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Muggers turn city into a gangsters’ paradise

By - | December 1st 2012


NAIROBI; KENYA: For almost six years, the petty criminals that had given the country’s capital the name ‘Nairobbery’ were conspicuously missing from the city streets and suburbs.

Their absence was noted by locals and tourists alike, with several international magazines, including Time Travel, even offering tips on fun things to do.

But the dreaded city muggers are back in their hundreds, employing daring strikes on pedestrians, motorists and passengers in public transport vehicles.

Be it in broad daylight or in the cover of darkness, nothing seems to scare the young felons, who roam strategic sections of the Central Business District and the city’s highways, robbing motorists, passengers and pedestrians of valuables with little, if any, resistance. And with every robbery, Nairobi is fast sliding back onto the map of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Crime Resurgence

Only last month, a security meeting chaired by Nairobi PC Njoroge Ndirangu and attended by all regional police bosses and top investors discussed the resurgence of muggers and sanctioned a crackdown.

Last weekend, police arrested over 60 people in swoops in the CBD and major matatu termini, with Nairobi Area Provincial Police Officer Moses Ombati directing divisional commanders to target muggers. But it seems the police have plenty to do if the situation is anything to go by.

Investigations by The Standard On Saturday reveal a worse situation. Within the city centre, muggers, pickpockets and smash-and-grab robbers are all over the streets, with hotspots being the Moi Avenue-Haile Selassie junction, Kencom, Ambassadeur and Railways bus stops, Ronald Ngala Street and junctions prone to traffic jams. The traditionally notorious Country Bus Station (Machakos Airport) and Landhies Road near Muthurwa Market also remain a nightmare to motorists and pedestrians alike.

In the suburbs, hotspots include the Githurai 45 along the Thika highway, Westlands, Nyayo Stadium, City Stadium and Donholm and the Kariobangi-Dandora roundabouts among others.  Mr Osman Lusweti, a private guard, has seen it all as muggers and other petty thieves turn the Moi Avenue-Haile Selassie junction into their playground.

“They operate in groups of two or three and trail vehicles for a while trying to spot anyone holding a phone or holding a handbag. They also look out for valuables like laptops, cameras and jewelry,” he explains. “Once they spot their target, one will snatch the valuable item and quickly hand it over to a colleague who walks away casually.”

Not even a closed matatu window deters them: many wear rubber padding on their wrists that gives enough grip to force open a window if it is struck with a forward motion. A majority of the criminals are youths in their early 20s, often armed and dangerous. Any attempt to challenge them after a snatching often leads to a more vicious assault or mugging.   “They carry crude weapons such as daggers and some have injured passengers who try to get hold of them,” says Lusweti, who explains he never intervenes as he fears paying with his life.

A number of commuters using Embassava Sacco mini-buses plying in Eastlands, which are a prime target for the muggers, attest to the rising cases of robbery, saying they have either lost or witnessed fellow commuters lose valuables at the junction in recent weeks.

“The area outside St Paul’s University – meters away from the national  archives –  is the most dangerous. Matatu conductors contribute to the theft in most routes by asking for fare when vehicles are still stuck in traffic in town. Commuters become a soft target as they expose their wallets and handbags while concentrating on paying the fare,” notes Mr John Macharia, a regular commuter.   In the city’s outskirts, the criminals have devised various ways to rob when there is no traffic jam.  Only recently, Mr Jacob Ng’etich lost a new iPad to a gang that has been terrorising motorists at the Nyayo Stadium roundabout.

“I boarded a matatu at the Shell Petrol Station just after the roundabout in the evening,” he recounts. “Five men also boarded and sat behind me. Seconds later, one of them pretended to be sick and about to vomit; the rest ordered the driver to stop. One of them snatched my iPad as they alighted. This, I was told, is what they have been doing day and night.”

Well organised gangs

According to the Motorists Association of Kenya, cases of muggers snatching valuables from motorists are on a sharp rise, while most such cases go unreported. Mr Peter Murima, the association’s chairman, says his office has received dozens of complaints from motorists in recent months.

He says most cases have involved well-organised gangs. “They pretend to be hawkers but in real sense they are spying for valuables in passengers’ seats and communicate the same to their accomplices,” says Murima.  In yet another worrying trend, the robbers are increasingly stealing cargo from moving trucks and pick-ups in broad daylight. We have learnt that most such thieves have been masquerading as street urchins by smearing charcoal dust on their faces and wearing tattered clothing on top of clean clothes.

They then pretend to hike lift at the back of such vehicles.
Based on various reports filed by affected motorists, Murima singles out the city centre, Racecourse Road, Mombasa Road, Enterprise Road, Kipande Road, Eastleigh along Juja Road, Donholm and Kariobangi-Dandora roundabouts, Thika superhighway between Survey and Kenyatta University as well as several major junctions are among the areas notorious for such robberies.

Reggae hooligans
Godwin Masinde, a driver, has not just been a victim but has also witnessed several such robberies.

“Only recently, I was trailing a truck along Outering Road at around 7pm when some boys hitchhiked it and offloaded two new motorcycles.

But they fled after some pedestrians raised the alarm,” he narrates.
Masinde earlier had kitchen appliances stolen from the back of his moving double-cabin pick-up within the CBD while his colleague lost three bags of charcoal in similar fashion last week. 

Another threat to security in Nairobi comes in the form of gangs of reggae fans, particularly from the Eastlands area, that rob people with impunity while heading home after weekend jam sessions. Only last Sunday, some of the youths engaged in running battles with hawkers they attempted to steal from. 

“After the jam sessions on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, they usually move in groups of up to 50 and rob anyone they encounter of money and mobile phones. They usually beat those who resist,” explains Stephen Waweru, the chairman of Central Business District Hawkers Association, also a hawker.

He says the youth have even been targeting hawkers, with one of the hooligans recently lynched after his gang knocked a vendor out cold and stole cash and a phone from him.
Mr Hosea Mwangi, also a hawkers’ leader, say they now subject muggers to mob justice as the police have failed to act on their tip-offs.

Nairobi Central Business District  Chairman Timothy Muriuki says city businessmen are worried by the sharp rise in muggings and other crimes over the past two months.

“We have already convened a meeting involving police and investors and asked them to intensify uniformed and plainclothes police patrols.

The muggings are sporadic and have been motivated by the surge of hawkers in town. There are many genuine hawkers, but also thieves,” he says.

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