Kenya 'starvation' cult deaths rise to 65 as more bodies found

Monday April 24 2023
shakahola mass graves

Some of the 18 bodies exhumed by homicide detectives from land owned by cult leader Paul Mackenzie at Shakahola village in Kilifi County on April 23, 2022. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG


Kenyan President William Ruto on Monday vowed to crack down on "unacceptable" religious movements as police discovered more fatalities in a Christian cult that practised starvation, bringing the toll to 73.

A major search in a forest near the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi where dozens of corpses were exhumed over the weekend has been ongoing, with authorities fearing grislier discoveries could be made.

A full-scale investigation has been launched into the Good News International Church and its leader, named in court documents as Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who preached that death by starvation delivered followers to God.

Pastor Paul Mackenzie

Pastor Paul Mackenzie of the Good News International Church during an interview with the ‘Nation’ in Kilifi County on March 24, 2023. FILE PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

It is believed some of his devotees could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola, which was raided by police earlier this month after a tip-off from a local non-profit.

Since then, a number of people have been rescued and dozens of bodies unearthed in mass graves dug in shallow pits.

shaka graves

Shallow graves at Shakahola village in Kilifi County, on a piece of land owned by cult leader Paul Mackenzie, as pictured during exhumations on April 23, 2022. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

By Monday evening, 26 more bodies had been exhumed, bringing the total number of those disinterred since Friday, April 21, to 65. This means that total deaths attributed to the cult now stands at 73, including eight victims who died after a police raid that lifted the lid on the horror church.

“58 people (have been) confirmed dead and this is out of bodies exhumed and those who died on the way to the hospital,” said Kenya’s police chief Japhet Koome who visited the site earlier on Monday.

The toll had stood earlier Monday at 51.

A 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland has been declared a crime scene as teams clad in overalls search for more burial sites and possible cult survivors.

Police also rescued nine people from death by starvation Monday, with five of them being in critical condition. They were rushed to hospital for treatment. Authorities confirmed finding seven bodies in one grave, the highest from one site since the operation to exhume victims began last week.

Police also found a man believed to be Mackenzie's ally and co-mastermind on the vast property.  The man, who identified himself as "Pastor Zablon Wa Yesu",  was found while reading a Bible on a estate. He said he was not fasting as he was waiting until June so that he would start fasting along with other men from the church.

shakahola mastermind Pastor Zablon Wa Yesu police

A man who identified himself as "Pastor Zablon Wa Yesu" is escorted by police in Shakahola, Kilifi County, on April 24, 2023. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

'Religious terrorists'

Kenyan President William Ruto, speaking in Kiambu County neighbouring Nairobi, said there was ‘no difference’ between rogue pastors like Nthenge and terrorists.

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

"I have instructed authorities responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root cause as well as bottom of the activities of people who want to use religion to advance weird and unacceptable ideology."

shaka horror

Kenyan detectives and residents on April 23, 2023 load bodies onto a police vehicle after digging them out of mass graves on land owned by cult leader Paul Mackenzie at Shakahola village in Kilifi County. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

As authorities try to uncover the true scale of what is being dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre", questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting police attention six years earlier.

"The unfolding horror that is the Shakahola cult deaths should and must be a wakeup call to the nation, more particularly the country’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and our community’s policing programme," Kenya’s Speaker of the Senate Amason Jeffah Kingi said in a statement.

"How did such a heinous crime, organised and executed over a considerable period of time escape the radar of our intelligence system?" he added.

Nthenge was arrested in 2017 on charges of ‘radicalisation’ after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognised by the Bible.

According to Kenya’s local media, he was arrested again last month after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

He was released on bail of Ksh100,000 ($738) before surrendering to police. Another 14 people are also in custody over the Shakahola deaths, according to Inspector-General of Police Koome. The case is due to be heard on May 2, 2023.

Fears for followers

There are fears some members could be hiding from authorities in the surrounding bushland and at risk of death if not quickly found.

A number of people have already been rescued and taken to hospital in Malindi.

Hussein Khalid, a member of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police to the actions of the church, said one of those rescued had refused to eat despite being in clear physical distress.

"The moment she was brought here, she absolutely refused to be administered with first aid and she closed her mouth firmly; basically refusing to be assisted and wanting to continue with her fasting until she dies," he told AFP.

The Kenya Red Cross said 112 people had been reported missing to its support staff at Malindi.

The case has grabbed the nation's attention, prompting the Kenyan government to flag the need for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a history of self-declared pastors and movements that become immersed in crime.

Kenya cult massacre

Kenyan security personnel on April 23, 2023 carry a cult victim from the forest in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP

Kenya’s Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki who announced he would visit the site on Tuesday, described the case as the ‘clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship’.

But attempts to regulate religion in the majority-Christian country have been fiercely opposed in the past as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees for a division between church and state.