The fine art of resilience
Published on June 28, 2021
Nakuru, in the South Rift region of Kenya, is a cosmopolitan town. It has experienced an upsurge in gang activity, including that associated with the Confirm gang, which has been gaining popularity among gang members due to its online swindling scheme in the semi-urban settlements of Kivumbini, Bondeni and Kaloleni. It is estimated that there are now at least 150 000 members of the gang in these areas.
In May 2021, the Resilience Fund partnered with Art4Rights, a local civil society organization that seeks to reinforce human rights through artistic expression, to hold a series of stakeholder forums to address these issues, and pave the way to increased community resilience to the organized criminality perpetrated by gangs.
According to the more than 90 community members who attended the meetings, each household in this densely populated area has at least one gang member, and there is a worrying trend of children as young as eight being recruited into the deadly gangs, running errands like buying airtime, snacks and drugs for their bosses.
‘Most of them are our relatives. Two of my children are actually gang members and are currently engaged in crime,’
The stakeholders who attended emphasized the need to create awareness of the mushrooming gang phenomenon in Nakuru County. They said that there are now more than eight gangs operating in the town. ‘We have had cases of women being targeted and waylaid in secluded spots where they end up being raped and thrown in cactus plantations by these gangs. House break-ins have also become a norm, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered many of the youth jobless,’ said Ruth (not her real name), who attended the forum in Kaloleni.
Patronage bonds have reportedly allowed the gangs to continue to intimidate residents with impunity, as they are bailed out by political figures in the event that they are arrested. This, community members claim, has cushioned gang members, creating a layer of protection that allows them to keep harassing the public.
Residents drew attention to how gang activity has shape-shifted into different manifestations, and gang members, who, yesterday, may have been involved in online scamming today roam the streets armed with daggers and attack anyone who challenges them. Boda boda (motorbike transport) operators fall victim to these deadly gangs, but find themselves on the wrong side of the law when they are accused of aiding the gangs by taxiing them to various destinations. ‘The gangs have been targeting our boda boda operators and in some cases steal their bikes,’ said Kevin Kimani, chairman of the Mahindi Choma sacco (Savings and Credit Cooperative Society). ‘Most of the people in my sacco have ended up being brutally attacked,’ he added, explaining how one of the operators was recuperating in hospital after having been attacked by axe-wielding gang members. ‘Unfortunately, he is not the only statistic, and the numbers keep rising,’ said Kimani.
At the forums, residents expressed concern over the way the courts were handling the armed gangs. ‘In court, they are charged only for obtaining money by pretence. And yet they fleece millions daily from vulnerable people’s pockets,’
Jane Muthoni, a local assistant chief, pointed out that the government will repossess the homes of anyone found harbouring gang members in government housing in the area as a means of discouraging the parents from protecting the gangs. She challenged the residents to utilize whistleblower channels, including sending anonymous reports to the suggestion boxes at the police stations or calling the Nakuru police hotline.
The forum participants advocated for improved government policies and promoted their ideas for community action against these crimes. For example, community members now want the government to pass stricter laws focusing on gang internet scamming activities in the area.
Esther Njeri, chairperson of Art4Rights, called for better mechanisms for dealing with the gangs, claiming that recruiters mostly targeted youth who were unlikely to be employed in the formal sector owing to their academic record or social status. ‘There is a need to help the youth in the area get technical skills, as this will deter them from joining gangs. Some of the ones who joined gangs were school dropouts and had lost hope in life,’ said Njeri.
Njeri called on civil society organizations in the area to help improve people’s soft skills, pointing out that they had spotted a lot of talent among residents, including painting, poetry, kickboxing, acting and photography – skills that could be nurtured as part of the quest to fight crime in the area. ‘We would love them to use their skills to come up with pieces that speak to the community about the impact of these gangs and what can be done to curb them. This would be a creative way to handle the problem,’ she added.
Joyce Kimani, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime observatory coordinator for East Africa and the Horn, emphasized the need to improve the economic health of reformed gang members, as many are lured into crime due to push factors like poverty and peer influence. ‘Joblessness compounds this problem, as many of them could do with the money. In addition, bureaucratic malfeasance in the provision of state-initiated cash initiatives, such as the Youth Fund and Kazi Kwa Vijana, intended to stimulate youth employment, has seen key officials offer jobs to relatives and leave out the needy ones,’ said Kimani.
Kimani believes, however, that the power to curb the gang scourge lies ultimately in the hands of the people, through community dialogues and the creation of better conditions for the youth.