A Kenyan taxi driver turned pastor, who allegedly preached that starvation brought salvation, Paul Mackenzie Nthenge was under scrutiny years before 109 of his followers were found dead.
Police last month launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Good News International Church and its notorious leader, who is due in court on Tuesday.
A tip-off led investigators to a forest where Nthenge preached.
There, they found 15 starving people — four of whom died — while the others were taken to hospital.
But it was not Nthenge’s first time in the crosshairs of law enforcement.
The discovery of dozens of bodies — most in mass graves — raised questions about how he was free to preach such dangerous teachings.
According to the church’s website, Nthenge founded the movement in 2003 and set up branches in Nairobi and along Kenya’s coast that attracted more than 3,000 devotees.
It aimed to “nurture the faithful holistically in all matters of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelism”, the website said.
Titus Katana joined Nthenge’s flock and even preached sermons alongside him at one point.
“We felt like we saw God in that church,” the 39-year-old told AFP.
But he eventually left the church due to differences over new restrictions pushed by Nthenge.
“It came to a point where too many laws were introduced in that church — asking women not to braid their hair, (saying) people should not go to hospital, people should not go to school,” the daily wage labourer said.
– Radicalisation –
Nthenge’s YouTube channel, launched in 2017, is packed with videos warning followers against “demonic” practices like wearing wigs and using mobile money.
Later that year, the televangelist was arrested on charges of “radicalisation” after urging children not to attend school because education was not recognised by the Bible.
He was acquitted but arrested again in 2019 over charges including the possession of films intended to incite Christians against Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. The case is still being heard.
Nthenge said he closed the church in 2019 and moved to the sleepy town of Shakahola, telling The Nation newspaper in an interview last month that he “got a revelation that the time to call it quits had come”.
“I just pray with myself and those who chose to believe,” he said.
He was arrested again in March this year, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.
He was released on bail and told The Nation he was “shocked about the accusations”.
Less than three weeks later, a police raid in a forest near the coastal town of Malindi led investigators to scour the woodland for mass graves.
As they come to grips with what has been dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, Nthenge is once again in police custody after surrendering to the authorities.
– ‘Heinous acts’ –
“I don’t really know what got into him,” former follower Katana said about Nthenge.
Devotees sold “their property, houses, factories because they were coming to the ‘wilderness’ to wait for Jesus in Shakahola forest”, he said.
According to the “fasting schedule” Katana’s friend shared with him, the plan was for children and single people to starve first, followed by women and then men, he said.
“Mackenzie and his family would go last,” he added, sketching out a timeline that appears to be supported by the fact that more than half the corpses found so far belonged to children, according to three sources close to the investigation.
The macabre saga has raised questions about how a self-styled pastor with a history of extremism has managed to evade law enforcement despite his prominent profile.
It has also drawn President William Ruto to weigh in on the sensitive subject of Kenya’s homegrown religious movements — and failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.
“Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing,” Ruto said.