Shakahola Cult

Bodies exhumed at Shakahola Forest in Kilifi County are loaded into a police van in this past photo.

| FileI Nation Media Group

Security agencies, judicial system blamed for the Shakahola deaths

Kenyans strongly believe that the government has failed to protect them from the religious extremism of Pastor Paul Mackenzie, submissions to the Senate ad hoc committee investigating the proliferation of churches show.

They have blamed the Judiciary for repeatedly releasing Mackenzie after his arrest, and the National Police Service for failing to act on intelligence and selectively applying security laws and policies against Muslims while overlooking Christian extremists.

According to the submissions, most Kenyans also believe that self-regulation will not be enough to uphold human rights and end religious extremism, and strongly suggest that faith-based organisations be monitored by independent bodies to avoid exploitation of followers. They also argue that the failing economy and high cost of living have driven Kenyans into depression and desperation, making them vulnerable to religious extremism.

In its submissions, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) said that the criminal justice system had failed by releasing Paul Mackenzie, giving him the opportunity to radicalise his followers. This failure, it argued, points to lax enforcement of existing laws rather than a lack of regulation of churches.

Amnesty International Kenya Secretary-General Irungu Houghton, said: “The Shakahola massacre demonstrated the failure of the State to prevent at least seven human rights violations. These include the right to life, dignity, liberty and security of the person, privacy, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of the media and economic and social rights” .

Al Hajj Hassan Ole Naado, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem), accused the police, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), political leaders and the Ministry of Interior of being asleep at the wheel regarding Mackenzie’s activities.

“On whose watch did the Shakahola starvation, deaths and burials take place? If Paul Mackenzie should be considered a terrorist and extremist for negatively indoctrinating and radicalising his followers, how did he execute his plan in the face of the Security Act, which has been in place since 2015? Where was the NIS and the entire State security machinery set up to deal with religious extremism and terrorism?” asked Mr Naado.

He condemned the government for profiling Muslims based on the actions of a few extremist groups.

“President William Ruto described Paul Mackenzie as a terrorist and promised a crackdown on rogue preachers. Leaders, including First Lady Rachel Ruto and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua are on record saying that Pastor Mackenzie and other rogue clerics should be held individually accountable for their crimes and that their misdemeanours should not be associated with the church.

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“However, this is in complete contrast to what the Muslim community has endured in the so-called war on terror, where an entire community has been profiled, victimised, criminalised and collectively punished, all for the crimes of a few rogue individuals. If Paul Mackenzie is to be considered a religious extremist and terrorist, why have all Christians not been collectively condemned and profiled, and why has the crackdown on Christian extremism not been extended to other Christian institutions across the country?” he asked.

This selective application of security laws on religious extremism, Mr Naado concluded, is the reason why “nobody bothered to check what Paul Mackenzie was doing”. He added that Kenyans fell victim to Mackenzie because they “have reached a dangerous level of socio-economic desperation”.

The Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors (KAPC) believes that self-regulation may not be sufficient to address the abuse, exploitation and extremism within religious organisations.

“The State can provide oversight, set minimum standards and enforce compliance with ethical and legal requirements. Government regulation can also ensure accountability and protect the rights of vulnerable people,” the association said.

“Religious organisations should be encouraged to operate transparently, disclosing their doctrines, practices and financial activities to the public. This transparency can help individuals make informed choices about their involvement with religious groups and discourage organisations from engaging in abusive or exploitative practices,” it added.

Eric Theuri, the president of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), also argued that churches regulating themselves through umbrella bodies is not enough to protect people from abuse by religious leaders.

“There is a need to establish an independent regulatory body, preferably an interfaith council, to monitor registered religious organisations, investigate complaints and address violations of existing laws or regulations. An independent regulatory body would promote a collaborative approach between the State and religious organisations, while ensuring public trust, protecting vulnerable members of society, mitigating radicalisation and promoting harmony among different religious groups,” said Mr Theuri.

“Establishing independent bodies, such as religious watchdog groups or ombudsman offices, can help ensure accountability and prevent extreme indoctrination. These bodies can investigate complaints, monitor the activities of religious organisations and provide a platform for individuals to voice their concerns,” he added.

The NCCK is opposed to new regulations, arguing that the Societies Act, the primary legislation that currently regulates churches, is sufficient. NCCK chairman Archbishop Timothy Ndambuki said the Act already provides for the registration, regulation, accountability and deregistration of religious organisations. He said that the government should enforce existing laws.

“We advise caution in that attempts to impose further legislation to govern religious organisations will essentially be backdoor attempts to restrict the exercise of religious freedom. Any such power to curtail religious freedom will certainly be abused by political actors to muzzle their political opponents, reducing religion to a mere political tool,” said Mr Ndambuki.

“The constitution gives every Kenyan the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. We caution against actions that would have the effect of limiting or restricting the ability of Kenyans to enjoy this fundamental freedom. In affirming that Kenyans are free to exercise freedom of religion individually or in association with others, it is expected that there may be as many religious organisations as there are people in Kenya. Religious multiplicity should never be seen as an issue to be investigated,” he added.

As the wheels of justice slowly turn and the country slowly recovers from the Shakahola tragedy, it is necessary to address existing gaps in the law that have allowed religious extremism to flourish. There is also a need to reintegrate cult survivors into society.

Mr Theuri explained that the laws that currently regulate religious organisations do not explicitly state who can register a church. This invites anyone, regardless of their theological background, to register a church.

Lack of accountability

“Furthermore, while the Act provides for the registration of churches, the process does not adequately address the issue of transparency and accountability of religious leaders. The lack of accountability relates not only to their actions, but also to the funds collected from members of the congregation. There is a need to review and update this legislation to reflect emerging issues in order to deter individuals and groups from exploiting religious rights, committing fraud, engaging in human rights violations through harmful practices, or causing harm to individuals or society at large under the guise of religion,” he said.

He added: “There is a need to establish clear eligibility criteria for registration, such as minimum membership, organisational structure, financial accountability and adherence to constitutional principles and values.”

Before reintegrating survivors, KAPC advises that Kenyans recognise that survivors have experienced psychological trauma and need professional support. This would help them to understand how they were manipulated and equip them with critical thinking skills so that they are able to identify and challenge false beliefs and protect themselves.

Warning signs

“There is a need to raise awareness on harmful religious teachings in educational and religious institutions. Teach the warning signs of cult manipulation practices and the potential consequences of involvement. Use media and social media platforms to shape public opinion and disseminate information and awareness about harmful religious doctrines,” the association said.

Some Kenyans have called for the establishment of a cultism watch and research and surveillance observatory to monitor faiths that pose security risks to the public. According to Damaris Parsitau, the director of the Nagel Institute in Michigan, the country has focused too much on Islamic-inspired radicalisation and ignored Christian radicalisation. The country has also been lax in enforcing the requirement of theological training for church leaders.

“We need to rethink the requirements for someone to open and operate a church. If Kenyans are subjected to integrity checks when applying for jobs, the same should be done for those starting churches. We should also reconsider a clear separation between church and state. Why do religious leaders receive state security when Kenyan taxpayers do not? When spiritual leaders are close to the state, it becomes problematic to hold each other accountable,” she said.