Police target illegal gangs after Kariobangi

The Kenyan authorities recently banned a number of sects and vigilante organisations which, the police said, posed a threat to security in the country. However, this action needs to be backed up by additional measures if the banned groups are to be prevented from continuing to operate, according to the Legal Resource Foundation (LRF), a local human rights organisation operating under the umbrella of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

If not followed up by concrete steps to eliminate their activities, the recent ban, which was only a temporary measure, could serve to drive the groups underground, thereby rendering them even more dangerous than before, the LRF programme coordinator, Isabel Wafubwa, told IRIN on Wednesday.

On 8 March, the Kenyan police announced that 18 sects, groups and private armies - some of them linked to prominent politicians, had been outlawed, following a call by President Daniel arap Moi on the force to crack down on illegal organisations that "took the law into their own hands", and to ensure that no group operated above the law.

Notable among the groups banned were the Mungiki sect and the Taliban vigilantes, who were at the centre of a rampage in the Nairobi suburb of Kariobangi North on 3 March, in which 21 people were hacked to death. Thirty-one others were reportedly injured when a gang of about 300 youths rampaged through the estate, wielding machetes and axes, allegedly because of a dispute between the Mungiki and Taliban.

The violence in Kariobangi also had an ethnic undercurrent, according to media reports. The Mungiki sect is predominantly Kikuyu, and its members were fighting the Taliban, largely made up of Luos, who had ostensibly been set up to deal with the crime in the area.

Members of the Mungiki sect, which urges people to return to traditional lifestyles, attacked bars belonging to ethnic Luos with machetes, sticks and clubs, apparently in response to the slaying of two Mungiki members in the neighbourhood on 2 March. The Mungiki even attacked members of the Luo and Luhya ethnic groups in their homes, according to the BBC.

The Kariobangi clashes sparked outrage on the part of the local media and human rights activists, who have linked the attacks to pre-election violence, which, they say, has dogged the country ever since the advent of multiparty politics in 1991.

The attacks took place just days after the Mungiki leadership announced that it would the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party and a number of its candidates, including Vice-President George Saitoti and Cabinet Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, for top posts during the general elections due later this year, the East African Standard reported. In its Tuesday editorial, the paper challenged the police commissioner to reveal the "political" sponsors of the Mungiki sect.

The police have denied any political connection to the attacks, blaming them on the "lawlessness" of Mungiki members, saying those responsible would be dealt with as criminals. "We are looking at it as criminal acts committed by criminals, and we are going to deal with them at that level," the police spokesman, Peter Masemo Kimanthi, told IRIN.

In addition to the Mungiki and Taliban groupings, the groups banned by Police Commissioner Philemon Abong'o comprise: Jeshi la Embakasi, Jeshi la Mzee, Bagdad Boys, Sungu Sungu, Amachuma, Chinkororo, Dallas Muslim Youth, Runyenjes Football Club, Jeshi la Kingole, Kaya Bombo Youth, Sakina Youth, Charo Shutu, Kuzacha Boys, Kosovo Boys, Banyamulenge and KamJesh.

Abong'o said some people had begun to make a habit of carrying offensive weapons - such as machetes and axes - in public places. "This is against the law, and anyone found going armed in public will be prosecuted," the Daily Nation reported. The police have said that rungus (clubs), simis (Somali swords) and spears traditionally carried by Maasai morans (warriors) are offensive weapons under the law.

Announcing the ban, Abong'o said the police had established that the 18 groups were "the perpetrators of lawlessness and insecurity in the country", the Daily Nation reported. "These groups are illegal, and Kenyans are advised to keep away from them and their activities. Adherents to the groups will be arrested and charged in court," he added.

However, Wafubwa warned on Wednesday that the outlawed groups would reconstitute themselves - as they had done in the past - unless the banning order was followed by "clear strategies" to ensure sustained monitoring of their activities. "An umbrella ban is not sufficient," she told IRIN. "The groups have always existed, and continued with their violent activities, outside the law. How do you ban something that has never been a legal entity? They need to deal with each group according to its structure."

The government has previously banned the Mungiki sect - because, among other things, it advocates the practice of female genital mutilation - yet is has been operating widely and with few apparent restrictions, according to observers.

Wafubwa attributed the rising numbers of such violent sects and vigilante groups to a combination of factors, which included laxity on the part of the police and political influence brought to bear on unemployed youths. "It is a custom for the Kenyan police to arrive much too late at the scene of a crime, they take too long to respond," she said. "But at some point you think the police's hands are tied: the Mungiki have had a long record of violence... you tend to think they are getting protection from somewhere."

Some of the gangs operating outside the law were originally formed to do political dirty work, such as physically assaulting or intimidating opponents, usually fizzling out after completing their tasks, according to the Daily Nation. However, the police have said they now have political backing to tackle them. "The president himself gave the directions. The political aspect is clear. These groups can't popularise KANU or any other party through violence," Jesse Mituki, the deputy police spokesman, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Mituki said the police force had already begun a major crackdown on the groups. "We are still trying to crack them down. For now, we are concentrating on Nairobi, but soon we shall have the operation countrywide," he added.