Nairobi — In 2002, Eunice Njeri, a 42-year-old single mother of two in Murang’a County, caught a young man stealing one of her chickens on a Sunday morning. She reported the matter to a nearby Chief’s camp, and the 17-year-old boy was arrested at noon.
By evening, he was back in the village, a free man having been bailed out by his fellow thieves. She heard that they were organising a revenge attack on her compound. Rather than go back to the police, Njeri decided on a less official solution to her predicament.
“Someone in our family tipped me that there was a group of organised youths who could provide me with security against any attack. I was advised to never rely on police to protect me,” she told me.
The group turned out to be Mungiki, an outlawed gang in Kenya, and at a rate of KSH 2,000 they raided the suspect’s house, beat him senseless and warned him to forget any revenge mission against Njeri.
Dissecting the Kenyan Gang
Gangs are organised criminal groups, though in public consciousness we don’t often picture the Italian mafia or the Japanese Yakuza as gangs. They are organised crime. Instead, gangs are somehow rougher, with more street violence and less sophisticated ‘hits’. Gangs are the American Bloods or Crips, or Central America’s Maras.Yet on a national level in Kenya, gangs become something different again. Here any small group of robbers or thugs is called a gang, same as established, nation-wide organisations.
Among the government-banned groups are the Mungiki Movement, MungikiOrganisation, Mungiki, Chinkororo, Amachuma, Sungusungu, Saboat Land Defense Forces (SLDF), Al Shabaab, Angola Msumbiji, Banyamulenge, Baghdad Boys,CharoShutu, Coast Housing Land Network, Congo by Force, Dallas Muslim Youth, Forty Brothers, Forty Two Brothers, Jeshi laEmbakasi, Jeshi la Mzee, JeshilaKing’ole, Japo Group, Kamjesh, Kamkunji Youth Group, Kaya Bombo Youth, Kosovo Boys, Kuzacha, Makande Army, Mombasa Republican Council, Republican Revolutionary Council, Sabaot Land Defence Force, Sakina Youth, Siafu and the Taliban.
While some of the more prolific gangs, like Mungiki, are well documented, most of these gangs are ‘hood gangs’, with roots in urban low-tenancy estates.
Small Groups, Big Consequence
These ‘hood gangs’ typically take part in small robberies and crimes to fund themselves. For instance, security agents have classified a new form of gang-raids on enterprises as “walk-in-walk-out mode.” A simple idea, it’s also an effective method – a lone gunman walks straight to the cashier and briefly brandishes a gun beforedemanding money.
Police say this form of criminal gang activity is tricky to catch, as it typically takes less than three minutes for them to execute the raid. To make matters more complicated for the targeted business owners, it is suspected that some unscrupulous police officers are either directly or indirectly involved in the formation, protection and participation of these criminal activities.
The crime wave is rampant in Nairobi,Coast, Eastern and Western Regions, withmajor trading areas, especially electronicmoney transactions, exhibitions and jewellerybusinesses, being the main targets. “As a result, investors are spending more than 40 percent of their profits [on] installing security measures,” says Nairobi Central District Business Association Chairman Timothy Muriuki. He estimates that businesses are losing on average KSH 5 million per day to this form of crime. While the government promised to implement a 24-hour economy in 2002, Muriuki says these attacks, and ones like them, have made that an impossibility.
According to John Koki, head of the Special Crimes Prevention Unit (SCPU) – an elite squad in the police force that battles with organised criminals – this new wave is a result of proliferation of small arms. “And the criminals specialising in this form of crime are increasing by the day. We are engaging them every other night and day and yet they seem to be cropping up like mushrooms.”
Muriuki thinks that the situation can only be salvaged through massive investment in security measures in major towns. “Thisis [through] electronic surveillance, street lighting and assembling metropolitan police,” he says, which will instil both investor and customer confidence. He further states, “For a country seeking to insulate itself against shaky exchange rates, job cuts and lower volumes of exports, the solution is to tap the sleeping opportunities during [the] daytime and the night in an atmosphere of guaranteed security.”
Life as a Gangster
In Kenya, gangs beget more gangs. Often times, a group set up to protect communities from criminals will turn into criminals themselves, demanding fees for their protection and then creating a greater need for that protection by terrorising their neighbours.
This fight against injustice and inequality is exactly how one of Kenya’s notorious gangsters got started. Bernard MatheriIkerewas described as a top criminal in his time, and spoke with me a week before his death in 2007.
