Kenya goes after rogue religious leaders in new clampdown

Wednesday May 10 2023
Shakahola forest Kenya

Kenyan security and forensic officers watch as more bodies are exhumed at the Shakahola forest on May 9, 2023. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG


Cult leaders, advocates of religious extremism, fake prophets and other unscrupulous religious leaders in Kenya were Tuesday put on notice after two teams were sworn in to investigate their conduct and look into religion’s regulatory framework in the country.

The teams — a commission of Inquiry to unravel the circumstances that led to the Shakahola massacre and another to identify gaps and propose legal and governance changes to prevent religious extremism — were sworn in Tuesday and are expected to start work immediately.

The Taskforce on the Review of the Legal and Regulatory Framework Governing Religious Organisations is expected to come up with proposals on standards and minimum certification requirements for all religious organisations and their leaders to they registered and allowed to operate.

Headed by Rev Mutava Musyimi, a former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) , the 14-member task force has also been mandated to identify gaps in the legal, institutional and governance system that have allowed cults and extremist groups to operate, and make proposals on how the public can report such cases.

Dr Frank Njenga

Dr Frank Njenga takes oath on May 9, 2023 during a ceremony to swear in members of the commission of inquiry into Kenya’s Shakahola cult massacre. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry into the Shakahola Tragedy, headed by Court of Appeal Judge Jessie Lesiit, will investigate the deaths, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of members and individuals associated with the Good News International Church in Malindi, Kilifi County, led by Paul Mackenzie.


Justice Lesiit said Tuesday that the task ahead was daunting and promised that they would do their best.

Rev Musyimi described the Shakahola deaths as a tragedy, adding that there could be more cults that are yet to be discovered.

“The fact that we are here today must underline the gravity of this issue. I know that the people of Kenya are looking to us to deliver and we cannot let them down,” he said.

Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie

Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie when he appeared in court on May 2, 2023. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

High Court Principal Judge Eric Ogola, who presided over the swearing-in on behalf of Kenya's Chief Justice Martha Koome, said the tragedy had left an indelible mark on the country’s conscience and “exposed the vulnerability of Kenyans to religious extremism and other forms of abuse and exploitation by people who use religion as a cover for their criminal activities”.

Exposed weaknesses

The tragedy, he added, had also “exposed gaps and weaknesses in our legal, institutional and governance system that allowed atrocities to take place”.

“As the commission of inquiry and the presidential task force do their work, I urge all of us to reflect on our values, beliefs and practices as a people. Let us recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our constitution, which reminds us of the need to uphold human rights and dignity,” said Justice Ogola.

He reminded the teams that the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and conscience for all Kenyans and so religious diversity should be respected. 

“As a nation, we cannot afford to remain silent or indifferent to this threat to our peace, security, unity and values. We must act swiftly and decisively to bring justice to the victims and their families, prevent the recurrence of such incidents and protect the rights and welfare of our citizens from any form of religious coercion,” said Justice Ogola.

Workers load bodies exhumed from Shakahola

Workers load bodies exhumed from Shakahola mass grave site into a vehicle on April 25, 2023. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP

The swearing-in comes as the state cracks down on what it calls rogue churches and leaders, including pastors Paul Mackenzie and Ezekiel Odera, both accused of running cults masquerading as churches and sacrificing biblical principles for selfish gains.

Mr Mackenzie of the Good News International Church, who is the main face of the Shakahola tragedy, has been accused of preaching extreme religious views, including fasting to death to meet Jesus.

When he appeared before the Malindi Magistrate’s Court in Kenya's coast, he was charged with the offence of radicalisation under the Prevention of Terrorism Act but was acquitted, only to be re-arrested and taken to Shanzu to face possible terrorism charges.

Mr Odera of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, who was linked to Mr Mackenzie, was released on a Ksh1.5 million ($10,000) cash bail, with the court stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to keep him in custody.

Police officers also claimed that several of Mr Odera’s followers had died and their deaths were recorded at Kilifi Police Station between 2022 and 2023. Further, they suspect that some of the victims whose bodies have been found in Shakahola forest had attended Mr Odera’s church. Some of the bodies, they said, were kept in a private mortuary and buried in Shakahola.

Police officers also recently arrested 31 people in Nakuru County in Kenya's North Rift region who had been fasting for about a week and appeared weak and hungry. The 14 adults and 17 minors were believed to be followers of a 62-year-old suspected cult leader called Army Rurwama.

The tip-off that led to the arrest came from a woman whose daughter, a community health nurse, had elected to go to the woman’s house to pray and fast instead of going to work. She had also been locked in the house for days without food. 

Not registered

Although Ms Rurwama claimed that the church had been operating since 2006, it is not registered as a church.

Two days ago, police in Kwale County rescued 200 people, including 50 children, from Kwale forest in a suspected case of religious kidnapping. The 200, believed to be members of Rainbow Faith Ministries – Vumbu, a splinter group of the main SDA church in Vumbu, were caught fasting with orders to pray strictly three times a day and three times a night.

Their leader, Joyce Mkumbi, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed prophetess with no theological training, was arrested and charged with exposing children to extreme religious doctrines.

Eliud Wekesa, alias Yesu wa Tongaren, the leader of the New Jerusalem sect, was also summoned Tuesday for questioning about his church. He has led members of his church to believe that he is Jesus. Mr Wekesa has 12 disciples named after the descendants of the biblical Jacob.

While some religious leaders supported growing calls for regulation of churches in Kenya, others hit back saying the rogue ones must be held individually accountable.

'Disturbing reality'

Condemning the Shakahola deaths on April 24, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) called for regulation of churches, saying it would ensure that “rogue pastors are exposed in time and denied the opportunity to continue their dangerous acts”. The regulation, they said, would also help Kenyans to “identify the weak legal and religious links that cult leaders exploit to brainwash their unsuspecting followers”.

“We are witnessing a disturbing reality ... where so-called prophets and cult leaders have mastered the art of exploiting gullible Kenyans in the name of religion. In the process, their innocent followers have lost money, property and now lives,” said KCCB Chairman Archbishop Martin Kivuva.

While distancing itself from Mr Mackenzie’s religious practices, the Church and Clergy Association of Kenya (CCAK) argued that the call for regulation of churches was misplaced, stating that churches are already regulated under the Societies Act and the Attorney General's Office.

“As an umbrella body for Pentecostal churches, we want Kenya and the world to know that this was not a church, but a cult pursuing and teaching its own selfish interests, not those of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Paul Mackenzie and his cohorts must bear their own cross,” said Bishop Hudson Ndeda, the national chairman of the association.