Shakahola massacre: Search and exhumation of bodies suspended

Homicide detectives and forensic investigators identified more than 40 mass graves at Shakahola. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

The government has suspended the search and exhumation of bodies at Shakahola Forest in Kilifi until early next year after relatives of the identified victims collect the bodies to decongest the mortuaries in the county.

Homicide detectives and forensic investigators involved in the operation last month identified more than 40 mass graves.

The graves are set to be exhumed at the beginning of 2024 in the forest that is still a crime scene. 

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has since asked the court for 90 more days to complete investigations in the Shakahola massacre where 429 bodies have so far been exhumed from shallow graves.

The main suspect in the massacre, Paul Makenzi, and his co-accused are yet to take a plea on the matter as the government still seeks more time to complete its investigations.

In its report, the Senate concluded that the cult behind the Shakahola massacre that shocked the world in 2023 had the hallmarks of past sectarian sects that have claimed many lives.

Unlike in initial reports, the Senate committee found out that it started as a church, Good News International (GNI), in Malindi, Kilifi County, but with fledging congregations across the country.

However, interviews with the victims and detectives involved in the probe show that the followers of GNI lived in anticipation of end times in just months, weeks if not days.

It is a message that GNI leader Makenzi echoed through his TV channel or during his satellite church services. 

And some of Makenzi’s followers gave up ordinary occupations and family life to follow him to Shakahola forest.

“They recognised that there are other Christians like them but believed that those other Christians had gone a stray from the teaching of the Bible,” said Mzee Francis Wanje in a past interview.

The gruesome killings of 429 people in the Shakahola came to the limelight on March 15, 2023, after Mzee Wanje, a Mombasa-based teacher, reported missing members of his family.

His daughter, son-in-law, the son-in-law’s mother, and three grandchildren went to Shakahola.

The daughter was a community worker and his son-in-law, a General Service Unit (GSU) officer, had resigned to join the GNI. The son-in-law stopped the children from attending school.

On March 15, reports emerged that the grandson was among the three boys who had starved inside Shakahola forest to death.  Luckily, Wanje, with the help of human rights activists, rescued his grandson as he was about to be buried alive on March 17, 2023.

The bodies of the two other boys, who were the first reported victims of the cult, were exhumed in June. State agencies say Makenzi’s doomsday preaching started in 2010.

Doctrine spread

Makenzi’s doctrine, like other sect leaders, spread like bushfire, to Mombasa, Makueni, Kisii, Kisumu, Taita Taveta, and Nairobi, according to Senate Adhoc Senate Committee report.

The Tana River Senator Danson Mungatan-led committee claimed that Makenzi was influenced by Dave Mackay and Sherry Mackay, founders of the Voice in the Desert from Australia.

Makenzi elevated himself as the only source of what God wanted his followers to hear or do – including mass suicide or mass murder.

The committee report, collaborated by the detectives currently investigating the deaths, indicates that Makenzi’s family moved from Ikalaasa in the Kibauni constituency in Machakos to Kwale in the 1960s.

His father, Kitivo Makenzi Kisini, died in 2010, but the mother, Anastacia Mwele, lives in Furunzi village in Malindi, Kilifi. Mr Kisini moved to Mombasa from Machakos as a contractor but became a preacher of protestant churches in Shimba Hills in Kwale.

In past interviews, Mwele and his young son, Robert Mbatha, said that Makenzi was born in 1976 in Lunga Lunga, Kwale County.

“We were born and raised in a religious family in Kwale. My elder brother learned in Mwalewa Primary School and later joined Lukore Secondary School in Kwale,” said Mbatha.

Mwalewa Primary School is in Vanga while Lukore is in Kubo South (Matuga) in Kwale County. “After high school, my brother relocated to Nairobi and joined a driving school in 1995,” said Mbatha.

Makenzi began his career as a taxi driver between 1995 and 2011 in Malindi. But in 2003, he formed the Good News International Ministries.

But his family said that initially, Makenzi was a member of the Catholic Church before joining Ushindi Baptist Church and later moved to the African Brotherhood Church (ABC).

After a fallout with the leadership at ABC, the fiery preachers opened the Good News International (GNI), registered by the State and duly issued with the certificate in September 2010.

He held prayer sessions at the house of his follower David Kahindi before constructing and registering the church in the Furunzi area in Malindi in 2004.

It was in 2010 that he started his prophesies. Firstly, according to a peek into his videos posted online, Makenzi said God told him that Furunzi village, where GNI was situated, would be as famous as Bethlehem. He discouraged his followers from participating in the 2010 constitution referendum.

While operating GNI at Furunzi, Makenzi had run-ins with State agencies, leading to his arrest for indoctrination, incitement, operating unlicensed TV, and making and distributing of video without a permit.

In 2017, Makenzi, Winnie Alexandre Gandi, and Betty Mwaka were charged with the offence of offering education in an unregistered institution.

Two years later, in 2019, Makenzi and his late wife, Joyce Mwikamba, were again charged with incitement and indoctrination. They had asked their followers to boycott Huduma Namba.

Following frequent encounters with security agencies and altercations with residents of Malindi opposed to his doctrine, Makenzi closed down the church premises before he moved to Shakahola in 2022, where he reportedly promoted extreme indoctrination of his followers leading to radicalisation, spiritual and financial exploitation.

Shakahola Forest is part of the expansive Chakama Forest, located approximately 100 kilometres north of Malindi Sub-County and borders Tsavo East National Park.

The forest is on the edge of human settlement, bordering a forest that traverses Tsavo East National Park. Villages at Makenzi’s farm are christened Nazareth, Judea, Kwa Mugambi, and Bethlehem.

Makenzi and his children lived in Bethlehem, where they constructed a big water pan to store rainwater for irrigation.

Makenzi’s two children, including Mwikamba, died and were buried in the church compound in Malindi.

His children dropped out of school in conformity to his doctrine against education.

Sumptuous meals

Makenzi is a man who loved heavy and sumptuous meals as his followers starved to death.

Owners of the eateries at Bao Lala shopping centre, about 10 kilometres from the Shakahola forest, said he liked goat meat soup, and chapati washed down the throat with a cold soda.

Multiple interviews indicate that Makenzi’s devotees sold their property and houses, and others, including air hostesses and police officers, quit their jobs to join him in the wilderness to wait for Jesus.

He preached that the end times or doomsday would be in August 2023. He asked his followers to fast and refrain from food in preparation for the end times and meeting with Jesus Christ.

The children were to die first, followed by the youth, and then women. The men were to delay their deaths to help bury bodies.

The last person to die was to be Makenzi together with his family, according to multiple interviews with survivors and security officers.

Once inside the villages established by Makenzi inside Shakahola, followers were reportedly not allowed to leave the area, nor interact within themselves.

After his arrest over the massacre of 429 worshipers inside Shakahola Forest, the Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki said he would be charged with terrorism.

But Makenzi does appear perturbed by the threats. Whenever he appears in Shanzu Court, Makenzi either teases the nation or issues veiled threats to the public.

Six months after his arrest, Makenzi has not been charged for the massacre. Families who lost their loved ones have not seen the bodies of their loved ones and are longing for some form of closure.

[Benard Sanga, Patrick Beja and Marion Kithi]