Kaharatĩ-Kangarĩ: The 43km ‘Mũngĩkĩ road’ in Murang’a County

One of the marvels of governance in Murang’a County is how the government used taxpayers’ money to build a public road but surrendered its management to a criminal gang that extorts money from users, with those who defy them ending up murdered.

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The Kaharatí-Kangarí road has Kaharatí, Heho, Gakũria Hũngũ, Kambĩ, Karurĩ, Mũthithi, Ngabũri, Kĩere, Karega, Kĩgumo, Gakĩra, Ikũmbĩ and Kangarĩ as the main towns, as well as Njiiris, Gatiainĩ and Mairí into the Aberdare forest to connect to Nyandarua County.

The road takes one to the home villages of major power peddlers in the current government, key among them, ironically, being Transport CS James Macharia, who branches off in Karega to his Gachocho home.

It is also the road to the late Agikuyu benga beat maestro Joseph Kamaru, whose home compound is next to that of Julius Gitau, the Thika millionaire who, after his income got a beating from the Covid-19 pandemic, jotted a suicide note that he had tossed himself into the Thika River, went ahead and kidnapped himself, went into hiding for 11 weeks to escape auctioneers and came out to claim that he had been at the hands of very evil people who had forced him to serve them as a houseboy.

The road also leads Murang’a Woman Rep Sabina Chege to her Kinyona home. All the 11 people who have served as Kigumo constituency MP so far and former ambassador to Germany, John Baptista Kirore Mwaura, use this route to their villages.

The MPs are Karanja Njiiri (1963), John Munene (1969), Njuguna Mwangi (1979; he is Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru’s father-in-law), Francis Thuo (1983-1992), Kirore Mwaura (1992), Kihara Mwangi (1997-2007), Jamleck Kamau (2007-2013) and the incumbent Wangari Mwaniki.

Mr Kamau Muchunu (Jamleck Kamau’s father), who was a clinical nurse at Kigumo dispensary, was the pioneer of public transport on the route, having owned a bus.

Heho shopping centre that has borne the brunt of Mungiki gang capture along Kaharatí/Kangarí road/Mwangi Muiruri I Nation Media Group

The shame of this road being in the hands of the extortion gang that calls itself Nja Nene, an offspring of the Mungiki sect, has persisted for the past 12 years — and still counting.

“It started in 2010 when the late John Michuki, who was minister for Transport, ordered all matatus to belong to saccos or investment companies,” said James Kiamata, chairman of the Kigumo Road Users Welfare Association.

“There emerged one sacco called Kigumo Travellers Sacco (KTS) that registered itself to ply this route. To keep away competition from any other sacco, the managers recruited youths to police the road.”

He said the youths were supposed to ensure that all matatus not registered under the KTS were barred from doing business on the road.

“As appreciation to the youths for keeping competition out of that road, all KTS members agreed to part with a daily fee as salary for the youths. In 2011, the fee was Sh50 per matatu but the amount has been growing and currently stands at Sh200,” he said.

Passengers end up being surcharged this illegal levy in fares, making the road among the most costly in Murang’a County.

But once those youths gained roots and influence, in collaboration with some matatu owners, they became rogue in their greed. They introduced their own rules that included vetting and registering drivers and conductors, charging road use fees and employing route managers.

“This gang spread its tentacles and affiliated itself to public transport gangs along Murang’a to Thika and Nairobi. It became lethal force,” Mr Kiamata said.

“Thanks to the expanded network, a defiant driver, conductor or matatu owner could be flagged down along the Murang’a-Thika-Nairobi route and punished either through a severe attack, murder or the matatu getting stolen,” he said.

The road had been under the grip of the Mungiki gang since the 1990s, but back then, extortion was discreet.

It was not until 2006 that the Mungiki gang’s atrocities of beheading residents, extorting from all economic sectors and executing female genital mutilation orgies became runaway crimes and Michuki took note.

As the gang solidified its grip on the transport sector, on June 2, 2007, a matatu driver and his tout were beheaded near Karurí shopping centre.

The two had defied paying the extortion fees set by the gang. The driver was flagged down, he and the conductor dragged out of the matatu and both were beheaded outside the Christian International Church.

Passengers, who watched the horrifying 5am act, were not left unscathed as they were herded inside the church, robbed of their valuables and made to witness the gang members carrying the mutilated heads to the middle of the road as a sign of conquest.

The gang then torched the matatu and leisurely walked away sniffing tobacco and wiping blood off their swords on their coats.
Word on the streets was that the sect was enjoying high-level political patronage and, interestingly, none of the area leaders condemned the incident.

“It was now very apparent in the ensuing security profiling that the KTS had all along been in the grip of the Mungiki sect, where it had recruited the youths from Mugoiri in Kiharu sub-county to take charge of the road,” said a former KTS member.

Gakúria Húngú shopping centre along Kaharatí Kangarí road/Mwangi Muiruri I Nation Media Group

As Michuki battered the menace, the gang dispersed from the road for a brief moment, only to make a comeback in 2010 when the minister ordered all matatus in the country to form saccos.

