The Resurgence of the Gang Menace in Kenya: What Options?

By Janice Sanya and Dr. Kisiangani Emmanuel

The shooting of suspected criminal gang members in Nairobi’s Eastleigh in late March 2017, has rekindled debates about the persistent criminal gang behaviour and its implication for the country’s security toward the 2017 General Elections and beyond. The question on the minds of many is; why has the government not managed to eliminate this criminal threat? At a basic level, what explains the recent upsurge in criminal gangs across the country and what are the alternative policy choices in mitigating this menace?

On 30th December 2016, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, revealed that there were about 90 deadly criminal gangs in Kenya with most of them based in the capital city, Nairobi and the country’s second largest city, Mombasa.

Among the criminal groups identified by Nkaissery included; the infamous Mungiki known for extortion and murder and whose activities have been prevalent in Nairobi and parts of central Kenya, the Gaza gang, which operates in Nairobi’s Kayole region, the Superpower in Eastleigh and the 42 Brothers, too, based in Nairobi’s Eastlands. The latter groups are largely known for theft and burglary. The Cabinet Secretary cited Wakali Wao, Wakali Kwanza and Wajukuu wa Bibi, among others, as the groups that have been involved in criminal activities of burglary, extortion and theft in Mombasa.

Of concern is the fact that these criminal gangs have been on the increase. According to John Koki, head of the Special Crimes Prevention Unit (SCPU) – an elite squad in the police force these criminal groups are increasing by the day. He says “We are engaging them every other night and day and yet they seem to be cropping up like mushrooms.” The fear is that if not nipped in the bud, these criminal groups could soon easily capture, control or disrupt strategic nodes of the country.

What explains the upsurge of this criminal activity?

The emergence of criminal groups is often a function of society. Studies show that criminal gangs most often emerge in troubled neighborhoods; areas that are socially disorganized, characterized by inadequate social institutions, and whose residents are economically disadvantaged. This description fits well with most of the areas in Kenya where the gangs identified by the Cabinet Secretary are located. These criminal gangs have emerged out of a combination of factors including economic and social influences such as poverty, lack of economic prospects, coupled with the ready availability of weapons.

Some of the criminal gangs in Kenya like Mungiki emerged out of institutional inefficiencies. While the emergence of Mungiki was encased in an ethnic/religious revival movement, they served to fill in for inexistent local state institutions especially in the areas of security and power supply in underserved informal areas like Mathare. Like many other criminal groups in Kenya, Mungiki initially played the role of a vigilante group, which some residents considered at the time a legitimate form of “community policing”.

Research also shows that pathways to criminal behaviour may include social factors such as difficulties in family relationships. In this case, individuals especially the youth, join criminal groups to establish a sense of belonging or improve their social status. The primary intent of most criminal groups in Kenya has, however, generally been the pursuit of economic interests.

Why have efforts by the government aimed at crippling the various criminal gangs fallen short of their goal?

In 2010, the Kenyan government passed the Prevention of Organised Crimes Act, 2010 (revised in 2012) that spells out tough measures for dealing with criminal gangs. The Act imposes jail terms ranging from 14 years to life imprisonment for those found guilty. It also provides a harsh penalty for anyone who fundraises, organises or directs members of criminal gangs to commit a serious crime and/or for those taking or administering oath as they are liable upon conviction to life imprisonment. Subsequently, the Kenyan government has variously adopted offensive measures, including ordering a crackdown on these criminal groups but the threat has not abetted. While some Kenyans believe that the Kenyan government is less committed to fighting these criminal groups, the situation is much more complex. Criminal groups, as observed earlier, are a function of a weakening social fabric, rapid social changes, increasing poverty, unemployment and corruption, among other conditions. It is important that criminal gang dynamics are properly understood in order to devise appropriate ways of responding to them.

Criminal groups across the world are dynamic, they have a tendency to mutate or ‘go underground’ where they buy time if they realise that the police is ruthless on them. In Kenya, this is compounded by law enforcement agencies lacking adequate and appropriate human resource and infrastructure to detect and investigate organized crime. There are also issues of corruption within the criminal justice system and questions of relations between criminal groups and some politicians especially around electioneering period. In Kenya, often when criminal groups are used to spur political contests or elite interests, the relevant politicians would habitually turn up at police stations to “protect them” or create stumbling blocks to court processes.

Dealing with criminal gangs requires a comprehensive and multifaceted strategy. The Kenyan Police have made crime a battle that is largely fought by guns. The issue is compounded by allegations of extra judicial killings that sometimes lead to a negative public perception of the police. Some parents of victims who have been killed by the police on allegations of being members of criminal gangs have complained that often the police do not arrest and charge them but instead just shoot them. Overreliance on the coercive strategy is unlikely to produce a lasting solution to the gang problem because these groups are a consequence of complex and entrenched conditions in society.

While there is no quick or easy fix to the gang problem, it calls for a multi-agency approach that focuses on prevention, intervention and suppression. First, it is important that responses to the gang problem are based on a solid understanding of each specific criminal gang’s motivational underpinning, their behavior and patterns and the attendant illegal economies, if any, that they are involved in. This is important in identifying the necessary resources and response strategies. It is, therefore, important that there is a synergy of efforts involving the entire criminal justice system; the police, prosecutors, prison officers, community representatives, researchers, and others who can bring knowledge and resources to build resilience against criminal gangs. It is important that law enforcement is linked to other core support areas including local citizens/community groups, former gang individuals and of course there should be efforts to modify the structural conditions that foster gang behaviour through provision of socio-economic opportunities. Gang issues reflect wider economic, social and political processes and, as such, cannot be adequately addressed by coercive measures alone. This is why they have become a complex and lethal menace that is resistant to the Kenya Government’s control measures.

It is important to emphasise the need for the Kenyan Government to promote interventions that are informed by research and analysis. It is not clear the extent to which Kenya’s Criminal Justice system relies on the products of the National Crime Research Centre but it important that fighting any form of crime is informed by evidence based approaches. Ultimately, it is the will and commitment of the government that will make interventions effective.

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