On the afternoon of January 27, 2017, youth drawn from Keroka Community Policing Group descended on the town’s market. Their mission was simple and clear — to arrest 25-year-old Felix Nyamboga. It did not take long before they swooped down on their unsuspecting target. They beat him up with crude weapons, loaded him onto a motorbike, and in a caravan of tens of boda boda riders, they took him to Keginga village in the outskirts of Keroka town, where they lynched him.
His crime? Nyamboga had been accused of stealing a motorbike.
Following the incident, terror has befallen the small town. Nyamboga’s wife and their two-year-old daughter have been thrown into grief.
For many residents here, this is cold blood murder, another case of senseless bourgeoning insecurity. According to neighbours, Nyamboga had never been arrested or questioned by police for his alleged involvement in motorbike theft, raising doubts on the soundness of the claims that cost his life. Questions still linger why this matter was never reported to police.
According to Masaba North sub-county Commissioner, Benson Leparmorijo, the incident was the fifth act of lynching of suspects by vigilante groups in the area in January alone.
“This has now become a vicious cycle where motorbikes are stolen and suspects are sought after and lynched. This triggers more retaliatory attacks from other vigilante groups,” says Leparmorijo.
On January 11, another man was torched on grounds of similar suppositions. The Nation learnt that hospitals in the area refused to admit him for fear of triggering the wrath of his attackers. He later succumbed to his burns.
And in the most recent development, a 17-year-old student was burnt to death last week by the vigilante group on suspicion of stealing chicken, triggering protests in Keroka town.
Just days after Nyamboga’s lynching, Beatrice Minda, a teacher at Maburi Primary School, says she ran into the group’s viciousness. She notes that she was attacked by a man she has known for many years.
“I was heading to my house after shopping in town at around 8.30pm. Riders started shouting and chasing a thief. Confused, I just stood where I was. He approached me and hit me several times on the head with a club, asking me what I was doing outside at that time of the night. Good Samaritans took me to hospital after he and his gang had left,” she says.
Frightened residents watched the attack from a distance, afraid to intervene. In this sub-county, Minda says, residents live in fear of members of the group, and no one dares question them, lest they turn against them.
QUEST FOR JUSTICE
“It is Rambo who hit me. He is a well-known person in this location. This is injustice to me and every other person he has ever attacked. I am ready to challenge the matter in court,” says Minda in her hospital bed, where she has been recuperating for three weeks.
John Maroko, popularly known as Rambo, is the leader of the group that holds immense sway here, and believed to be behind a spate of killings of suspected motorbike thieves.
Minda claims that she reported the matter at Keroka Police Station, but her quest to obtain a P3 form hit a dead end. “The officers at the station have constantly blocked my request for a P3 form, which has hurt my quest for justice,” she laments.
Residents recount that the birth of the community policing group was occasioned by the killing of Francis Kinuthia, a local businessman, in June 2015. Following the incident, villagers convened a meeting to address the rising insecurity. “We agreed to disband the group, which was also accused of perpetrating arbitrary killings of locals. The group leader, known as Nyakoni, was a criminal in Keroka. When his cover was blown, he committed suicide in his house,” recounts Jane Kerubo, who runs a vegetable shop in Keroka.
But the disbandment of the group would not help matters either. According to residents, this amplified criminal activities. Six months later, insecurity levels had reached the lowest calibration when a popular politician and businessman, Vincent Makori, was accosted and killed by criminals.
“Another meeting was convened and a new community policing group was selected. That is how Rambo, and the rest of the team, took over the role of protecting residents,” says Kerubo.
While the group was initially hailed for clamping down on insecurity, residents now live in fear of arbitrary attacks from members of the dreaded group, which they term friend turned enemy.
Some villagers say insecurity has worsened following the formation of the group. “We came up with the team hoping they would restore peace. But now they have turned against us,” says Kerubo.
According to locals, Rambo and his team normally storm into bars at night and beat up everyone. “He is a heavy-handed man who does not seem to care about the rule of law. Everyone is disgruntled about him,” says Stanley Oseko, another resident.
KILLED MERELY ON SUSPICION
“They kill people merely on suspicion of theft. No investigations are done. We cannot tolerate these vigilantes anymore,” Calvin Momanyi a businessman in Keroka, says.
Rambo, however, vehemently denies the claims. “Our duty is to protect the community from criminals. Those pointing fingers at us are liars who are not conscious of the threats we are all facing as a community, and who do not want to support the cause,” says Rambo.
According to Rambo, local chiefs are to blame for the deteriorating state of security. “All that these chiefs are doing is to promote illicit liquor in the region. They rarely address insecurity. The people of this area have been left at the mercy of criminals, who now run the show,” he says.
Mid last year, Rambo is said to have quarrelled with Kegogi assistant chief, Patroba Nyamwaya, after which members of Keroka Community Policing Group beat him up in broad daylight as villagers watched petrified.
Rambo, however, insists that the sub-chief had insulted him following their personal differences, prompting him (Rambo) and the group members to attack him.
“The chief is the architect of the propaganda that I collect bribes from business people in this town. This is a cover-up strategy. The chief should instead explain why his fellow chiefs propagate the menace of illicit liquor by collecting bribes from illegal brewers. This is a matter in the public domain,” he says.
“Today, we are more secure under the community policing group. Even the police are aware and appreciate the good job we are doing,” says Rambo, adding that he does not possess a gun as some people in Keroka claim.
