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Mungiki, Kenya’s violent youth gang, serves many purposes: how identity, politics and crime keep it alive

KENYA has scores of youth gangs known for their violence and links to the politically powerful. None is more infamous than the Mungiki movement, with a past membership estimated to be at least a million. Though banned, it’s constantly in the news as a tool or target of big political players. Bodil Folke Frederiksen, who has studied Mungiki as part of her field-based research on youth culture in Kenya, traces the origins, growth and persistence of the group.

BODIL FOLKE FREDERIKSEN, Associate Professor Emerita, Roskilde University

What gave rise to Mungiki?

Mungiki emerged in the late 1980s in what was then Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. The province was the site of simmering conflicts over land ownership and rights between the indigenous majority (mainly the Kalenjin) and more recently arrived settlers (mostly Kikuyu).

The early 1990s witnessed the first bout of politically instigated inter-ethnic conflict intended to diminish Kikuyu influence in local politics. Mungiki emerged as a Kikuyu youth movement, defending the dispossessed: women, migrants and landless youth.

At this time the grouping also opposed the autocratic and corrupt government of Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin. Later, Mungiki groups were co-opted by Moi and used in election politics. He was the first of a series of high-ranking politicians to do so.

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The politics of ethnicity laid the groundwork for Mungiki.

In the 1997, 2002 and 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections, leading politicians mobilised violent youth militia in support of their campaigns.

After the disastrous 2007 presidential elections, Mwai Kibaki’s victorious Kikuyu-dominated Party of National Unity mobilised Kikuyu youth militia in retaliation against the gangs deployed by the opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement. Mungiki was central in the resulting violence.

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By the turn of the millennium, Mungiki had become a mostly urban phenomenon. Poverty, youth unemployment and political disillusionment created fertile ground for the group. Young men in particular regarded themselves as a “no future” generation, seeing that they had few opportunities to establish themselves as successful adults with the economic means to sustain a family.

Urban informal settlements were neglected by the state and local authorities. Youth-based groups filled the void. In Nairobi’s shantytowns, Mungiki activists and militia competed with other militias like Kamjesh, and the Taliban in Mathare Valley. Like Mungiki they were involved in the war over public transport, provision of basic services like electricity and demanding protection money from businesses. But they also had a role in welfare, job creation and security.

Mungiki leaders have assessed membership to be between 1.5 million and 4 million. These figures are likely exaggerated. Active membership is more likely to be in the thousands.

What are the group’s practices and beliefs?

Mungiki is based on the intersection between generation, ethnicity, religion and class. Its members are young, poor and predominantly Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Mungiki operates primarily in urban neighbourhoods where it combines vigilante, welfare, cultural and criminal activities. It uses violence to achieve and maintain control. Over time it has had close but unstable links with political parties and leaders, and has sought, won and lost registration as a political party, National Youth Alliance.

Mungiki can be understood as a neo-traditional social movement. It reaches back into Kenya’s pre-colonial and colonial history for the origins of its beliefs and practices. It bases its values on Kikuyu religion and cosmology.

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One central Kikuyu practice was the transfer of power from one generation of men to the next, a ritual known as “ituika”, every 30th or 40th year. Another was the ritual circumcision of men and women on the threshold of adolescence, an initiation into maturity. A third was taking the oath of loyalty to bind members of the group together in secrecy forever.

The values underlying these practices continued during Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle in the 1940s and 1950s, in the liberation movement known as Mau Mau, which was predominantly Kikuyu.

These values, although modified and expanded, still form the core of Mungiki’s practices and beliefs. The objectives of Mungiki are, broadly, the empowerment of youth; the reintroduction of traditional values, key among them clear gender roles; the fight against corruption; and reforms towards an egalitarian society whose members aid each other.

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Mungiki has many shapes. It is a youth organisation, which has been called a sect, a gang, a militia. It has attempted to become a recognised political party. Its many faces and resilience have kept it afloat for more than 30 years.

Why was it banned?

Mungiki is the child of Kenya’s violent colonial and post-colonial history. Throughout its existence, the organisation has resorted to violence to recruit and keep members.

In the early 2000s it stepped up its violence and in many instances made use of terror: murders of defectors, fatal punishment of those who refused to pay protection money, brutal warfare against other militia-like organisations. Large parts of its activities are criminal, like extorting money from households and shops, bribing and threatening to make inroads into the informal commuter transport industry, and killing and mutilating to achieve its goals.

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At the political level, national and local leaders may see the popularity and persistence of the movement as a threat to stability and their own hold on power.

Though banned, it hasn’t really gone away, has it?

The movement has undergone a number of transformations. After it was banned in the early 2000s, its leader, Maina Njenga, was imprisoned. He made public his conversion to Christianity in 2006, and on his release in 2009 he declared the movement finished. Nevertheless, it still resurfaces, although much less strongly than in its heyday.

Many of its members have been killed or imprisoned.

Mungiki refuses to die because, on the positive side, it rests on the cultural and religious traditions that are still alive in Kenya. It has a moral appeal to young men and women for stressing “clean living”, without loose sex and alcohol. It expresses young people’s efforts to be political actors.

On the negative side, the basic living conditions have not changed for the majority of young Kenyans. There has not been a transfer of power to the young generation. Salaried jobs are few and far between; poverty is widespread. Kenyan politics are still violent, the domain of elderly, entitled men, and ridden with mistrust and corruption.

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By The African Mirror

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