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Combating religious cults is timely, but let us also get rid of cultic politicians

 Bodybags with victims of a Christian cult are seen during the exhumation from a forest at Shakahola outskirts of Malindi town, Kenyan Coast Tuesday, April 25, 2023. [AP Photo]

I watched my father fade away. Helpless, pained and traumatised, I held him in my hands and tried to rock him to sleep like I had done so many times before. A weak smile crawled across his shriveled face. He opened his deep sunken eyes, and in a whisper, asked me to make some promises. I listened keenly. Moments after he uttered his last wishes, Mzee Philip Oyieri Okalo, died on my lap.

Cancer had slowly eaten into the tall, 6ft 2, muscular man leaving behind a lump of skinny skeleton.  Despite the excruciating pain during his last minutes on earth, he made me promise that I wouldn’t pursue and punish the conman who had exploited his illness. My father had visited many hospitals, seeking treatment for his numerous recurring ailments. Without my knowledge, however, he would make secret trips to Nairobi to seek services of a self-proclaimed healer. A young pastor had set camp in the populous Kawangware area from where he would prey on the old and sickly. Men and women, desperate for healing, would troop to his ramshackle dwelling for a bottle of his magic water.

Fuming, and shaking with rage, I paid him a visit after Papa’s burial. I pounced on him, grabbed him by the neck and shook him violently. I was on the verge of beating him up when I recalled Papa’s wish. I took a deep breath to regain my senses, then pushed him away. I cleared my throat and told him: “If you know what is good for you, you better change your address.”

I recalled my father’s dying wish while watching in horror the unfolding tragedy of the Shakahola massacre, written and played out by the hand of former taxi driver Paul Makenzi, founder of Good News International Church. The demonic story made me realise just how vulnerable we all are to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual manipulation. It reminded me that in Kenya, the citizens face double jeopardy from; cults and cultic leadership. 

I have survived depression thrice. When I was fired from my job as Information Officer with the Kenya News Agency, then incarcerated during the Nyayo era, I went into depression. Then I was sacked from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). I plunged into depression. On both occasions, people I thought were my friends quickly abandoned me. However, the worst was yet to come. My marriage hit rock bottom. Jobless, broke, broken, and without the people I loved, I moved around like a zombie for close to five years. I can’t account for most of those years. I did things I am ashamed of; some I have no recollection of. With emptiness in my soul, I went out seeking solace. I tried out many religions and sects. I toyed with Islam, then eventually settled at the Don Bosco Catholic Church in Nairobi’s Upper Hill. In 2021, I suffered a massive personal tragedy that is subject of a book I am releasing later this year titled, Broken. This time, however, I refused to be broken.

I learned that when one is stressed and depressed, all orifices of vulnerability open up to all sorts of manipulation. Depression is no respecter of education or intellectual capacity. The Shakahola massacre opens national wounds oozing with pus and maggots of religious cults and cultic leaders, who prey on people’s weaknesses. Hundreds might have died slow and painful deaths but thousands have died violently due to politics. Others have died as a result of corruption; when drugs disappeared from public hospitals, or the poor fall from cancer after consuming maize, supplied by politicians who are aware it is full of aflatoxin. When charisma combines with greed and corruption, a deadly mixture is created. 

Whip up emotions

For 60 years, Kenyans have been battered, bludgeoned, and impoverished by well-oiled and coordinated politicians who grow wealthy from every election cycle. They thrive on deals and tenders. Millions of impoverished Kenyans follow them with the hope that they would be led to Canaan, the Promised Land of milk and honey. The leaders who were born and raised in Canaan, make occasional visits to the electorate’s Egypt every election year to whip up emotions and incite followers to fight and kill each other. Is it any wonder that in most informal settlements, a single street will have up to 100 churches and 70 bars? The suffering and poverty levels in Kenya create a fertile ground for cults to sprout. It is my submission that corrupt politicians and failed leadership push Kenyans to people like Makenzi.

Many of our politicians thrive on chaos, confusion, disorder, and human tragedies. For decades, Kenya has witnessed leaders with narcissistic personality disorders tighten their cultic hold on their followers. In 1991 and 1992, some of them used poisoned tongues to light up fires that spewed ethnic violence in Nairobi, Western Kenya and the Rift Valley. In 1997, some cultic leaders at the Coast subjected young men to ritualistic acts that were meant to make them invincible. The youth were then unleashed watu wa bara. Their task was to flash out and kill members of communities considered to be outsiders. Scores were murdered. Businesses were destroyed. Homes were set ablaze. The bloody Likoni violence had been rolled out. A Commission of Inquiry, led by Justice Akilano Molade Akiwumi, concluded that Coastal politicians from the ruling party, Kanu, were behind the cultic killings. Among the organisers of the violence were politicians, religious leaders, vindictive elders and ex-police and military men. Nothing happened to the perpetrators. 


