Kenya: Gangs Fight in Nairobi

Last July, Washington made some brief, if mostly unexamined, news in East Africa when it announced a $15 million grant to the Kenyan government to help with "law and order" issues. The funding came a full six months before last December's disputed Kenyan election and the subsequent wave of violence that is now flowing, amoebalike, across the country. For outside observers the cash injection may have seemed odd, given Kenya's positive political and economic track record.

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. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer has been in talks with Kibaki and his opposition rival, Raila Odinga, to find a solution to the political stalemate. On Monday both figures agreed to meet to discuss ways out of the impasse, but on Tuesday there were fresh outbreaks of violence after Odinga pulled out of direct talks. His withdrawal was in protest of Kibaki's unilaterally making some key cabinet appointments ahead of the arrival of African Union chairman John F. Kufuor, who arrived in Nairobi Tuesday to mediate the talks. Meanwhile, the Law Society of Kenya, citing the Kenyan constitution, announced Tuesday that Kibaki was in office "illegally" and called for fresh elections within 90 days. It could be weeks or months before a viable political solution is hammered out, however, and as that process wears on, the subterranean forces in the ghettos and slums of Nairobi have begun to reassert their strength. This time, though, the gangsterism of the spring is quickly morphing into an ethnic war—a radicalization of the tribal politics that has garnered so many headlines and cast the unity of the country into doubt.

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.

"Those are them," whispered one Taliban member named Moses, pointing at a group of armed men down the street manning a fruit stand. He believed they were Mungiki. Earlier that morning two non-Taliban Luo had been killed walking across an adjacent neighborhood called Stage 2930. Moses believed the killers were Mungiki disguised as policemen. Without the protection of the Taliban, Moses said, the Luo are in danger. Moses claimed to have seen four people butchered and said he had had to use his own panga machete in self-defense on three of the last four nights. As the incursions and counterattacks have increased in this desperately poor section of Nairobi, many have been left without food or water. Food prices have skyrocketed. Three small potatoes stacked on a vendor's mat used to cost less than a nickel; today they are an unaffordable 50 shillings, about 55 cents. Moses said he thought the violence elsewhere in Kenya among similar groups of armed men was simply a long-suppressed desire for revenge. " If you are Luo, they chop you," he said ruefully. "So what do you think we do?"

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."

The conflict has pitted tribes, voting blocs and even best friends against one another. The majority Kikuyu and the Kamba tribes are together. Kenya's third- and fourth-largest tribes, the Kalenjin and the Luo, as well as a hodgepodge of many of the country's 40-odd tribes, have also forged an alliance. "Everything is different now. It's all tribes and partisans," said Rogers Wanyonyii, a 35-year-old teller at a currency exchange bureau who was hovering near a group of Luo men clutching makeshift weapons outside a barricaded restaurant in Taliban stronghold Area 4-A. "What I see isn't Kenya; it's like war." Given the tensions between the Taliban and the Mungiki, that war isn't likely to end anytime soon.