The rise of armed groups with close links to county governments that purport to provide security and political support has raised the red flag.
Sunday Nation investigations reveal that Migori, Bungoma, Kiambu, Kakamega, Busia, Nyamira, Kisii and Murang’a are some of the most affected where the groups with close links to county officials operate with impunity.
Many of the groups were used during last year’s election campaigns but have since become part of the day-to-day operations of various politicians and county government officials.
Some accompany them to public functions where they provide security and have in some instances been known to attack perceived opponents.
In Migori, investigations into the killing of Rongo University student Sharon Otieno, who was a girlfriend of embattled Governor Okoth Obado, have brought to the surface the existence of a deadly political gang.
Mr Obado and three of his personal aides — Mr Michael Oyamo, Mr Caspal Obiero and Mr Elvis Omondi — have been charged with the murder of Ms Otieno.
But it is the association of the aides to a local gang, known as Sangwenya, that has lifted the lid on operations of similar gangs in other counties.
“We are investigating claims that Sangwenya members are involved in crime but as far as I am concerned, they are people who just collect handouts from the governor,” Migori Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Commander Benedict Kigen said.
However, our investigations link the group to dubious activities that one member, who spoke in confidence, defended as “protecting the county government".
Multiple sources interviewed revealed that Sangwenya, which is coordinated by some ex-military and police officers, was responsible for the chaos that erupted at Migori Stadium during an Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) rally presided over by party deputy leader Hassan Joho in April last year.
The gang, which accused the ODM leaders of supporting Mr Obado’s rival Ochilo Ayacko, stormed the venue and unleashed violence, forcing the guests and the crowd to scamper for safety.
We have also obtained a video clip in which Ms Hellen Obado, the governor’s wife, asks that some of the group’s members be considered for employment in the county government.
“You have rewarded people and we had team Sangwenya and your office team. Team Sangwenya performed well but some people in your office team did not score.
"Mzee (Mr Obado), we are requesting you as team Sangwenya, if God blesses you and you access that office please remember all those who helped you,” she says.
The governor’s wife goes on to say some Sangwenya members are qualified to replace those who “betrayed” the governor.
Mr Obado’s critics accuse the Sangwenya group of being used to suppress divergent opinion across the county.
“The gang is a lethal squad operating like the county government’s department of defence and interior at the same time. The only difference is that they are not recognised by law,” a victim of the group said.
Some of them are believed to enjoy protection from the local police, something Mr Kigen, the county DCI boss, denied, adding that Sangwenya is made up of very few people.
In Bungoma, Governor Wycliffe Wangamati came under fire from members of the county assembly (MCAs) last week over his alleged involvement with a gang that was terrorising his perceived political opponents.
Last week, the MCAs moved a motion to discuss the threats against them.
“Mr Speaker, it is unfortunate that several members have been attacked by this group whose activities are similar to those carried out by militia groups. If we don’t rise up to the occasion as a House and address this issue, I am afraid our security is at stake,” Mbakalu MCA Bethwel Mwambu, who moved the motion, said.
He cited an incident in which nominated MCA Luke Opwora was allegedly assaulted at the Bungoma Members Club.
Siboti MCA Simiyu Wamusai said he was blocked from attending a church service in Malikisi by the gang members, who accused him of opposing the governor. Police were called in to disperse the group.
Mr George Makari (Musikoma ward) said a senior county government official warned him against criticising the governor.
“Mr Speaker, he told me they will soon visit me the way they have visited other MCAs and show me their might,” he said.
Mr Majimbo Okumu of Khalaba ward said MCAs perceived to be opposed to the county executive were being “hunted down” and “this will compromise our oversight role".
Mr Martin Wanyonyi of Ndivisi said the attacks should be taken seriously and relevant government agencies called in to investigate.
Speaker Emmanuel Situma directed that an ad hoc committee be formed to investigate the matter. The 12-member team will be chaired by Mr Mwambu.
“ … I am not aware of the said militia and neither are we privy to the said discussion,” the governor's spokesman, Mr Timothy Machi, said.
In Kiambu, gang members linked to the executive attacked a group of people who had gone to the county offices last month to protest destruction of their businesses.
The group was seeking audience with Governor Ferdinand Waititu after county askaris raided a phone business belonging to Ms Peris Wambui, popularly known as Wambui wa Githurai.
The askaris carted away a container shop with phones and other wares worth Sh230,000 and which, according to Ms Wambui, are yet to be traced.
But as the group, which included former county Roads minister John Mugwe, waited at the reception to see the governor, Ms Wambui said goons started raining blows on them and chased them out of the reception. Outside, more goons attacked them.
The incident came barely two weeks after goons attacked a businessman embroiled in a land row pitting him and Postal Corporation against and the county.
The county has been sued by Posta and a petroleum firm Fave Gas Ltd after it invaded the Sh100 million-land owned by the corporation and turned it into a matatu terminus.
The Environment Court ordered the county to move out.
Efforts to get a comment from the governor over the issue were futile as our phone calls went unanswered.
But County Commissioner Wilson Wanyanga recently said they had started investigations after Woman Representative Gathoni Wa Muchomba reported at the Kiambu Police Station that the county had mobilised a militia to deal with her.
In Kakamega, a mysterious uniformed group different from county askaris appears to have been formally recognised.
The special team of 10 “enforcement officers” that travels in a Toyota Landcruiser provides security to Governor Wycliffe Oparanya besides his police bodyguards.
Their arrival in functions is usually dramatic as they jump out of the rear of the vehicle and quickly take positions around the main dais.
They are referred to by their colleagues as the governor’s “Recce” team because of their abrasive crowd control tactics.
“Unlike other enforcement officials, this team has received thorough training to execute their work with precision. They always go about their duties, prepared for any eventualities," county enforcement boss, Mr Jonathan Kisaka, said in their defence.
In Murang’a, Governor Mwangi wa Iria was in the run-up to the last elections accused of deploying a special team to defend him during campaigns when he contested for the Jubilee ticket against Mr Jamleck Kamau.
In Kisii, the dreaded Sungungu gang is known to thrive during the political season.
Even though it has existed for years — even before devolution — increased political competition appears to have emboldened the gang, especially during campaign season.
We could not, however, find any direct link with county officials. In Nyamira, uniformed “enforcement” officers usually hover around county government officials.
Reports by Justus Ochieng, Gaitano Pesa, Dennis Lubanga, Eric Wainaina, Benson Amadala and Ndung’u Gachane.