His move into gang life was sparked by inconsistencies between his poverty-stricken clan and a wealthier neighboring one. “The other clan used to form vigilante groups to watch over its rich interests and it happened that every other victim of the vigilante group [was] from my own clan. It was when they murdered my first cousin in 2005 and burned down his house that I felt I had a duty to protect my own clan against the domineering attitude of our rival clan,” he said. But over time, Matheri’s mission of protection turnedto committing massive crimes against the rival clan, which spilt into neighbouring communities as recruitments rose.
To get started, he sought out a financier and approached a wealthy businessman from his clan. “He was elated since he had three business rivals from our enemy clan [that] he wanted sorted out. That sorting saw me get a firearm from my financier, and within three days I had fatally dealt with the three,” he said, adding that he got KSH 200,000 for the job.
That was the cash he needed to assemble his core gang of six, which included two of his cousins who also acted as his bodyguards.
Later, Matheri’s financier sent him to rob a gem trader of roughly KSH 2 million. “We went to Parklands and got the cash,” he explained, “My financier wanted to pay me KSH 100,000 for the job. I demanded KSH800,000, which he refused.”
“I threatened him with a firearm but he laughed at me, [and threatened] to expose me to the police. I shot him three times straight into the head and took the whole loot. From then, I was on the run. I later learnt that my financier was collaborating with three senior police officers. Those are the officers who want me dead and have declared me a most wanted criminal,” he said.
His file at CID headquarters indicated then that he was being sought for 76 capital offences, including 32 murders and 44 robbery with violence cases. In the process, he allegedly erected illegal roadblocks and committed 18 rapes. Matheri disputed that, saying he had only killed four people and robbed twice. “They just want me dead in order to cover up for the three senior police officers.”
He was gunned down in Kitengela, in the company of his two bodyguard cousins. Interestingly, at his burial his family members, led by his father, heaped praise on the police officers who gunned him down, saying, “He had made our lives more stranger than fiction since we had been branded as a family of thugs!”
John Kiriamiti, a reformed gangster and author of My Life in Crime, says that a gangster’s life is that of “always being on the run and issuing hefty bribes to police officers to get protection.”
“When police officers loot a gangster’s wealth, they proceed to kill him or her in order to cover up their criminal links togangsters. Further, by killing one gangster, the police force is able to close a heap of files regarding unresolved crimes. That way, they present an image of a force that is working for the common good,” he says.
But he is resolute that: “Crime does not pay. You work for women who hide you, police officers [who are] after you and [rival] hardened criminals. All gangsters die poor, either at the hands of the police, irate mobs, suicide, or in jail after being sentenced to long terms.”
Gangs with a Tradition
But many gangsters once in are in for life. Especially with the more established gang that can trace their roots far into Kenya’ past. Unclassified information depicts the Mau Mau to have bred the first case studyof gangs in 1952, where, in the name of agitating for land rights from the colonial government, splinter groups emerged and executed crimes against the general society, especially Europeans and Kikuyu who did not support the Mau Mau cause.
“Despite the fact that Mau Mau is accredited to have been the source of freedom and rise of the Kenya Republic, the kind of crimes that some of its affiliated groups executed against the society areequivalent to terrorism,” says IrunguKamau, 92, and a council member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders.
He says that a number of Mau Mau were responsible for rape, beheadings, extortion and raids on people’s farms where they took away herds of cattle. Interestingly, Mungiki is nowadays associated with the same kind of crimes, having been formed from survivors of these Mau Mau. Traced back to 1982, Mungiki was created in Thika by a group of so-called cultural purists with the intention of preaching and preserving cultural beliefs of the Agikuyu community.
But, according to popular belief about the secretive group, in 1992, the sect recruited youths to act as soldiers when politicallyinstigated violence targeting the communityerupted in parts of Rift Valley.
“With time, the outfit ran out of control, with politicians and business people seeking the sect for their unscrupulous projects. It became a high-stakes outfit that by 2006 had grown to be a monster executing murders, extortions and displacements,” says a former Mungiki leader from Central Region.
According to police spokesman Eric Kiraithe, these groups operate by instilling fear in the society – when they place a demand, locals have no means to resist.“With time, the groups entrench their roots in the nerves of the society, hence becoming cancerous, eating the society from within,” he says. Most of them are pure criminal groups founded by criminal minds, Kiraithe explains, but some are sponsored by political and business interest groups and others by the society itself for its security needs. “All these groups end up being a security threat since there are no controls on how they operate and eventually in their greed for more income they become runaway gangs,” he says.
