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September 19, 2018

We want to quit but fear being targeted: Mombasa juvenile gangsters speak out

Some of the juvenile gang members pose with Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir [in checked shirt] and Majengo-Mwembe Tayari MCA Ahmed Khamis [in blue shirt] during a May 9 meeting at the Koblenz Hall in Mombasa. / BRIAN OTIENO
Some of the juvenile gang members pose with Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir [in checked shirt] and Majengo-Mwembe Tayari MCA Ahmed Khamis [in blue shirt] during a May 9 meeting at the Koblenz Hall in Mombasa. / BRIAN OTIENO

The room is full of youngsters in smart dressing, seemingly from a lavish lifestyle. But the scars on their faces tell a different story, one of narrow escapes from the jaws of death.

When Blacky (not his real name) speaks, he reveals two missing teeth, perhaps testimony of painful beatings on the wrong side of the law.

"Many of us say reforming does not help. We come to many such meetings, but to what benefit? Every time we go home just as we came," he says.

Read: The day three rival gangs met to end fierce panga wars

Tip The Boss smiles. This is familiar territory. He has been here before. When he rises to speak, they all cheer him, almost in reverence. After all, he was once one of them.

"Crime really does not pay," Tip The Boss, real name Ali Said, says, the warm smile on his face misleading anyone who does not know his past. "It just puts your life at risk, and the dangers far outweigh the benefits. It is a matter of life and death."

The Boss, nicknamed so in his former life as a boxer, has been invited to speak to 50 reformed and reforming juvenile gang members in Mombasa, who are known in Swahili slang as 'chafu'.

The meeting has been called by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at Licodep Resource Centre in Likoni.

The Boss was once one of the most-feared chafu in Mtongwe. Brave enough to infiltrate the Kenya Navy Base in Mtongwe and steal heavy machinery from the military men. The Boss was feared and respected at the same time by his peers.

Said Ali, alias Tip The Boss, during the interview with the Star, August 28, 2018. /BRIAN OTIENO

He escaped bullets on three different occasions at the Mtongwe Navy Base. But when one of his friends was shot dead and another took lead on his right knee in one of their ill-fated missions at the Navy Base, he knew it was time to quit.

"The decision to quit chafu is a combination of many factors. But it has to come from deep within you for you to truly quit," The Boss tells The Star.

Together with Kisauni and Mvita constituencies, Likoni is one of the most notorious dens for juvenile criminal gangs. The constituency is home to gangs like Wajukuu wa Bibi in Shika Adabu ward, Mtongwe and Watalia in Mtongwe ward, Young Thugs in Timbwani ward, Chaka to Chaka in Bofu ward, among others.

The number of gang members in Likoni alone is conservatively put at around 300. The estimates are from civil society groups like Haki Africa, Muslims for Human Rights, Kenya Community Support Centre and Coast Women in Development.

In Mombasa county, the number of juvenile gangs reached a staggering 40 at some point in 2016, but when police became hard on them, most of them disintegrated.

At the moment, there are only about 20, with each having between 50 and 100 members aged between eight and 30 years old. Many of them have been gunned down.

Haki Africa rapid response officer Francis Auma puts the number at 28 youth between 14 and 25 years old who have been felled by police bullets in the last one year.

In the last four months, police have gunned down at least 15 chafu in Kisauni and Likoni alone. This, the Star has learnt, has triggered a rethink among majority of the juvenile gang members.

"Most of our friends have been killed. Many of us want to quit but are afraid because of many factors, including rejection by the society, fear that those who remain will hunt us down and even kill us, or because we feel if we surrender to police, they will still kill us," Blacky says. 

He says some gang members are tired of the enervating life of drugs, thuggery and killing and want to quit, but they are still in gangs for protection.

REINTEGRATION PROJECT

Justus (not his real name) was a chafu operating in Kongowea. He says it was difficult to convince his colleagues he wanted to quit. They saw him as a traitor who would sell them out to the police.

But the life of rejection was almost unbearable, and this made his resolve to quit even stronger. Football, he says, made it easier for him to disassociate himself with his small family of chafu.

"Even my own brothers did not want anything to do with me. Whenever I got home, they would leave the room, leaving me alone. You pretend it does not faze you but inside it drives you crazy and makes you reflect on your life," Justus says at the Haki Africa offices.

