Criminal gangs are making a comeback across the country, many years after going underground following a violent crackdown by the government in the wake of the disputed 2007 General Election that led to the killing of many members and outlawing of more than 30 armed groups.
Nairobi, Central Kenya and the Coast are now under a security watch list over the resurgence of proscribed groups whose numbers seem to be growing and some of which are believed to be old gangs that have adopted new names.
In Nairobi, two groups — Mungiki, a group that began in the 1990s as a quasi-religious sect, and Gaza, one that borrowed its name from a similar group in Jamaica — are slowly taking over the expansive Eastlands and the Central Business District.
The criminal gangs run shadowy extortion rings terrorising residents who have to pay ‘protection fees’ and have taken over provision of water and electricity services using illegal connections. Their tentacles in the public transport sector run very deep.
Matatu Owners Association (MOA) chair Simon Kimutai says that the gangs, whose members are increasing by the day, have bounced back using different names.
Mr Kimutai claims that they have taken over the matatu industry where they have formed parallel groups to the saccos and they now run most bus stages where they demand and collect money from matatu operators.
He says that Nairobi’s Eastlands, especially Dandora, Kayole, Mwiki and Umoja, are under the grips of the criminal gangs, who demand payment for every passenger who boards a matatu.
“They come with different names. They will not say they are Mungiki but will say ‘vijana wakufanya kazi kwa stage’. Over a month or so ago, they killed an official of the sacco after he resisted their extortion attempts. Their aim is to create fear to make their extortion business easier,” says Mr Kimutai.
The MOA chair accuses laxity on the part of the police, whom he also accuses of working with the gangs, as one of the factors that have made the gangs to operate with impunity.
“Owners have complained but nothing is being done. Even the police fear them because the gangs are often armed especially in Kayole. As a self-preservation strategy, the gangs collect and share the money with the police,” he says.
Nairobi Regional Commissioner William Kang’ethe Thuku however dismissed Mr Kimutai’s claims, saying that matatu touts are not Mungiki members.
“There is nothing like that. The few who have attempted to regroup are small-time criminals masquerading as organised gangs,” said Mr Thuku.
In Central, mere mention of Mungiki sends chills down the spines of residents who still harbour memories of the brutal bloodbath that hit the region in the 2000s. Authorities are keen to ensure that the Mungiki menace does not return to haunt the region.
Central regional commissioner Wilson Njenga has been on record several times giving account of arrests made while insisting that the criminal organisation is being monitored closely.
But findings by the Saturday Nation have revealed the re-emergence of the gang but under the guise of Kayole-based Gaza and other groups across the country.
The gang has pitched camp in Mwea and Kutus in Kirinyaga County, Nyeri, Kiriaini in Murang’a County as well as parts of Nyandarua. Their main base is however believed to be at Kiandutu and Makongeni in Thika, Kiambu County.
Like the Mungiki gang of old, the new outfit has adopted extortion as its modus operandi and collect money from public transport operators and residents as protection fees. They have also been demanding for the exorbitant fees from construction sites and businesses.
Although their traditional brutality which involved gruesome killings and maiming is not yet as visible as it was in the past, victims are frightened to speak of their existence.
Recent developments indicate that some cells are going by the names “Kubonda Sacco” and “Unfinished”.
Usually the gang is identified by a unique dress code. The young gangsters usually don skinny jeans (usually ankle length), open shoes, beach shirts and baseball caps.
However in some parts of Kiambu County youths linked to the criminal outfit have been spotted wearing what appears to be a cultish outfit of red, black and green clothing wrapped around them synonymous with the Maasai cultural outfit. So audacious are the youths that they walk around with knives and swords as part of the unusual dress code.
In Nyeri Town, their main base of operation is the lower bus terminus located in the central business district, but they are also known to extort residents of Witemere, Bluevalley and parts of Ruring’u. Locals are forced to part with between Sh500 and Sh1, 000 per week for “protection”.
“That is something we are already looking into because we believe it is a breeding ground for the group. We must know where these activities are taking place and which people are carrying them out,” the regional commissioner, Mr Njenga, said.
In Kirinyaga County, especially in Mwea constituency, the Mungiki gang is back, although operating underground in fear of retaliation by the vigilante groups that eliminated from the area ten years ago.
Members of the sect have been reported to harass traders by extorting money for security, a resident said in confidence.
“Robberies and other criminal activities such as assault and burglary are the order of the day in Mwea,” said a resident who declined to be named for fear of victimisation.
In Murang’a, the sect has been operating on an on-and-off basis, adopting frequent rebranding as a survival tactic to throw the authorities off their scent.
Here, the sect was initially called Njamaa but rebranded on one occasion to “Njaa Nene” and are now known as “Gaza”. Last month, about 50 youngsters aged between 12 and 19 were arrested in Murang’a in connection with the sect’s re-emergence. They were calling themselves as “Gaza” and “42 Brothers”.
Mungiki’s re-emergence has already jilted authorities into action with 91 arrests being recorded between June and October.
“They can call themselves Gaza or any other name but we know they are Mungiki. We will deal with them ruthlessly,” Mr Njega said.
The same is also experienced in Kiambu County where members of the dreaded group commute from Nairobi every day, according to police.
Bus operators, according to sources, are asked to part with Sh1,000 per week while 14-seater matatus are charged Sh800. Market traders and roadside kiosks are asked to pay Sh50 per day.
According to the operators, the group, which was calling itself Gaza, allegedly had members from Kabete, who were demanding between Sh50 and Sh100 depending on the vehicle and the number of passengers it picked at a particular stop.
They have forced residents into submission through threats of violence including death, according to the county commissioner and chairman of the county security committee, Mr Wilson Wanyanga.
He said that police have established that Mungiki have resumed their illegal activities more so in the major urban centres including Thika (which hosts the sprawling Kiandutu slum that police sources say is their base), Juja (which hosts tens of quarries), Ruiru, Kiambu, Ruaka, Wangige and Kikuyu.
“In this county, there are illegal gangs that are coming up and some of them are commuting from Nairobi every morning and heading to main towns in the county where they are demanding illegal levies from business people, matatus and construction sites,” Mr Wanyanga said during a public meeting at Ndumberi Stadium recently.