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May 25, 2018

Star journalist narrates ordeal in the hands of City Hall's Rhino Squad

Nairobi county government officials load hawkers' wares onto their van during a crackdown on Ronald Ngala street in Nairobi. /JOSEPH NDUNDA
Nairobi county government officials load hawkers' wares onto their van during a crackdown on Ronald Ngala street in Nairobi. /JOSEPH NDUNDA

It is a Tuesday evening after a crazy day at my desk at Lion Place.

I am tired so I am keen on getting home early to play with my little boy, whom I call Majority Leader.

After crazy traffic on Waiyaki Way, my colleague and I are dropped near Ambassador Hotel so I accompany her to her stage before strolling to OTC.

I cut through hordes to Temple Road via Central Bus Station and on arrival at OTC, I find the usual crowd of tired commuters waiting to board Umoinner buses to Umoja.

This place is always a beehive of activities, with hawkers shouting at the top of their voices to attract customers for late evening sales.

The area is also characterised by speeding matatus, and of course muggers and pickpockets preying on unsuspecting victims.

After about 30 minutes of waiting, I decide to change position and perhaps find something to lean on.

I move a little to the pillars by the road and lower my body to relax.

Less than five minutes later, however, a group of five well-built men rough me up and within seconds I am facing a county van.

I try to resist but one of the men slaps me on the back, forcing me to bend while others push me through the already crowded door.

I am pushed to the furthest corner where three gentlemen are squatting.

I look around to familiarise with the people in the vehicle and see four armed police officers in AP uniforms, two seated on each side of the van.

They are flanked by two county officers - a man and a woman.

I see them exchange money as they converse in low tones.

The woman breaks the silence and asks me who I am and where I come from.

I declare my three names and home county and silence falls again.

Looking at the three gentlemen, I realise they are hawkers arrested for selling their wares on 'hallowed grounds'.

One of the police officers asks me what I do for a living but I do not answer and stick to questions on why I was arrested.

'ONLY ONE WAY YO SECURE FREEDOM'

The female county officer then tells me to hand over Sh3,000 "to secure my freedom", or "spend the night at Central police station while waiting to be charged at City Hall tomorrow morning."

A friend of mine sends a text saying Jogoo Road is locked with traffic as President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Embakasi.

With this news, I decide to relax and see what becomes of my arrest.

After nagging the officers to tell me why I was apprehended, one of the five men who roughed me up insists, with agitation, that I was hawking in a prohibited place.

This is when reality dawns - I was arrested yet I was not a hawker, something that must happen to many Nairobians.

I keep quiet but the woman starts negotiating with me. I tell her I don't have money but she emphasises that I will spend the night at Central.

I stand my ground and tell her that I will not pay because I am not a hawker.

Seemingly curious about my firmness, one of the officers asks what I do for a living.

He demands that I open my bag so he finds my umbrella and lunch box. Thank God I did not carry my camera.

A debate ensues between the officers on whether I am a hawker.

"Where were you going?"

"Umoja."

At this point, the price of my freedom drops to Sh1,000 and I am told that I should hurry because they are about to close for the day.

I look at my watch and realise it is almost 9 pm - I have been in the uncomfortable van for about two hours.

I decide to advance the conversation with the female officer whom I realise is from my home county. I introduce myself to her and tell her what I do.

Surprised by my explanation, she asks her colleagues to let me go.

"He is a journalist ... he is innocent," she tells them.

'THAT HAWKER LOOK'

The men explain that I looked like a hawker, given my black trench coat and backpack.

So how are we to dress so we not mistaken for hawkers?

The rest was history but what lingered in my mind was that innocent Nairobians are being harassed with trumped up charges.

Today I ask who the men are and I am told they are members of City Hall's Rhino Squad.

Head of Operations Peter Mbaya confirmed the existence of the squad but said it was part of the police service, not City Hall.

Mbaya, however, said that when Governor Mike Sonko formed the anti-mugging squad to counter crime, this group was incorporated to help county officers.

"At times we conduct joint operations. The squad has been in existence since [former President Daniel arap] Moi's era," he said by phone.

Last August, The Star reported that the squad's askaris, who hardly wore uniforms, had vowed to devise new ways of dealing with city residents found breaking laws.

The squad was worried about Sonko's push for all City Hall officials attached to the Inspectorate department to wear uniforms and badges when on duty.

Read: Corridors of Power

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