Kenya: Mungiki regroup pre-election in search of political influence

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Feb 4th, 2013
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Members of Kenya Ni Kwetu (Kenya is Ours) hold a mock coffin as they march on June 28,2012 in the streets of Nairobi, to protest the culture of impunity by members of the Parliament. The lobby group called to action Kenyans to reflect on their personal responsibility in building a better country, where only responsible leaders who remain faithful to the Constitution are elected to office. AFP PHOTO/SIMON MAINA

Members of Kenya Ni Kwetu (Kenya is Ours) hold a mock coffin as they march on June 28,2012 in the streets of Nairobi, to protest the culture of impunity by members of the Parliament. The lobby group called to action Kenyans to reflect on their personal responsibility in building a better country, where only responsible leaders who remain faithful to the Constitution are elected to office. AFP PHOTO/SIMON MAINA

By Jacob Rasmussen

Mungiki was one of the key protagonists in the post-election violence (PEV) of 2008 and has for years been perceived and presented as one of the principal internal security threats to Kenya. Taking into consideration the violent engagements in the last elections and their past criminal activities, the reports of a Mungiki regrouping seem to have received little attention, but Mungiki (as well as the political situation in Kenya) have changed since 2008. So, what is Mungiki today, and how do they fit in the broader picture of Kenyan politics?

This year, new areas of conflict have been added to the existing fault lines which have characterised previous electoral periods in Kenya. The war against Al Shabaab in Somalia has fuelled a series of terrorist attacks in the country; the emergence of new dissident groups like the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has put focus on secessionism on the coast; the violent conflict between Pokomo and Orma in the Tana River delta, and the cattle rustling conflict in Samburu (culminating in the killing of more than 30 police officers) have drawn attention to regions traditionally marginal to electoral politics.

Not all of these conflicts are new, but the upsurge close to the elections indicates that there are underlying political interests at play. The nationwide devolution process prompted by the new constitution makes the local stakes in marginal regions higher than at previous elections, especially in regions historically neglected by the state.

Whereas the main clashes of the 2008 PEV pitted Kalenjin warriors from Rift Valley against Kikuyu youth from the Rift and Central Province represented by Mungiki, the new political alliance between the Kalenjin politician William Ruto and the Kikuyu Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta has led many to believe that the risk of violence has been minimized. The new alliance is believed to be keeping tensions low between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin societies – this happened in the 2002 elections when Uhuru Kenyatta and outgoing president Moi made an alliance. This belief is emphasised by the fact that the both Ruto and Kenyatta are on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for planning the 2008 PEV. Ruto is accused of instigating killings of Kikuyu farmers and Uhuru Kenyatta for mobilising Mungiki for retaliatory attacks on Kalenjin.

Due to their alleged role in the 2008 PEV it is important for the two political candidates to distance themselves from violent events by showing Kenyans and the world that they can maintain peace between their supporters and that they still have a large popular support base within their communities. Some of the witnesses against Uhuru Kenyatta in the ICC trial are former Mungiki members.

In another series of events, Mungiki leader Maina Njenga officially dissolved the movement in October 2009 and converted to Christianity while successfully encouraging large numbers of Mungiki members to follow him. He then went on to form a Pentecostal church (Hope International Ministries) and a national youth fund advocating intertribal peace. Prior to this conversion, Mungiki had given up its attempts at re-registering their banned political party – Kenya National Youth Alliance (KNYA) – and had instead begun registering individual members into the party Mkenya Solidarity. In June 2012, Maina Njenga and his followers publically declared their political ambition through the party and Maina Njenga took over its leadership, which made the party founder Gigi Kariuki leave to join Uhuru Kenyatta’s TNA (The National Alliance).

Mkenya Solidarity is now publically supporting the CORD alliance (Coalition of Reform and Democracy) led by the Luo Prime Minister Raila Odinga, having turned its back on Uhuru Kenyatta (after publically supporting his Presidential bid in the 2002 elections and allegedly being under his patronage in the 2008 PEV). Maina Njenga has also announced that he is vying for the position of senator in Nairobi.

The leadership’s initiation of this transformation process seems directed at developing formal political influence. Political ambition is not new, but the fact that the leadership now seem to be able to engage in formal electoral politics (without being barred) is a notable difference from past elections. Two of Mungiki’s key strengths, which over the years have earned them both influence and a bad reputation, are their perceived unpredictability and their indeterminable size, both will be put to the test in the coming elections.

