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Why Won't the State Clip Them Dreadlocks?

By John Githongo, The East African (Nairobi), 15 November 2000

Nairobi - During the Emergency in the early 1950s, in Kenya's Central Province, groups of men would knock on your front door in the dead of night. When the man of the house asked, "Who is it?" "It is us," would come the reply, and everyone immediately understood that a Mau Mau unit was at the door.

Today, some people argue that the name Mungiki taken by a controversial sect whose members are mostly from the Gikuyu community, is derived from the words muingi ki - "we are the public," or, not to put too fine a point on it, "it is us."

On the Kenyatta Day weekend, members of Mungiki tried to hold a prayer meeting in Nairobi's Kayole Estate but were stopped by armed police. Enraged, they proceeded to attack women in the area whom they deemed "improperly" dressed because they were wearing trousers. Six women were stripped naked in a frenzy recorded by press cameras.

There was an immediate public outcry.

On the face of it, Mungiki is composed primarily of young Gikuyus on the periphery of society, who have lost their stake in the status quo. They take snuff, sport dreadlocks and pray facing Mount Kenya.

Some advocate female circumcision and other rituals that were last in vogue in the years before independence. Their basic argument appears to be that the grand Westernisation project has failed.

In their own inarticulate way, they advocate another way of life, another value system, though some of the values they espouse in this day and age are clearly disconcerting even to modern Gikuyus. Still, their crusade against drunkenness, broken families and vices like prostitution resonates with many.

As a movement aimed at cultural and religious revival, Mungiki alarms few beyond church leaders and fervent Christians. Among the Gikuyu, indeed, this internal struggle between different value systems has been around since Mau Mau.

In recent months, however, Mungiki has captured the attention of the country because of their apparent penchant for challenging the state.

They have even stormed police stations to rescue locked up colleagues. Other than that, their politics is presented as parochial, tribalist and generally aimed at Gikuyu hegemony - the inarticulate, rabble-rousing voice of Gikuyu resentment at their marginalisation from the political mainstream. As a movement, Mungiki's actual membership, motives and structure are vague; to an extent, these issues are being defined for it by the state's reaction to the sect.

The parochialism of Mungiki, their status in the minds of many powerful people as the radical face of Gikuyu nationalism, is actually extremely useful to a regime that has always defined itself in contrast to the idea of Gikuyu hegemony. Mungiki represents the alarming "other."

Over the past few months, every time Mungiki have tried to hold one of their "baptisms" or prayer meetings, the police have moved in to stop them almost before they begin.

This is a clear indication of the extent to which they have been infiltrated by the security services. Yet they have not been "neutralised" in the typical security-service approach that would have seen the creation of pseudo-Mungikis and the promotion of unseemly leadership wrangles over money designed to delegitimise the organisation in the eyes of its supporters. Perhaps powerful people would rather this did not happen because Mungiki plays a useful political purpose.

At the beginning of August there was a Mungiki demonstration in the streets of Nairobi against Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta. According to the press, they were even able to pelt police headquarters and Harambee House with rotten eggs.

It struck many observers as odd that a group that cannot hold a prayer meeting without violent police intervention was able to demonstrate in city streets against a prominent supporter of the current government while the police watched. There is clearly more to Mungiki than meets the eye.

* John Githongo is Executive Director of Transparency International-Kenya.
E- mail: tikenya@wananchi.com.