Merceline Atieno

Merceline Atieno, aka Mercy Atis, during the interview on Wednesday. She is the proprietor of Motherland Restaurant, Kitengela.

| Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

I bribe the OCS and her juniour officers to keep my bar open

What you need to know:

  • For more than one year, Merceline had been paying Sh5,000 “protection” fees to ward off menacing police officers
  • Officer at the centre of bribery claims says complainant only appreciated her for ‘working well’.

My name is Merceline Atieno, aka Mercy Atis, a single mother of two: an eight-year-old and a two-year-old. I’m the proprietor of Motherland Restaurant in Kitengela. I’m originally from Siaya County, but currently a resident of Kitengela (in Kajiado).

The capital to start this business was crowd-sourced, when my story went viral and I was subsequently interviewed by Jalang’o TV on December 15, 2020. It is from this that the audience were moved by my narration on how life had tossed me. From losing my brother, to deportation from the US.

I managed to raise about Sh500,000. The crowdfunding was done between December 2020 and January 2021. Upon advice, I settled on starting up a food business.

Initially it was just a fish joint before I diversified to other foods. Later on, upon requests by my clients, I obliged to include alcoholic drinks.

I was also doing this to help me raise the rent of Sh36,000 without much struggle. That’s how I slowly added some drinks, first to test the waters, and when it caught up, I fully incorporated it.

It was picking up so quickly, until one evening when a client refused to pay a Sh6,700 bill. This client walked in with a group of friends, and asked us to serve them with alcoholic drinks. They drank to their satisfaction then refused to foot the bill. I reported the incident at Kitengela Police Station. The police didn’t take any action against this client. But, ironically, that’s when they got wind about my diversified bar and restaurant venture. Initially, they only knew I was operating a food parlour.

Summoned by OCS

I was summoned by Ms Jennifer Munyaanyi Mutuku, the Kitengela OCS. The junior officers who came bearing this news told me that I would have to part with a protection fee of Sh5,000 every month, given to the OCS by the fifth of every month without fail. The consequences of not complying, they warned, would be dire, including facing frequent arrests.

Out of fear, I complied, visited the OCS, and we spoke warmly and widely. In the end, she said she’d been moved by my life story, which she had watched online.

She expressed so much enthusiasm and compassion to me. She shared with me just how great a vision she had for me. She told me that since I was just starting out, I needed more time to get my business on a solid footing. She said she would be so happy to witness my business expand. It was largely a great, delightful and enlightening talk. Then I handed her the cash. That was the first time I handed her the protection money. It was sometime in February last year. I was still a newbie in this venture. In that month we worked very well, and I was neither arrested nor disturbed by her officers.

During that period, the country was under a 10pm to 4am curfew. So, basically we were paying to be allowed to operate a few hours past the curfew hours. Deep down, I knew that once the curfew was lifted, I wouldn’t have to be paying for this because the liquor licence would allow me to operate till 11pm.

Frequent police visits

After the police became aware of my venture, they made frequent visits. As earlier agreed, I was to part with some money every time they visited, besides the monthly protection fees payable to their boss. If they visited in their patrol cars, I was to part with Sh200. And, if they came on foot, I was obligated to pay Sh50 to each officer. The amounts are fixed and non-negotiable. The junior officers never listen to anything. They always want their share, whether it is a good day or a bad day. On bad days, they threatened to deal with my hard-headedness.

But they were not empty threats. On most bad days they raided, cuffed me or my employees, and remanded me at Kitengela Police Station, which we call ‘Roadblock’ police station. Once remanded, it was always a race against time because any delays would mean you end up in the corridors of justice where your fate would lie entirely at the mercy of the courts. I always survived by footing all these charges. But I was slowly yet surely getting drained. This arrangement drained and left me cash-strapped.

On January 4 this year, I, as usual, visited the police station to pay my protection fee. I called the OCS to inform her that I was there to beat the Date 5 deadline. She told me that she was away, and that I should just send her the money via M-Pesa. I did so. But what irked me, and basically served as the clincher of the twists of all these frustrations, is that she, through her junior officers, arrested me less than two weeks later. I negotiated my way out – together with my clients, as usual.

