On Fertile Ground: The Rise of Kenyan Gangs (Part 1)

First published in the November 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

(By Mwangi Muiruri) Gangs are a scourge on society the world over but they seem to have a higher level of power across Kenya than our international counterparts. Whether it’s petty crime, illegal services, extortion or political rallying, gangs are an entrenched part of Kenyan life.

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.

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.

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, Mungiki Organisation, 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 before demanding 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.KENYA-POLITICS-ETHNIC-VIOLENCEAccording 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.”

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Mwangi Muiruri.

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