What you need to know:
- It was only on Sunday that Interior and National Administration Cabinet secretary Kithure Kindiki issued a statement on the deaths, whose number is expected to rise as police dig up more suspected gravesites.
- Sunday afternoon’s exhumations at the 800-acre property associated with cult leader Paul Mackenzie raised suspicions of murder after one of the bodies, dressed in a suit and a tie, was found not as emaciated as the others.
The extent of the shocking deaths by starvation of members of a suspected cult continued to unfold on Sunday, with 18 more bodies exhumed at Shakahola village in Kilifi County as authorities finally acknowledged the horrific scale of the atrocity as a massacre.
Police suspect that some of the people victims not have fasted to death, but might have been killed before being buried. The discovery of the bodies on Sunday pushed up the death toll to 39 since the exhumations began on Friday, April 21, raising questions about possible laxity and negligence by administrators and the local security apparatus.
Kenyans have expressed outrage at how the government has handled the case, with reports that the team deployed to carry out the exhumations and rescue operations complained of lack of adequate manpower.
It was only on Sunday that Interior and National Administration Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki issued a statement over the deaths, whose number is expected to rise as police dig up more sites. He termed the deaths a ‘massacre’.
Sunday afternoon’s exercise at the 800-acre property associated with cult leader Paul Mackenzie, of the Good News International Church, raised suspicions of murder after one of the bodies, dressed in a suit and a tie, was found not as emaciated as the others.
Police officers who spoke to journalists said the man might not have died of starvation considering the body appeared well-nourished.
“After conducting forensic analysis, we shall determine the cause of the death of the man since he looked well dressed and healthy,” said the source.
Police also found a starving woman at a hideout in the farm who protested while she was being rescued. Although she was frail, she protested as police and Red Cross officials helped her into a vehicle to be taken to the hospital. Inside the church were inscriptions on chairs, suspected to have been written by Mackienzie’s followers, saying they were ready to live in the jungle.
“Maisha ya jangwani nayaweza mambo yote katika Yesu anitiaye nguvu (I am ready for life in the jungle. I leave all to Jesus Christ who gives me strength),” read one of the inscriptions written by Carolyne Kwamboka.
As the exhumations entered the third day, homicide detectives were focused on seven graves. Detectives have identified 15 gravesites at the farm.
Residents claimed they had relayed information on the suspicious goings-on at the farm to authorities, but the government officials had ignored it. Adu Ward Rep Samson Zai said the villagers had reported suspicious activities since 2020.
“The pastor [Mackenzie] first built a church in Marereni in Malindi but was chased away due to his doctrines. He moved to Shakahola and, since then, we have been reporting his weird activities, with the government taking no action. We were barred from attending security meetings,” claimed Mr Zai.
Mr Zai said Mr Mackenzie operated on the 800-acre property that is part of the 50,000-acre Chakama Ranch and was several times summoned by the area chief because of his activities.
Mr Changawa Mangi, a village elder, said they had welcomed Mr Mackenzie to the area as a farmer, not a religious leader.
“When he arrived, he told us he is a farmer, but he never ploughed the land. He became more and more powerful and we started seeing strange people in the area whom we were told were his followers,” said Mr Mangi.
On Sunday, Prof Kindiki directed the Coast regional coordinator, together with the regional security team, to reinforce the team in Malindi ahead of his visit on Tuesday.
Prof Kindiki said enough security officers had been deployed to the area and the entire land was sealed off as a crime scene.
“The unfolding Shakahola forest massacre is the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship. Prima facie, large-scale crimes under Kenyan law as well as international law have been committed,” the CS said.
“While the State remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrator(s) of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward.”
The Malindi cult leader, who has been in the public limelight for allegedly influencing his followers to fast to death, has been in police custody as investigations continue.
Mr Mackenzie appeared before Malindi Chief Magistrate Elizabeth Usui on Monday last week but was not required to plead to any charge, with the prosecution asking for 30 more days to hold him.
Mr Mackenzie will be held in custody for 14 days alongside six of his followers. A further seven, whom the prosecution described as victims because they had refused to eat even while in police custody, will be held for seven days for counseling. The case will be mentioned on May 2.