- Children are drawn to gangs to find a sense of belonging and for money.
- As long as one can count and write numbers, they are the perfect target for us, says gang member
The devil tempts all other men, but idle men tempt the devil—Turkish proverb.
Learning institutions closed in mid-March at the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak in Kenya and with them the structure, supervision and sense of inclusion that they offer.
Children have turned to gang life in a misguided effort to find these.
A report released by the Global Initiative Against Transitional Organised Crime indicates that across the country, children who initially worked as part-time gang members (errand boys) are now working full-time. There is no school to keep them occupied.
The report indicates that children are drawn to gangs to find a sense of belonging and for money.
“More and more children are now giving in due to peer pressure, both in their immediate surroundings and on social media, and the desire to upgrade their lifestyle,” the report says.
On March 15, 2020, after the country confirmed its first case of coronavirus, the government announced the closure of schools, which has since been extended to 2021.
This, the report says, has not only left children struggling with their education but has also rendered some even more vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs.
The Star has established that schoolchildren are used to survey locations, spy, smuggle and transport illegal items.
In most cases, aged 12-26, they are ruthless, dangerous and are ready to maim or kill to get what they want.
They appear innocent in the light of day but when dusk falls they unleash terror on unsuspecting members of the public.
The report explains how children are recruited into gangs.
It starts with experienced gang members initiating casual interactions with their targets.
As long as one can count and write numbers, they are the perfect target for usGang member
This helps the recruiters to gauge the smart ones who can keep secrets.
The recruits are then allowed to hang around the gang’s bases, basically to entice them with the lifestyle of the experienced crew.
“Gradually, they are then tasked to run small errands like purchasing airtime or snacks as a dry run. After a few weeks of random rewards for these errands, they are then tasked with sending messages and reporting the numbers that go through, a key strategy in online money heist,” reads the report.
The Star found out that gangs use information from platforms such as social media to threaten their victims, either claiming that they are holding a family member hostage, or that a family member needs money for urgent medical care.
Once cash is transferred, they switch off their phones.
According to the report, the initial steps of these scams are simple and monotonous tasks, and to perform them, the gangs go for vulnerable schoolchildren.
“As long as one can count and write numbers, they are the perfect target for us,” one gang member told the Star.
Recruits are tasked with sending fake M-Pesa messages claiming that the recipient has won cash.
The messages are sent out to random numbers and the children note down those that go through and forward them to the older gang members. These, in turn, make calls to the unsuspecting victims.
The children are paid between Sh500 and Sh1,000 a day depending on one’s aggressiveness.
The report says the children see this task as harmless.
They are also taught some skills, including how to attack people and steal from them, before they are deployed on missions.
Hip-hop artist Ohms Law Montana is the founder of Acha Gun Shika Mic (drop the gun and hold a mic), a movement that seeks to reform gangs in Mombasa.
He says gang members target children because they are easier to manipulate.
“The corona period has confirmed that children are more malleable than adults. It is easy to bend their will and get them to do what you want,” he says.
Montana says some children act as lookouts during robberies, while tiny ones are used to squeeze into small spaces.
During break-ins, these children climb into windows and pass stolen items to waiting gang members.
The children signal machete-wielding gangs who then unleash terror in various areas to threaten locals from speaking out.
Parents must find a way to spend more time with the children and have healthy discussions with themPolice boss Lucas Ogara
Like any other venture, planning is key. The Star has established that gang members usually assemble at a meeting point in one of their hideouts to plan attacks. During the meetings they will take drugs.
Those who spoke to the Star said they encourage and cheer up each other as they pump drugs into their bodies.
They then agree on which areas to attack, those who will go for the operation are identified while others are left behind for backup.
Their operations are always codenamed and they are given specific instructions not to harm their targets unless otherwise.
The Global Initiative Against Transitional Organised Crime report states that the children use the money they get from these attacks to party or meet personal needs while some give it to their parents.
In Nairobi, police say such incidences have been reported in Kibera, Mathare, Kayole and Kawangware.
Former Kilimani OCPD Lucas Ogara says deteriorating family values and living conditions are to blame for the surge in crime among teenagers.
Ogara, who has since been transferred to Homa Bay, says the majority of the perpetrators in towns use slums as hideouts.
He blames illiteracy and unemployment for youths joining gangs.
“Juvenile violence can be as a result of exposure to domestic violence, parental fighting and lack of parental supervision. Teenagers, especially in the slums, are not under strict control of their parents,” Ogara says.
“Parents must find a way to spend more time with the children and have healthy discussions with them”.
He says the area under the Kilimani subcounty police command is a favourite hangout for city revellers, from the latest entertainment joints to trendy eateries.
His sentiments are echoed by former Dagoretti OCPD George Seda, who blames parents for neglecting their responsibilities.
Seda, who has since been moved to Mandera, says officers had enhanced patrols since Kawangware is a hotspot.
The 2018 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicates that 80,404 youths aged 18-25 were convicted for various offences.
Out of these, 72,400 were male and 8,004 females.
It is important to note that areas that border informal settlements have more security challenges than rural areas and other areas without an informal set-upPolice spokesman Charles Owino
In the 2020 Economic Survey, 6,030 children were found to be in conflict with the law compared to 5,120 the previous year.
A total of 8,098 children were referred to courts compared to 9,115 the previous year.
Cumulatively 93,411 crimes were reported to police, in whom 82,288 people were involved.
Last week, Interior PS Karanja Kibicho confirmed the re-emergence of criminal gangs.
Speaking in Kisii after assessing the county’s preparedness to host this year’s Mashujaa Day celebrations, he warned politicians against recruiting the youth for criminal purposes. He said the government will wipe them out.
“We have clear instructions from the President and the National Security Advisory Committee to come up with a protocol determining when the red line has been crossed. We are not going to allow small criminal gangs to reign terror on people, compromising their freedom and safety,” Kibicho warned.
Interior CS Fred Matiang’i blames the resurgence of gangs on political mobilisation.
“We know that political mobilisation is the cause of the revival of criminal gangs… but any attempts to revive criminal gang activity will be dealt with in a firm and decisive manner,” he said.
Police spokesman Charles Owino, however, downplays the issue, saying they are only in isolated places.
“As far as we are concerned, these could be few isolated cases fuelled by the current economic challenges," he says.
Owino for instance attributes Kayole’s high crime rate to a high population and large number of unemployed youth.
“It is important to note that areas that border informal settlements have more security challenges than rural areas and other areas without an informal set-up,” he says.
Owino says a slum such as Kayole will naturally record more crime than Lavington owing to the high population in the area.
"We cannot allow the existence of a group that appears to threaten the peaceful co-existence of the society,” he warns.