Kenya, East Africa | AFP | An inquiry into the suspected cult leader accused of inciting over 400 followers to starve themselves to death has highlighted “systemic failures” within Kenya’s security and criminal justice systems, as revealed in a report obtained by AFP news agency.
Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a self-proclaimed pastor, has been in police custody since mid-April when human remains were discovered in the Shakahola forest along the Indian Ocean coast. Formerly a taxi driver and the founder of the Good News International Church, Mackenzie is charged with instructing his followers to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus.” Autopsies conducted by the government revealed that while starvation was the primary cause of death, some victims, including children, were strangled, beaten, or suffocated.
The Senate commission of inquiry stated that, “Kenya has seen deaths related to religious extremism before, but the Shakahola tragedy has resulted in the highest recorded fatalities in Kenya’s history.” It also pointed out that Mackenzie had previously faced charges in 2017 for his extreme preaching, but the criminal justice system failed to prevent his heinous activities in Shakahola.
Mackenzie had been acquitted in 2017 of radicalization charges for providing alternative education, which he claimed aligned better with the Bible than the formal educational system. In 2019, he was linked to the deaths of two children who had starved and suffocated, their bodies buried in a shallow grave in Shakahola Forest. He had been released on bail while awaiting trial.
The commission of inquiry also criticized the local police force for their recurring complaints against Mackenzie dating back to 2017. These complaints included his opposition to formal education and medical treatment, as well as accusations of radicalizing adults to leave their jobs and join the church and holding people against their will.
The report additionally faulted the local county’s security committee for their “inaction” despite summoning Mackenzie and warning him against his radical teachings and inhumane treatment of his followers.
As a predominantly Christian nation, Kenya has faced challenges in regulating unscrupulous churches and cults involved in criminal activities. Government figures indicate over 4,000 registered churches in the country with a population of 53 million. The commission called for the enactment of a “Religious Organizations Bill” by the parliament to provide a legislative framework for the oversight of religious institutions.
The investigation and the search for bodies in Shakahola forest are still ongoing. Once completed, Mackenzie and his 29 co-defendants will face formal charges, with prosecutors planning to bring terrorism charges against the self-proclaimed pastor, as announced in May.
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- Agence France-Presse is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency. With 2,400 employees of 100 different nationalities, AFP has an editorial presence in 260 cities across 151 countries.
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