Whenever I’m on a mission to secure the freedom of those picked from my business premises, I try as much as I can to bail out everyone (employees and clients). Because, if I don’t do so, I’ll lose my loyal customers.

Arrested

Just as I was recovering from the realms of financial abyss, again, at the beginning of February, my three employees and over 13 clients were arrested. It is at this point that I decided I had had enough of yoking and caging. I decided that I was no longer going to keep quiet.

At the police station, I tried as I could to secure their release. But this time, I was so broke to afford the money they demanded. I only had Sh5,000 between me and poverty. But upon arrest, you can never talk your way out. You never talk on anything but the amount of money you should hand over to the police.

Sadly, we ended up at the Kajiado Law Courts and were fined Sh50,000. I was so bloody broke, that I had to be ferried in the police vehicle back to Kitengela after appearing before the judge.

I was pained. I was angered. I was bitter. Then I reached out to the OCS, called her via phone, but she hang up on me. Still bitter, I reached out to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) to lodge my case. (Ipoa has since launched investigations into the matter).

‘Too small to change system’

I had on several occasions been warned about questioning the status quo or doing anything contrary to the instructions of the police officers. They told me that I am so small to change the system. The unwritten rule of the jungle, they told me, is to play by the tune of the ‘law enforcing’ officers. That was the only sure way to thrive in business in this part of the world, they told me.

For every arrest, I would have to bribe the offers with about Sh5,000 to secure the release of my employees and an extra Sh1,000 for each client. They claimed this would discipline me enough to toe the line.

But it has been over a year-long festering wound. Until February when I got fed up, I had parted with Sh70,000 on the OCS alone. Her errand boys too have had their immeasurable cut. I’m now tired and on the brink of closing down my business. What worries me most is how I will survive without another source of income.

****

As the sun was going down on January 4, Merceline Atieno was determined to honour her pledge to deliver “protection” fees to Jennifer Munyaanyi Mutuku, the Officer Commanding (OCS) the Kitengela Police Police Station.

Failure to do so by fifth of every month would spell doom for her and her Kitengela-based bar and restaurant business named Motherland. For more than one year, Merceline had been paying Sh5,000 “protection” fees to ward off menacing police officers who patrol the township arresting any non-compliant traders. 

Surviving in the liquor business, she was told, meant paying “tolls”, otherwise called “protection fees”, and failure to do so is akin to rattling a snake. The liquor retailers know this all too well. 

The arrangement involves bribing the police after which they turn a blind eye to your operations, whether or not you run your business within the confines of the law. Merceline, for example, had all the licences but needed to illegally operate past the Covid-19 curfew, so she decided to pay the protection fees. 

“I did not enter into this arrangement because I was making so much profits, but because it is the unwritten jungle rule subscribed to by all liquor retailers in Kitengela and its environs. I had to comply,” she told the Sunday Nation. 

The police officers, she was told, could do anything to fix the non-compliant traders in a mess. In the Kitengela areas, police on patrol are paid between Sh50 and Sh200. Those who make rounds on foot in the evening are paid Sh50 each, while those in police patrol cars are paid Sh200. 

The amount is fixed and non-negotiable. Merceline played along for about 18 months, but this was only a festering wound. When she could not hold the puss any longer, she went public on the matter, sharing her tribulations in social media. 

Contacted for comment, the Kitengela OCS discredited Merceline’s account of events as “white lies”. She, however, acknowledged receiving some “appreciation” money from her on the evening of January 4. At 6.47pm that evening, Merceline sent Sh5,000 to the OCS’s M-Pesa account, according to a statement seen by the Sunday Nation.

'Appreciation token'

“Mercy was simply appreciating me for working well with her,” Ms Mutuku said. “You see, the complainant has gone public with the matter and now the public is only believing her side of the story,” she added, cautioning that Merceline’s narration “may be inaccurate”.

Police Spokesperson Bruno Shioso said he had “read about the allegation” and fact-checked. “From the station, I was informed that the complainant was arrested and taken to court for violating liquor licensing laws. She was fined Sh50,000,” Mr Shioso said. “Further, I enquired whether a complaint had been made on the allegations of bribery through M-Pesa but none had.”

