Devolution, urban growth role in surge of gangs - Report

Links with corrupt political, business figures enabled gangs to capture urban service provision.

In Summary

• Gangs deal with matatu extortion, informal security services, political hire, informal water and electricity connection, gun trafficking, organised armed heists, theft, burglary  and garbage collection.

• The gangs include Yes We can, Kenya Youth Alliance, Kamjesh, Taliban, Kamukunji Pressure Group, Al Safa, Nubians, Kibera Battalion, J-10, Siafu, Super Power, Gaza, Usiku Sacco and Congo boys.

Reformed members of juvenile criminal gangs in Likoni surrenderarms to police on April 25.
Reformed members of juvenile criminal gangs in Likoni surrenderarms to police on April 25.
Image: BRIAN OTIENO

Devolution and the transfer of greater powers to county from central government have affected the political role of gangs, a report has shown.

The report by the Global Initiative Against Transitional Organised Crime indicates that this is largely due to the changing visibility of power attached to elected local government positions.

The three-month field report dubbed ‘Politics of Crime’ was conducted between November 2019 and March 2020 with a focus in Nairobi and Mombasa town.

 
 

The organisation conducted semi-structured interviews with a range of key informants in both cities, some of them more than once.

 Key informants were reached through a snowballing method, drawing on a network of illicit-economy, civil-society and law-enforcement interviewees built up through repeated engagement on related topics in Kenya.

As a result, 96 people were interviewed including 22 active and 29 former gang members, five politicians, 15 police officers, and 10 people involved in or witness to criminal aspects of the matatu industry.

Authored by Simone Haysom and Ken Opala both senior analysts, the report indicates while cities have grown in political importance, their shadow economies have also grown, providing lucrative profit-making opportunities for gangs and other groups in areas characterized by high unemployment, especially among the youth.

“Criminal gangs have become wealthy by providing informal services or taxing residents for transport, waste removal, electricity and water provision. As a result, they have become deeply embedded in the everyday lives of many citizens of Nairobi,” the report read in part.

 Speaking during the launch of the report, Haysom said this has mushroomed at least in part because impunity for criminal enterprises has become a form of patronage but also because the revenues give them independence from political patrons.

“This diversification has made them stronger and more sophisticated in their operations,” she said.

 
 

According to the report, Nairobi and Mombasa are multi-ethnic cities in which political campaigning for a gubernatorial seat relies to some extent on capturing votes from across the city.

The report indicates that the current governors of Mombasa and Nairobi both achieved their status through a version of this pathway.

Both were political outsiders who managed to build political profiles despite not being able to draw on the support of majority ethnic groups.

“They succeeded despite the fact that, in 2010, allegations were made in Parliament that they had been involved in drug trafficking prior to their entry into politics.

“ The growth of cities has not only increased their political importance but also the size of their shadow economies, which have become lucrative centres of illicit business activity,” the report said.

The report further indicates that in both counties, unemployment is rife, particularly among the youth.

As a result, criminal gangs have become embedded in the lives of residents in many areas by providing informal services or taxing urban residents for transport, waste removal, electricity and water provision.

Criminal enterprises used as a form of patronage.

According to the National Cohesion and Integration Commission,  to sustain these groups, politicians facilitate opportunities for gang members, such as giving them control of bus parks, allocating them market stalls and enabling access to contracts, in exchange for unwavering support.

“While the link between gangs and electoral violence has been the focus of concerted efforts to address political violence, the role of gangs in illicit economic activities in major urban areas appears to be as firmly entrenched as it was before the 2010 political reforms,” the report said.

In Nairobi for instance, the report indicates that their links with corrupt political and business figures has enabled criminal gangs to capture large chunks of urban service provision.

Gaining successful control of waste collection services, establishing the right to extort a matatu terminal, or determining who can buy clean water and at what price in an informal settlement, gives gangs significant autonomy and influence
Report 

It added, “Over time, they may even gain legitimacy in poor communities. Generating the funds needed to buy protection from the police directly gives them independence from political patrons.

