Special Police units: 70 years of pain, terror and splendid legacy

DCI headquarters

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) headquarters along Kiambu Road. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Shortly after President Daniel arap Moi was sworn-in in October 1978, Attorney-General Charles Njonjo surprised Parliament by alleging that there was a killer squad within the Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) whose mandate was to assassinate some leaders. On Sunday, President William Ruto said he had disbanded the Special Service Unit (SSU) of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, saying it was “killing Kenyans” – or rather, engaging in extra-judicial killings.

For the past 70 years, since the formation of the Special Branch, police have continuously operated ad hoc units with mixed success. While they have been credited for making the streets safer, they have also been condemned for engaging in extra-judicial killings.

When Njonjo spoke about ‘Ngoroko’ as the unit was known, it was the first time a senior figure was talking about the existence of a killer squad within the government. While Njonjo did not mention names, the fall guy, then, appeared to be James Mungai, who had been mandated by Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga to form the Anti-Stock Theft Unit, which was based in Nakuru.

While Njonjo’s attack was not directed at the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the founding President, who had commissioned the ASTU – it was a pointer to the security intrigues around succession politics.

Special Branch

President Ruto has now put the blame on the doorstep of former President Uhuru Kenyatta – which paints the Jubilee government badly.

But it seems that the police have operated such units for several decades.

In 1952, two special units were formed to deal with the Mau. These were the Special Branch and the Special Tribal Police, commonly known as “home guards”.

While the home guard project sought to devolve police power to civilians, the Special Branch’s mandate was to form its own militia to hunt for Mau while disguised as a “pseudo-gang”. The operation was led by the Nyeri-born Ian Henderson, who was under the direction of Special Branch Director John Prendergast.

Prendergast had at first formed the Joint Army Operations Teams, but as Mau violence increased, he changed the mandate of the Special Branch to collecting operational intelligence.

It was the use of Prendergast and Henderson’s “pseudo-gang” that saw Mau infiltrated, and it led to the killing and arrest of its senior leaders. By 1956, Special Branch had 423 trained officers, and it is estimated that in total, more than 11,000 Mau fighters were killed.

More so, it was the Special Branch that reported to the new governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, that Kenyatta had known that Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u was going to be murdered by Mau Mau but had argued against it with ex-senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu.

At Independence in 1963, the police structure was retained together with the Special Branch unit – in order to deal with the emerging threats of secession by Somali residents of the Northern Frontier District. With support from Somalia, the secessionists waged the Shifta war, and that is why Kenyatta retained Police Commissioner Richard Catling until December 1964, when Hinga took over.

However, Hinga did not transform the police. He retained the colonial structures and management style. Peter Okola, who was in the initial group that established the Special Branch during the Emergency, was appointed the CID director, while James Kanyotu, then 28, was appointed Special Branch director.

So special was the Special Branch that during the colonial days, its director Mervyn Manby provided intelligence directly to the governor. It was the same with Kanyotu when he took over, and he had a direct line to Kenyatta – and later to Moi.

The independent Kenya Constitution structure had retained both the Special Branch and the CID at the federal level, leaving their operations within the central government.

During the Kenyatta days, both of these units would be accused of carrying out assassinations and eliminating government critics. The most famous of these was JM Kariuki, the flamboyant member of Parliament for Nyandarua North, whose death in 1975 was blamed on senior police officers and members of the Special Branch. It is now claimed that JM was whisked to the Special Branch headquarters at Kingsway House, where he was interrogated by, among others, the CID director Ignatius Nderi. Before he was whisked away, police reservist Patrick Shaw had chased away all the parking boys from around Hilton hotel and ordered taxis to leave.

Shaw was a power unto himself -- kown in Nairobi for engaging with armed gangsters in shootouts and car chases and for killing those who surrendered. Shaw had, in the 1970s and 80s, become the face of police might and a legend. He had built a network of informers -- including parking boys and prostitutes -- to stem crime in Nairobi. He was a great consumer of FBI books and manuals, and his Mercedes Benz KFH 845 was well-known by Nairobians. Those who defied his orders to surrender r – like the legendary Kangemi gangster Wakinyonga – would be shot on the spot. Wakinyonga had, in the 1970s, become the ringleader of bank robbers.

With the Special Branch, police reservists, and CID, the Kenyatta regime seemed to have enough squads, until Njonjo accused the ASTU of harbouring a killer squad. Interestingly, Njonjo did not mention the Special Branch, which was headed by his friend Kanyotu, or the police reservists, where most of his former settler friends had been given a carte blanche to kill.

At first, it seemed that Moi’s intention after Kenyatta’s death was to run a clean police service. With the disbanding and reorganisation of the ASTU, President Moi looked set to overhaul the system, and several senior officers were retired. But unable to face critics, and after the 1982 coup attempt, Moi had transformed the Special Branch into a terror squad.

In the basement of Nyayo House and on the 25th floor, the team under James Opiyo was tasked to extract information from Mwakenya suspects. Anyone who was deemed to be an enemy of the Kanu regime in the 1980s and 1990s was hauled in for interrogation. Those arrested included politicians, scholars, university students, lawyers, journalists, civil servants, workers, and peasants. Those who did not die from their ordeal in the Nyayo House torture chambers were maimed – and told harrowing stories of their time there.

The Opiyo group, working with the Judiciary, would send brutalised victims before a magistrate in a court filled with Special Branch officers, long after official working hours. Many chose to go to jail than die in Nyayo House. Those who passed through Opiyo’s group include former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

More so, the Moi regime engaged in various extra-judicial killings, the most notable being the Wagalla massacre, which saw thousands of members of the Degodia clan of the Somali ethnic group killed in Wajir County.

The other challenge that faced President Moi was the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Ad hoc police units that included the Alpa Romeo Squad were, thus, formed to combat carjackers and robbers. It was this group that killed Wanugu and Wacucu – two of the most notorious criminals in Kenya and who are believed to have killed more than 300 people.

In 1992, a rapid reaction unit, known as Flying Squad, was formed after the Anti-Robbery Unit and Anti-Motor Vehicle Theft Unit merger. While its mandate was to prevent crime, and hunt armed and seasoned criminals, including bank robbers and carjackers – some human rights activists accused it of engaging in extra-judicial killings. The Flying Squad, based in Makuyu and Pangani, however, managed to tame the rise in carjackings in Nairobi and its environs – despite its known excesses.

With the exit of President Moi, the reign of President Kibaki saw police face the twin challenges of the Al-Shabaab terror group and Mungiki. It was during this period that the Kwekwe Squad was formed after it emerged that the regular police were unable to deal with the Mungiki menace. President Kibaki had declared a war on Mungiki after the gang started killing police officers on patrol. More so, they had raided the Kangema home of the minister for Interior, John Michuki, who publicly said there would be no more arrests. “Mtakua mnasikia tu mazishi (you’ll only hear of funerals)”, he said.

The formation of the Special Service Unit, which was to deal with the Al-Shabaab terror threats, highway robbers, and human and drug traffickers, was set to replace the Flying Squad. With its special training, the squad is said to have silenced terror gangs by either killing them or forcing them into exile. However, the unexplained dumping of bodies in River Yala seems to have ended its run – like its predecessors.

But for the past 70 years, the history of police appears peppered with special squads that have left a trail of successes and pain and stories on rights and wrongs.

[email protected] @johnkamau1