The Sunday Nation is in possession of a transaction statement generated by mobile service provider, Safaricom, indicating that Merceline transferred Sh5,000 to Jennifer Munyaanyi Mutuku at 6.47pm on January 4, 2022, documented as receipt number QA44542G91.

“I’m not aware of ‘appreciation’, and no police is allowed [to take monetary ‘appreciation’] as that would be improper, if not criminal,” Mr Shioso added. “She (the OCS) is in a better position to respond to that (source of cash and why) once transaction is authenticated by Safaricom.”

Motherland Restaurant and Kitengela Police Station are about four kilometres apart. An analysis of Merceline’s M-Pesa statement indicates that she has withdrawn money at M-Pesa agents next to the police station on several occasions. She says when the officers visit her premises, they sometimes insist that she withdraw cash from M-Pesa agents whose numbers they provide.

“Really, if they’re just normal transactions, why would I have to walk that long to withdraw money, yet there are several M-Pesa shops around my business?” Merceline paused. 

The Sunday Nation could not immediately establish the veracity of this allegation.

Employed in 1992 by Kenya Police Service, the defunct Kenya Police Force, Mrs Mutuku has risen through the ranks. During her days as a junior officer, she was very strict. She subscribed to nothing but strict obedience of the law. She did not accept any bribe as an option to waive the observance of the law.

When she was the Chief Inspector at Embakasi Police Station, Nairobi, she was so strict the motorists plying Embakasi routes named her Bensouda. She was equalled to former ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who was as strict as she was. Her vision was to “rise through the ranks” for serving Kenyans right, as she said in an interview with Citizen TV. She was subsequently promoted to command the Kitengela station. But times have changed. Merceline only knows her as the OCS whose junior officers pick bribes in the form of protection fees, with her blessing.

Worrisome trend

Merceline’s story is neither isolated nor unique. Her plight is also shared by over 50,000 liquor traders in Kenya. Her boldness, however, and her decision to publicly share this sensitive information, she knows all too well, may be detrimental to her. But Merceline says she does not care anymore about the possible repercussions in a business that has been her primary source of income for the last one year.

“I know just so much can go wrong with this revelation. But sometimes it takes one person to change the status quo. I wouldn’t have shared this information if I weren’t okay with it out there,” she told the Sunday Nation.

Merceline is no stranger to limelight. In 2020, as an up-and-coming artist, her song, I don't wanna know, went viral, attracting diametrically opposed critics. While some of her fans were wowed, she was largely ridiculed. Jalango TV interviewed her, and her story moved Kenyans, who later crowd-funded her to start up a business venture.

“The capital for my business was crowd-sourced, and perhaps this is my chance at giving back to society. It could be my time to help cleanse a system thriving on darkness and fearing light.”

Human rights defender Bob Njagi says “enough is enough. We need to bring to a stop this menace. Let Kenyans of goodwill come on board for this course.”

Fredrick Chege, the patron of Kajiado Bar Owners Association, says the police “are notorious at extorting money from us. They come in the name of offering security. Once they pay you a visit, you have to part with some money. This is not a formal arrangement we have with the police. They come so frequently that it now seems as the norm.”

The Bar, Hotels and Liquor Traders Association (Bahlita), with more than 54,000 members, decries this menace that has riddled their sector for ages. Despite most of their members being compliant, the police, he says, still extort money from them.

Bahlita secretary general Boniface Gachoka says it’s a worrisome trend “and it affects all categories of their members’ businesses, ranging from large-scale to small-scale. “The behaviour is witnessed countrywide. We lose about Sh33 million every month as a result of such police behaviour,” he said.

“If our members don’t comply the police go to the extents of planting people in their premises to cause aggression so they can arrest you.” 

Merceline lodged a complaint with the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa). It was booked as IPOA/CMU/676/2022. Ipoa chairperson Ann Makori said they were made aware of the case through the mainstream and social media reports. She says she has commissioned the inspection and monitoring team to probe the allegations.

“From these findings, we will make an informed and comprehensive decision,” she said.


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