The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country has, in part, quietened reports on organised criminal gang activities with security agencies reporting a decline in criminal reports especially in Nairobi County.
However, a recent report shows that criminal gangs still thrive behind the scenes and may even resurface at some point next year as the country draws closer to the 2022 General Election.
The report, dubbed “Politics of crime; Kenya’s gang phenomenon” by the Global Initiative-Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), details the illicit symbiotic relationship that exists between politicians and criminal gangs in the country which makes it difficult for the criminals to be silenced in totality.
It shares the findings of three months of field research by GI-TOC analysts carried out between November 2019 and March this year.
The report shows that while politicians rely on the gangs - mainly during the campaigns season to eliminate, coerce and threaten critics, disrupt rivals’ meetings and challenge election results - their roles have diversified over the years thanks to institutional failures.
Take on new roles after elections
After the election season is over, gangs find ways to camouflage by engaging in illicit business activities such as taxing matatu drivers and providing informal services such as waste removal, electricity/water provision to communities as a form of patronage and under the protection of politicians.
“Criminal capture of urban services has given most organised gangs increased autonomy from political elites as it enables them to become embedded in the economy, making them harder to control,” notes the report.
For example, the report notes that it is an open secret that the outlawed Mungiki sect still operates in the country after surviving the intense John Michuki shoot-to-kill crackdowns of 2005 and 2008.
“It maintains a sizable membership in Nairobi, albeit one which is now much older and more entrepreneurial. But the gang has reduced its reliance on politicians, and embedded itself in the matatu industry,” the report notes.
‘Rebranding’ of gangs
Gaza, another widely feared gang that mushroomed from Kayole and spread to the neighbouring Kiambu, Murang’a and Nakuru counties, has gone under after numerous crackdowns but the report indicates that some of its remnants have formed garbage collection groups or work as boda-boda riders.
The report casts further doubts on the real motive of the popular Sonko Rescue Team (SRT) which, on the outside, is seen as a civilian force aimed at providing charitable activities to the poor urban dwellers of the city and responding to emergencies.
It notes that SRT’s influence has grown widely and is used to silence Sonko’s critics to the extent of invoking violence.
For example, in May 2018, goons suspected to be SRT members assaulted then chair of the Nairobi Central Business District Association, Mr Timothy Muriuki, at Hotel Boulevard when he was reading out a press statement about the poor state of service delivery in Nairobi County.
The report notes that although Mombasa County has generated highly organised extremist groups, it has not developed street gangs with the same level of organisation, wealth and power as some of the better-known gangs in Nairobi.
“Since it was formed in 2012, Wakali Kwanza has splintered into about 20 small groups. Some 135 police officers operating in Kisauni say that, between elections, the gang lost cohesion and was undermined by police killings and arrests. They say that gang violence in the area is now most pronounced during school holidays, as young people are more available as recruits for gangs.”
However, gangs exist in the coastal county for use by politicians when the need arises.
The report warns that unless police can undo the political protection rackets and criminal capture of urban services, the scourge will continue.
“The gang phenomenon is resilient, thanks in large part to both top-down political protection and horizontal linkages between the police and organised gangs. This protection exists despite the State talking tough on crime and using unofficial shoot-to-kill policies to weaken gangs that have become a liability to the elite,” adds the report.
With improved formal service delivery of basic utilities like water, electricity and waste collection, the report notes that the government can help close the space gangs exploit in seeking to exploit poor provision.
It also recommends increased monitoring on politicians' use of gangs in the lead-up to the 2022 General Election.
It further calls for a reduction in police use of force and brutality in silencing gangs in favour of political and developmental solutions to the problem.
The research consisted of 96 interviews with law enforcement officers, current and former gang members, informers, journalists, civil society organisations and politicians involved with the groups.
It focused on Nairobi and Mombasa counties where criminal gangs camouflage as basic utility service providers helping communities sort out water, electricity and waste problems as others take to demanding illegal taxes from matatu crews.