Blog: Witches and Terrorists in Kenyan Politics

25 June, 2018

As part of my research on youth and interreligious relations (see here), I occasionally make rounds across various Kenyan news outlets. When making one of my frequent rounds across various Kenyan news outlets, I recently stumbled upon a newspaper article from Kenya’s Daily newspaper ‘The Star’, published in October 2017. The article discusses criticisms raised by Garissa Township MP Aden Duale against Kenya’s main opposition party, the National Super Alliance (NASA) that is led by veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga. I was drawn to the newspaper by its peculiar title, which reads: ‘NASA is now like Mungiki or Al Shabaab’. The heading is an abbreviated quote of a claim made by Duale, who represents the ruling Jubilee party, and criticizes the NASA-leadership for refusing to participate in the controversial re-run of the Kenyan presidential elections. The initial August 2017 presidential elections had been invalidated by the Kenyan Supreme Court, who had declared it to be ‘null and void’, citing ‘irregularities and illegalities’ taking place during the elections, which saw Jubilee leader Uhuru Kenyatta being pronounced as its winner.1 Citing fear that the re-run would again be marred by irregularities, NASA leaders decided to boycott the October 2017 re-run. As said, Duale criticizes this decision, and accused NASA of ‘joining the ranks of Mungiki and Al-Shabaab’, by becoming a ‘resistance movement’ and an’armed group’ instead of participating in democratic elections.

Although much can be said about the 2017 presidential elections, I am interested here in the question how we can understand the comparison Duale makes between NASA and Mungiki and Al-Shabaab, in his attempt to discredit political opponents. As many know, Al-Shabaab is an Islamic terrorist organization mainly based in Somalia, that has also been active in recruitment and terrorist attacks in Kenya. Perhaps less familiar outside the Kenyan contexts is Mungiki, described in academic literature as a ‘neo-traditionalist’ movement, that has accused the (predominantly Christian) elite of the state of corruption and association to demonic forces. The movement itself makes an appeal on values and practices associated to Kikuyu traditions, using early anthropological accounts of the Kikuyu as sources. The movement has also become associated to various criminal gangs operating in Nairobi and other urban centres in central Kenya (Wamue 2009).

In two of his works, anthropologist James Howard Smith (2008, 2011) describes how some Mungiki claimed to be inheritors of the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement that mainly arose among the Kikuyu, which during the 1950s and early 1960s resisted British colonization. In his texts, Smith demonstrates that Mungiki also faced a similar state response as Mau Mau. Both Mungiki and Mau Mau were violently repressed by state security agents (even though Mungiki has allegedly been co-opted by various politicians as well), and condemned by associating them with witchcraft, various moral ills, and tribalism. In this way, Mungiki is represented as a movement that threatens peace, development, and national unity. Through such associations, I would like to argue, Mungiki is commonly portrayed as a manifestation of the ‘standardized nightmare’ (Wilson 1951) of the ‘witch’, a powerful anti-image of morality, order, and proper (Christian) religiosity with deep colonial roots.

The presence and activity of Al-Shabaab in Kenya similarly triggers the mobilization of a powerful societal anti-image, namely that of the ‘terrorist’. In various recent works, scholars have noted an increasing hostile stance towards Islam among church leaders and public officials in Kenya, who present it alternatively as inherently violent, related to witchcraft, and out for domination over Christians (Deacon et al 2017, Mwakimako and Willis 2014, Gifford 2009). Anti-Islamic sentiments have been strengthened by growing national and international concerns about Islamic terrorist activity in Kenya, causing terrorism to become primarily associated with Islam (Mwakimako and Willis 2014, Mwakimako 2007, Seesemann 2005, Lind and Howell 2008). Similar to the state’s approach to Mungiki, incidents of Islamic terrorism have also triggered a violent response by the state. At the same time, Muslims have criticised religious profiling by security agencies, a complaint that I also heard during my own fieldwork (Van Stapele 2016, Ndzovu 2014).

As Duale compares NASA leaders to both Mungiki and Al-Shabaab, he effectively projects both the anti-image of the ‘witch’ and that of the ‘terrorist’ on his political rivals. As these anti-images have deep historical roots and/or find strong international resonance, they can be powerful ways to discredit political rivals and other forms of opposition. The simultaneous mobilization of the anti-image of the ‘witch’ and that of the ‘terrorist’ by Duale also raises many questions, which I aim to address in my on-going research. Does the simultaneous mobilization of these two anti-images – which I noted elsewhere during my research as well – also point to an increasing entanglement between them, in the sense that those who are seen as or suspected to be witches are ascribed similar characteristics or treated in similar ways as terrorists, or vice-versa? If so, how can this be historically understood and explained? And what do these anti-images tell us about how conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion are constructed and demarcated in the Kenyan context?

Furthermore, while Aden Duale projects the anti-images of the ‘witch’ and the ‘terrorist’ on his political opponents, these anti-images remain associated with ‘(neo-)traditionalists’ and Muslims respectively. This raises questions about the ways in which such stereotypical images influence modalities of co-existence in places where Christians, Muslims, and Mijikenda Traditionalists live together, such as in Malindi, the coastal town that is the focus of my research. During fieldwork, I noticed for example that both Muslims and adherents of Mijikenda Traditionalism generally aim to steer clear of any association with terrorism or witchcraft respectively when interacting in public settings. At the same time, they also aim to keep their religious traditions free from being linked with these demonizing anti-images. To give an example, a Muslim-led local civil society organisation that received funds from a Western donor to ‘counter violent extremism’, paradoxically almost completely avoided mentioning this focus during the execution of the program. When I asked a co-worker of the organization about the reasons for doing so, he argued that he feared that open work on violent extremism could stigmatize Muslims, as it would be like publicly associating the Mijikenda to witchcraft, which would confirm common stereotypes that the Mijikenda are strong witchcraft believers. Similarly, I heard Mijikenda elders argue that the lack of respect that youth have for Mijikenda traditions explains why many young accuse Mijikenda elders of practicing witchcraft, which implicitly posits a respect for elders and tradition as an effective recourse against witchcraft (accusations). These examples not only suggest that people in Malindi take effort to avoid the public stigmatization of particular religions or traditions, but also that it is difficult for Muslims and Mijikenda to speak back and refute stereotypical anti-images that are projected unto them, as this would mean that they have to take up the same terms that are used to stigmatize them. As part of my on-going research, I aim to further explore and critically investigate how stereotypical anti-images, and the strategies that various religious groups and actors mobilize to navigate them, shape modalities of interreligious and intergenerational co-existence in Malindi.

1 Link (Timeslive)