How gangsters have ‘perfected’ bank robberies in Kenya
In the 2006 movie Inside Man, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) introduces the film with a direct address to the audience, whom he asks to “pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself”.
He then boasts that he has devised the perfect bank robbery.
Dalton then steps into a Manhattan bank with three colleagues who are disguised as painters; they easily gain access into the bank.
What follows is an intense operation of a well-planned heist.
But all the hustle involving firearms, masked robbers and taking of hostages is so yesterday for modern day bank robbers.
Even here in Kenya, robbers have in the recent past planned perfect heists without use of any weapons or violence of any kind — only brains.
The Kenya Commercial Bank Thika branch heist is one such example of the daring acts robbers have perfected in the recent past.
They dug a 30-metre-long tunnel into a bank’s strongroom and stole more than Sh50 million.
Not even the police, stationed just 150 metres away from the bank, noticed any suspicious activity when the money was discovered missing by the branch manager, Mr Samuel Ng’ang’a.
It later emerged the robbers gave out fake identification details while renting out market stalls in June.
Security consultant Mwenda Mbijiwe said many banks have invested more in cyber security at the expense of physical security.
“You cannot ignore either. Both are critical security elements in the banking sector,” Mr Mbijiwe told the Sunday Nation.
According to Mr Mbijiwe, cyber criminals are now not just targeting individuals but institutions as well.
But the Thika heist is not the first robbery of its kind in the country.
On July 1, 1999, armed gunmen stormed the banking hall of Mashreq Bank at the ICEA building on Kenyatta Avenue and took off with Sh500,000.
Witnesses recounted how one of the robbers, who was guarding the hostages, started belting out the hymn Abide with me as his accomplices executed the daylight robbery.
Through with emptying the tills, the other gangsters joined in the singing.
While clapping and dancing as they collected “tithe” from the hostages at gunpoint.
They sang “Toa ndugu, toa dada ulichonacho wewe, umtolee bwana Mungu wako (Give brother, give sister, whatever you have give your offering to God)”, as they frisked bank customers who walked in unaware of the robbery.
Barely a month later, on August 17, 1999, some six gunmen raided the same bank, while singing the same tune, and took off with Sh9 million.
The gang, it was reported, struck at dawn. As the robbery continued, they continuously entertained their victims by singing hymns as they waited for their next catch.
At the end of about three hours, they walked away with gunny bags containing more than Sh9 million, watches and jewellery.
Neither the Central Police Station, which is 500 metres away, nor neighbours of the bank, knew what was taking place until the gunmen had escaped in a white Nissan Sunny.
Bank staff raised the alarm more than an hour later.
In yet another heist committed with apparent ease on January 5, 1999, Charles Omondi, a clearing agent, walked into the Embakasi strongroom of Kenya Airfreight Handling Limited and took Sh54 million contained in a parcel.
The money had been brought into the country by Swiss Air from New York and was to be delivered to the offices of Citibank’s Kenyan subsidiary at Fedha Towers in Nairobi’s Central Business District.
It was said to be salary arrears for United Nations staff based in Lokichoggio, on the Kenya-Sudan border.
Several people were arrested and charged in court in connection with the disappearance of the money.
On November 2016, a man described by neighbours as a loner pulled one of the most daring bank robberies of all times.
The criminal drilled a hole into a wall shared by Equity Bank Kayole and the rented house where he lived.
He made away with money kept in two huge safes.
“Banks should audit their facilities and ensure that strongrooms are safe. They should not just be accessible anyhow,” Mr Mbijiwe said.
This can be done by using non-combustible materials to build safes and, better still, to ensure that strongrooms are built in the interior of banks and not near walls adjacent to other buildings.
In another robbery involving Equity Bank, robbers walked into Othaya branch in Nyeri posing as officials from the lender’s head office and stole about Sh30 million.
On January 2012, three men stole Sh58 million from Eastleigh Barclays Bank branch.
The gangsters did not fire any shot and it is not known whether they fled on foot or used a getaway car. There were no signs of any forceful entry at the bank.
These incidents of robberies in banks, supermarkets and other service points raise important questions on the safety of customers and staff.