NAIROBI, KENYA: Gangster appeared to be taunting police with his escapades, but was killed when few expected
By Joseph Karimi
The 1971 mid-morning battle in Uhuru Estate between armed robbers and police was a stunning scene that brought insecurity right to the doorsteps of residents of Nairobi’s Eastlands.
It was the climax of a war between police and the underworld. The gangsters’ range of assorted firearms rivalled that of security forces.
In those days, the news editor’s diary usually had a standby team just in case of an emergency (usually fires and accidents). However, a day hardly came to a close without some activity relating to armed robbery, especially in the city, if not other major urban centres.
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Reporters like myself were always ready for impromptu assignments to cover crime. That morning, while making a routine call to police, my contacts hinted that a robbery had just taken place. Robbers had snatched a large amount of money from the Barclays Bank branch at Nairobi Intercontinental Hotel. The sources said the robbers were being chased towards Eastlands.
I informed my news editor of the happenings and quickly teamed up with Joseph Ndung’u, then the top African cameraman at the Nation newspaper. He owned a car. News editor Asaph Kiagayu Mureria (now deceased) let him use his personal vehicle in the absence of an office car that had just taken another crew to another assignment.
We did not know the specific area to go to in Eastlands. We took Juja Road, which was usually not heavily congested, past Eastleigh Air Base and towards Armed Forces Academy. There was no indication of a robbery or high-speed chase.
Pssst!! There were no mobile phones then.
As we wondered whether it was a hoax, we heard the rattle of gunfire coming from Eastlands. We drove on to Buru Buru Road. By then, there was more firing. There was panic and many motorists were driving away, blocking us as Ndung’u accelerated.
When we reached Uhuru Estate School, there was a mass of vehicles that had ferried hundreds of armed police to join in the battle. The road was jammed with vehicular and human traffic. We waded our way into the centre of events, which was right opposite the Uhuru Estate shops. There were hundreds of armed police with scores of “red berets” from the GSU’s “Recce” Company. Top police officers from Nairobi area and divisions were there in force. Patrick Shaw was also there commanding the operation.
The news editor had by then dispatched another team to the scene. Photographer Yahya Mohamed, newly recruited and hardly two months into the job was there. I came to know him well after a shot was fired and a senior police officer was carried away from inside the estate where the robbers were under siege.
The officer’s gun had “misfired” and a bullet had gone through his foot. He had been trying to reach his gun as it dropped but caught it by the trigger. The atmosphere here was tense as the gun battle continued.
At noon, the battle came to a halt. The police had managed to enter the hideout and they arrested two of the gangsters. However, they did not get the Sten gun the robbers were using to fire back.
The robbery leader was Danson Gachuhi popularly known as “Dad” by his fraternity. He was the smartest robber in the city.
On this day, Gachuhi and his gang had stormed the Barclays Bank sub-branch and stole Sh110,000 in cash. They actually just lifted a till, packed with the money, from a teller and loaded it in their getaway car.
Shaw was the first to get the report circulated to the CID. He arrived at the scene and obtained useful details. Eye witnesses had identified Gachuhi.
Shaw knew where the gangsters had ended up and a squad of sleuths, riding in a Jaguar, trailed the thugs.
Incidentally, this was the car that had been used in January 1971, to “smuggle” Dr Milton Obote from the PanAfric Hotel to the airport for his flight to Dar es Salaam. Obote had been deposed by Idi Amin Dada while he attended the Commonwealth Conference in Australia.
The former president of Uganda had then flown to Nairobi and was taken to the hotel for the night as he consulted the Kenya government. While reporters waited at the front of the hotel for a chance to interview Obote, security sneaked him out and onto a plane to Tanzania where Dr Julius Nyerere granted him asylum.
Back at Uhuru Estate, Shaw and his sleuths called for reinforcement as they guarded the house the gangsters were holed up in.
Within half an hour, Uhuru Estate was like a scene from World War II. The commanding officer then directed fire into the house but the thugs responded as machine guns emptied bullets into its walls. Somehow, Gachuhi slipped out through a back door and disappeared in broad daylight carrying his Sten gun.
Two of the thieves overcome by the teargas were apprehended, the Sh110,000 booty recovered and displayed to the milling public, and carted away by CID.
Gachuhi was felled three years later in Nairobi’s South B, as he emerged from a house and attempted to escape. Actually, a policeman hurled a rock at him, catching him on the ear, and Gachuhi dropped dead.