The mixed legacy of the Flying Squad elite police unit

Wednesday March 18 2020
SQUPIC

Flying Squad officers flush out robbers from Top Plaza on Kindaruma Road, Nairobi, on May 23, 2014. DCI boss George Kinoti has replaced it with Sting Squad. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By SATURDAY NATION TEAM

Since its establishment in July 1992, during the leadership of Noah arap Too at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, the Anti Motor Vehicle Theft Unit, popularly known as the Flying Squad, has been held in awe bordering on fear.

Initially, the unit was formed to combat cases of motor vehicle theft, forensic processing of stolen motor vehicles, including verification and processing on behalf of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, verifying applications in relation to change of colour, replacement of logbooks, replacement of registration number plates, amendments to the logbook due to change of engine numbers, robbery with violence cases and organised criminal gangs.

But it grew to become something of an enigma, carrying out its activities with such ruthless efficiency that opinion was divided about its existence.

Was it operating above the law? Did the circumstances allow for bending of the law to deliver?

Importantly, were the many allegations of impunity and high-handedness the reason for its disbandment last week by the Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) George Kinoti and its replacement with the Sting Squad?

TIME FOR CHANGE

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DCI boss George Kinoti disbanded all the Flying Squad sub-units within the country and issued orders that all officers hand over any police property that was in their possession.

The new team will be dealing with armed robberies, abductions, vehicle theft and sale and distribution of contraband and substandard goods, almost the same thing the Flying Squad did.

In the fresh orders issued this week, Mr Kinoti said that no officer will ever present themselves as working with the Flying Squad Unit.

“The Directorate of Criminal Investigations wishes to inform the public that after disbanding all the Flying Squad sub-units within the country, only the Headquarters Unit based in Nairobi remained...

This marks the end of the Flying Squad Unit and no officer will present himself or herself to the public as such,” the DCI said in a statement on Monday.

Musa Yego, its head, on Friday reported to his new work station at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) headquarters, signalling the end of the unit that was as effective as it was ruthless in its operations.

Former commanders of the unit said that they supported the move to disband the squad so as to give in to a new modern crack unit capable of handling emerging crimes.

“We support the move by the boss (DCI head George Kinoti) as we had become too large and less effective with time,” said one of the commanders who requested not to be named.

PAST COMMANDERS

Describing the 24 years of the Flying Squad as hugely successful, the former commanders who spoke to the Saturday Nation said that Mr Kinoti was keen on creating a fresh team that was “better trained, well-equipped and smaller but more lethal”.

They said that their success included hunting down Mungiki followers, dealing with notorious carjackings and bank robberies of the 1990s, reducing motor vehicle theft and, in the most recent case, handling issues of fraud especially gold scams and fake money.

Other than Mr Yego, previous Flying Squad commanders were Mohammed Said, Munga Nyale, Julius ole Sunkuli, Reche Nyaga, Sebastian Ndaru, Henry Ondieki, Francis Okonya, and Sammy Lang’at.

The appointment of Mr Yego as the Director of Complaints in the DCI has ended the chequered career of one of the former commanders of the unit.

Mr Yego now joins former Flying Squad commanders who still serve in various senior commands within the police force.

Mr Yego was appointed to the position in March 2018 after the transfer of Mr Said to Kilifi, where he was deployed as the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO).

Mr Kiprotich had replaced Mr Munga Nyale, who was appointed as the Chief of Staff at Vigilance House in June 2019 by Inspector-General of Police Hillary Mutyambai.

UHURU'S STOLEN CAR

Before his appointment as Chief of Staff, Mr Nyale briefly worked as the head of Planning at Mazingira House after being deployed from the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU).

Notably, in 2014, Mr Nyale led the Flying Squad in the successful mission to recover President Uhuru Kenyatta’s stolen car in Uganda.

The presidential escort luxury BMW had been stolen in September 2014 from Nairobi by armed robbers as the driver was headed to his residence.

Months after the recovery, Mr Nyale was promoted from being Officer Commanding Flying Squad to head the Anti-Terror Police Unit, an elite squad which had more reach and resources.

Mr Nyale was the successor of Mt Julius ole Sunkuli, who was moved to the DCI headquarters, where he currently serves as the Director of Logistics.

This is however not the first time the Flying Squad is being disbanded.

In 2007, after a huge outcry over extra-judicial killings and accusations that its officers were involved in crime, it was disbanded.

Mr Kinoti disbanded it again in 2018 before appointing a new boss, Mr Yego, who was tasked with revamping it.

In the 2018 disbandment, officers who had served in the unit were ordered to surrender their firearms for audit.

ROGUE AGENTS

The officers were also asked to surrender items, including handcuffs and their uniforms, at the headquarters through a letter dated January 29, 2018.

The unit had specialised sharpshooters mostly from the General Service Unit to engage and pursue violent criminals, who did not spare any motorist in their quest to satisfy the demand for automobiles for both the local and Tanzanian markets.

Reporting directly to the Director of Criminal Investigations, the Flying Squad in their signature Peugeot 504 station wagon vehicles were a law unto themselves, not answerable to officers commanding police divisions or divisional criminal investigations officers.

For this, they were the envy of their colleagues.

According to security expert George Musamali, the unit might have been disbanded due to the numerous allegations of impunity by members of the public.

