On November 16, 2019, the lives of six men in their prime were cut short in 10 minutes, more than 80 kilometres from their homes by angry mourners who bludgeoned them to death.
The ‘Ahero Six’, as they came to be known — Phillip Kwach (Kwach), William Omondi (Sisqo), Evans Onyango Ochieng (Toto), Richard Odera (Nick), David Okeyo (Ouma) and Mr Odoyo Otieno popularly known as Chief — left not only young families, but devastated dependants.
Their bodies had dry blood stains, bruises and cuts that were inflicted by sharp objects by a mob that descended on them at the burial of businessman Johannes Okoth, who was shot dead some two weeks before by unknown assailants.
From political rallies to the church and various organisations, you will always see young heavily built men running around with walkie talkies, either giving directives, guarding VIPs or engaging in crowd control.
And, in an election season such as this, the usually mean-looking men, dressed in suits or camouflage gear and dark glasses, are a common sight in these events.
As opposed to trained and armed police officers who are bodyguards for various leaders, these men are usually deployed in funerals, political rallies, meetings or even celebrations such as weddings. The energetic and agile young men will always make a grand entrance with their clients, providing security.
In villages, they are dreaded for who they are and who they protect, with some claiming they are usually hired to “discipline” people. It later emerged that what befell the Ahero Six was a VIP guarding event gone awry, and the crowd turned against them.
The existence of the groups harks back to the advent of multiparty politics, that had the likes of the dreaded Baghdad Boys, whose face at the time was the current chairperson of the Kisumu City Residents’ Voice, Mr Audi Ogada.
The group members have since reformed and run various associations such as Baghdad for Peace, which advocates non-violent means of solving disputes.
As we approach the elections, we have seen the re-emergence of these youth groups, that for as little as Sh500 per person, are hired for political reasons. In Homa Bay, security agencies are investigating an incident where supporters of two gubernatorial aspirants fought on Sunday afternoon, resulting in the injury of at least seven people and damage to property.
Supporters of Homa Bay Woman Representative Gladys Wanga and those of former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero clashed when they met at Wagwe in Karachuonyo constituency.
Those injured were rushed to hospital and have been summoned to record statements with police. Kisii County is a political hotbeds during elections and, as campaigns for the August 9 polls hot up, the situation is increasingly becoming volatile.
There have been bloody incidents recently in some parts of the county where some candidates faced hostile crowds and were pelted with stones, especially if the politicians left without giving money after addressing the people. Several factors are fuelling the violence.
Demand for cash
If a politician does not give money, the crowds unleash violence to send a message that aspirants cannot address meetings and leave without offering them cash and other goodies as handouts. They have a slogan: “Ntobwate enda…omogambi tokogenda otaratobwata enda” (Sir, hold our stomach…you can’t leave without holding our stomach).
Then there is general impunity resulting from failure by law enforcement to punish offenders in the past, leading to the general perception that political activities that involve violence are not violations of the law.
This misbehaviour has been taken a notch higher by mischievous politicians who exploit the situation to instigate violence so that it can be blamed on their opponents. The county security committee recently hosted aspirants to discuss the way forward.
"We held a security meeting with governorship, Senate and woman rep aspirants from the county on Thursday," said County Commissioner Allan Machari, who chairs the committee. The culture of political violence started back in 1992, when politicians created what became infamously known as "Amachuma" (metal), a euphemism for political hooligans for hire. The goons became a law unto themselves and came from Nyaribari before spreading out to other constituencies. They unleashed violence against perceived enemies of their benefactors, spreading fear among the people. This forced the government to ban the gang. No less than Deputy President William Ruto has come face to face with political violence in Kisii on three different occasions.
In Migori, Suna West MP Peter Masara was last month roughed up at a political event by supporters of his rival, former MP Joseph Ndiege. Mr Masara, who graced Migori gubernatorial aspirant Philip Mwabe’s campaign launch at Migori Primary School, was forced to leave the event midway after rowdy youths heckled and hurled projectiles at him.
The county security team has singled out and is closely monitoring 10 gangs involved in political violence ahead of the elections as tension has started rising between politicians. They package themselves as loyalists to politicians as they unleash violence at the slightest provocation.
Popularly referred to as Sangwenya, the group comprises notorious criminal gangs of both genders, often hired to offer protection, quell aggression and sometimes silence perceived opponents in exchange for tokens and other favours.
The gang operates like the county government’s departments of defence and interior at the same time.
Senior county government officials have been accused of funding and using the group to fuel violence and suppress opponents.
Allies of Governor Okoth Obado say the gang is neither part of his security detail nor on his payroll. The groups have since changed tack, following uproar, choosing to go digital.
“Of late, they are well coordinated and openly discuss their planned activities on social media where they issue threats and even insult their opponents,” said a source privy with their modus operandi. These groups in Nyanza usually get hired as afar as Western region counties.
County police boss Meru Mwangi said “despite the county being relatively calm, security agents had profiled a few cases whose movements were being closely monitored.”
“The illegal groupings were banned by the government but there are isolated cases of criminals taking on the names of the illegal outfits and they are on our radar,” Mr Mwangi noted.
Reporting by Rushdie Oudia, Ruth Mbula, Ian Byron and George Odiwuor