Posted on January 9, 2008

The Gangs of Nairobi

Andrew Ehrenkranz and Scott Johnson, Newsweek, January 8, 2008


But the African nation’s nicely lettered signposts of progress and development masked a jarring problem. Throughout much of last spring, in part because of the run-up to the elections but also for a host of other reasons, huge swaths of Kenya were succumbing to a particularly undulant, brutal kind of gangsterism. In episode after episode, many of which were documented by Kenyan reporters, innocent people were beheaded, skinned, raped, murdered and tortured by members of a secretive outlawed sect called Mungiki. In response the Kenyan police and domestic security services began to jail thousands of young men. Human rights organizations began calling attention to the apparent “disappearances” of several of them. The “Mungiki threat” became a national, if not an international, obsession.

Kenyan fears were not misplaced. The dynamics of the Mungiki sect were as compelling as they were appalling. Mungiki had deep and growing political influence. Its 1.5 million members were drawn from Kenya’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Kikuyu, who controlled much of Kenya’s economy. The sect was said to have as much pull with the police as it did with senior ministers. And yet for all the suspicion, the government, led by Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki, appeared to be fighting back against the destructive creep of criminal violence by stepping up police raids in cities like Nairobi, a Mungiki stronghold and long the center of a major crime problem.

And then the elections happened. Over the last several days the world has begun to focus its attention on the particularly complex web of factors—tribal, economic and historical—that have thrown Kenya into its worst political crisis of the last half century. {snip}

The poison is manifesting itself through what could be called the gangs of Nairobi, the swarming multitudes of young men who have begun patrolling the slums with machetes, axes—anything they can find to protect themselves from one another and from the swelling tide of resentment that the election and its handling have cast over the city. In its crudest form the gangsterism has taken on tribal overtones. On one side are the Mungiki, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Kikuyu, but also of the disenfranchised, the poor and the outcast. On another are crowds of enraged Luo tribesmen, whose anger over the disputed election results that kept their candidate, Odinga, from taking office, have contributed to the looting, burning and killing across the country. The result, at least in the hives of Nairobi’s ghettos, places like Kibera and Mathare, is a tense standoff between groups of armed men and a pervading sense of unease about the ability or willingness of either side to back off.

In one such slum, known as Area 3—a sprawl of tin-roofed shacks, supermarkets and community centers that have been burned to the ground over the last two weeks—a lumbering Luo man wearing a New York baseball cap and carrying a 10-inch machete tucked into his jeans, escorted a NEWSWEEK reporter into a Luo safehouse. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s safe here.” The man, who called himself Titus, was a security escort for this group of Luo vigilantes, who have taken to calling themselves “Taliban,” partially in emulation of the draconian tactics of the Afghan tribesmen who enforced law and order through the barrels of their AK-47s. Looking out onto the street, these Luo Taliban searched the area for the men they now perceive as their sworn enemies: the Kikuyu Mungiki gangs who have taken up positions at intersections and alleyways. Taliban members see themselves as providing security and justice. They first became active the day after the elections. Their men, typically tall and built like heavyweight boxers, light fires and sleep with groups of unaffiliated volunteers outside apartment buildings and shanty towns at night, trying to allay the fears of restless women and children. Last Saturday night Taliban members tried unsuccessfully to dynamite a small bridge that links a Kikuyu area to a smaller Luo area where a now vacant tenement building had been attacked.


Fears about the Mungiki seem well founded. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last summer, Hezekiah Ndura Waruinge, co-founder and former national coordinator of the sect—it’s name means multitude in Kikuyu—said the sect had changed drastically from its original conception as freedom fighters modeled on the Mau Mau rebels who fought for independence from Kenya’s British colonizers. “Mungiki no longer exists,” warned Waruinge, adding that the new gangs are dangerous because “there is no more central control. There is no leadership to negotiate with, just a bunch of rogue groups taking money from the highest bidder.” While much of the Mungiki’s ritual and history is shrouded in secrecy, their attacks have tended to follow distinct patterns. Prior to attacking they make a bonfire and roll their pantlegs up to alert fellow members in the area. They believe that women should be circumcised—and sometimes force the procedure on them. In other cases Mungiki behead and circumcise their victims, usually scattering body parts in different public locations. No outsiders know what all their initiation rituals are for certain, but some are said to involve drinking or bathing in blood.

With postelection Kenya becoming increasingly volatile, many residents fear a brutal boost to Mungiki power. Many Luo slum residents, like 29-year-old Rachel—who was afraid to give her surname—are planning to flee Mathare. “We don’t even talk in our own language because of Mungiki,” Rachel says. “We can’t sleep here, so we are staying with a relative in a Taliban area.” Many others, seen filling up the backs of old pickup trucks and steering their belongings on wooden carts, are following suit, heading toward the displacement camps that are growing in number outside churches, police stations, and military bases. Hustling out toward a safer haven on Sunday afternoon, Louis Etiyang sported thick bandages on his head and machete gashes on his arms. On Dec. 30 he was walking alone through a Kikuyu area when someone shouted “Luo!” and a group attacked him. “If a KTN [Kenyan Television Network] truck had not passed, I’m dead.”