Nairobi — An unimposing man known as Joe, alias Robertson Buili, alias Ndegwa, appeared about 2 p.m. at the Maxland Restaurant here, took a seat and ordered a warm beer. At least five bodyguards followed, and tailing them a few minutes behind, the area police chief.
Like some Kenyan Godfather in the pale sunlight, Buili, 36, was greeted by two bow-tied waiters who apparently recognized him as a leader in the Mungiki, a cultlike gang suspected of at least 12 beheadings and other mafia-style murders that have terrorized the Kenyan capital in recent weeks.
"The owner of this place has come to me," Buili explained, referring elliptically to a recent recruit. "We are the masses. We are the people. And we are just in a warm-up now."
Lately, screaming headlines in the bawdy tabloid newspapers of Nairobi have described the so-called Mungiki Menace. Dark tales of moonlight oath ceremonies have been followed by vows from politicians to end the violence and by police crackdowns targeting one of the city's sprawling slums, where members of the secretive sect extort money from the poorest of the poor.
Although the Mungiki claims thousands of members, it is difficult to say how widespread the sect is, much less what it is: the dying embers of a more violent 1990s Kenya or perhaps a sign of the growing urban poverty afflicting cities across Africa.
Kenyans pride themselves on their relatively progressive country, an island of calm in the turbulent Horn of Africa, and many dismiss the Mungiki as nothing more than a brutal if politically connected extortion racket.
To others, though, the Mungiki violence — wrapped in the ideology of the dispossessed and a warped tribal identity — has raised the question of whether the kind of large-scale civil unrest that the sect's leaders have promised to inspire this election year is possible in Kenya.
Pamphlets urging young people to "Arise! Arise!" have been circulating in the capital, while police have responded in a typically heavy-handed fashion, rounding up young men who wear dreadlocks or bear some other supposed hallmark of the Mungiki, at times simply to extort their own bribes.
Last month, police killed at least 21 people in a brazen raid in Mathare, during which dogs were turned against teenage boys and, residents say, dozens of innocent people were beaten or shot.
"The government doesn't have a clue how to stop this thing because they are dealing with an amorphous group with few known leaders," said Jogana Mutahi, a coordinator with the Kenya Human Rights Network, which condemned the violence. "So they're going after young men with boxer shorts hanging over their pants."
Young male residents of Mathare say they are not certain who is more terrifying — the Mungiki, who beat them and take their money, or the police, who beat them, accuse them of being gang members and demand money from their families.
"The Mungiki act like another government," said Peter Ndegwa, 17, who ran for his life during the last police raid. "Us innocent boys would like to ask our president: Who exactly is our government? Because we pay taxes to the government for police, and we pay taxes to the Mungiki."
Buili was unapologetic for the recent violence, which he said was directed at people who had "violated" Mungiki rules.
"In this country, there is not fair distribution of wealth," he said. "There is a gap, and we want to bridge that gap. To work through the system is impossible."
He ordered another warm beer.
Buili, who idolizes early 20th-century black nationalist Marcus Garvey, was never as poor as some of the young men he recruits. He attended one of the best private schools in Nairobi and either dropped out or was kicked out of college, which he said "was too undemocratic."
He was vague about how he became involved with the Mungiki, which originated during rural land clashes in the 1990s that pitted members of Kenya's largest community, the Kikuyu, against the Masai and Kalenjin communities.
The Kikuyu formed militias whose members were often the sons and daughters of the Mau Mau, the underground movement that fought for independence from British colonial rule and often beheaded its enemies.
As the Mau Mau had, the Kikuyu militias required fighters to take an oath and a vow of secrecy, and soon the militias morphed into the Mungiki — a Kikuyu word that means "masses" — developing extortion and protection rackets and luring jobless young men into its fold, often by providing work such as hawking vegetables.
"What do you do when you find 10 friends in your house asking for help?" Buili said, referring to the young men who come to his Nairobi home seeking jobs. "Then you have 20, then you have 50? Do you tell them to walk away?"
Buili, whose father was a Mau Mau fighter before becoming a relatively well-off businessman, offered the young men Mungiki ideology: a blend of revolutionary rhetoric and Kikuyu traditions that Buili believes are fading in a modern society he calls "useless."
"Morality," he said, sipping his beer. "That is what our movement must bring back, morality. And we want to push back the sources of inequality."
During the late 1990s, Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi, allowed the Mungiki to move into Nairobi and run their rackets. Many believe the Mungiki became intertwined with government officials and politicians, who used the group for financial gain and muscle during elections. Buili said he is on a first-name basis with some of the highest-ranking officials in Kenya.
Eventually, some Mungiki leaders became rich. One, Ndura Waruinge, officially renounced the sect, converted to Islam, changed his name to Ibrahim, then converted to Christianity and changed his name to Hezekiah. Now he is running for a seat in parliament.
"I have left Mungiki," Waruinge said in an interview. "Because I am rich."
Some who have followed the group over the years say the current violence stems from a feeling among the Mungiki that they have been betrayed by officials who once backed them.
Others wonder whether during a contentious election year the Mungiki have become guns for hire and part of the elaborate machinations that define Kenyan politics.
Mutahi, the human rights activist, took a broader view.
"There is a widespread frustration that there are too many young people without work. And they do not feel they are part of this nation. Kenya is not that stable," he said, referring to the country's relatively young multiparty democracy and a growing gap between rich and poor. "It would take a small thing like this getting out of hand to light this place up."
Many say Kenya has come too far for that. After 24 years of often brutal, one-party rule under Moi, there is a vibrant opposition and a relatively free press.
"You can express yourself freely in Kenya now," said Alfred Nderitu, a member of parliament. "And that has released a lot of tension."
Buili denied that the movement is losing strength. On the contrary, he said mysteriously, "the war is just beginning."
He talked about the land clashes during the 1990s, about which many in the Kikuyu community still feel bitter. He recalled hearing his father sing the Mau Mau songs when he was growing up, and seeing him cry.
Soon the conversation degenerated into crude, quasi-racist descriptions of non-Kikuyu communities and ended with a rant against homosexuality, divorce and other features of modern Kenyan society.
"We are about empowering people," said Buili, glassy-eyed. "Making people have morals, and so many other things."
Asked about his own involvement in the recent killings, he held out his palms.
"Do you see any blood on my hands?"