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Standard raid: Secrets of horror attack by State agents and regrets of a police boss

 State agents raided The Standard Group in March 2006 and set the day’s newspapers that were rolling off the press on fire. [File, Standard]

Around midnight of March 1 and 2, 2006, my cell phone started ringing incessantly, jolting me from a deep slumber.

I ignored the call and continued lying in bed. However, the calls became persistent. My wife thought I hadn’t heard the phone ringing and jerked me with her hand.

Dazed and sleepy, I heard her whisper that somebody could be in trouble in the dead of the night. I often received distress calls during odd hours from people who had fallen afoul of police on patrol, mostly drunks, or somebody reporting a crime. Mostly, the calls were from a police contact tipping me off on a crime that could make a juicy newspaper headline.

These persistent calls, however, were a pointer that something bad was happening that night. I had my suspicions. 

I sat up in bed, picked up the phone, which I always kept under my pillow for ease of access, and saw that all the missed calls were from the switchboard of Nation Centre, the nerve centre of the Nation Media Group.

The phone rang again as I was scrolling through the missed calls. This time, it was Joseph Odindo, NMG’s Group Managing Editor, calling from his own cell phone.  I had his telephone number saved in my phonebook. He must have opted to call me directly after being told that I wasn’t picking up any of the calls from the switchboard.

There were no greetings when I answered his call. He sounded very anxious and angry. “What are you doing in bed while The Standard is on fire?” he barked. I told him I wasn’t aware of any incident at The Standard Group. He wanted me to drive to Nation Centre.

However, I told him I would be risking my life driving all alone in the middle of the night on Thika road, which – under cover of darkness – was a paradise of carjackers and highway robbers.

We agreed that he would dispatch a car to the gate of Kasarani Police Station, where I would link up with the driver. 

For the years I worked as the leading crime and security journalist at NMG, I didn’t want to give the exact location of where I lived because I didn’t want the drivers or my bosses to know. I reasoned that they might form a habit of waking me up at night or picking me up even when off-duty when a crime story other journalists could easily handle broke. 

I staggered out of bed. I didn’t shower. I just washed my face at the sink and dressed.

I kept thinking of the “major security operation” a top police chief, whose identity I won’t disclose due to the sensitivity of the matter, had tipped me about a few days ago. So, what he had casually hinted had finally come to pass? 

The driver picked me up at the agreed place and we raced to Nation Centre. We arrived there around 2am. The newsroom was tense.

 The Standard's March 2, 2006, edition on fire. [File, Standard]

The late-night reporters and TV crew had covered some ground. The missing link was the motive behind the raid, who the raiders were and who ordered the raid.

Finding out that required a journalist with good, trusted and reliable contacts within the secretive security machinery. That’s why Mr Odindo badly needed me in the newsroom.

Parallel raid

Nation TV (NTV) was airing raw clips of the breaking story of the dramatic raid by hooded men on the Standard Group’s iconic I&M Building offices, which housed The Standard newspaper and Kenya Television Network (KTN) studios, and which was just a few yards from Nation Centre. A parallel raid was happening at the newspaper company’s printing press on Likoni Road in Industrial Area.

Mr Odindo, together with Training Editor Frank Whaley and Editorial Director Wangethi Mwangi looked nervous. This was one of those very rare occasions when Kenyan media found a common voice and united to fight a common enemy. They united when one of their own was under attack by the state but remained bitter rivals in all other aspects of news gathering and hunting for valuable advertisements.

“We are working on a special edition and we want as much details as possible on who the hooded men are and why they have raided The Standard,” Mr Odindo growled when I walked to where they were standing. He yelled: “Call the Police Commissioner, the CID Director and other senior officers now!” 

I knew that the Commissioner of Police, Major General Hussein Ali, was to travel to Seychelles on the early morning of March 2, 2006, for a scheduled meeting of regional police chiefs. Nevertheless, I called his cell phone – just in case - but it was off. He later flew out to Seychelles as scheduled without commenting on the incident. 

I called the CID chief Joseph Kamau and his phone was also off. Kamau would later mysteriously vanish from his office for the whole day. Why did he disappear after the barbaric police raid on a media house? 

I only managed to get through to the Nairobi Provincial Police Officer, King’ori Mwangi, who had been promoted from police spokesman, and his CID counterpart, Sammy Githui, who had been elevated to the position from the Flying Squad. Both picked up my phones but genuinely sounded sleepy.

“I am sleeping and I’m not aware of any raid at The Standard,” King’ori told me in a croaky voice. Githui offered a similar response. 

 Workers assess damage following the raid at The Standard on March 2, 2006. [File, Standard]

I called a few other officers. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, they disclosed the scanty details they knew on strict condition that I shouldn’t name them. They told me the raid was planned and executed by the elite Kanga Squad, directly answerable to Kamau. 

The Kanga Squad, comprising just six top marksmen, was an amorphous unit that hunted down dangerous criminals such as carjackers, bank robbers, drug barons and organised gangs that targeted middle-class and upmarket residences in Nairobi and its environs. 

