How police, Kilifi administrators ignored preacher’s cult activities

Shakahola bodies

Some of the 17 bodies that were exhumed from the Shakahola mass graves on April 25, 2023. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

As detectives continue to exhume bodies from the land owned by Paul Mackenzie in the remote village of Shakahola, locals say they passed information about suspicious activities at the vast farm but local authorities ignored it.

Why did the police fail to act on the report, if there was one? How could such deaths and cult activities go on for so long without detection given reports were filed from 2020?

On Friday, all the police commanders in Kilifi County were redeployed to allow a thorough probe into the cult.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki announced the redeployment of the commanders on Friday, as he toured the area for the second time last week.

Prof Kindiki said the commanders were from all levels (division, sub-county and county) and all services — the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the National Police Service (NPS) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

“We are not implicating anyone but if you got a report and failed to act, then investigations will help unravel that. We have also up-scaled the command leadership on site from tonight,” he said in Shakahola, where a command centre has been established.

“We assure the public that investigations will be above board and open to the public. And from Monday [today], toxicology examinations and post-mortems will begin. We ask for patience.”

Local officials and residents who spoke to Nation say for months they passed on information about the suspicious goings-on at the farm to the authorities, but government officials ignored it.

According to Adu Ward Rep Samson Zai, villagers have been reporting suspicious activities since 2020, when Mackenzie is believed to have first set foot in the area.

“The pastor [Mackenzie] first built a church in Marereni in Malindi, but was chased away because of his teachings. He moved to Shakahola and since then we have been reporting his strange activities, but the government has done nothing. We have been banned from attending security meetings,” Mr Zai said.

He said Mr Mackenzie operated on the 800-acre property, which is part of the 50,000-acre Chakama Ranch, and had been summoned several times by the area chief because of his activities.

Mr Changawa Mangi, a village elder, said they welcomed Mr Mackenzie to the area in 2020 as a farmer, not a religious leader.

“When he arrived, he told us he was a farmer, but he never ploughed the land. He became more powerful and we started seeing strange people in the area who we were told were his followers,” Mr Mangi said.

He said Mackenzie started sneaking in and out of Shakahola, a fact that prompted them to report to the area chief.

“In December 2021, he was summoned by both the chief and the assistant county commissioner for moving to Shakahola. However, he was not arrested and went about his activities,” Mr Mangi said.

After a while, shopkeepers at Shakahola Trading Centre said they started noticing new faces in their shops.

Normally, the followers go shopping twice a month, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. When they go shopping, the nation learnt that they travel in groups of 10 people.

However, Mackenzie’s followers never used their mobile phone numbers for transactions.

Shopkeepers said Mackenzie followers would call their relatives back home and ask them to send their bill through a till number provided by the trader, and sometimes they would send motorcyclists to collect their goods.

Traders began to wonder where the increasing numbers of people were coming from, only to be told by the motorcyclists that they were staying at the ‘Bethlehem’ village — named by Mackenzie after biblical names.

All the while, they did not raise an eyebrow at what was happening behind the thorny bushes.

“Towards the end of February this year, we noticed that the children who were sent to buy goods from our shops stopped coming. As villagers, we decided to visit the interior of the forest. We were chased by some rogue men with blood on their hands. We immediately reported the matter to the area chief,” said Mr John Msanzu.

It was around this time that the traders noticed that the food they had stored, such as beans, which the followers loved, began to rot.

Investigations by the Nation revealed that no serious action was taken in response to the alarm raised by the traders.

But a local official insists that when they tried to manoeuvre around the village, they were chased by dogs and two of their motorcycles were burnt.

“We received a tip-off from the herders who graze their cattle around the said villages, informing us that people were dying and being buried. We started our own investigation, but we faced resistance to enter the villages,” said a local official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“People began to distance themselves from the issue. Until early this year, when two children escaped and asked the village elder for help, the two confessed that they had been beaten and forced to starve,” the official added.

He says that as investigations continued, two more children managed to escape, bringing the total to four.

It was then that Malindi DCI officers began investigating the matter.

Did the lack of a police station and adequate equipment nearby contribute to the rise in the cult’s activities?

Located an hour’s drive from Malindi is Langobaya Police Station, which has no car, yet it is expected to cover the vast area stretching more than 50 kilometres to the now infamous village.

For Lango Baya officers to travel to the scene of the crime, a vehicle must be sent from Malindi Police Station, some 70 kilometres away.