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The Mungiki Mystique Just Shattered to Pieces

By Kwamchetsi Makokha, The Nation (Nairobi), 27 October 2000

Nairobi - The intemperance of the Mungiki sect spilled over the brim last weekend. If nothing else, the stripping, whipping and humiliation of women by a group of people in Nairobi did one thing.

It marked the end of movement's carefully cultivated mystique.

The Mungiki (Kikuyu for multitude) has overdrawn from the national favour bank and it is going to have to come out from behind its hazy smokescreen.

Besides disgusting the country, the Sunday abomination succeeded in alienating the most ardent defenders of the group's rights of worship and conscience. Although the national leadership of Mungiki distanced itself from the crime 48 hours too late, as anyone in their position would want to, it is not likely that many people will want to believe them.

The incident is typically Mungiki. The sect, if it can be called that, has a reputation. And it has an attitude towards women. The movement's leaders say there is nothing wrong with circumcising women (it is called female genital mutilation), and counter criticisms with the argument that none of those thus initiated have complained.

From William Rathje and Cullen Murphy's Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, we learn that what people say should always be compared to the garbage they leave for verification. Sometimes, garbage has the power to inform beyond the written and spoken word. And garbage is not mathematics, you have to touch it, feel it, sort it out. Beyond the controversy and the facade of a return to African traditional religion, the movement has been making disturbing riptides in the political scene.

The Mungiki have come to be regarded as a serious movement since they began systematically taking charge of bus stages in Nairobi's Kasarani area in 1996. The fierce fighting that attended those takeovers is something residents still remember. One thing is clear, though, they are thankful that someone routed the local thugs who had been ruling over them using theft, rape and murder as weapons of choice. The Mungiki, in some places, filled a vacuum. It is a message the movement seems eager to pass on - that it is taking over, and it is unstoppable.

Sect members have made guest appearances to disrupt rallies and demonstrations. They have proved themselves as one hell of an organised bunch of rioters, and have had more than their fair share of run-ins with the police. To tell the truth, they do frighten the police a little. They do not run, and they do not seem afraid.

There have been incidents, many of them exaggerated, about sect members attacking police stations and looting guns and ammunition.

There are contradicting reports that they snatch guns from officers who harass people in the villages and surrender the arms to chiefs. But all the same, it is as if they are tempting fate, or looking for martyrdom.

The attacks on police stations have shattered the feeling of invincibility in the internal security machinery and painted the force as vulnerable to mob attacks. On Sunday, the police, for all their faults, got a hiding from the youthful members of the multitude. It could be precedent-setting.

The increasing absence of fear, the dare-devil spirit in its members and the sense of community on the movement's communal farms are very appealing to the masses of disillusioned, rootless, unemployed youths just out of school or on the streets.

The Mungiki legend has grown out of the mysterious and little-understood ideology and theology of the group. Its members have a god on Mount Kenya, whom they worship and pray to. The sect advocates a return to "African traditions", and leaves everything blank after that. It appeals to a native chauvinism, some say tribal.

In large part, however, the Mungiki theology seems to be improvised as the movement grows, with the anchor in African customs.

If the sect's claim to have recruited four million followers is true, Mungiki commands a following larger than any political party. It has a membership large enough to win an election in the first round, hands down. They say that number is growing and that it is multi-ethnic, though it is no secret that the core membership is Kikuyu.

The secretive nature of the organisation, however, together with its outright refusal to be registered puts many of its claims beyond the reach of objective inquiry.

That looks like the kind of constituency a politician with sights on great things could use. For a group whose ideology is not even coherent, it is a little curious that it is so well organised. There is no telling if there is someone doing all the thinking and strategising. Because, apart from creating tentative alliances with Muslims and Saba Saba Asili leader Kenneth Matiba, Mungiki has kept curiously to itself, hardly boasting any Pattni-size converts nor seeming to draw that kind of support.

Three ways to look at it: The politicians are remaining in the background until the correct time. If the condemnations that have come in are anything to go by, this is nothing to all the politicians who see foul play in everything. Apart from Kanu Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho, the National Convention Executive Council, the International Federation of Women Lawyers, the Kenya Women's Political Caucus and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, mum is the word.

That says something very loud.

The second view is that the movement could actually be religious and may just be stumbling over what doctrine to follow. Christianity took nearly 300 years to fashion, with the polish and varnish coming at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. It could, indeed, be that the sect's leadership has lost its hold on its youthful followers.

The third alternative, which is largely speculative, is that the sect could be a government tool. It is President Moi and Democratic Party MP Kihika Kimani who, in 1999, pushed the movement out of obscurity by listening to public confessions of treason from alleged members.

There is a tendency in this country to dismiss many presidential statements as propaganda, but were this to be taken seriously if only so briefly, it would lend credence to the political movement scenario above. Mr. Kimani has said some 40 MPs are funding the organisation.

The fear and reverence with which the police and the government seem to hold the sect is raising questions over whether Mungiki is part of Kanu's strategy to create anarchy and then declare a state of emergency. This school of thought would look at the coming crackdown of the sect - and it is already here - as a way of forcing sections of the country to rise up and, thus, necessitate the suspension of the constitution.

A crackdown on the movement, though publicly shunned, is likely to create a feeling of ethnic persecution and thus solidify tribal loyalty and the chauvinism that attends it. If it fails to do anything, the government will be perceived as weak and allowing the legend to continue. Your guess on what will happen is as good as mine.

If indeed Mungiki respects African traditions, its members should have known that nakedness never did anyone any good on this continent.