Who are the Mungiki?

An article of mine on the Kenyan organization, the Mungiki, has just been published by africanews. You can read the original here.

The Mungiki, a Kenyan organisation linked to a series of gruesome crimes, have been called a lot of names recently. The New York Times described them as "a secret society that is part Sicilian mafia, part Chicago street gang, with a little local cultism sprinkled in." Kihara Mwangi, a member of Kenya's parliament, was more forthright: "These guys are devil worshippers."

Recent conflict between the Mungiki and the Kenyan government has offered a chance for the international media to roll out all the old clichés about primordial African violence. Yet it was only in 2003 that the US State Department criticised the Kenyan government for harassing religious minorities such as, you guessed it – the Mungiki sect.


Not that things are much clearer inside Kenya. John, an askari (guard) in Kileleshwa, a rich area of Nairobi, told me: “They [the government] use the name Mungiki for anyone they don’t like. They want to make us scared.” One of John’s colleagues was arrested on suspicion of being a Mungiki when travelling home from work. “The police just arrested everyone on the matatu (shared taxi), and made us pay to be released from jail.”

While the Kenyan government announced that 1,000 Mungiki members had been arrested by June 2007, such stories question whether the government is not simply using the Mungiki to stir up fear in the population, and provide another means of income generation for the police.

So is the Mungiki a religious cult? A criminal organisation? A phantasm invented by the government? Underneath all the myths, there is a real Mungiki, and their story is exemplary of the vicious twists of post-colonial politics in Kenya. 

Land, freedom, religion

The Mungiki first came to the public’s attention during the land clashes that preceded the first multi-party elections of 1992. The then-president, Daniel arap Moi, used militias to destabilise the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Kenya, manipulating ethnic tensions in clashes that left thousands dead. Hezekiah Ndura Waruinge, one of the main leaders of the Mungiki until recently, claimed the Mungiki operated as a defence force against the predominantly ethnically Kalenjin militias that attacked Kikuyu settlements.

The Mungiki were not simply a militia. They took up Kikuyu ideas of statehood and purity, and rejected Christianity and neo-colonial influences on the country. In doing so they resembled the Mau Mau movement that played such a crucial role in the independence struggle. Waruinge claimed: We have Mau Mau blood in us and our objectives are similar. The Mau Mau fought for land, freedom and religion... and so do we."

Like the Mau Mau, the Mungiki rely on oaths to ensure loyalty. Like the Mau Mau, the Mungiki’s relationship with post-colonial Kenyan politics has been far from easy. 

As the Mungiki changed from a rural religious sect with political overtones into an urban militia, the government started to harass them. 


On 7 February 1999, 81 members were arrested on the grounds of taking an illegal oath and the persecution began. The Mungiki, becoming increasingly militant, responded – in April 2000 raiding a police barracks to free comrades in Nyahuru. 

This adversarial relationship changed in the run-up to the 2002 elections. Moi saw in the Mungiki a tool he could use to fracture the Kikuyu vote, which he was worried would vote en masse for Mwai Kibaki. The Mungiki were used to harass opposition supporters.

So the Mungiki, a group formed to defend itself against government violence became co-opted by the very government it opposed. The Mungiki backed KANU, and supported Uhuru Kenyatta, Moi’s chosen successor. 

Waruinge went too far in his support – claiming Uhuru Kenyatta was himself a Mungiki, and the police made arrests in Nairobi and Central Province. A pattern of the government using the Mungiki and at the same time keeping it at arm’s length began to emerge. 

During this period the Mungiki also expanded their revenue-making activities. No longer simply reliant on patronage and membership fees, they also started to control the matatu trade in Nairobi, supplied illegal electricity in the slums, and stepped into the space left by the failure of the police force in Kenya to provide private security.

In 2002, after Kibaki came to power, other gangs sensed that with Moi’s patronage system no longer supporting the Mungiki, they could challenge the system. Less than a month after the election, violence erupted: battles for control of the matatu trade killing ten people on one day in Nairobi’s Flamingo and Lake View estates.

The absence of Moi’s protection has also left the Mungiki vulnerable to government harassment, and this has had its cost: Waruinge estimates that 75% of the movement had quit by mid-2004: Waruinge himself converted to Christianity and denounced the movement. 

Despite this loss of influence, we can currently see an upsurge of both Mungiki violence and government harassment. It has a variety of reasons. It is partly continuous criminal struggles, partly the government trying to prevent and break the Mungiki before they attempt to disrupt the vote, and partly to scare the voters with the threat of the Mungiki, and then to assure them that the government is doing a good job by rounding them all up.

Yet it would be wrong to see the Mungiki as simply a criminal element outside of the Kenyan political system: they are born from the contradictions of the post-colonial system.