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Mungiki – religious sect or street gang?

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.
KENYA / Mungiki promotes African traditions and rejects colonial influences. Circumcision is mandatory for female members.


The enormous, uncontrolled urban growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America – economic growth, political instability, military coups and natural disasters – has opened the door for criminal gang activity, mafia and terrorism, especially in "fragile" states. Entire cities and districts are today controlled by such "organisations", often in close cooperation with political and economic elites. Central and South American cities are particularly vulnerable, and young people are in any case a risk group for being dragged along. The International Labor Organization estimates that young people between the ages of 15 and 24 make up more than half of all unemployed people in the world. Organized crime becomes the only way out for many. When neither the authorities nor development actors have the ability or the will to facilitate young people's participation in social life, it causes frustration, and social cohesion is threatened.

Mara salvatrucha, also known as MS 13, developed decades back in the cities of the west coast of the United States. Today they form an international network of organized crime and have the real power in several major cities in Central America. gangs in Nicaragua, organized into age and district groups, are known to use particularly violent means in the defense of their territories. A common feature of such groups is that they offer protection and create stability and predictability. Ordinary people appreciate this when the legal systems they find themselves in are minimally functional.

Mungiki and Mau Mau

Mungiki in the Kikuyu language means "a united people". It is originally a religious group in Kenya with doctrines rooted in African mystery religions. The main goal is to promote African traditions and reject the influence of the colonial era. Circumcision is mandatory for female members. The group's ideology has occasionally been characterized by revolutionary rhetoric.

Mungiki was established in the late 1980s as a local militia in the "White Highlands" to protect Kikuyu farmers who were in conflict with the Masaai and Kalenjiin tribes, who were loyal to President Arup Moi's government. It organized in line with the principles of the 1950s Mau Mau-movement with taking an oath of allegiance as a basis for loyalty. "May I die if I desert or reveal our secrets."

© Eduardo L. Moreno

Mau Mau fought against the British colonial government and its African collaborators. The fight was primarily about the right to land – a leitmotif in modern Kenyan history. From the 1950s, Mau Mau was increasingly organized from the Mathare slum in Nairobi. It later became the main base and core area for Mungiki's operations. Here they have organized themselves into a cell structure with 50 members – five teams of ten people each.

Protection against theft, damage to property, taxation of electricity, water and sanitary services.

Mathare is well known in Norway through his youth and sports organisations
– Mathare Youth Sports Association. In particular, the extensive football activities (teams in Kenya's elite series with several national team players and foreign professionals) for unemployed boys and girls as well as young people who have dropped out of school have been an alternative to Mungiki's criminal activities.

Murder and beheading

With the bus and transport sector (matatu) as a starting point, Mungiki has gradually secured control over construction activities and garbage collection in Nairobi. With an estimated 500 to 000 members, it has become a political factor to be reckoned with. Several leading Kenyan politicians have sought cooperation to ensure support in elections.

In 2002, Mungiki supported losing candidates, which drew considerable ire from the government. After violent clashes with matatu owners in the same year and killings and beheadings on a significant scale, the sect was banned. Such activity has also occurred later – particularly in connection with national elections. However, it is difficult to talk about systematic and long-term terrorist activity with attacks on public buildings etc.

Mungiki still secures significant income from the residents of Mathare by providing protection against theft and damage to property. Taxation of electricity, water and sanitation services (taxes on public toilets) in Mathare is also widespread. A prerequisite for the business is close cooperation – with local politicians, police and "slum lords". After the undecided presidential election in Kenya in August 2022, there have been reports of several violent assaults and murders of election commissioners in which Mungiki is believed to be involved.

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