Nairobi improving its crime fighting record, but few notice

Nairobi has developed a reputation for theft and robbery that has been difficult for police to combat, despite a decline in many types of crimes.

Brendan Bannon
Detective Patrick Simiyu leaves his office to investigate a case of electronic fraud at Co-operative Bank in Nairobi

This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

Nairobi has long struggled to shake off the nickname Nairobbery, but Mike Pflanz discovers during a day with a CID detective that most crime figures are falling.

Behind the frosted glass door of an empty office in one of Nairobi’s largest banks, Corporal Patrick Simiyu is quietly meeting a source.

In February, hackers broke through the Cooperative Bank’s online security and illegally transferred half-a-million dollars from customers’ accounts onto 480 cellphones hooked up to Kenya’s mobile money scheme, M-Pesa.

When they began withdrawing the cash, computer alerts sounded.

Since then, Mr. Simiyu, 41, has painstakingly been building his case. Trawling records from the phone company, running surveillance on suspects, and partnering closely with the bank’s own investigations team, today he’s close to an arrest.

“These kinds of electronic crimes, they are something new, something I’ve only really started seeing in the last four or five years,” he told me earlier, in his dimly-lit office at Nairobi’s Criminal Investigations Division headquarters.

“It’s not like the old days when someone would walk into a bank with a gun and steal all the money. People are using computers, the thieves have become much more sophisticated, we have to constantly improve our learning to be ahead of them.”

Born to a poor family of farmers in a small village four hours drive northwest of Nairobi, Simiyu knew he would one day be a policeman here in the capital.

His father, although not wealthy, was an important man, a village elder called upon to arbitrate disputes over stolen livestock, farm boundaries or cheating middlemen.

“We were not allowed to be in the room for these meetings,” said Simuyu, today a quiet-spoken, methodical man with a quick smile. “But he would tell us stories afterward, I would always offer advice.

“To be a policeman, for me it was not just about getting employed in a job, it was because it was something I really wanted to do. And I think the dream of doing this job I do now, it started there, with my father, talking about those disputes.”

Twenty years after he first joined up, Simiyu is now a lead detective at the Anti-Fraud and Forensic Investigations department, headquartered in a narrow room decorated in the maroon, navy and cream livery of the Kenya Police.

Neckties, already knotted and ready for court appearances, hung on bent nails. Half-a-dozen metal filing cabinets with busted locks lined the walls. The electricity came and went.

Today, Simiyu’s working on four cases. The half-million-dollar mobile money fraud. Another involving checks stolen last year which have just turned up being used to pay for electricity bills. A third where a woman was conned out of a $190,000 deposit she put down to buy land that the seller didn’t own.

And – the most high-profile – a huge daylight theft by tricksters disguised as security guards who turned up to a bank masquerading as a team hired to move money, and then calmly walked out with more than $1 million in cash.

Simiyu’s meeting at the bank this morning was to discuss preparing witnesses for court. From there, we walked up through the city center to the colonial-era courthouse, to drop files off in the chaotic office of the Registrar of Prosecutions, ahead of court hearings tomorrow.

“For me the most rewarding part of the job is to stand up here in court,” he said. “To show the judge the work we have done on a big case, and to secure a conviction.”

The most challenging aspect of his work, he went on, a frown creasing his forehead, was “the lack of cooperation from the public and even from the victims themselves”.

“They think you can fix their problems overnight,” he said. “But it takes long. Even getting the information we need from the public is hard. I think people out there don’t think good things about policemen.”

He’s not wrong. The Kenya Police, as a whole, has an awful reputation. Polls consistently find that the public rates the police as the most corrupt public servants in the country.

Recent high-profile cases of armed officers shooting dead suspected robbers – on one occasion in full view of commuters stuck in a morning traffic jam – have prompted fresh accusations of heavy-handedness (the officers involved are under investigation).

At least one private security firm here plans to form its own "CSI" force for hire after too many prosecutions fail due to a lack of decent evidence collected by police investigators. The courts themselves are swamped, with 900,000 outstanding cases, stretching back as far as 1989.

“There are these issues, but I have to say a lot of it is media exaggeration,” said DCIO Peter Mabeya, Simuyu’s boss and the head of CID in Nairobi.

“Why all these negative stories? Where is the balance, where is the story about the crime rates falling? Nairobi’s not that bad today, it’s the same as many other cities.”

A look at annual reports of crime figures from the Kenya Police would largely support that statement, with some clear exceptions.

Between 2006 and 2010, homicide rose 3 percent, including a 10 percent jump in murders. Economic crimes, like the ones Simiyu’s investigating, shot up 39 percent.

But run your eyes down the spreadsheet comparing the latest crime rates with earlier years, and the percentage drops far outweigh the percentage rises. Violent robbery fell 36 percent nationwide in that four-year period. Home invasions were down 25 percent, rape was down 27 percent and car theft was down 32 percent.

Although it’s not easy to verify those figures, anecdotally there are positive reports, too. Two friends who learned I was researching this article told me stories, of which they had firsthand knowledge, of detectives traveling across the country investigating cases. Both led to arrests.

“I’ll be honest, I was a bit surprised that these guys were actually doing their jobs,” one of my friends told me.

The gap between the perception and the reality of his job worries Simiyu. He’s set up a fund, with money from his own pocket, to help poor kids in his village through school. Each year, he runs a football tournament for youngsters, “to help them focus and not be idle”, he said.

“Really, I want to try to change the idea that the police are not there to help, but in fact to harass, the public,” he said. “Sometimes, there are bad apples in a barrel. It seems a shame to me that we are all tarred with this same brush.”

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