On Fertile Ground: The Rise of Kenyan Gangs (Part 2)

First published in the November 2012 issue of Destination Magazine


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 study of 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 are equivalent to terrorism,” says Irungu Kamau, 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 politically instigated violence targeting the community erupted 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 cash tokens, treat the recruitment as a source of income.”

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, liver brain 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 Mungiki system,” says Waruhiu Nginaina, 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 important societalrite 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 of their demands met, and became China Squad. The remainder of Baghdad boys then became the American Marines. The two groups derive their names from two of the 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 Kalenjin warriors, 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, which was 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.

Pull Quotes

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.

We are engaging them every other night and day and yet they seem tobe cropping up like mushrooms.



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

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