Why war on Boda Boda gangs will fail

December 24, 2016

Motorcycle gangs commonly known as boda boda in East Africa are making a big push in the region as they seek a piece of the regions underworld drug and criminal empire.These gangs, already notorious in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are expanding in both urban and rural areas to augment their power and regional grasp on drug supply, in particular marijuana, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines, amphetamines and drugs traditionally trafficked in the region.Some police have claimed victory on dealing with organised gangs in the past but senior police, though, say the war will never be won against boda boda gangs. This lack of consensus among police highlights problems with East Africa’s approach to combating bikie gangs. Arrest and punishment have been the tools of trade in this war. But, in reality, the war is neither won nor over. The three countries governments have mooted similar draconian laws to tackle the problem. For the police in the region, the numbers of arrests and charges are indicators of success. This is due to this being the part of the criminal justice process that police have most control over. Once a matter moves beyond this point, the police’s ability to influence the outcome is diminished.In reality, though, a more forensic analysis is required. Recent analysis of the problem in the region has shown that motorcycle gangs have limited involvement in organised crime and that they make a small contribution to general crime. However, the motorcycle gangs war’s success should be judged on successful prosecution of gang members for serious and organised crime offences and evidence that boda boda gang numbers are increasing and that recruitment is being rolled out everywhere.

It is clear that gang structures are being used for a common criminal purpose or enterprise with drugs and illicit alcohol being the main cash cow after transport business. No evidence has been provided to the public to prove that any of these have been achieved. Without doubt, motorcycle gangs are less visible in rural areas but its clear they have now gone underground to avoid detection by the state agencies but their trading continues unabated.Making the arrest is only part of the law-enforcement response. Successfully prosecuting the matter is the other.War on boda boda gangs in Kenya has been marred by a number of high-profile failures when the matters were tested in court. Some cases do not even go to trial. No evidence was even offered.Kenyan Police heralded the large increase in extortion arrests that had been made as a result of the boda boda gangs war. Many of them are now failing at court. Of great concern is that some complainants are accusing police of standover tactics in eliciting their complaints. This alleged conduct may leave investigators open to criminal charges if proven.Perhaps most damning was the collapse of many of the charges that were the catalyst for the boda boda crackdown in western Kenya where allegations have also been made that senior police interfered in the normal prosecution processes whenever gang members are arrested transporting illicit alcohol or drugs.According to the latest data, boda boda gangs membership is increasing across East Africa. Current data shows that there are now approximately 22,000 gangs members, a 16% increase in two years. A boda boda gang president recently claimed on his twitter page to have recruited more than 400 members to his new club since January 2016. As of July 2016, an underground operation in Kenya targeting the boda boda gangs had arrested over 100 gang participants and thats an indication that either gang numbers had grown exponentially, or many of those arrested could not have been members.

Either case is damning to the Kenyan authorities claims of success.Unlike the war on terror, there has been a distinct lack of community engagement by authorities with at-risk groups in the boda boda crackdown. This is despite recognising that youth are entering boda boda gangs through feeder clubs offering them direct employment.In Uganda and Tanzania, the only strategy put forward to deal with the boda boda gangs’ possible recruiting avenues is the implementation of local authorities monitoring and registrations. For example, Uganda will introduce special number plates for boda boda commercial operators to distinguish them from private and institutional motorcycles. This the Kampala government hope to minimise growth of boda boda gangs in the country.Put simply, the East African countries policing response to boda boda gangs is one dimensional. Enforcement is the primary focus. Little attention has been paid to analysing the motivations of those joining the boda boda gangs when compared to the prevention of radicalisation in counter-terrorism strategies which the three countries have executed very well. Little efforts have been made to engage the boda boda gangs’ leadership, nor implement strategies to remove their criminal elements. The boda boda gangs’ criminal behaviour is a by product of some of the organisation’s members. It is not the sole purpose. If the boda boda gangs are serious about retaining their rights and freedoms, it would be entirely reasonable that they may well accept some regulation that removes criminal elements but allows them to remain lawful organisations. A refusal to undertake a process like this would undermine many of the arguments they have raised in their defence. It is now up to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania governments and law enforcement agencies in the region to look beyond arrests and consider what strategies and engagement could be pursued to allow criminal free boda boda groups to exist. It is also time for the boda boda gangs to show that they truly want to be just a bunch of guys who ride boda boda and don’t deserve the criminal tag they have.

Contador Harrison