“These guys became a law unto themselves; they have been involved in extrajudicial killings and were behaving in a very unprofessional manner,” Mr Musamali said.

LAW DISREGARDED

He said at some point the unit started following its own chain of command, thus becoming uncontrollable and taking a life of its own.

“The issue of Flying Squad did not start now. They stopped playing by the books in the 1990s. They started operating like they were not members of police service and were only taking orders from the Commissioner of Police,” he added.

According to Mr Musamali, the problem started when what they (Flying Squad) were doing become acceptable.

Back in the 90s, they would arrest suspects and book them at police stations of their choice, sometimes for days without telling Officers Commanding Stations (OCS), and pick them up for further interrogations at will.

Some suspects would be presented in court but there were numerous allegations of torture.

Due to this reputation, some rogue police officers have been operating, especially in Nairobi, passing themselves off as Flying Squad agents.

The Saturday Nation went through several witness statements issued whenever police officers are arrested while committing crimes, and it has emerged that most of them have been operating as Flying Squad officers.

ABETTING CRIME

Recently, in the case of police officers attached to Kayole Police Station who were involved in a Sh6 million robbery in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate, the victim told the police that the officers had introduced themselves as being from the Flying Squad.

The arrest of Simon Mwaniki Festus, 34, in the Eastleigh case exposed the rot within the unit.

Police say Mr Mwaniki was always seen at the Flying Squad headquarters and worked with officers in the unit.

“He was on several occasions involved in the unit’s operations within the city. For instance, when three Mali nationals were arrested with fake dollars in Westlands he was there,” said a senior officer.

It is worth noting that Mr Mwaniki had a separate criminal case at Limuru Law Courts, where he is accused of having robbed a Chinese national Sh2.7 million on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway.

Just like Mr Mwaniki, another officer, Kelvin Ndosi, who has been linked to several robberies within the city, has been presenting himself as a Flying Squad officer.

A witness statement over an incident in which he allegedly kidnapped a man in Athi River showed that Ndosi had introduced himself as a Flying Squad officer before it turned out that he was a wanted criminal.

The Flying Squad was an admired unit within the police service because the officers seemed to be favoured.

MUNGIKI MENANCE

They did not have a limit on the number of firearms they carried, did not dress in uniform and could even rear dreadlocks.

The unit had some of the most feared leaders, such as Chief Inspector of Police Zebedio Maina.

Operating from Buru Buru Police Station, the soft-spoken Maina led his men in many successful operations.

But he fell to a colleague’s bullet far away from his base while pursuing the kidnappers of a five-year old girl in Kitui.

His crackdown between 2008 and 2010 on suspected Mungiki adherents who terrorised Kenyans in Murang’a, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Ngong, Ongata Rongai, Kitengela and Nairobi’s Eastlands areas was applauded by then-Interior Minister John Michuki.

When the unit was founded in 1992, each Flying Squad Peugeot 504 had a crew commander, the driver and three officers in the rear, windows rolled down and their arms menacingly hanging outside.

The mostly grey, white and beige vehicles were to become synonymous with Flying Squad detectives for more than a decade before they were gradually replaced with newer models like Toyota and Subaru.

BEST OF THE BEST

When a Flying Squad vehicle drove into an estate or through a shopping centre, residents would scamper in fear as they anticipated a gunfight would more often than not ensue as gangsters attempted to escape the dreaded officers.

Anyone who had the misfortune of being bundled into the Peugeot 504 would pee on themselves at the sight of an array of guns in gunny sacks, metal rods, machetes, hacksaws and other crude weapons on the floor boards of the police cars.

Although it was well-known that Flying Squad officers travelled in unmarked cars and regularly changed registration number plates, unlike their counterparts in regular units, the use of the Peugeot vehicles made them more conspicuous.

The presence of a fleet of Peugeot 504s at crime scenes, especially bank robberies and carjackings, not only gave assurance to victims but also sent shivers in the spines of armed robbers.

Flying Squad drivers were picked from all units countrywide. But apart from being the best of the best of drivers, they also had to be good marksmen capable of shooting from behind the wheel in the event of an ambush.

REVAMPED STYLE

After a series of attacks, killings and injuries of police officers by criminals they were hunting down following the running down and poor maintenance of the Peugeot 504s and recognition by criminals, the then CID boss Francis Sang introduced Toyota Corolla 100 to replace the Peugeots.

At some point, then-CID boss Ndegwa Muhoro instructed the Flying Squad detectives to use hired vehicles for operations after their fleets were depleted.

Ironically, a former senior detective’s fleet of car hire vehicles served the purpose well before the government later resorted to leasing vehicles for the police service.

Some of the elite crime fighting units’ detectives have resorted to using lost and found vehicles parked in police stations to conduct operations whenever they are short of transport.

TAINTED IMAGE

Senior Flying Squad officers have been kitted with Volkswagen Amarok pickup vehicles or Subaru Forester in the latest modernisation of the elite crime fighting unit that has since lost its bite and has been haunted by a series of reports of involvement in crime itself.

While the new vehicles acquired through lease have improved their mobility and response time to crime scenes, it has done little to restore the image the previous unit had been applauded for — eliminating bank robberies and reducing carjacking.

Reporting by Dominic Wabala, Nyambega Gisesa and Amina Wako