Why the Shakahola nightmare will take long to find a closure

Zachariah Avonde and his mother at their home in Elufafwa village, Lurambi Constituency Kakamega County holding a photo of his sister Rose Khagai, 53, who went missing in Malindi, Kilifi County during the Shakahola massacre. The family is accusing the government for going silent about the release of DNA results [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

The first of the bodies of people who perished in Kenya’s most heinous mass crime were released to their families this week.

As millions renew their conviction over this Easter, Passover and Ramadhan season, can we extend our love for the affected families and take steps to prevent recurrence of the horror of Shakahola?

After a year of anguish, Grandfather Francis Wanje was the first to collect four members across two generations of his family from the Malindi Sub-County Hospital mortuary for burial.

Only 34 of the 429 exhumed bodies have been matched with the DNA of family members who came forward. As exhumations begin again next week, the death toll is already inching towards the combined death toll of Kenya’s worst terror attacks (460). They include the 1998 US Embassy (220), 2013 Westgate (71), 2015 Garissa University (147) and 2019 Dusit Hotel attacks (22).

The enormity of what happened one year ago cannot be told in the arithmetic of deaths. For a comprehensive understanding, both the 216-page ad hoc Senate Committee October 2023 report and March 2024 KNCHR anniversary update are essential reading.

Christian extremism, occultic practices and national security lapses drove the Shakahola tragedy. The enormity and complexity of managing the massacre’s aftermath was laid brutally bare this week.

A county hospital financially haemorrhaging with bills running into Sh4 million and lost revenue in mortuary services of Sh31 million over the last year. Hospital staff are under-consulted and under-recognised by national government. Valiant yet volunteer counselors and Red Cross humanitarian workers are on hand for the families but without capacity for individualised psycho-social trauma counselling for families and those managing operations.

Family members struggling with inconsistent information, transport costs and dignified burials. At least 25 child escapees between the ages of 4-16 traumatised by starvation and watching family members perish slowly and in agony. Journalists and human rights activists committed to ensuring the public does not turn its back on the families or state officers in charge, grappling with the absence of an official spokesperson.

Police officers and coroners having to coordinate all of this while preparing for one of the most important crime cases in 60 years. With at least 95 suspects in custody for over nine months, this is the longest pre-trial detention in Kenyan history since the 2010 Constitution was passed. 

In this context, the Interior Cabinet Secretary’s four directives on Wednesday were a critical expression of leadership. The ministry will settle the county hospital bills, provide burial transport to all families that need help, continue exhumation this week and implicated state officers will be held accountable. 

Accountability need not wait for the lifting of the injunction of the case against the Commission of Enquiry. The Senate Ad-hoc Committee report established crimes of omission or commission to have taken place six months ago. It is in the combined interest of victims, the accused and the public that the state moves faster to legally establish or exonerate the 11 officers accused of criminal negligence or active complicity in a court of law.

Managing the aftermath requires a multi-agency response funded by the national disaster kitty. Expecting our investigators and coroners to lead calls for other families to come forward, manage psycho-social services, burial support and public enquiries, mass media as well as coordinate the inter-government responses needed is expecting too much.

Alongside a de-radicalisation and rehabilitation plan we urgently need new regulatory guidelines and programmes that pre-empt future occurrences. The presidential extension for the Mutava Musyimi-led taskforce reviewing regulations governing religious organisations expired last month. Disappointingly, national religious leaders were also conspicuously missing to comfort families in Malindi this week. 

While the media headlines may move on, the Shakahola massacre is not over. The desecration of the holy word is not yet cleansed and the confused cries of the hundreds who perished, are not silent. Our national conscience must continue to demand justice as an assurance that this will never happen again.