Kenya is trying to clamp down on a sect, the Mungiki, accused of occultist rituals and beheadings, but which is also seen as a threat to stability.
Analysts say the Mungiki is more of an organised criminal gang with political ties than a sect and they warn that such groups could multiply in the crime-prone country.
Police have stepped up the hunt for Mungiki members in recent days, killing several.
The gang is blamed for at least 40 murders since March, including 12 people who were beheaded. Police say they have killed at least 56 Mungiki members in the same period.
Seven suspected Mungiki were killed in the central Kangema area on Sunday as they took an oath that included drinking blood, provincial chief criminal investigator Sebastian Ndaru said.
The Mungiki, whose name comes from word meaning ”multitude” in the Kikuyu language, is accused of running an extortion empire in Nairobi and central Kenya.
There are no official numbers, but some estimates say there may be tens of thousands of members, mainly young unemployed men from the main Kikuyu tribe. About 60% of Kenya’s 33-million people live on less than a dollar a day, according to official figures.
Opinions are divided over the power of the Mungiki and how to deal with them.
Philip Murgor, a former director of public prosecution in Kenya, said: ”If the intelligence-gathering and crime detection were working, they could have been able to realise that Mungiki was transforming from a cultural, social organisation of unemployed persons into an organised criminal gang, a mafia.”
But Mutuma Ruteere, dean of the Kenya Human Rights Institute, said ”Mungiki need to be seen in the context of the … general failure of the state to provide security in the country, to provide hope to the youth.”
The Mungiki began as a sect of dreadlocked, snuff-snorting youths inspired by the Mau Mau guerrillas who fought the British half a century ago but are more often described now as violent slum vigilantes.
”The older Mungiki was quite progressive, but the temptation of quick money made the Mungiki members abandon their earlier vision for changing society,” Ruteere said.
Many experts say the organisation is behaving like a mafia, extending its microbus businesses into drug dealing and other sectors.
But while its bloody tactics worry many people, much of the unease also comes from the Mungiki’s alleged links to senior politicians.
In the last months of his 24-year reign, President Daniel Arap Moi is thought to have loosened the leash on the Mungiki in exchange for their support for his heir, Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu.
Some Mungiki factions felt aggrieved by their political allies and set the slums ablaze with terror, some analysts argue.
”It’s becoming a civil war within Mungiki,” Ruteere said, arguing that the violence gripping some of Kenya’s slums is ”over deals gone wrong, it’s a fight largely over money at the moment”.
Murgor, whose office prosecuted several Mungiki-related cases, said that police had been ”hampered by politicians”.
But critics have chided the government for cracking down on the group’s impoverished members while leaving its political guardians untouched.
Against the backdrop of deep-rooted tribalism pervading every sphere of Kenyan life, Maina Kiai, chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, sees a dangerous pattern developing.
”Political leaders in the country are becoming more and more linked to these vigilante militia groups,” he warned. ”Our politics are based on ethnicity rather than ideology.”
Kiai fears a surge in violence after this year’s elections if the politicians do not restrain the group and this could be a threat to Kenya’s stability.
”If you don’t deal with the problem now, in the next three to five years, we will have warlords, ethnic political leaders with armies,” he warned. — Sapa-AFP