Nairobi (AFP) – An inquiry into a suspected cult leader accused of inciting at least 428 of his followers to starve themselves to death, has pointed to “failures” in Kenya’s security and criminal justice systems, according to a report seen by AFP on Saturday.
Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie has been in police custody since mid-April after the discovery of human remains in the Shakahola forest near the Indian Ocean coast.
The former taxi driver and founder of the Good News International Church is accused of preaching to his followers to starve to death “to meet Jesus”.
While starvation appears to be the main cause of death, some of the victims — including children — were strangled, beaten or suffocated, according to autopsies carried out by the government.
“Kenya has experienced deaths linked to religious extremism in the past, however, the Shakahola tragedy has registered the highest number of fatalities in Kenya’s recorded history,” the Senate commission of inquiry said in its report.
It added that the self-proclaimed pastor had faced charges back in 2017 for his extreme preaching, but “the criminal justice system failed to deter the heinous activities of Paul Mackenzie in Shakahola”.
Mackenzie was acquitted on charges of radicalisation in 2017 for illegally providing school teaching — he rejected the formal educational system which he claimed was not in line with the Bible.
In 2019, he was also accused of being linked to the death of two children “who had succumbed to starvation and suffocation and buried in a shallow grave in Shakahola Forest”.
He had been released on bail, pending trial.
The commission of inquiry also pointed to failings in the local police force, which had received “recurring complaints by religious leaders and the local community against his activities from as early as 2017”.
The complaints related to Mackenzie’s opposition to formal education and medical treatment, as well as “radicalising adults to resign from their jobs and join the church” and “holding people hostage”.
The report also blamed “inaction” by the local county’s security committee, which had “summoned Paul Mackenzie and warned him against his radical teachings and subjecting followers to inhumane conditions”.
A largely Christian nation, Kenya has struggled to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that dabble in criminality.
There are more than 4,000 churches registered in the East African country of 53 million people, according to government figures.
The commission decried current legislation as “inadequate” and called on the country’s parliament to pass a “Religious Organisations Bill” to provide a legislative framework for the regulation of religious institutions.
The investigation and search for bodies in Shakahola forest are still ongoing.
Once completed, Mackenzie and his 29 co-defenants will be formally charged, with prosecutors announcing in May that the self-proclaimed pastor would face terrorism charges.