Bloodstained sect sows fear through Kenya

Muranga, Kenya - Steely-eyed Margaret Mugoiri sits in her garden, mending a dress, as she relates how her husband was hacked to death the previous evening by a group of machete-wielding thugs.

She remains emotionless describing how the men dragged her partner of 32 years from their home in the black of night, before butchering him in the backyard. Her eyes show no flicker of weakness as she recalls screams of agony that did not relent until his death.

But mere mention of the Mungiki -- an outlawed sect behind a wave of death and dismemberment that was the target of a major police crackdown this week -- and her face curdles in fear.

Once only a religious group of dreadlocked, snuff-snorting youths who embraced traditional rituals such as female circumcision, the sect has fractured into a politically-linked, violent gang famed for extortion, murder and intimidation.

"I have never seen anything like this before," a top officer in the Muranga police department told AFP on condition of anonymity. "We don't know who these people are and we don't know how to go after them, so everyone is afraid -- even us."

The Mungiki -- which means 'multitude' in the tribal Kikuyu language -- are suspected of beheading at least half a dozen people over the past month and accused of the killings of more than 30 others, including several police officers, since March.

Police this week slayed at least 21 suspected sect members in a Nairobi slum after two officers were killed by suspected Mungiki members.

The heightened violence has drawn angry criticism from inside and outside Kenya, including from the Catholic Church and members of the Kenyan community abroad, who fear the Mungiki will deter foreign investment and slow economic growth.

Mugoiri, whose husband was one of the four victims of an evening murder spree in Muranga district, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Nairobi, is gripped in silent terror at the possibility of Mungiki in her village.

"This place is not crime-prone, incidences of insecurity like this are unheard of and out of the ordinary," finally murmurs Alice Muthoni, a neighbor come to grieve her friend's husband, referring vaguely to the group.

Although police blame the Mungiki for the attacks, Muranga locals are unable to identify a motive for the violence and refuse to openly point the finger at the sect for fear of retribution.

The activities of the Mungiki -- who have also allegedly usurped control of the public transport sector and charge elaborate extortion fees to operators -- are thought to illustrate the growing gap between rich and poor in a country where more than 60 percent live in poverty.

"Their actions are calling attention to the inequities in our society. We can't just shut our eyes to so many poor who are forced to eke out a living through means of violence," state-run Kenya National Human Rights Commission secretary Mburu Gitu told AFP.

Many believe the Mungiki are in league with corrupt politicians and police -- authorities are currently probing four former members of parliament accused of links to them -- and peg their growing visibility to elections scheduled for late December.

"One gets the feeling that some people in the government want to retain these vigilante groups as a way of enforcing power," said Evans Monari, a political analyst.

"Political power in Africa, in this country, is predicated on terrorizing people," he explained.

Last week Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki issued an order to kill perpetrators of Mungiki attacks on the heels of harsh public outcry against Internal Security Minister John Michuki's failure to exert control over the sect.

But officials have played down the scale of the threat.

"Just like any other phenomena, crime also has seasons ... We are not downplaying it but Mungiki is not anywhere near threatening the police, the state or the people," Kenya police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe told AFP.

But some police officers remained unclear about how they would eradicate the shadowy sect, primarily composed of members of Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu.

Nearly 3,000 suspected members of the sect -- said to have its origins in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s against former colonial powers -- have been apprehended in the Central and Nairobi provinces since the start of the year, according to government and police sources.

Despite this week's police crackdown, many Kenyans remain paralysed with fear over what they regard as an ongoing battle between the Mungiki and the government.

"We're caught in a war that's not ours and that we never asked for," says a dairy farmer in Muranga, declining to be named. He's one of the few people to venture into the town centre the day after the attacks.

"I just sit, hope and pray that these people won't come my way," he says, preparing to head home as shopkeepers shutter their doors earlier than usual at the approach of dusk.

"Maybe tomorrow you'll hear about me being beheaded," he adds, laughing nervously as he brushes dust off his trousers and quickly heads for home.