Jackson Muia
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Puzzle of rising highway robberies in Makueni targeting goods in lorries

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Jackson Muia, a reformed highway robber, washes a van at Machinery in Makueni County on July 4, 2024. He is now a champion against the vice. 

Photo credit: Pius Maundu | Nation Media Group

A case in which unknown people hijacked a lorry ferrying rice and stole part of the cargo near Machinery township along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway last month is on the verge of becoming cold after detectives this week set free three people, among them a police officer, who were considered the prime suspects.

The police on Tuesday surrendered the Sh10,000 bail that each of the suspects had deposited.

“They have exonerated us,” one of the suspects, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Saturday Nation, on July 5, 2024.

Police had arrested John Maingi, Jude Kipkoech Kandie and police constable Francis Mutiso in connection with the June 6 robbery with violence incident. The Directorate of Criminal Investigation reported the arrests on its social media accounts.

The suspects did not take a plea when they were arraigned that day. They were locked up for seven days after a Makindu magistrate’s court granted police more time to complete investigations.

Makindu resident magistrate Evans Mbicha subsequently ordered the police to release the three suspects on a Sh10,000 police bond each, following the intervention of their lawyer, Joseph Mutava, after the prosecution said it had not acquired enough evidence to build a strong case.

Police bosses

The incident is the latest in a string of highway robberies that have plagued the region. When asked about the status of the case, Kibwezi Sub-County Police Commander Felista Mukunjura said, “I have to find out because I am new in this station”.

She is part of a new team of police bosses who reported at the police division a fortnight ago following a major shake-up of police bosses.

The transfer of Kibwezi Police Commander Mohammed Jerumani, Kibwezi Sub-County Police Commander Peter Maina, head of detectives Samuel Wacuma and Kibwezi Sub-County Critical Infrastructure Police Unit Commander Richard Cherotich came at a time when cases of highway robbery have put the region in the spotlight.

According to Kenya Drivers’ Association, a lobby of truck drivers, at least six cases of highway robbery have been reported on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway this year.

“Many of the attacks on our members occur between Mtito Andei and Kibwezi townships,” said David Masinde, the chairman of Kenya Drivers’ Association. Security agencies have corroborated Mr Masinde’s claim.

Security challenges

“Highway robbery along Mombasa-Nairobi highway has joined three security challenges that have plagued Makueni County in recent months. The other security challenges are defilement, suicide, and vandalism of critical infrastructure,” said a highly placed source, who sits in the Makueni County Security and Intelligence Committee, in confidence

So pronounced is the problem of highway robbery that it dominated talks when Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki met the Makueni County security committee on the sidelines of the installation of Kambu Sub-County Commissioner Tabitha Mburu in April.

“You will soon see action because President William Ruto is already aware of the problem. We have escalated it to the National Security Advisory Council,” a security source, who attended the closed-door meeting with Prof Kindiki, confirmed that highway robberies dominated talks.

More questions, however, remain on the identity of those behind the well-planned robberies with some suspecting the involvement of rogue security officials working with criminals.

A highway robber’s staple has remained high-value loose cargo such as clothing, cement, electronics, sugar, rice, iron sheets, and fertiliser.

“Oftentimes, the attackers are in police jungle jackets. They move in Toyota Probox cars way lay motorists, abduct them and steal cargo and the vehicles,” said Mr Masinde, who has survived a highway robbery attack.

Trucks rarely recovered

They also strike after masquerading as passengers, he added. Those who do the heavy lifting are the spokes in a highly knotted system whose hubs include a handful of local businessmen who have established empires over the years. In the latest incident, the lorry was ferrying 522 bags of rice worth Sh1,225,400 towards Nairobi.

Some 106 bags were missing when the police recovered the lorry abandoned near Kibwezi township. The attackers threw the driver out of the moving vehicle near Machinery township.

A boda boda operator came to his rescue. Not all drivers live to tell the tales. The trucks are rarely recovered.

“We have lost the war on highway robbery,” said Jackson Muia, a reformed highway robber who has turned into a champion against the vice after spending 19 years behind bars.

He was the poster child of highway robberies in the 90s. The man who operates a car wash service at Machinery township escaped the hangman’s noose miraculously after President Mwai Kibaki truncated death sentences to life sentences.

He walked to his freedom in 2021 after successfully petitioning for re-sentencing. He had to start afresh after he found his family had disintegrated.

“No one should make the mistake I made. I lost all my youth in crime.”

This is the narrative he uses on local secondary school students whom he targets to nip the highway robbery problem in the bud.

The problem had subsided after the police swung into action following the expansion of the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. The return of highway robbery in the region has left behind a trail of destruction.