It had been formed to rival existing elite units such as the Flying Squad, Special Crime Prevention Unit (SCPU), November Squad, Anti-Narcotics Unit (ANU), Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (APTU), Kwekwe, Rhino, Spider and Eagle. A majority of these units operated within the CID and had duplicated roles.

The Kanga Squad was heavily equipped and provided with top-range vehicles owing to its proximity to the seat of power at the CID headquarters. That’s why the Kanga Squad was entrusted with the top state secret to raid the media house.

Unaware police boss

Surprisingly, Maj Gen Ali – despite being Kenya’s top policeman and overall boss of the CID and other police formations - was kept in the dark when the whole operation was being planned and executed with the precision of a wounded rattlesnake. Why? I put together the sketchy details and the special edition of the Daily Nation hit the streets before dawn. 

The Standard the following day managed to put out a special edition, which hit the markets in the afternoon of March 2 after repairing the cannibalised printing press. KTN also, despite being switched off air on the night of March 1 crossing into March 2, was able to come back on air and ran prime bulletins at 7pm and 9pm. Kenyans woke up to a Thursday of dramatic raw, horror footage, some of it obtained from CCTV cameras at the I&M Building.

It appeared the hooded men forgot to switch off or check if the building was covered by secret cameras because all their actions - from the lift area to the newsroom - were well recorded.

Disguised as special forces commandos and donning balaclava masks, the raiders emerged from the lift and walked majestically to the newsroom where they unleashed their terror. 

They paralysed operations in both newsrooms and assaulted late-night journalists, leaving them and other workers numb and terrified. 

As I wrote the story on the chilling raid, my mind flashed back to February 27, 2006, when my police contact dropped the hint of the planned raid. 

 Damaged printing press. [File, Standard]

I worked Mondays to Fridays, taking the weekends off. February 27 fell on a Monday but I had taken the day off to compensate for a Sunday that I had worked. 

Even when off-duty, I kept my ears on the ground, often calling my police contacts to know what was happening in the underworld and security circles. I didn’t want my media house to miss a major scoop. 

After breakfast that Monday, I called my police contact from my house landline in Nairobi’s Kasarani estate for our routine morning briefs. In the course of discussing different issues, the officer sensationally dropped the bombshell about a raid planned on an undisclosed media house.

“We are working on a major security operation that will shock the entire world,” he disclosed.

He went on to say that some powerful forces were unhappy with the “dangerous” line the media had taken in reporting issues on the First Family, President Mwai Kibaki’s, and police had been tasked to cut them down to size.

Instantly, I warned the police chief that he and the government were literally throwing a stone on a beehive by contemplating raiding a media house.

I warned him that the entire media, backed by the international community, would gang up against the police and the government like a provoked swarm of bees under the scorching sun.

“You are arguing like that because you don’t know the magnitude and seriousness of the matter and what motivated what we are planning to do,” he responded. 

I couldn’t let the juicy story slip away from my fingers. I felt that the police chief was reluctant to discuss the matter on the phone. I understood why. Just like my telephone lines, those of police chiefs and prominent people were regularly monitored by spy agents. 

I was curious to know the finer details of the plot and which media was targeted. We agreed I pay him a visit in his office. Without wasting any time, I immediately drove to his office. 

When I arrived, the police chief was still reluctant to disclose the full nature of what he termed “a major security operation”. 

Although he trusted me not to leak confidential information, he told me that he wouldn’t discuss the nature of what they were planning to do because the matter was still a “top government secret” and any slight leakage would ruin everything and it could be traced back to him.

He didn’t want to lose his job or antagonise the powerful people in government behind the plot.

After nagging him, the officer only disclosed that powerful people in government were unhappy with the media, particularly The Standard. He declined to disclose the date or the nature of their intended raid.

 The raid paralysed operations in the newsroom. [File, Standard]

I repeated my warning that police officers involved in the raid would be used as scapegoats should the raid draw too much heat from the political leadership.

But he appeared excited that the operation had the backing of big political shots. He saw it as a golden opportunity to further endear himself to Kenya’s top power brokers.

Although he didn’t reveal much, I knew something terrible was going to happen and it would explode into a major international story. But as I had pledged, I kept my mouth shut and waited for the news to unfold.

Moreover, the details I had been given were too sketchy. Suppose I reported what I had been told but the police backed off? I could be arrested and charged with filing an alarming report. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Missing CID director

When the raid happened on the night of March 1 and 2, it only confirmed what the police chief had told me. As Kenyans remained glued to their TV sets watching the movie-like drama, the CID director didn’t report to his office the whole day. His cell phone was surprisingly permanently switched off.

At around 10am on March 3, a Friday, I called my police contact’s office for the umpteenth time. His secretary told me he had just arrived.

I quickly drove to his office before he could leave. Having developed a good rapport with most of the senior cadre in security circles, I required no appointment to see them.

I was ushered in by the secretary. The confidence the police chief had exuded on February 27, 2006, had melted away and he looked like a chicken drenched in rain. I reminded him what I’d told him earlier. 

“I wish I’d listened to you,” he said. “I regret taking part in the raid. The heat is too much to handle.” 

Unlike February 27 when he was tight-lipped on the raid and the motive, the police chief opened up on this day. To justify himself, the officer went on to explain who ordered the raid and why. 

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