For monetary needs, George Natembeya, a former District Commissioner in Murang’a, says “These gangs even control available community resources.” This means that other members of society have to pay ‘taxes’ to the gang to access them. According to a senior officer who served in the KweKwe squad – which was detailed to neuter Mungiki – the gangs extort the transport and real estate sectors as well as providing specialised services, like assassinations, debt collections and political support for pay.
In the early 2000s, Mungiki was known to control the matatu industry in Kenya, demanding tithes from all operators. While the gang’s stranglehold had been loosened, it is now coming back with a vengeance. According to a report in The Daily Nation, Gatunda, a town about 60km outside of Nairobi, has experienced a recent resurgence of the group with deadly effects. Mungiki, or an offshoot of the group, demanded ‘Indo ciaGikuyu’ or ‘What belongs to the Gikuyu’ from the local businesses, especially the matatu operators. Peter Gatura, the operations manager of one line, refused to pay and was brutally murdered in August. Gangsters broke into his compound and, in front of his entire family, asked if he would rather die by gun or be hacked with a machete. He was shot three times, once in his ribs and twice in his head,while his 7-year-old daughter begged for his life. These are the methods used to subdue a population with fear, giving gangs the room and the means to operate.
In terms of structure, they typically replicate security agency structures in order to compete effectively with the law enforcers, Kiraithe explains. For instance, Mungiki has duplicated the structures of the provincial administration, where it has corresponding positions to the officers of government. Its most senior member is the commandant, all the way down to an assistant chief at the village level. The structure is maintained and expanded because a member is promoted after recruiting a cell of 20 followers who are then oathedto secrecy and adherence to its doctrines.
According to Natembeya – whose district was a bedrock of Mungiki followers – recruitment for criminal gangs is dynamic. “Mungiki targets the vulnerable, unemployed youths who, after being promised cashtokens, treat the recruitment as a source ofincome.”
While organisations are secretive about their oathing processes, there is a uniform pattern. Upon indoctrination, youths take an oath of loyalty to the gang’s cause. Other oaths follow as the recruit matures into the gang’s operation.
Before criminal activities, the gang is oathed to remain true to the cause, and after the project is either accomplished or botched, the survivors take another oath of secrecy, promising that they will never reveal their participation to police or society.
The ceremonies often bear semblance to witchcraft, and the paraphernalia used are bile churning. A gangster who did not wish to be named says that if his group is going to murder, then a preliminary murder has to happen in order to get human blood and intestines, liverbrain and heart. Parts of these are consumed raw to symbolise the devaluation of human life. Other crimes involve blood and internal organs of livestock – both domestic and wild animals – which are also taken raw by the gang members.
The extreme methods of oathing make the oath itself more extreme for the gangsters. But the biggest deterrent to oath-breaking is quite simple – violence. “The kind of terror that the society later witnesses starts being effected on the followers who, upon betrayal of the cause, are brutally murdered. That instils fear in the cells and the recruitees[have] no alternative but to remain true to the dictates of the high echelons of the Mungikisystem,” says WaruhiuNginaina, a reformed Mungiki follower from Kigumo District.
The Modern Face of Politics
But there’s another type of gang, one whose recruitment is more forceful. Politically inclined gangs operate under a different system as their primary goal is furthering the cause of a specific politician or party. “These gangs execute threats against political opponents, are recruited to murder, abduct or maim, heckle opponents and eventually even intimidate hostile voters,” Natembeya says.
He adds that the recruitment drives are scheduled to correspond with an importantsocietalrite of passage – circumcision. “That is when the gang members visit the freshly circumcised youths, and in the name of recruiting them into full members of their own community, oath them into criminal gangs. The kind of threats that are spelt out for desertion makes it impossible for the youths to abandon it,” he says.
When Politics and Gangs Meet
On the shores of Lake Victoria rests Kisumu, a warm welcoming town that boasts of widestreets and one of the most picturesque lakes in the country. However, Kisumu has lately been rocked by gang violence.