This, the report said is a significant factor in determining their longevity, as well as the degree of sophistication with which they are organized.

While referring to the Mungiki sect, the report indicates that the gang survived intense official crackdowns in 2005 and 2008 and maintains a sizable membership in Nairobi, albeit one which is now much older and more entrepreneurial.

“But the gang has reduced its reliance on politicians, and embedded itself in the matatu industry, which has facilitated its move into the licit economy,” it said.

From matatu extortion, informal security services, political hire, informal water and electricity connection, gun trafficking, organised armed heists, theft, burglary and garbage collection, the gangs are said to have strategic operational areas including Nairobi CBD,  Jamuhuru area, Kibera, Eastleigh, Kayole, Embakasi North, Kahawa West, Makadara and Kawangware.

The gangs include Yes We can, Kenya Youth Alliance, Kamjesh, Taliban, Kamukunji Pressure Group, Al Safa, Nubians, Kibera Battalion, J-10, Siafu, Super Power, Gaza, Usiku Sacco and Congo boys.

According to the report, Yes We Can deals with extortion, informal security services, political hire, informal water and electricity connection.

While Kenya Youth Alliance deals with extortion, informal security services, political hire, their counterpart in Kamjesh mainly deals with matatu extortion.

While Taliban deals with matatu extortion, political hire,  informal security services, Kamukunji Pressure Group deals with informal security services, political hire, informal water and electricity connection.

Al Safa group deals with political hire, informal security services with the Nubians dealing with informal security services.

Kibera Battalion mainly is concerned with extortion, political hire, violence,  informal water and electricity connection) while Siafu group deals with political hire, extortion, informal water and electricity connection, matatu extortion, political hire, garbage collection and theft.

Super Power (gun trafficking and organized armed heists, theft, burglary)

Gaza deals with gun violence, general violence, informal electricity connection as Usiku Sacco’s main agenda is matatu extortion, political hire, muggings and burglaries.

While Super Power deals with gun trafficking and organized armed heists, their counterpart in Congo Boys are for political hire, informal security services, street robbery and burglary.

Defining gangs in Kenya

According to the report, the definition of gangs in Kenya bedevils writing on the topic.

A state definition is used to delineate and count gangs, and these catalogues are also used to ban them.

 In 2002, Retired late President Danile Moi banned 18 criminal gangs.

 His successor, Mwai Kibaki, outlawed 33 in 2010 while the current president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016 banned some 90 gang groups.

In 2017, the National Crime Research Centre, a state agency under the Ministry of the Interior, released a report claiming there were 326 gangs by 2017, a rise from 33 in its 2010 count.

The report however indicates that it is difficult to define organized crime, as well as gangs, in a way that is both applicable to a wide range of contexts and meaningful in specific ones.

The Kenyan National Crime Research Centre uses the UN Office on Drugs and Crime definition of organized crime to guide its gangs research.

This follows Article 2(a) of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which states that  ‘An organized criminal group is a structured group of three or more persons existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences in order to obtain directly or indirectly a financial or other material benefit’.

The report said broad definitions such as these capture the activity, but often fail to make useful analytical distinctions.

“Narrow definitions have been developed to explain specific phenomena, such as the Italian mafia, and work well in those contexts, especially when academic usage is consistent with legal definitions. But definitions that are tailored to specific contexts often do not work well in others,” the report read in part.

The report further revealed that gang formations, such as the Mungiki, meet ‘mafia’ definitions commonly used in Europe and Asia.

“However, many other gangs have very low levels of organization, including many of the youth gangs operating in Mombasa. This report argues that Kenyan gang identity is also often fluid, fungible or not particularly strong,”  it said.

The report further revealed that Nairobi gang members have shed one identity and adopted another to evade police crackdowns.

“This constant mutation and evolution calls into question the value of cataloguing exercises.  The sense that gangs have grown in size or number can be confused with observations that their impact has become more severe usually detected in terms of the visible violence and disruption they cause, rather than the less visible processes of extortion,” the report said.