Lyrical gangsters daring bank heist

Onlookers mill around a crime scene where bank robbers had stolen money from Kenya Commercial Bank in Nairobi’s  Eastleigh branch and shot dead a policeman in 1998.

By Beatrice Wamuyu

They don’t make them like they used to any more. In the 1990s, some of Kenya’s most notorious gangsters rampaged through the streets of Nairobi and turned it into a sort of wild, wild West.

So trigger-happy and daring were they that they would make today’s robberies look like child’s play.

Those were the days of such gun-totting robbers like Anthony Ngugi Kanagi  alias Wacucu, Gerald Wambugu Munyeria alias Wanugu and Edward Shimoli whose escapades captured the attention of the nation and even earned them some youthful admirers.

Some economists attributed the rise in violent crime to soaring levels of poverty that brought many Kenyans to their knees. The Goldenburg scandal, in which the country lost more than Sh20 billion and the alleged printing of currencies that flooded the market after the 1992 General Election, worsened the situation.

On August 17, 1999, gunmen stormed into MashreqBank in ICEA building along Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue where they held staff hostage before slithering out with Sh9 million.

Call them lyrical gangsters. As they emptied cash boxes into sacks, they kept the horrified staff entertained with Christian hymns. It was a drama like no other.

Stripped Of Uniforms

6.30am: Six men approached the bank and convinced security guards who had already arrived for duty that they were delivering a parcel for the day’s watchman. A guard opened the door to receive the parcel, but one of the men whipped out a pistol and ordered him into the bank. The gangsters stripped the guards of their uniforms, put them on and positioned themselves on the main door to await staff to arrive.

Staff entering through the main door were met by the two “guards” who confiscated their wallets, watches and jewelry. As operations manager Njage Makanga was to learn, you refuse to shake a gangsters hand at your own peril.

8.45am: “When I arrived at the bank’s entrance at around 8.45am, a uniformed ‘security man’ opened the door for me and as usual, I said “Good morning” to him,” Makanga told the East African Standard. “However, a shabbily dressed man who was sitting on the customers’ seats stood up, came towards me and insisted on shaking my hand. When I resisted, the other two guards who were now behind me ordered me to do so while holding a gun to my head and threatened to kill me for defying the order.”

He proceeded to shake the man’s hand, after which they stripped him of his wallet with Sh4,000, some dollars and rands. They did not even spare him his matrimonial ring, which they also forced from his finger, asking him about the amount of money in the safe.

The gangsters asked for the bank’s client services Manager Paul Makori, and another manager who they confidently said had the keys to the safe. They immediately commanded them to switch off the alarm system, which they hesitantly did.

Having found the ‘golden keys’ which was their mission’s role, the gangsters forced them into opening the safe. Hungrily, they took all the money, hurriedly pocketing them in their already set heavy bags containing coins. The gunmen seemed to know each of the staff by names and titles, pointing to either an inside job or good research skills. They kept all lights off. It meant CCTV cameras could not capture their faces properly in the semi darkness.

9.15am Their sense of drama and wicked humour was unparalleled. After they had emptied the safes plus the pockets of all the staff, it was time for some boisterous bragging. What about the staff joining them in a celebratory party the following Friday? They even gave the venue of the party! The invitation seemed like a jab in the ribs for the terrified staff, who watched as the men said they were now rich and could afford to throw a party for everyone.

Although they were not violent and did not fire a single shot, they seemed not to like Makanga. “A gunman stepped on my back as I lay on the floor demanding to be told how much money was in the safes,” Makanga said. “He hit me with a pistol five times on the ankles when I said I had no idea.”

Despite the invitation, Makanga said the thugs grumbled that the money they found was much less than what they expected to find. Bank officials said a total of Sh9 million was stolen, but police gave a figure of Sh7.5 million.

Interestingly, they gave back Sh3,000 to a guard who they said looked poor, and it was ungodly of them to rob him. Calmly, the thugs walked out of the bank, entered a white Nissan Sunny saloon and sped off!

Neither the staff in the neighbouring businesses nor the officers at the Central Police Station  about 500 metres away got a hint of what was happening.

 10.20am “We received an alarm report at 10:20am, an hour after the robbers had left,” the then central division police boss Bernard Mucheke told a local daily. What baffled detectives is that the robbers spent more than three hours in the banking hall without raising suspicion. It is arguably one of the longest bank heists in the country.

The theft set the tongues of Kenyans wagging as they gave the gangsters all sorts of fancy names. In an editorial on August 19, The East African Standard called them the ‘choir-boy’ gangsters.

“But whatever one might call the lyrical gangsters the hallelujah hoodlums, the choir-boys, the robber baritones, the sadaka sadists armed robbery is no laughing matter,” wrote the paper.

That gangsters could overrun a bank and operate in a cool manner without police having a hint was symbolic of the shambolic state of the force, which, sadly, is still unable to deal with insecurity today.