"I am glad I play football because I used most of my free time in the field, which helped me gradually reduce my drugs intake and the time I spent with my fellow chafu."

Justus is under a programme by Haki Africa that tries to help reformed or reforming juvenile gang members reintegrate back into the society. Auma the rapid response officer says the organisation has started several projects, including carwash business, for such youth.

The NGO has also constructed six centres, where youth converge to brainstorm and start different economic projects. "We try use such centres to help them be useful, but gang members who want to reform need more than this," Auma says.

He says there are no programmes in place that deal expressly with reforming or reformed juvenile gang members. "Reforming is a process, not an event. It can take up to two years for one to truly reform," Auma says.

Related: Three more juvenile gang members shot dead in Likoni

Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) rapid response officer Fahad Changi says for juvenile gang members, reforming and reintegration into the society has three key factors.

“To reintegrate into the society, a gang member must first be willing to change their ways. They must then be cleared by the government and then the society must be prepared well to accept them back,” he says.

The society factor is the biggest hurdle. Most of the time, the community is usually not ready to accept that someone can change their ways.

"It is possible to change but we also need to prepare the society in this regard. Most of those who are willing to quit find it hard because they are usually rejected by the society, and thus find solace in their other family, which is the gang," Changi says.

Muhuri, he says, has been able to ‘rescue’ members from four criminal gangs, including Wajukuu wa Nyanya, Chafu za Down, Young Thugs and Watalia, all of which operate in Likoni.

It has been about a year and a half since Justus decided to quit. For Tip The Boss, it has been almost three years.

Auma says what most organisations in Kenya do is cosmetic reformation. "Let us not pretend. At the Coast here and even in Kenya, our civil society organisations lack expertise to reform people. And to know one has reformed is a tricky affair," Auma says.

TOMORROW’S TERRORISTS?

UNODC’s Mohamed Jaffar fears that today’s juvenile gangsters could be tomorrow’s terrorists. "The disturbing thing we have discovered, specifically in Likoni, is that very young people of between eight and 12 years are the majority in these juvenile gangs," he says.

"What will they be when they reach 20? They may graduate from these small gangs to major international ones like al Shabaab, ISIS or Taliban."

Jaffar says community members need to be equipped with knowledge or skills on how to welcome reformed chafu back into the society once they reform.

UNODC consultant Betty Sharon recalled meeting a 15-year-old chafu who had decided to quit his gang and even went back to school.

"He had barely stayed in school for two weeks when someone who knew him called the school and reported him as chafu. The boy was expelled. How do you expect such a boy to react? Will he not look for al Shabaab and join them?" Sharon asked.

The incident shows how the society is not ready to accept juvenile gang members back, even after signs of reforming. Jaffar says such rejection by the community hardens the juvenile criminals.

"If the society rejects them, the authorities see them as a threat to security," Jaffar says. His appeal to parents, community members and the security apparatus is to accept these children and try to help them instead of rejecting them.

Likoni activist Mwanahamisi Hassan, who has dealt with juvenile gang members numerous times, says the family environment is key in dealing with the problem. Her research shows many of the chafu come from single-parent families, a pointer towards poor parenting.

Also read: Juvenile killings in Mombasa alarming, crimes escalating - activists

Indeed, Tip The Boss, is the second born in a family of four children, while Justus was raised by guardians and not his real parents.

The Boss explains that his troubles started out of frustrations from the broken family he was raised in. His father was a drunkard and polygamous. He neglected them.

"This made me somehow hate my father for the way he treated us. It made me feel I should be my family’s breadwinner and pushed me towards crime because life was hard," he tells the Star, adding that he was only 12 when he joined a gang.

 Mwanahamisi says broken families are why the age of juvenile gang members keeps coming down.

"In many cases, these chafu come from families where the husband has left the wife and children, making the wife the sole breadwinner. The wife travels abroad in search of greener pastures and leaves the children under the care of grandparents," the activist says.

"That is where the problem starts. Grandparents are not the best caregivers in an urban setting. They will not bother to look at their grandchildren school work. They probably don’t know how to read and write themselves."

Tip The Boss, for instance, says his mother never used to question the source of the money he brought home almost daily.

And so, as the authorities resort to gunning down suspects whenever crime soars, the root problems that drive the youth into gangs continue to fester, not only in Mombasa but around the country.

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