Mungiki:Legitimate or Criminal?

Published on 20th May 2008

Members of the the outlawed Mungiki sect
Hardly a day passes without the mention of mungiki in Kenya’s mainstream print and electronic media. Journalists, political and social commentators have attempted to analyse the causes and possible anecdote to the problems posed by mungiki. 

The historical origins of mungiki are intricate and complex just as the sect itself. The problem of mungiki is traceable to the land tenure reforms initiated by the British colonists in the 1950s. In 1955, the colonial government published the “Plan to Intensify African Agriculture in Kenya”. The overt aim of this plan was the creation of landed African gentry that would participate in intensive and large-scale agriculture to boost the colonial economy and solve the problems of political instability and unrest. According to Professor Yash Pal Ghai, the covert aim was to produce a stable and conservative middle class to provide a bulwark against African nationalism and the radical policies accompanying it. Individualisation of land tenure was used to blunt African demands for land redistribution.

The political pay-off of this plan became evident during the Mau Mau revolt of 1952 to 1956. During this period the translation of peasant agriculture through cash crop production and land tenure reform were used to create a landed African gentry (Middle Class) in Central Kenya. This group had a stake in the existing colonial arrangement and acted as a bulwark against revolutionary tendencies. 

By 1956, the colonial government had put most parts of Central Kenya under individualised tenure without a supporting legislative framework. In 1954, the colonial government had passed the Forfeiture of Lands Ordinance, (No. 11 of 1954), which empowered it to confiscate any land of “…persons leading or organizing armed or violent resistance against the forces of law and order”. This was supposed to ensure that those who had joined the armed struggle were disinherited and de-franchised to deter those who were like-minded. The adjudication, consolidation and registration of land without a legal framework was deliberate and concerted to reward loyalists and collaborators and punish agitators and rebels. 

In 1956, the colonial government promulgated the Native Land Tenure Rules with the sole aim of legalising and legitimising the compulsory acquisitions and illegal forfeitures carried under the Forfeiture of Lands Ordinance, 1954. The rules registered African holdings under absolute title and discouraged co-ownership. In 1959, the colonial government enacted several pieces of legislation including the Native Lands (Special Areas) Registration Ordinance, 1959 to protect the tenure of land that had been expropriated from the rebels and conferred on the loyalists. A mechanism of controlling land transactions in the newly adjudicated; consolidated and registered areas was also introduced. 

These land tenure reforms led to a great deal of structural re-organisation in the African society in Central Kenya. The process was carried out when many people were absent either in detention or fighting in the forest. The situation was also compounded by a deliberate policy directive by the colonial government to out-rightly deny children of Mau Mau fighters and sympathisers access to education. The tenure reforms only served the political aims of the colonial government at the expense of many illiterate and ignorant peasants who lost their land to the loyalists and home guards; their relatives or other educated peasants. Many people who were previously accommodated under the African customary tenure system lost their land. 

After independence, the Native Lands (Special Areas) Registration Ordinance of 1959 was re-enacted into the Registered Land Act, Cap. 63, Laws of Kenya to give the final seal of approval to the massive dispossessions that had occurred in the entire Mt. Kenya region. Many poor people found themselves landless, homeless and without means of livelihood. They were reduced to providers of cheap labour to the colonial settlers who  opted to remain in Kenya as well as the new African landlords.  

Thus just before they left Kenya in 1963, the British had managed to create a landed conservative and conformist gentry in Central Kenya. This group was mainly composed of collaborators and home guards to whom the departing colonialists bequeathed the super structure of the state bureaucracy such as the provincial administration, local councils, police, mainstream churches and subordinate courts. This group abused its privileged position to appropriate the most arable land and the choicest areas of the emerging urban centres in Central Kenya and other parts of the country. The group also created a patronage system which excluded the common populace in Central Kenya  from politics, business and appointments in the public service. Most of them joined the public service as provincial administrators, lay magistrates and clerical officers. They also took over political leadership and the running of mainstream churches and local authorities. These collaborators and their offspring have always benefited from this historical advantage that was granted to them by the colonial regime. They own large tracts of agricultural land and prime commercial properties in urban areas whereas the majority of the poor who participated in the struggle for independence are clutched up into small economically unviable agricultural holdings. The poor majority are forced by their circumstances to become perpetual farm labourers or sell their small holdings and migrate to other parts of the country in search of livelihood. Their progeny are bound in a vicious of poverty which is inherited and passed on from one generation to another and  constitute the bulk of the youthful members of mungiki.

