Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Police caught off-guard by Mungiki attacks

A woman weeps at the scene of the Mathira massacre. The attacks had been anticipated after vigilantes went on the rampage in Kirinyaga, hunting down suspected Mungiki members. Photo/WILLIAM OERI

A woman weeps at the scene of the Mathira massacre. The attacks had been anticipated after vigilantes went on the rampage in Kirinyaga, hunting down suspected Mungiki members. Photo/WILLIAM OERI 

By PATRICK NZIOKA and JOHN NJAGI

The attack in which 28 villagers were killed by Mungiki sect members was anticipated, but the police were caught flat-footed. The raiders struck around 2.30am, one hour after a police patrol team left in the belief that the attack had been deferred.

It was, however, not easy for the Nation to establish why the police did not return to the area until long after the killings had been carried out. But Central provincial commissioner Japther Rugut, who headed a provincial security team that toured the area, defended the team, saying the Provincial Administration had held several barazas (meetings) to urge the residents not to take the law in their hands.

He said the police had also intensified patrols to prevent further unrest. “Members of the Provincial Administration have held and will continue to hold several barazas to insist that the people stop taking the law into their own hands. We are also posting more police officers to intensify patrols in the area,” the PC said.

For about two weeks now, vigilante groups in Kirinyaga have been hunting down suspected Mungiki members and their sympathisers, claiming the police had been unable to deal with the illegal activities of the sect, which include organised extortion of money from residents.

By Wednesday, the vigilantes had killed 15 suspected sect members, burnt their property and warned their sympathisers that they would not be spared if they continue harbouring them. As the hunt continued, members of the outlawed sect sought refuge in Nyeri East District in Kenya's Central province, mainly around Karatina Town, from where they are believed to have launched their latest attack.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that the vigilante groups operating from Kirinyaga had the support of the police, who had allowed them to smoke out the sect members before they (the police) moved in. But Mr Rugut denied this, saying the police could not abdicate their responsibility of maintaining security. He said about 39 suspects had been arrested in connection with the killings and would be arraigned in court.

“The police have not been reluctant as claimed elsewhere. We have intensified patrols in the area to ensure nothing happens. “We have mobilised the security in a big way to pre-empt any attacks, although we do not expect any,” he said. Mr Rugut said the security team would spread its operations to Murang’a District, considered the sect’s stronghold, even as the residents continue with their hunt for the members.

“This is a reaction of members of the public against harassment by Mungiki,” Mr Rugut said of the vigilante actions. “They have declared they don’t want anything to do with the sect.” A day before the Mathira massacre, sect members attacked a matatu, smashing its windows and injured the driver and a passenger on the Kerugoya-Karatina road.

The attack took place a few metres from a police roadblock. The matatu driver, Mr Lawrence Munene, said that one of the youths reached out into the vehicle’s dashboard and switched off the engine before flushing out the driver and a passenger seated at the front.

Protection fee

A trader in Kerugoya Town, who did not wish to be named, said Mungiki members were demanding a Sh500 monthly protection fee for stone houses, Sh200 for timber residential houses and a litre of milk daily from dairy farmers. They are also demanding Sh20 for every trip made by boda boda operators, Sh50 per day from matatu operators, Sh700 from restaurants and bars every month, Sh100 from retail traders, and a Sh100,000 one-off fee from wholesalers who wish to operate in the area.

Central provincial police officer John M’Mbijjiwe said the police would not arrest villagers armed with pangas and rungus since they were defending themselves. He, however, said the police were against the killing of any person. “We will not condone any kind of killings, whether by the vigilantes or by the sect,” he said at the scene of the massacre in Mathira. The police boss said security agents would work together with vigilante groups through the community policing programme to identify and prosecute members of the outlawed group.