A Walk Into Memory: Kenya’s Mafia-Style Bank Heists Of The 90s

Twenty years ago, six sharply dressed armed gangsters swaggered into a Nairobi bank and after five minutes, they casually walked out with Sh96 million stuffed in three gunny bags without firing a single shot.

At the time, this was a staggering amount that could be ten-fold now, going by the current inflationary rate.

With almost divine calm, the thugs had emptied the entire strongroom of a tier-one bank’s headquarters, making it one of Kenya’s biggest bank heists yet.

A hardened top city detective described the daylight heist as “mafia-style” pointing out that in his entire career as a law enforcer, he had never seen such a brazen and daring gang.

“I have not seen anything like this and I can assure you that it was an inside and well-executed job,” Nairobi area Criminal Investigations Department boss, Salim Swaleh, told the press.

The bank was Standard Chartered, Moi Avenue branch.

The thugs had struck the bank at 7.30am, stole Sh40 million, some $90,000 and possibly other currencies in cash.”

Standard Chartered estimated the total stolen to add up to Sh96 million, making this the biggest bank robbery in Kenya,” wrote The East African Standard.

Newspaper columns noted how the thugs appeared relaxed and were in no hurry. They escaped in a waiting vehicle that had all along been parked on Moi Avenue. The stolen cash had been meant for the day’s operation.

A team of Securicor guards escorted by armed Administration Policemen had come to make a large withdrawal only to be told that they couldn’t get the cash as there “wasn’t any.”

Despite the robbery, normal operations started “as usual at 9am,” wrote The East African Standard. Police arrived at the building at 7.42am thinking that the thugs were still inside.

They cordoned off the building with their guns cocked as others combed it. Roadblocks had been erected on city roads, and all cars occupied by ‘suspicious characters’ were thoroughly searched before being allowed to proceed.

The lender said it had months before written to the Police Commissioner highlighting the risk posed by the uncontrolled traffic which “blocked the entrance to the building’s basement” making the bank an easy target.

Red Cross official

According to The East African Standard, until this raid, the biggest bank robbery had involved a Sh74 million hold-up in February 1993 on the junction of Nairobi’s Dennis Pritt Road, State House and Ralph Bunche roads.

About 14 armed gangsters had waylaid an International Red Cross official, Sami Sidani, shortly after he had withdrawn the cash from a city bank.

The thugs shot a few times in the air before ordering the IRC official to hand over the cash, in Kenya shillings and American dollars. They then stashed the loot in bags and briefcases, hopped into a getaway car and sped off emptying more magazines in their wake.

In July 1999, a business executive, Charles Omondi Odhiambo, walked into the Embakasi strongroom of Kenya Air Freight Handling Ltd and left with a staggering Sh54.7 million.

“It was arguably one of the easiest thefts of its magnitude ever pulled off in the region,” wrote The East African Standard.

The cash was in dollar notes and was wrapped in an 11-kilo parcel and belonged to Citibank of Fedha Towers, Muindi Bingu Street.

It was alleged that the suspect had run out of the country with police raising the initial bounty from Sh250,0000 to Sh1 million.

However, August 1999 takes the trophy for the stranger-than-fiction bank robberies in Kenya.

A cocky armed six-man gang belting out religious hymns robbed Sh9 million from the Mashreq Bank at the ICEA building. The cheeky operation lasted three hours starting at around 6.30am and was not reported to the police until an hour after the gang made their getaway.

“The cocky robbers even sang religious songs as they stuffed the money into bags and stripped the bank’s shocked 17 members of staff of personal cash and valuables,” reported The East African Standard. The theft captivated the nation so much so that an East African editorial titled ‘Choir–boy’ gangsters no laughing matter, laid out an array of nicknames for the thugs, including hallelujah hoodlums, robber baritones, sadaka sadists and lyrical gangsters. In July the same year, the bank had been robbed of almost Sh0.5 million in a similar fashion.

A local daily reported that before leaving, the thugs invited their victims to a party at a city hotel as they were now rich men.

They are alleged to have given back Sh3,000 stolen from one of the guards, saying he was “a poor man and cannot afford to be robbed”. Bank robberies were so rampant in 1999, with commercial banks losing at least Sh500 million that year.

In November 1999, The East African Standard wrote a terse editorial titled “These bank attacks must be explained.”

It noted that hardly a week passed before gangsters struck with “coldness and precision.”

“What is, however, more disturbing is that the frequency of the raids can only be matched by the coldness and precision with which they are executed.”

The paper said that the curtains had fallen on the era of raiding banks for a few hundreds of thousands of shillings.

Ironically, some raids were staged only a few hundred metres from police stations and the loot was rarely recovered. Dubbed ‘The Great Sh96m Raid’ by The East African Standard, 12 suspects were later arrested, among them bank managers.

Police described it as a “mafia-type inside job.”

One suspect alleged that police had tortured him at Karura Forest before allowing him to record a statement.

Such were the daring robberies that sometimes ended with casualties on the police, robbers and even civilians.

But, as Kenya’s most famous bank robber John Kiriamiti would put it, “crime, was not the grim dirty business of desperate men, but the preserve of the fearless”.

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