Aynsley Genga is a JURIST Staff Correspondent in Kenya.
On Friday last week, police in Kenya’s southeastern Kilifi County, north of Mombasa, launched an investigation into the Good News International Church and its leader. This was after they had received a tip from locals, as well as a community-based NGO that there were people of the church who were participating in a horrific fast within the Shakahola forest that the church owned. When the police arrived at the scene they found multiple members of the church struggling for their survival as they had been convinced to partake in a fast for 40 days without any food or water. Many could hardly even move and had to be quickly rushed to hospital, which turned out to be extremely difficulty due to the lack adequate rescue resources as well as manpower. However, the tragedy and shock did not end there, the police also ended up discovering graves of some of the members of the cult. Amongst the deceased there were even children.
Since discovery of the incident on Thursday, 32 people had been rescued by yesterday while sadly the death count has already reached 90. Amongst those who have been rescued there are some who are refusing assistance since they wanted to complete the fast. Moreover, many families have arrived at the scene in hopes of finding their loved ones whom they believe were part of the cult. It is believed that many of the members were from different parts of the country, while some were even foreigners from Tanzania and Uganda. Many of the believers had abandoned their families as well as sold their property before moving to Kilifi in order to join the killer fast which they believed would enable them to meet Jesus. Furthermore, as of Monday this week, Red Cross had reported 212 people missing, includng 112 children. Due to how large the situation has become, police from other areas had to be sent over to the Shakahola forest due to the lack of adequate local manpower.
The situation has taken Kenya by storm and many are at a loss of how such a thing could happen. Many are questioning the effectiveness of the country’s intelligence service and police especially after people discovered that this was not the first time that Pastor Mackenzie (the leader of the cult) has been arrested in the past in relation to the death of children, and yet both times he was arrested before being released on bond. Thus, many people are quite infuriated with the judicial system as well. Rumors have even begun to spread that the reason the police have never taken any serious action against the pastor is because they were bribed. This is because many are wondering how such atrocities could have happened without any security agency knowing. Additionally, people are questioning the reasoning behind not placing adequate police forces in all parts of the country. Others have even come out and stated that it is due to such lacklustre behavior that incidents such as the ‘Shakahola Forest Massacre’ and the constant banditry cases in the Northern parts of Kenya will continue to happen. Even various members of government have come out to condemn the acts of Pastor Mackenzie and the manner in which the security agencies have handled the situation:
“Our criminal justice system failed the people of Kilifi in the same way it has failed the country countless times. This is a colossal failure of the State. It is an unforgivable failure of the security intelligence system,” said Minority Leader in the National Assembly Opiyo Wandayi.
“How did such a heinous crime, organised and executed over a considerable period of time, escape the radar of our intelligence system? How did evil of such an astounding magnitude take place without being detected? How did this ‘pastor’ gather so many people, indoctrinated, brainwashed and starved them to death in the name of fasting and then buried them in a forest without being detected?” asked Senator Speaker Amazon Kingi.
“What we are seeing in Kilifi, Shakahola, is akin to terrorism. There is no difference between Mr Mackenzie who pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal. Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing,” President Ruto stated.
“I want to say that I have instructed the agencies responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root course and to the bottom of the people who want to use religion to advance weird unacceptable ideology in the Republic of Kenya that is coursing unnecessary loss of lives,” the president added.
As it stands, many Kenyans are hoping that no more dead bodies are found. Many of the families of the cult members who have yet be found are at the scene of the crime hoping that their loved ones are rescued in time. Moreover many of this families have been left psychologically scarred by this incident while others have been left broken and in disarray after their loved one has been found dead. The incident has led to an increase in demand for the government to come up with ways to regulate religion, which in all honesty is quite tricky especially if you consider how religious Kenya is. After all, what if the government comes up with regulations that discriminate against the smaller denominations? Moreover, what standard will the government use to regulate churches especially considering that some church officials make up part of the government which could lead to the regulations being biased.
Additionally, as many families continue to pray and hope for the safety of their loved ones, Pastor Mackenzie and 14 others who are suspected to be his accomplices have been arrested. As Pastor Mackenzie was escorted by the police, he made sure he left them a parting shot. “Mnachopigana nacho hamkijui. Na kitawaramba. Nimewaambia, kitawaramba (You don’t know the magnitude of what you are fighting. You will soon face the consequences),” he said.
Many are hoping that this time around that justice will be served and that the pastor and his accomplice will not be allowed to get away with what they have done. Ironically and probably the most tragic thing about this entire incident is that the pastor himself did not even partake in the fast. While his believers were battling hunger as well as the weather in the forest, Pastor Mackenzie was warm, safe and well-fed in his place of residence with not a care in the world about his believers. This man took advantage of his people and has probably caused the ruin of some families. The blood of innocent children (who probably did not even understand the reason behind the fast) is on his hands and yet he was not in any way remorseful. I truly hope that justice is served After all, if the law does not protect its people then what is the point in having such a law?