Shakahola: Genocide, terrorism or what?

Shakahola death

Exhumation exercise at Shakahola Forest in Kilifi County.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

Coined by Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in 1944, ‘genocide’ contains ‘genos’, or relatedness, and ‘-cide’, deliberate killing. It describes the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group for their relatedness such as ethnicity, nationality, religion or race.

In 1946, the UN recognised genocide as an international crime, leading to the 1948 ratification of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG).

Mass destruction of indigenous groups, like during colonialism in America, was genocide. One of the earliest recorded cases was in 1915 when 600,000 to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire. 

The best-known genocide was during the Second World War (1939-1949) when more than six million ethnic Jews were killed in the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

In 1994, more than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsi, were killed. In 1995, more than 4,000 people were killed in Bosnia, former Yugoslavia. In 2017, some 25,000 ethnic Rohingya were killed in Myanmar and, by 2018, the birth rate of Uyghurs in China had reportedly decreased by 60 per cent due to systematic forced sterilisation and abortions.

The discriminative factor of most of these genocides was ethnicity. However, the Nazi Germany genocides targeted Jews while those in Bosnia, Myanmar and China targeted Muslims, giving a religious predilection.

And recently, President William Ruto referred to the ‘Shakahola massacre’ as terrorism. This refers to intentional violence during peacetime with an ideological aim to achieve political or religious goals. It is often facilitated by extremism for the beliefs of adherents are often fanatical and not part of the larger and more accepted beliefs of groups.

Religious terrorism can be communal, genocidal or nihilistic. Religious extremists will murder or even die as a service to God for the greater and ultimate rewards in the afterlife. And therein lies the role of cultism. In cults, a group of people are inspired, brainwashed, threatened or confused by a charismatic leader to follow extreme religious beliefs or practices at whatever cost to themselves.

No wonder, cults often result in religiously inspired extremism and intentional violence—terrorism. This phenomenon has been documented in all major world religions—Islam, Hindu and Christian. I will confine myself to examples in Christianity.

Died by suicide and murder

In 1978, some 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult died by suicide and murder in Guyana at the behest of Jim Jones. Believing that the world would soon end, members were coerced or brainwashed into signing over their possessions to the church. During the Georgetown Massacre, members of the cult killed Congressman Ryan and three members of the press investigating them.

In 1993, some 82 Branch Davidians, including their leader David Koresh, died in Waco, Texas. The apocalyptic cultists were reportedly held against their will and subjected to physical and psychological abuse. In an altercation, four security officers were killed.

In San Diego, 39 Heaven’s Gate members committed mass suicide by drug overdose and asphyxiation in 1997. Their theology was a mixture of Christian millenarianism, New Age and ufology, with the belief that they could transform themselves into immortal extraterrestrial beings and ascend to Heaven.

In 2000, in Uganda, 924 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, an apocalyptic Christian movement, died in a mass murder ordeal by fire, poisonings and killings. Fasting was regular and sex and soap forbidden.

Religious extremist cults have certain common features. These include a charismatic leader recruiting members and encouraging them to isolate and give up earthly comforts for a higher calling in the name of spiritual enlightenment. They are then introduced to extremist beliefs.

There then follows a phase of control by the leader, with interference by non-members brutally repulsed. The last stage is apocalyptic when members are required to make the ultimate sacrifice: Death.

In the recent incident, adherents of the Good News International Ministries cult travelled from far and wide to the isolated Shakahola area of Chakama ranch, in Kilifi County.

Going by the UN convention definition, Shakahola is a genocide. There is intent to destroy a group, motivated by a belief that a higher power has sanctioned and commanded violence to self and others for the greater glory of the faith and reward of the afterlife.

Kenya has experienced religious extremism and terrorism, particularly by Islamists, and used different countermeasures with varying degrees of success. Our challenge, however, has always been balancing between the right to religion, belief and conscience and the right to life as well as freedom from the torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment that genocide and terrorist portend.

Shakahola is an opportunity for national reflection on the circumstances, omissions and commissions that facilitated the extremism that led to genocide and terrorism. This is our moment to ensure it never occurs again.

Prof Mutugi is a commissioner with Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). [email protected].