“The same matatu owners joined ranks with some area politicians and corrupt security personnel to control the road,” said Martin Kagiri, a former matatu owner.

“It was a matter of time before the ‘union’ became so lethal, moneyed and influential as area residents suffered the transport monopoly, price distortions, violence, robberies and limited investment opportunities along the route.”

The gang changed its name from Mungiki (from the Gikuyu word muingiki, which means multitude) to Nja Nene (broad field). In the 2017 election campaigns, Governor Mwangi Wa Iria blew the whistle about the Nja Nene gang, saying it was being used for political projects.

According to a security intelligence report dated February 10, 2020, “the gang along the route enjoys protection from some area politicians, security officers and matatu owners”.

The report had been demanded by the County Security Committee and the then county commissioner, Mohammed Barre, had vowed to crush the gang.

The start of Kaharatí/Kangarí road (to the right) off Kenol-Murang’a road/Mwangi Muiruri I Nation Media Group

By the time the report was compiled, the route had 170 matatus, the gang collecting Sh200 from each to a daily total of Sh34,000. Among other charges that increased the income of the gang is a Sh5,000 fee for a new driver and Sh2,500 for a new conductor along the route. A new matatu pays Sh50,000 as route enlisting fee. The gang also collects on-the-spot fees from all transport vehicles using the road.

The gang effectively plays the role of the Transport Licensing Board (TLB), National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), Motor Vehicle Inspectorate Department, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) and Transport ministry.

It is this report that led the former Kigumo deputy county commissioner, Margaret Mbugua, to announce that “we have to agree on salient issues … that if this road belongs to Mungiki, you fold it and take it home so that the government can build a public road … But if this road belongs to the public, Mungiki must vacate it”.

Mr Barre and Ms Mbugua worked overtime and were able to force the entry of competitors along the route in 2020, and for the first time, the KTS monopoly was crashed.

But it was short-lived.

Mr Barre and Ms Mbugua were transferred and in came replacements who did not give the issue a focused eye. Murang’a County Police Commander Donatha Kiplagat also visited the road and declared publicly that it was infested with Mungiki, vowing to crack down on the gang, and she too was transferred.

“The gang that had started waning during Mr Barre, Ms Kiplagat and Ms Mbugua’s onslaughts regrouped and today, even those competitor saccos that were introduced along the route have since been whipped into paying the fees,” said an insider in one of the saccos operating on the route.

“Today, we have 300 matatus that ply the route and at a daily protection fee of Sh200, the loot totals at Sh60,000 daily.”

The church compound where on June 2, 2007 Mungiki gang beheaded a driver and his conductor, robbed passengers and torched the matatu/Mwangi Muiruri I Nation Media Group

The source disclosed that security officers operating on the route get their share of the loot, some area politicians get some bills paid by the gang and the few matatu owners who are behind the racket get a share.

“There is a politician who has played the role of patron to the group and we are providing security, mobilisation and some funding to his campaigns,” a member of the gang told Nation Africa.

“If I were you, I won’t belabour this point, because the security has failed to deal with it and I wonder what your pen can do to change it.”
To efficiently control the route, gang members have established alternate extortion stop points at Kaharatí, Jikaze, Heho, Gwa Kírore, Karurí, Njora, Múthithi and Gakíra shopping centres.

In the course of compiling this report, Nation.Africa witnessed the ridiculous scene of gang members collecting their daily extortion fees at the Njora-Ichagaki-Maragua junction as officers from the Muthithi Police Station guarded a roadblock, they too collecting their ‘daily bread’ from the same matatus — powerfully illustrating the core reason this vice will not stop anytime soon.

Area Deputy County Commissioner Stanslaus Apwokha said “this is a matter under review and I will invite you to my office for an open discussion”.

Muthithi market

As the gang continues its reign, the shopping centres along the Kaharatí-Kangarí route remain dull and with unexploited potential as the negative history repels new investors while also limiting the potential of those already in business.

“The gang has led to lowered performance of the main Muthithi market situated along the route, because traders seeking to transport their wares must part with extortion fees that diminish profitability,” said Murang’a South Region Business Community chair Elias Mbatia.

“Property prices along this area have remained stagnant because the Mungiki tag has worked against them. Our shopping centres also suffer from persistent break-ins and the same gang is suspected to be behind the menace.”

He said that in a year, the gang collects more than Sh35 million in illegal levies, money that could be going into growing the area and creating employment. He added that the total negative effect on the area’s economy runs into hundreds of millions of shillings every year this gang is allowed to operate.

“But can the gang be defeated? Yes, it can,” he said.

Transport operators

He said the county government is mandated to manage matatu termini and collect rates from transport operators and it should take charge. Even after Governor Wa Iria publicly acknowledged the existence of the gang, he never attempted to take responsibility in his 10-year tenure.

“Then the County Security Committee must make up its mind on whether it values the rule of law or criminal enterprise that enriches some police officers to the detriment of the society’s growth,” Mr Mbatia said.

He added: “As far as we are concerned, there is no difference between this Nja Nene gang and the government, since both are parallel governments.”

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