Kenyan cult leader Mackenzie freely preached dangerous teachings

Tuesday April 25 2023
Shakahola cult deaths, outside Kenya’s coastal town of Malindi

Security personnel on April 23, 2023 carry a young person rescued from the forest in Shakahola, outside Kenya’s coastal town of Malindi, where followers of cult leader Paul Mackenzie have been starving themselves to death. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP



A taxi driver turned pastor, who allegedly preached that starvation brought salvation, Kenya’s Paul Mackenzie Nthenge was under scrutiny years before 73 of his presumed followers were found dead.

Police this month launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Good News International Church and its notorious leader after a tip-off led them to a forest where Nthenge preached.

They found 15 starving people — four of whom died — while the others were taken to hospital.

But it was not Nthenge's first time in the crosshairs of law enforcement.

The discovery of dozens of bodies — most in mass graves — raised questions about how he was free to preach such dangerous teachings.

Pastor Zablon wa Yesu Shakahola cult

A man suspected to be a co-mastermind and the lead clergyman attached to cult leader Paul Mackenzie after he was arrested by police. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

Over 3,000 devotees

According to the church's website, Nthenge founded the movement in 2003 and set up branches in Nairobi and along Kenya's coast that attracted more than 3,000 devotees.

It aimed to "nurture the faithful holistically in all matters of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelism", the website said.

Nthenge also launched a YouTube channel in 2017, warning followers against "demonic" practices like wearing wigs and using mobile money in videos posted to the social media platform.

Later that year, the televangelist was arrested on charges of "radicalisation" after urging children not to attend school because education was not recognised by the Bible. 

Two years later, he closed the church and moved to the sleepy town of Shakahola, telling the Nation newspaper in an interview last month that he "got a revelation that the time to call it quits had come".

"I just pray with myself and those who chose to believe," he said.

A woman who was rescued from the forest in Shakahola

A woman who was rescued from the forest in Shakahola where followers of cult leader Paul Mackenzie have been starving themselves to death. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

Arrested, freed on bond

He was arrested again in March, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700) and told the Nation he was "shocked about the accusations".

Less than three weeks later, a police raid in a forest near the coastal town of Malindi led investigators to exhume the woodland for mass graves.

As they come to grips with what has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre", Nthenge is once again in police custody after surrendering to the authorities. He is due in court on May 2.

Mass graves in Shakahola, Kilifi, Kenya

Some of the mass graves where bodies were exhumed in Shakahola, Kilifi County in Kenya’s coast. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

Raised questions

His re-emergence at the heart of the unfolding situation has raised questions about how a self-styled pastor with a history of extremism has managed to evade law enforcement despite his prominent profile.

It has also drawn President William Ruto to weigh in on the sensitive subject of Kenya's homegrown religious movements — and failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.

"Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing," Ruto said.