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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Protect Kenyans from religious cults

Ten serious criminal charges were preferred against Paul Makenzie and 95 other suspects this week. Coming within the same month that BBC Africa Eye released their riveting “Disciples: Cult of T.B. Joshua” we need to ask, are governments doing enough to protect us from religious extremism and cults?


The BBC documentary is tough viewing. Told through the eyes of several survivors and Synagogue Church of All Nations and Emmanuel TV television associates, the Nigerian televangelist preacher is accused of multiple cases of rape, torture, detention and forced abortions. Eyewitnesses testify how the collapse of the Synagogue guesthouse that killed 115 followers was due to substandard construction and how they conspired at his instruction to cover up the number of deaths. T.B Joshua was probably Africa’s wealthiest and most influential evangelist before his death in 2014. Heads of states including Nigeria’s Goodluck, Malawi’s Mutharika, Ghana’s Atta Mills, Tanzania’s Magufuli all took selfies with him.


Sadly, Kenya’s own brush with Christian evangelical extremism burst into the international spotlight last April. Following a 120-day investigation, 208 submissions and fact-finding visits to Kilifi, Vihiga and Kisumu, the 11-member ad hoc Senate Committee chaired by Danson Mungatana submitted its report on the deaths of over 429 men, women, and children in Shakahola Forest, Kilifi County on 19 October 2023.


Their 216-page report meticulously documents how Paul Makenzie and the Good News International Ministries recruited agents from across the country to lure followers to their death, acquired and concealed money and property secured through false pretence and organised militias to attack, kill and bury followers, some of them alive among other crimes. Their actions violated at least five constitutional articles including the right to life, human dignity, freedom and security of persons and subjected hundreds to physical and psychological torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and denied access to health care, shelter, and food. And it happened over several months.


Kenya has experienced more than six massacres linked to religious extremism in the past thirty years. Shakahola death toll has claimed the most deaths. It is also probably the worst massacre in post-colonial Kenyan history since the Wagalla Massacre in 1984.


In this context it remains worrying that the Interior and Health Cabinet Secretaries shielded eleven former Kilifi County security committee members named in the report and the Chief Government Pathologist from appearing before the Senate hearings. Given the gravity of the tragedy and the tremendous public interest, it has left several wondering there was an attempt to cover up security lapses that enabled mass murder after numerous complaints they failed to act on.


Within this context, it important that the public and those entrusted to protect Kenyans keep their eye on all the Senate recommendations not only the charging of Paul Makenzie and his associates. They include investigating and appropriate action against the security team and foreign persons and entities including Dave and Sherry MacKay (expired 18 October 2023), progress report on family tracing and reunification (expired 18 October 2023), faster response county security guidelines (expired 18 December 2023) and parliamentary review of laws and regulations governing the conduct of religious organisations (expired 18 December 2023). Kwaground the excavations have stopped and bodies that have been embalmed and identified remain in containers. When will they be released to their families? When will the remaining graves be investigated.


Let us not allow another moment of public amnesia to open the doors for another massacre. The Senate report tells us, Kenya has 40,000 churches. 91.5 per cent of Kenyans are Christian, 7.1 per cent Muslim and minority religions make up a further 2 per cent. It is worth recalling that when the 7-year-old registration of religious organisation moratorium was lifted in 2022 only 11 of the 978 applications met the government threshold for registration.

It is time for religious organisations to be regulated or we will learn another thing from Paul Makenzie at our cost That is, the phrase he often used with his many victims “kitawaramba” which loosely translated means “it will catch up with you and us”.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard,  20 January 2023.

The full Senate adhoc Committee Shakahola report can be read here


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