Inquiry Into Shakahola Forest Incident Reportedly Uncovers 'Inaction' & 'Failures' of Justice System
© AP PhotoBodybags with victims of a Christin cult are seen during the exhumation from a forest at Shakahola outskirts of Malindi town, Kenyan Coast Tuesday, April 25, 2023
© AP Photo
In May, President William Ruto formed a government commission of inquiry into the deaths of hundreds of people related to a religious cult in the Shakahola forest. The commission aims to identify the persons and organizations most responsible for the tragedy, and recommend legal and administrative reforms to prevent similar situations.
The inquiry commission investigating a suspected cult leader, who allegedly incited at least 429 of his followers to starve themselves to death, has revealed "failures" in Kenya's security and criminal justice systems proved to be unable to adequately respond to and prevent the incident, media has reported, citing the commission's report.
The incident garnered attention in early April, when a man contacted the police to report that his wife and daughter had gone to join Paul Nthenge Mackenzie's remote Good News International Church in Kilifi County, but had not come back. Upon investigation, the police found malnourished people and shallow graves in the Shakahola forest near the Indian Ocean coast.
Self-proclaimed pastor Mackenzie was arrested in mid-April following the discovery of human remains. Mackenzie, a former taxi driver and founder of the cult, is accused of preaching to his followers to starve themselves to death in order to "meet Jesus." The same month, law enforcement officials began to unearth corpses from shallow graves in the remote forest.
According to local media reports, as of September, a total of 429 bodies have been exhumed from the Shakahola forest. While starvation is believed to be the main cause of death, the government-conducted autopsies revealed that some victims, including children, died from asphyxia, head injury, as well as other causes.
"Kenya has experienced deaths linked to religious extremism in the past, however, the Shakahola tragedy has registered the highest number of fatalities in Kenya's recorded history," the commission is quoted as saying in its report.
The report indicated that Mackenzie had faced charges back in 2017 for his extreme preaching, but "the criminal justice system failed to deter the heinous activities of Paul Mackenzie in Shakahola."
In 2017, Mackenzie faced charges of promoting radicalization and denying children access to healthcare and education, as well as operating an unauthorized school and television station. He was later acquitted of all charges.
In 2019, he was also accused of brainwashing and abducting children to join his group, as well as being connected to the deaths of two children who had died from starvation and suffocation, and were subsequently buried in a shallow grave in the Shakahola Forest. However, the self-proclaimed pastor was released on bail.
The commission of inquiry highlighted "failures" in the local police department, which repeatedly received complaints from religious leaders and the community about Mackenzie's activities dating back to 2017. Specifically, the complaints centered on his stance against formal education and medical treatment, as well as allegations of persuading adults to quit their jobs and join the church, and keeping people captive.
The report also criticized the county's security committee for its "inaction," as it had previously "summoned Paul Mackenzie and warned him against his radical teachings and subjecting followers to inhumane conditions".
Moreover, the commission called the existing legislation as "inadequate" and urged the country's parliament to adopt a "Religious Organizations Bill" to establish a legal framework for regulating religious institutions. Kenya, a predominantly Christian nation, has long been struggling to regulate and control numerous churches and cults involved in criminal activities. According to government reports, over 4,000 churches are registered in the East African country.
Following the shocking discovery of bodies, Kenyan President William Ruto vowed to crack down on "unacceptable" religious movements. In August, Kenyan authorities interdicted five churches allegedly linked to the incident, including that of Mackenzie.
Local media reported that the investigation and search for bodies in the Shakahola forest is still ongoing. Upon completion, Mackenzie and his 29 co-defendants will receive formal charges. Prosecutors announced in May that the self-proclaimed pastor would be charged with terrorism.