An uneasy calm has returned to Kisumu after the killing of local businessman-cum-politician Shem Onyango ‘Kwega’ sparked three days of rioting last week.
The police, in particular, have come under sharp criticism for their failure to contain the wave of crime.
Two days after gunmen shot and killed Mr Onyango, another businessman, Mr Fanuel Marwa, was killed at Mamboleo on the Kisumu-Kakamega road.
It was the third high-profile killing in the town in a week following the hacking to death of Dr Joseph Odhiambo, a Centres for Disease Control (CDC) researcher, by suspected thugs.
Residents say incidents of car-jacking, robbery and homicide have been on the rise in Kisumu.
They say Migosi, Kenya Re, Car Wash, Gudka and Kondele estates are crime hot spots. But Nyanza provincial police boss Joseph ole Tito denies that there is an upsurge of crime in the town.
Mr Ole Tito instead blames the problem on the shortage of police officers.
“It is unfortunate that lives are lost in our presence, but because of a limited number of police officers we are not able to cover all the areas where the assailants have gone into hiding,” he says.
That a new police post was being set up at upper Migosi is an indication that criminal gangs had a strong presence there, he said.
“The Car Wash Police Post had only five policemen, but since last month I added five more so they should be able to deal with the wave of crime in the area,” Mr Ole Tito said.
Another police post will be put up in the Car Wash area on the way to Kibos, which is another hot spot for carjacking, he said.
What should be more worrying for residents and police are reports linking the deteriorating security situation to the activities of organised criminal gangs. The operations of the gangs are being compared to those of the Mungiki in Nairobi, Central and Rift Valley provinces.
Like Mungiki, the Kisumu gangs have a presence in the public transport business, especially at the bus park where they collect levies from operators as “protection” fee.
The gangs also thrive by extorting money from the numerous boda boda (bicyle/motorcyle taxi) operators.
The havoc wreaked by the gangs is being felt in Nyalenda where motorists are said to have abandoned the route because of constant attempts at extortion.
Mr Kevin Ouma, a public transport operator, says he was forced to change routes because of crime.
“I realised that a huge chunk of my collections were going to them,” he says. They have extended their tentacles to the small shops that mostly deal in counterfeit Chinese goods popular locally as ‘exhibitions’ or stalls, car and land buying businesses, and fake money minting called ‘wash-wash’.
The more successful gang members live flashy lifestyles, driving around town in expensive cars and living in the upmarket estates. Mr Audi Ogada, the chairman of Kisumu Residents Association, says, adding that the gangs are largely responsible for the deteriorating security situation here.
“They man various territories that are coded as ‘barracks’ and their word is law there,” Mr Ogada said.
Some of the ‘barracks’ are on Ring Road or in Kondele, Nyalenda, Angola Musumbiji, Car Wash and Somalia.
In addition to extortion, they seek handouts from politicians and other people looking for hirelings for various tasks.
“If say you want 1,000 youths for a given task, legal or not, the ‘barracks’ will promptly give you so long as you oil their palms,” says Mr Ogada.
The gangs are thought to have their roots in the volatile political turf wars of the 1990s when the then ruling party Kanu and the opposition mobilised youths to bolster their respective campaigns or protect their perceived strongholds.
The most notorious of the groups was the Baghdad Boys which had its base in Kondele area.
The new versions of Baghdad Boys — American Marines and China Squad — were recently engaged in running street battles linked to the control of the bus park. Mr Ogada, who was a member of Baghdad Boys, says politicians still use such groups to do dirty campaign jobs.
“Do not be cheated. All the aspirants for various seats in town have met them or their representatives and agreed to do one thing or the other for them in exchange for their support and protection,” he says.
Mr Collins Ong’wen, another former member of the Bagdad Boys, says the current gangs are driven by the desire to control resources as opposed to the past when they were largely foot soldiers for politicians.
“The tussle between the two gangs largely revolves around economics; they want to have a say on stalls, bus park and other business ventures like land buying,” says Mr Ong’wen, who leads Bafope (Bagdad for Peace), a group that is rehabilitating former Bagdad Boys.
Both Mr Ogada and Mr Ong’wen blame the police for abetting crime in the town.
“The gangs brag in broad daylight that they have ‘pocketed’ the security agencies in town. The laxity with which the police deal with them gives some credence to this,” says Mr Ong’wen.
They say that what makes the current groups dangerous is the fact that some of their members are armed.
“Their leaders have guns. We do not know whether they are licensed or not, but we are wondering why they should possess guns,” Mr Ogada said.
Kisumu East District Commissioner Willy Cheboi says there are indications that small arms could indeed be in the wrong hands.