In July-August 1999, Mashreq Bank at the imposing ICEA building on Kenyatta Avenue was robbed twice.
The first time was on July 1, 1999 when robbers stormed the branch at midday and made away with 0.5 million bob. The second time was on the morning of August 17, 1999. This time the six robbers took their time and robbed the bank of KShs. 9 million bob-or 7.5 million, depending on whether you believe the bank or the police.
But that is the boring part of the story.
At some point during the robbery, one gunman started singing. Singing out loudly. Singing the lyrics to the hymn Abide with Me.
The hymning gangster was assigned to the boring job of watching over the horrified hostages who included banking staff, security guards and a few unlucky customers. When he noticed the bewildered looks on his hostages faces, he explained that singing calmed him down. Because even robbers need a place of peace, maybe more than you. Its a hard job ey? Too many uncertainties, no job security, erratic pay, such and such.
Then the others joined in. Nothing beats a God-fearing lot of robbers huh? Well, it seems we can stop being too hard on pastors now. In 1999, Nairobi had its original Hallelujah hoodlums with their gun-toting, hymn-singing, titanium-balls-bearing, bank-robbing ways.
The music got so good that the singers even started clapping and jumping. Had they had been transformed in the middle of a crime, like Saul’s transformation to Paul in the biblical tale? No, the sight of one gunman using his gun as a guitar the same way you used a broom stick to imitate rock bands told you this was part of their routine. Clearly, the thugs had been whiling away their time by watching too much Air Guitar.
Combine the music with the fact that the six Sadaka sadists were wearing hotel doormens uniform and you have a band in need of a drummer and morals. Customers walked in to the harmonious sound of the popular offertory song ‘toa ndugu, toa dada, ulicho nacho wewe and?‘…tooooa toa sadaka yako, umtolee bwana mungu wako…” and one robber at the door collecting the ‘offertory’ and ‘tithe.’
According to the victims, the robber baritones had remarkably good harmony. They sang many hymns through the last hours of the ordeal. There’s nothing like being robbed and thoroughly entertained at the same time, right? Is this what concertgoers feel? At least, unlike the church, the robbers brought guns to the frisking.
There have been many questions about this second heist because it had clear markers of an inside job. The robbers knew the choreographed morning routine of Vitalis Opiyo, the security guard supervisor and his men. They accessed the branch at 6.15 am and lay in wait for the employees who arrived at 8, unaware that they were walking into the hymn-version of a reggae concert.
The two administration police who normally guarded the bank branch arrived at 10 am claiming no one had picked them up in the morning as usual. The police arrived way after the singing gang had made away. Even more curious, the gangsters knew who had the keys to the safe, and some employees by full name and title. They even had an approximate figure of how much was supposed to be in the safe and grumbled when they did not get that amount there.
The overly polite thugs took their time, three whole hours, to properly loot the bank and the hostages. On their way out, they invited the hostages to a bash to celebrate the loot and promised that they would take their time to go through the jewellery and return any that had sentimental value. Even more bizarrely, they returned Shs. 3000 bob they had stolen from one of the guards.?Oh, and to show the level of nongiveafuckery they had, they told the staff where the party would be held.
Still, it was hard for a bank robbery to stand out in Nairobi in the late 1990s. From around 1996, Kenya had been plagued with clinically executed bank robberies. In 1999 alone, there were over 30 bank robberies and only 13 foiled attempts. The most attacked was Standard Chartered, with six robberies in 1999 including one in June where the Mombasa branch was robbed on a Sunday.
But then the men an editorial in the East African Standard called the choirboy gangsters stand out like the sore thumb of a former altar boy. The editorial, published on August 19, 1999, captures the many names that the six men came to be known by: lyrical gangsters, the hallelujah hoodlums, the choir-boys, the robber baritones, the sadaka sadists.
No shot was fired during the 3 hour harmonious madness, and the only person hurt was the bank manager who was roughed up a bit.
Zero chills were given that day. But many hymns were sang.
One Story is Good,
Till Another is Told.