The Baghdad Boys gang was formed in the early 90s, and in addition to their extortion rings typical of Kenyan gangs, they were essentially a political gang for hire. When the group was gazetted as illegal, they affiliated instead as ODM supporters. But as political parties started registering for the upcoming elections, the group splintered and a smaller offshoot also started extorting local businesses. When TNA was registered, they completely switched allegiances, seeing an opportunity to have more oftheir demands met, and became ChinaSquad. The remainder of Baghdad boysthen became the American Marines. Thetwo groups derive their names from two ofthe world’s economic powerhouses, whose battle for dominance in the commercial affairs of the world has led to deep rooted mistrust. The choice in names is ironic, given that the gangs are enacting a similar power struggle on a smaller scale, with each having businesses in Kisumu that they rely on for income. However the bigger struggle between the two has come to their politics and in September 2012 their clashes became violent.
Details have emerged from the National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) that the two groups are enjoying direct support from their political wings, ODM and TNA. According to a classified report from the Service, the two groups are criminal gangs “with the urge, ability and the means to ignite post election violence.”
The report refers to the clashes in the Rift Valley that occurred following the 2007 elections. Today, the gangs involved are understood to be Mungiki and Kalenjinwarriors, but as Post Election Violence court cases are appearing in local courts, the gangs are often referred to as “PNU and ODM affiliate criminal gangs” to avoid contempt of court. While many civil societies in the country would like to insinuate that the clashes were over land, the assumption that they were a politically fuelled duel holds more water given that in Nairobi and Kisumu – which were other epicentres of the violence – there were no land injustices.
In its 20 pages of classified material, whichwas filed to the National Security Advisory Committee (NSAC), the report sums up that “For several years we have had gangs coming up close to electioneering periods and being used by politicians to instigate political crimes against perceived political enemies…This is something that all of the security agents must be worried about and move out to smash. Emergence of such politically affiliated gangs opposing each other in the name of political personalities, if not nabbed at this early point, will end up presenting a direct replica of the 2007/08 violence.”
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere says that efforts to neuter such groups are on a fast roll.
“As a starting point, we have profiled all political leaders and their activities leading to the next General Election. We are monitoring all possible warlords with an ability and means to ignite violence. We are on top of this useless game of politically backed violence,” he said. Internal Security Assistant Minister Alfred Khangati assures me that the government is investigating the link between donor agencies via local civil society groups and the political gangs.
“We have had a worrying trend where such gang members get easy access to legal representation, bonds, bails and acquittals once arraigned in court. The youths who are nabbed have no means to get such services unless a powerful donor is behind them and their activities,” he said.
He cited politically affiliated gang members like Mungiki and their Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) counterparts, among others, as the major groups of interest that always benefit from high-cost legal aid provided by “unidentified forces.” “We nab the gangs by morning, arraign them in court by noon and by evening they have mobilised high cost legal aid that culminates to bail-outs and bonds running into sums the gang members can never raise on their own, even if given five times of their normal lifespan to collect,” he laments.
Stopping the Violence
Efforts by the government to control the activities of gangs have been hindered greatly by a lack of relevant research about the gangs, lack of specialised officers,a poor police to public ratio and lack of volunteering witnesses to launch any effective prosecutions. Further, the police force lacks competent prosecutors to launch watertight cases, whereas the gangs always assemble the best of legal minds to launch their defences in courts.
Even with their limitations, however, the police force has come up with some methods to beat the gangs, like community policing and legislative interventions. According to the Director of Community Policing, Beatrice Nduta, community policing has aided the force in inciting citizens against any form of crimes. But the most hyped tool for police came last year when the Organised Crime Prevention Bill 2007 was signed into law.
The legislation calls for any member of an outlawed gang to be jailed for 10 years or given a fine of KSH 500,000, or both, upon conviction. Any member of an outlawed gang caught extorting from any economic sector is to be handed a jail term of 14 years or a KSH 1 million fine, or both. Those nabbed training gangs are to be jailed for 14 years or given a fine of KSH 1 million, or both. Any gang member or society member caught oathingcriminals to any cause is to be jailed for a lifetime without an option of a fine.
And to ward off political and business community patronage in these gangs, any politician or entrepreneur convicted faces a sentence of 14 years or a KSH 1 million fine, or both.
But with a police force that is working with little external motivation, especially from remuneration, equipment and facilitation, says a senior police administrator in Nairobi, “These gangs will for a very long time remain a threat to local and regional security.”
It’s a bleak outlook, but police are not the only ones who can combat gangs. Society as a whole fuels them, whether through commissioning them for protection, providing members or simple compliance and acceptance to a way of life.
Often gang life becomes a choice out of desperation and lack of hope. Like any other country in the world struggling with gangs, Kenya will most likely be able to reduce the interest in joining a gang if alternative opportunities to belong and succeed are available.