He then demonstrated the Taliban’s patented counterattack, which involves smashing attackers with a rock, followed by a swift slash of a panga.
LEFT: Mungiki member John Njoroge shows off his gang’s signature weapon—the panga. A massive beheading campaign against matatu (minibus) drivers led the government to unleash death squads against the Mungiki in 2008.
RIGHT: Mungiki member Stephen Irungu got his head smashed in by the Taliban in 2008. His home was burned and his family fled, but he is still a gangster who will not hesitate to extort the shit out of anyone
Kenya Police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe assured me that most of what I’d heard from the gangsters was propaganda. “The allegations that the government has used them as mercenaries concern me,” he said. “Anyone who was around knows there are many shocking falsities and fabrications. Individual politicians and people in disputes have employed their services. But these guys have never been used to get votes... although, yes, issues of suppression have happened.”
Officially, the Mungiki are outlawed—no politician wants to be openly associated with a group of murderous gangsters. Still, it’s hard to believe that they’ve been entirely cut out of the political process, and Kiraithe did not deny allegations of Mungiki members disguising themselves in police uniforms as they terrorized the slums. “There are a lot of unconfirmed reports of things like this. To get a police uniform in Kenya is not very difficult,” he said, before suggesting perhaps Kenya’s corrupt political system is more to blame than the police.
The International Criminal Court will soon announce whether it will pursue its case against the Ocampo Six, a group of Kenyan politicians thought to have masterminded much of the postelection violence. In confirmation hearings, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta was repeatedly accused of using the Mungiki to carry out brutal attacks in Nairobi, Naivasha, and Nakuru.
ICC prosecutors are struggling to make the connection between organized crime and politicians. Of course, it will be difficult to determine the complete truth, owing to the fact that very few who witness Mungiki violence and are willing to testify often perish before they make it to the stand.
The potential ICC showdown is just the latest in a series of efforts by the Kenyan government to finally clamp down on the Mungiki. After the 2007 elections, for instance, Operation Ondoa Kwekwe (“Remove the Weeds”) was initiated, but it resembled a war more than a sanctioned police action. A swarm of plainclothes officers infiltrated Mungiki territory, and a string of mass executions followed. A 2009 UN report accused Kwekwe’s death squads of killing 8,000 Kikuyu youths during the operation.
Kiraithe was unapologetic: “It’s not like you were executing people who were innocent. The Mungiki were committing many murders viciously. You couldn’t get a single person to testify. The operation lasted three months, and in my opinion it was highly successful.”
Regardless of its tactics, the crackdown certainly forced the Mungiki underground. Where members were once easily identified by their dreadlocks, many have shaved their heads in an attempt at anonymity. Low-level foot soldiers have taken up day jobs, returning to the grinding poverty that led them to join the Mungiki in the first place.
Some gangsters see the politicians’ hardline response as a betrayal. James Njuguna, another Mungiki member in Mwiki, told me that officials frequently promised them high-paying government jobs and political power in exchange for their violent persuasion of voters, and then turned on them after the elections. “In 2012 they will need us again,” he said. “This is the routine every election and then, afterward, they dump us. We are tired of this routine.” Yet they’re also wary of speaking out too forcefully. None of the men in Mwiki would let me photograph them without putting on sunglasses and a hat, and they refused to discuss who provided them with police uniforms in 2007.
Stephen Irungu, another Mungiki member, was nearly beaten to death by Taliban members while fighting against them in 2008. Half his forehead was caved in and his legs were completely mangled, and he told me that the 3,000 shillings (about $30) he was paid by the government did little to cover his medical expenses. He now works with the Taliban to prevent future violence, but he’s still Mungiki, still a gangster, and still broke. When I attempted to photograph his arsenal of guns, I was suddenly told I would have to pay an outrageous sum for the shots due to “security concerns.” Then a group of much younger, tougher-looking men materialized, demanding money for interviews I didn’t want. When I tried to leave, I was told that I would have to pay for that too. Fucking gangsters.
Irungu laid it out for me plain and simple: “We want peace, we want the fighting to stop... but more than that, we want money. This issue is about poverty more than anything else.”