With impunity, our leaders, majority of them tribal lords, incite their followers into violent acts each election cycle. They are all filled with a deep sense of self-importance. They seek adoration and worship. They are consumed with a desire for power and suffer from abnormal sense of entitlement. They are exploitative, extremely arrogant and completely devoid of empathy or any sense of human feeling. They thrive in both opposition and government. The difference between them and Pastor Makenzi is the same.

The Likoni killings and violence might have been contained but the 1990s gave breathe to the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which demanded secession of the coastal region from mainland Kenya. The MRC leaders, just like those involved in the Likoni killings, recruited children into the cult and indulged in oath taking and illegal military training. The MRC’s rallying call was, Pwani si Kenya.

The Coast has also had its own share of fiery Muslim clerics, some of them extremists, involved in radicalisation of the youth. Many young men and women vanish quietly, only to be traced to the Somali-based Al Shabaab.

Kenya is not the only country with a history of cults and cultic leaders. Even one of the world’s greatest and famous personalities have fallen victim to cults. Mohammed Ali, the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of the world of all times, was caught up in the grip of three cultic organisations. In 1960, the young, 6ft 3 boxer won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. Cassius Clay, born in Lousville, Kentucky, United States, had done his country proud. Upon returning to the US, however, he realised that being a black man, his achievement counted for nothing in America. He couldn’t be served a meal in most hotels and restaurants. He then delved into professional boxing which was controlled by the white mafia, operating under white supremacists’ rules that considered blacks as savages. Rejected and dejected, Clay, born of a Christian family, found himself in the welcoming arms of the Nation of Islam, a religious cult. He had been following their teachings for years.          

Elijah Muhammad, a strange complicated man, was the supreme leader of The Nation of Islam when Cassius Clay became boxing champion. Born in 1897 in rural Georgia, Elijah Muhammad proclaimed himself the Messenger. He was born Elijah Poole, the grandson of slaves. In his youthful days, the poverty was hopeless, and lynching of young black men were rampant. David Remnick, in his book; King of the World, says that poverty pushed Poole into depression and drinking. He was however a religious seeker. Poole met W.D. Fard, founder of a sect, The Nation of Islam. Remnick says that Fard made himself the sects; “center, its light, the incarnation of Allah”. He preached the recovery of the black man’s ancient Islamic heritage and cultural superiority. He proposed an ethic of self-regard and self-help, of cleanliness and work.

Poole became a staunch and trusted follower of Fard. At one time, when Poole asked Fard who he really was, Fard said: “I am the one the world has been waiting for, for the past two thousand years. I have come to guide you into the right path.” A typical answer from a cult leader. Poole, who later became Elijah Muhammad, eventually took over the leadership from Fard.

Then came Malcom X, a charismatic black leader who became a follower of Elijah Muhammad and mentor to Mohammed Ali. Malcom was also born in poverty, violence and want. He grew so powerful and influential that Remnick says; “Elijah Muhammad recognised Malcom X as a potential rival, but he also saw his value, as a speaker and an organizer, as a recruiter and as a bridge to the media and greater world.”

Remnick says that: “By early 1963, Malcom X was becoming disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad. He saw that for all of Muhammad’s pronouncements about moral rectitude and discipline, he had got at least two of his secretaries pregnant. …he told his secretaries that he was therefore divinely sanctioned to seek out virgins to spread his holy seed.”

Malcom, also saw through the financial corruption in the Nation, the amassing of real estate, jewelry, and luxury cars. Malcom started doubting Muhammad’s fiery denunciations of the white man as the devil. Feeling threatened, Elijah Muhammad stripped Malxom X of all his duties in New York City’s Mosque 7. “I’m going to strip him of everything”, he told his Boston minister, Louis X, who would later add the name Farrakhan. I was privileged to meet Louis Farrakhan in 1996 in Tehran, when I went to cover the 14th anniversary of the Revolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was still spitting black superiority fire. Malcom X fell under the gunfire of diehard followers of Elijah Muhammad.  

When Cassius Clay entered the ring to fight dreaded world heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston, Malcom told Clay that fight was religious battle: “This fight is the truth. It’s the Cross and the Crescent fighting in a prize ring- for the first time. It’s a modern Crusades- a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off Telstar for the whole world to see what happens. Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?”

After defeating Sonny Liston to lift the heavyweight title, Ali told the press: “I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now there are some neighbourhoods I can’t move into. I know how to dodge booby traps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighborhood. I’m no troublemaker. I don’t believe in forced integration. I know where I belong. I’m not going to force myself into any body’s house…”. After the fight, he announced his conversion to Islam and officially became Mohammed Ali. The cult, offered Ali the protection he couldn’t get from the government. The cult enabled him to make boxing history and money. However, Ali was wise enough to choose the useful rules of the sect, especially hygiene, diet and cleanliness.  

Social structures

Lawyer Milka Wahu, founder of Amka Africa Justice Initiative, says; “The law alone cannot protect us from people like Makenzi. For any law to really work, organs of the State and social structures must work. The Makenzi story raises very many questions; where were the chiefs, wazee wa nyumba kumi, and area police officers? These are people that should forever remain alert to potential threats. That also brings in the issue of corruption. All or some of these administrators must have known something but ‘tax’ collection blinded them.”