First, unpredictability: Mungiki has shifted political alliances a number of times, they have been accused of random and brutal attacks on political and business opponents, and in 2001 they converted to Islam only to return to their traditionalist Kikuyu faith inspired by the Mau Mau independence movement. With this history and reputation, it is little surprise that Mungiki’s Pentecostal conversion was met with public suspicion and scepticism. Was the former criminal movement sincere about its transformations and intentions, and could the leadership avoid internal factionalism and defection?

The Pentecostal conversion also gave rise to the ambiguous statement from former Mungiki members ‘we are the born again Mau Mau’. In one sense this refers to Mungiki’s Pentecostal conversion, in another sense to a resurrection of the Mau Mau rebel movement from the independence struggle, which means a continuation of Mungiki. This ambiguity is reflected in the public doubt in the sincerity of the Mungiki movement’s conversion – a doubt that is emphasised by the recent reports of a re-grouping of the group’s violent and criminal factions in preparation for the elections.

Kenya has a long tradition of politicians using youth militia for political support and intimidation of opponents. Mungiki members have played the role as clients in previous elections and Maina Njenga has claimed that almost all politicians from Central Kenya at some point have used them for political survival. In the current situation (where former Mungiki members are among the witnesses in the ICC trial against Uhuru Kenyatta) it is possible that politicians will no longer take the movement’s patronage for granted and that it has the power to use inside knowledge of past violence to discredit former political patrons. Mungiki could be using its bad reputation to disentangle itself from previous patrons and be seeking to influence national politics at the highest level.

Second, indeterminacy: In the Kikuyu language mungiki means multitude. This lays a claim of both being the masses and speaking their cause. Mungiki’s primary support base is the poor, young, landless Kikuyus mainly from Central Province, parts of Rift Valley and the poor estates of Nairobi, many of them first-time voters. Mungiki’s estimated size varies from 20,000 to more than a million core members, depending on whether you ask critics of the movement or its former leaders. The power of the multitude ultimately has two expressions; on the one hand that of a democratic threat to the established political elite through the vote, and on the other as a threat to democracy through violent outburst and riots of the dissatisfied and unruly youth population.

The potency of this indeterminable base of potential young Kikuyu voters is evident in the recurrent attempts from politicians to gain the support of the Mungiki leadership. The Kikuyu (which makes up 22 percent of Kenya’s population) are an attractive political constituency and the Kikuyu heartlands are traditionally among the most contested areas at election time.

Maina Njenga has frequently proved his ability to mobilise large youth crowds for his religious gatherings and political rallies. However, it remains an open question whether the former Mungiki leadership can really influence the way their supporters vote. Commentators see the September 2012 Kangema by-election – where Uhuru Kenyatta’s TNA party overwhelmingly won the seat – as an indicator of the former Mungiki leadership’s inability to mobilise voters for local politics, as their support base is not necessarily drawn from within constituency boundaries. However, things might look different when Maina Njenga himself competes for the Nairobi senate.

Some see the lack of mobilisation as sign of a split between former Mungiki members loyal to Maina Njenga and factions who are dedicated to Mungiki’s traditionalist faith. Politically, this split is thought to divide groups loyal to Maina Njenga’s nationalist agenda and support for Presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and factions who favour a strong Kikuyu candidate like Uhuru Kenyatta. There also seems to be more at stake than just political difference – the groups opposing the Njenga loyalists are accused of being unreformed and of having continued their criminal and extortionist activities in the transport sector. If there really is a split between former Mungiki adherents, partly based on political ideology and partly on economic interests, it might gain importance in the coming weeks – election time in Kenya is known to be period of increased economic opportunity if one is willing to follow the money.

Despite public scepticism about Mungiki’s dissolution and conversion, this may turn out to have been a clever strategic decision, helping lift the former leadership and its loyal supporters out of their reliance on elite political patronage. It has also helped re-position them within the more mainstream sphere of religious movements and become a potentially influential political actor on the national scene through Mkenya Solidarity and potential impact on the ICC case. However, Mungiki’s unpredictability has previously influenced Kenyan electoral politics in negative and violent ways, and though the Mkenya Solidarity members claim to have the ability to act as more than just political clients, it still seems uncertain whether all former members have the will and means to free themselves from previous patrons. If reports of a Mungiki regrouping are anything to go by, it is uncertain whether these groups are focussed on economic survival, whether they will let themselves get engaged in electoral politics on the ground, and whether they can influence the political performance of the reformed members.

Jacob Rasmussen is a Fellow in International Development Studies, Roskilde University.

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