, KIRINYAGA, Kenya, Jun 26 – It is a county which a few years ago was viewed as the hotbed of the dreaded Mungiki group, a banned cultic ethnic group, that claimed dozens of lives of innocent locals.
Vigilantes were formed after the then security agencies dragged their feet in engaging the group which extorted the locals and brutally killed those who questioned their illegal activities.
The locals who had run out of patience decided to defend themselves; this led to killings of any member of the sect – including their sympathisers – while some fled to date.
The county has also been known as a harbour for illicit drink manufacture that has claimed tens of lives, majority being the youths.
It is a sad story that is quickly changing with the introduction of Nyumba Kumi initiative in the agriculture rich county and a testimony of how a united people can overcome what seems to be an insurmountable challenge.
The security gains are thanks to the Nyumba Kumi initiative, a government initiative launched in the county in 2013, coupled by use of modern technology and specifically a County WhatsApp group, as established by Capital FM News.
Kirinyaga County has a new story.
– Community Policing –
Kirinyaga county was the Country’s pioneer in community policing after the National Taxpayers’ Association successfully piloted a district and village administration governance structure in Kirinyaga East in 2011.
Consequently, it became the Nyumba Kumi Initiative pilot county after its introduction nationally in 2013.
But how effective is community policing in the county?
Capital FM News crew’s first stop was in Muringa-Iri area, a residential area within Keruguoya town of the county, which was notoriously known as a dumping site for bodies by criminals.
It is an estate which had an unwritten curfew of dawn to dusk, effected by criminals until the Nyumba Kumi was initiated in the area and overwhelmingly embraced by the residents, who were tired of living in fear.
We first interviewed Timothy Gitari, a landlord within the area, who paints a picture of effectiveness in management of security of the area under community policing.
“Nyumba Kumi initiative is our weapon which we didn’t know how powerful it was until the government started it some 5 years ago. As a landlord, I now know it is my responsibility to ensure the tenants are safe,” he said.
Unlike the money first ‘policy’ while looking for clients, he says priority has changed, at least for the sake of peace.
“Before, money was my first priority before anything else. Security to me was this gate here and maybe a wall surrounding my premises,” he said.
To rent his houses, it is mandatory, he says for one to have his or her identification documents, provide a brief history of his past and his occupation.
All the information is detailed in a file, similar to the one a student is given in school upon admission.
“Only the ‘clean’ ones get to stay here,” the father of two says, this time while pointing to his single and double rooms.
“Often, we decline potential customers if they cannot provide sufficient information about them while some have been arrested after it was discovered they were criminals.”
And due to security, Gitari says the rent has been increased while the value of land has appreciated as well.
True to his words, Susan Wambui, a tenant of the houses says she was almost denied a chance for misplacing her Identity Card. “Imagine, they insisted on the original Identity Card for me to be a tenant here. I had to look for it…the place is conducive for my work since it is a few metres away from town (Kerugoya).”
Wambui, a trader within Kerugoya town, draws a contrast of the past 3 years in the estate and now.
“It was a known place in the entire county due to its insecurity. Just opposite this place a family was entirely wiped (killed by thugs),” the 30-year-old mother of two said, while pointing in the direction of the scene where the family of five was killed.
Those are sentiments of Kariuki Kiambi, 48, who says, “we have owned our security… it is not about police alone but a common approach.”
On his part, Robert Gitari the Chairperson of Nyumba Kumi Miringa-iri group, says the benefits of the initiative is beyond what the residents can see.
He says information is now easily disseminated from the victim of crime, to head of the security cluster in an area, then to Chief who posts to a WhatsApp group, whose members are all security chiefs within the County.
Also a member of the group is Interior Ministry Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho.
“I can guarantee you that nothing goes unreported. But it is the quick response that is even more amazing,” Gitari, who is also a man of cloth at the ACK St Thomas Cathedral in Kirinyaga county said.
“We no longer fear at night neither early in the morning while heading to our respective places of work.”
For him, the community policing initiative is the way to go for all parts of the country, if sanity is going to be sustained.
“Like here in Miringa-ini, we know each other despite all coming from different places in the country. A stranger can easily be identified …” the 50-year-old said.
Though a voluntary job, he says the Government needs to provide “airtime for the heads of the groups. We just need something small and not necessarily payment.”
– Improved Police-Public relationship –
Kirinyaga County Commander Joseph Nthenge hails the Nyumba Kumi initiative which he says has helped them win the much needed trust between them and members of the public.
“Without members of the public, you cannot do anything and that is one of the major achievements through the Nyumba Kumi initiative,” the police boss told Capital News.
Detectives, he says, are now receiving intelligence on a timely basis from “the people, and freely so.”
For the past one year, he says crime has significantly dropped by 300 per cent.
“Earlier, we used to receive about 300 serious cases of crime but this has dropped to a mere 10 to 15 cases per month, which we are working hard to eliminate,” he said.
But it is the county security WhatsApp group that he says it has helped what was a bad situation and turned it to an opportunity to restore law and order.
“Technology is good. It is through the WhatsApp group that we are now getting even more information from all the 5 locations of the county,” he said as he scrolled through his phone.
Away from the past, he says the County Security Chiefs can now know what is happening almost instantly and assure if it is a security threat, “it is timely addressed. We also receive photos, short videos and messages from the ground.”
And through Community Policing, he says petty crimes are resolved at that level including domestic issues and only the complicated cases are reported to police stations.
On the illicit alcoholic beverages, culprits have exhausted their ‘tricks’ under the Nyumba Kumi initiative, “since the people know they can do something to stop it.”
“No need of calling. One just needs to send a text message to the head of his cluster, who will forward it to the area Chief. That way, the information will reach us through our WhatsApp group,” he said.
“Tuko mbele ya wakora siku hizi (We act before criminals nowadays).”
– Illicit Alcoholic beverages drinks –
The Security Chief says all the four main facilities where illegal drinks were being manufactured have since been closed.
One of the dens was situated in the Ng’omong’o slums where tens of youths had been turned to zombies and the effects of the illicit drinks are visible to date.
Not even children were spared by the crisis as they had to strike a balance between education, their drunkard parents and looking for economic activities like farming to provide for their family.
According to police, the place was also used by criminals as a hideout but not anymore.
One of the reformed people is 39-year-old Simon Njogu, who used to cook the illegal brew.
“I could not bear it anymore… it is the people who forced me to stop with this business since I was destroying their children,” he said during an interview with Capital FM News.
Njogu says he had no other purpose in life other than “drinking and making a few coins from it.”
Though not entirely over, the people in the informal sector are slowly engaging in other economic activities away from selling of illicit alcohol.
Jacinta Wangui, a 71-year-old resident of the slum engaged in the business for more than a decade.
“I did it to raise my family but I now know it was not the best way…” the mother of 10 children said.
She is now involved in sensitisation programmes targeting the youths on why they should stay away from illicit drinks.
A police post is currently being constructed in the slum, to ensure the community efforts are enhanced by the entry of security details.
To boost the efforts, a local, Peter Munene, was appointed as an Assistant Chief.
“We shall now work together with police to stop the business completely but I can say we have done well,” Munene asserted.
Kirinyaga County just like other places within Mount Kenya region, has face a major challenge in the war against illicit brew which has translated to insecurity while in some instances, lives have been lost.