Singer and writer Reuben Kigame says that a cult will always deviate one’s attention from the truth. Instead of glorifying God, followers will glorify the founder of the cult. “On calling your pastor or spiritual leader “dad” or “mum”,” says Kigame, “there is a danger in sinking into idolatry. Check how much time you spend talking to and about God vs your pastor/spiritual leader.”

Kigame says that if one realises that he or she is in a cult, the best thing to do is leave. “It may not be easy, but find the courage to leave and save your property, your money, your life, and your soul.”

Although Article 32 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of worship in Kenya, that freedom should not be abused. We need to control these one person churches.

It is a national shame that as a country, we can reach this level of Makenzi’s mind control. We need to seek ways of empowering Kenyans, economically, mentally, and emotionally with self-confidence and knowledge to avoid being misled. Cult leaders focus on people’s tribulations and ignorance.

Roseline Asena, a paralegal from Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Njenga, is nursing emotional injuries from the Shakahola tragedy. Her tribulations dealing with a brother, a sister and sister-in-law, who joined the Makenzi sect, are heartrending.

She says that sometime in 2017, her sister-in-law came home one evening with exciting news. Her husband, had stopped drinking thanks to Pastor Paul Mackenzie. It had been the whole family’s prayer that he would stop drinking. Then in 2019, he suddenly stopped his children from attending school. His wife, who was pregnant with their third born, refused to attend antenatal clinics. Roseline knew that something was seriously wrong.

“I could no longer recognize my brother and his wife. They recruited my sister who started preaching to us at every opportune moment about the end of the world. ‘We may not even reach the end of the year’ she would emphasize. In 2020, when the President declared a countrywide curfew to contain the spread of Covid19, my sister told us: “You see. This is the biggest sign that the end of the world is here.”

Her sister-in-law gave birth. Her child came into the world under the mess of the new faith. The child was denied any form of medication or immunisation.

Eventually, her brother, sister, sister-in-law and five children travelled to Malindi. “I wanted to go to Malindi to see if I could help pull them out but I was warned that if I stepped there, I will die or leave the place crippled. I was told that the pastor was fearless and operated with impunity. The entire County security apparatus was in his hands,” says Roseline

Then shock and behold, she saw her brother and sister-in-law on the television screen. He had been arrested as one of Mackenzie’s handlers. She is still agonizing on the whereabouts of her sister and the children. Her brother had burnt his and his wife’s identity cards and their children’s birth certificates.  

Paul, in the book of Acts, 20; 28-31, warns about men like Mackenzie: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard”

All the men and women, recruited into the Mackenzie cult, have a deep hole inside them thirsting for God. Even those with good education and property can’t seal the hole by themselves. That is why among those mislead by Mackenzie, are educated professionals; doctors, teachers, lawyers and civil servants. Many continue to perish for lack of knowledge. 

Irene Njogu, a psychiatrist, says that: “We are social beings who love comfort, and appreciation. When we miss any of these, somebody will come to fill up the gaps. You start identifying with that person as one with authority. They end up distorting what you know.”

Although the government stopped the registration of the new churches in 2014 and placed a moratorium on the matter, pastors still seek to be incorporated into already existing churches. They take off with a branch and proceed to operate legally.

Dr Susan Gitau, a Counselling Psychologist, warns that mental illness is rampant and this makes many easy preys to cults. “Some of the cult leaders are very sick. You may meet somebody who thinks and dreams big so you feel you will dream together. Trauma is a monster that follows anyone. If untreated, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sets in, leading to recurring negative emotions and thoughts. If all along in your life you felt low, unwanted and rejected, then somebody provides hope for you, you will run to that person. Some of these leaders are very sick but present themselves with a lot of confidence.”


Donald Trump, former President of the US, who rekindled the White Supremacists wars to make America great again, has become a cult leader. Just like Trump, many of our politicians and cult leaders are deeply narcissists. Everything revolves around them. They will do anything to ensure everybody is under their control. They suffer from personality disorders. In fact, if you keenly study our politicians, you realise that some of them are cultic.

Shakahola gives us an opportunity for self-reflection. The 1991, 1992, and 1997 election violence were a rehearsal for the 2007/2008, post-election violence. 1,133 people were killed and over 600,000 people displaced internally. In a few days of bloody violence fanned by politicians, hundreds died, not from starving through forced fasting by Pastor Makenzi, but from machetes winging from the hands of ardent followers of politicians. After the violence, when wounds are still raw and graves still fresh, the politicians shake their hands, throw parties and celebrate as they wait for the next election. The grieving citizens are forgotten in their Egyptian shanties.      

From my own and my father’s experience, we should be compassionate to those who have been duped into cults. We must never ridicule or blame them. We should walk with them patiently as they heal. As we scratch our heads and ponder over the cult situation in Kenya, we must also seek ways of saving our people from the narcissistic personality that is endemic in our political leadership. Kenya must be saved from cults and cultic leaders. 

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