The continued hold on political power by the former collaborators and their offspring in Central Kenya has only helped to perpetuate and entrench social inequities unknown to many people outside the region. This is the reality of the social-economic inequalities that prevail in most parts of Central Kenya. It is this social order that mungiki has been seeking to upset, first through religion and culture, and now violently. 

The government is clearly divided on the issue of mungiki. The Prime Minister, Right Hon. Engineer Raila Amolo Odinga, EGH, MP is advocating for structured dialogue with the sect whereas some members of the cabinet have openly supported the use of force to decimate mungiki. Just what is the right anecdote to this problem?

At its inception the mungiki sect was basically a communal outfit whose main agenda was the economic emancipation of Kikuyu families that had been forcibly evicted from their homes in Rift Valley Province owing to the political tensions of the late 1980s. Its initial disciples were young people who had lost land; their only means of livelihood in parts of Laikipia and Nakuru Districts. Their families could not go back to their ancestral homes having sold their small holdings and left Mt. Kenya region in pursuit of economic fortunes in the expansive Rift Valley Province. 

The sect has now graduated from a social cultural religious outfit into a formidable political force in Nairobi, Central Province and parts of Eastern and Rift Valley Provinces. The sect espouses pseudo-communist ideals clothed in socio-cultural epithets of communal justice and equity. This is why it continues to appeal to many landless, homeless and jobless youth. Its members sometimes use violence and threats of use of force to eke out a living by extorting money from farmers and traders in Central Kenya, Nairobi and parts of Rift Valley and Eastern Provinces. I have argued elsewhere that this is  criminal and should be dealt with as such. 

Anybody calling for the use of force to annihilate mungiki is prescribing a simplistic solution to what is now a complex social problem in the country. Mungiki easily appeals to the landless, homeless and jobless youth. The political class has perpetually taken advantage of their privileged positions to exploit members of the sect and sometimes employ them to provide security for parliamentary and civic candidates during elections. These politicians who also use mungiki to perform unpleasant tasks have never bothered to address the root cause of the social, economic and political grievances of its members. 

To suggest that mungiki should be wiped out through the use of force of arms is to imply that the state can use its instruments of force to wipe out the entire stratum of the poor, displaced landless and homeless people in Nairobi, Eastern, Rift Valley and Central Provinces. This position is irrational and untenable under Customary International Law which postulates the raison de etre for the modern nation state.

It does not matter how many young people are killed by the police in the name of fighting mungiki; the sect will no die as long as its ideals continue to appeal to the poor and the downtrodden. I have argued in the past that the  traditional crime intelligence efforts do not seem to be bearing any fruits with the sect. If anything, indiscriminate extra-judicial killing of members of mungiki have only served to increase the level of complacency, tolerance and sympathy towards the sect by members of the general populace in Nairobi, Rift Valley, Central and Eastern Provinces. The security agencies must therefore adopt new approaches to detect, apprehend and prevent the crimes perpetrated by the sect. 

The political class must now demonstrate a genuine desire to address the land question in Kenya as well as the attendant social and economic inequities in the country. The Rt. Hon. Eng. Raila Odinga should create a politico-legal framework to engage mungiki in structured dialogue. He must be ready to tackle and upset the prevailing socio-political and economic order in Nairobi, Central Kenya, Eastern and Rift Valley Provinces. This might include a proposal for radical Constitutional and legal reforms to cater for land redistribution in some parts of the country. The Hon. Prime Minister will need all the energy and the goodwill he can muster to confront the current political, religious and business leadership in these regions who have historically benefited from this highly flawed socio-political and economic order.


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