Speaking to the Nation on phone, Keroka OCPD Wambugu Ngunjiri said that no one had made a formal complaint about Rambo’s conduct. “No one is above the law. If the residents feel that Rambo and his team are not serving them as they should, they should get a new team of people they trust and give them to us to work with,” he said, adding that without enough evidence to arrest and prosecute Rambo, police cannot do anything.
Residents, however, denied claims that no one has made an official complaint to police. They said police have been reluctant to launch investigations. “The OCS has been in denial all along and changed his tone only recently. Something has to be done soon,” said a resident who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Leparmorijo has repeatedly acknowledged the role of community policing groups as a mechanism to reinforce security efforts by officers in the sub-county, but finds fault with those taking the law into their hands. “If you suspect that some people in the group pose a threat to our security, the group will be disbanded forthwith. My officers are under strict instructions to pursue and apprehend anyone suspected of causing mayhem in my area of jurisdiction,” said Leparmorijo.
According to Leparmorijo, members of the community policing group should work in consultation and harmony with police officers. “They are required to hand suspects over to the police whenever they arrest them. It is criminal to take the law into your own hands. The police will press criminal charges against members of any vigilante group suspected of disrupting locals’ peace.”
He adds: “We must know who is genuinely crusading for peace and who is hiding behind the curtain of community policing to terrorise our people.”
But some villagers support the existence of community policing groups. Abel Morang’a, a teacher, says: “We cannot compare things today and how they were before. There has been a significant improvement in security in Keroka and its environs. What people need to do is to support the group by identifying and helping to weed out criminals within the formation.”
In the wake of terror, Jason Otara, the father of the slain student, organised a baraza in Kerira village to discuss the plummeting state security, which was attended by tens of villagers.
“The group killed an innocent boy. Derrick Otara had not stolen anything. The owner of the chicken absolved him. We call upon authorities to protect us,” said Zablon Gisembe, a village elder.
Otsieno Namwaya of Human Rights Watch said: “The concept of community policing in Kenya is often undermined by some quarters, including security officers. This allows vigilante groups to organise themselves, and take up what they call administration of justice, which in most cases disregards the due process and human rights of the individuals involved.”
He added: “Community policing groups should be recognised and empowered if safety for all must be achieved. But most importantly, these groups should be thoroughly scrutinised to ensure that they do not become hideouts for criminals.”
The chapter of the book of vigilante groups is not new in Gusiiland. A group known as Sungu Sungu was the first to start its activities in the region. The group, which is listed as a community vigilante group by the Human Rights Watch, was loved and hated in equal measure by locals due to their ruthlessness when dealing with criminal suspects.
A report dated February 2, 2012 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, indicated that despite its origin as a “community security force with ties to the police, the Sungu Sungu have increasingly turned criminal and murderous over the years.” Sungu Sungu was formed in the late 90s and concentrated its activities in Kisii and Kuria but later shot to national prominence following their involvement in conducting arrests, investigating and detaining suspects in illegal cells before executing them.
In March 2007, the government outlawed Sungu Sungu together with 17 other vigilante groups.
Over the years, lynching of theft and witchcraft suspects has festered on despite the intervention of security officers. In 2009, in Bomatara village, Kitutu Chache, five elderly people suspected of witchcraft were burnt to death, sparking widespread outrage from various rights groups across the world. The five were said to have abducted and made a five-year old boy dumb through black magic.
In a similar incident in 2016, a woman and her daughter were burnt to death in their house on suspicion of witchcraft. In October, another woman was beheaded for allegedly practicing sorcery.
That same year, a group of local leaders called on the government to disband the State-sponsored community policing group. According to the leaders, the group had been conducting extra-judicial killings, torturing people and arbitrarily detaining others.
Months later, the then Kisii Commissioner, Chege Mwangi, issued an order that illigalised all community policy groups, and appealed to residents to form new ones, which would be scrutinised regularly to determine the scope of their activities, and even composition.
MOTORBIKE THEFT TRIGGERS LYNCHING
Kisii and Nyamira counties are notorious for motorbike thefts, which has consequently led to lynching of suspects.
A vicious gang has been reigning terror on boda boda riders for months, attacking and beating them senselessly before stealing their customers’ belongings.
In retaliation, riders, in conjuction with a vigilante group, hunt down and corner their attackers, and lynch them.
Kisii County Police commander, Agnes Mudambi, acknowledged the rising cases crime involving motorcycles.
“Riders must exercise watchfulness especially at night when carrying people they do not know.”
Her Nyamira County counterpart Titus Ndung’u has in the past appealed to residents to record scenes where mobs beat up suspects. “This will help us identify the culprits behind the lynching because people are not supposed to take matters into their own hands,” says Ndung’u.
Early this year, two men suspected to be motorcycle thieves were killed by an angry mob and their bodies torched in Nyamira. The two, identified as Hesbon Ombui 22, and Evans Osoro 33, were killed after they were found with a stolen motorbike.
In February 2016, another bodaboda rider was brutally attacked with a hammer and his motorbike stolen. A week later, two suspects would be cornered and killed by an angry mob. More deaths would follow these, following a familiar pattern involving motorbikes, riders, and inconclusive police investigations.
While this new mode of transport has eased movement of people and goods in this area, particularly in terrains where matatus cannot navigate, so has it bred crime.