By TNLM Writer
They were supposed to be the machines that made the difference in the war against terror in the Kenyan story; the ones to turn cops into heroes, and the bad guys into, well, not heroes. But the chronicle of the 30 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) purchased by the Kenya government, in a shroud of secrecy, from China is one that speaks of wanton waste and abundant ineptitude.
At the commissioning of the APCs in February this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta was evidently excited. He extolled the “important milestone” that his administration had attained, in its mission to modernisation the police service. It was, he said, one thing his government had done differently from its predecessors in decades, which would give the police that much-needed boost in the fight against terrorism, banditry and other forms of crime.
“The acquisition of the APCs is a very important milestone as it will go a long way in securing the frontier areas of our country,” the President said at the ceremony conducted at the General Service Unit (GSU) headquarters in Ruaraka, Nairobi.
Kenyatta went on to declare: “The Kenya Police force will, for the first time in history, acquire armoured personnel carriers to increase their mobility, and protective gear when deployed in volatile areas. You don’t have to depend on the military or other security agencies for you to perform your duties; we will ensure you are properly equipped.”
Perhaps justifiably, the President had good intentions in purchasing the APCs for the Police Service, which might have included his desire to avoid a repeat of the botched Westgate rescue where the military, being the only ones with tanks and APCs, relegated the police to the fringes, much like private guards, quite possibly, according to security experts, ruining what may have been a quick victory.
But, good as his intentions may have been, the story of the APCs is one that could come back to haunt the Jubilee regime which, since 2013, has battled major financial scandals – most conspicuously at the National Youth Service, and the proceeds of Kenya’s sovereign bond issue, the Eurobond.
The cost of the APCs was never publically disclosed – no police or military purchase ever is – but they are believed to cost less than US-manufactured ones, which go for close to $1.2 million (Sh120 million) per unit.
Available information indicates that Kenya was the second country to acquire the VN-4 APCs, manufactured by China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) Group. The only other country known to have the same hardware is the Venezuelan National Guard, under the repressive regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
The vehicle’s armour is welded shut and primarily provides protection from small arms fire and splinters from explosives. According to armyrecognition.com, the VN-4 is fitted with an open-roof, and a small turret mounted at front top hull, armed with a 12.7mm heavy machine gun. Three smoke grenade dischargers are mounted on each side of the turret. It has a top speed of 115 km/h and effective range of 700 kilometres.
The website also describes the VN-4 as a “4×4 wheeled vehicle that can act as a multi-role light armoured vehicle platform, used by fast reaction forces, armoured troops, police forces and also for peacekeeping and anti-terrorism missions. It can be equipped with different armaments for a full range of combat applications…”
The VN-4, like the ones Kenya purchased, are also equipped with air conditioning system for occupants, a communication system, central tyre inflation system (CTIS), night vision driving capability and Video Surveillance Systems (VSS), according to respected defence and intelligence sites Defenceweb, Janes and Army Recognition.
Six months after the APCs were acquired, there has been not a single mission of successful deployment of the VN-4s – for a government that loves publicity as much as Jubilee does, and with the army of social media and communication lieutenants at its disposal, such a fact would have been plastered all over conventional and social media. Yet within the same period, the country has continued to suffer terrorist activities perpetrated by Al Shabaab, executed on its (Kenya’s) own soil.
For instance, in May, suspected Al Shabaab militants shot and killed three village elders in Kwale County; one person died in June after an ambulance hit a landmine at Owane town in Garissa County; suspected Al Shabaab terrorists ambushed vehicles belonging to Tawakal and E-Coach bus companies between Wargadud and Elwak, killing six travellers.
On July 9, the elements of the terror group raided Diff police station in Wajir District, close to the Somali border, and took off with weapons – obtained from the armoury – and police uniforms. This was the second attack on the same police station after an earlier one in April when three officers were wounded and their vehicle taken.
A week after the Diff attack, Abdi Maslah, a rogue police officer believed to be an Al Shabaab sympathiser, killed seven of his colleagues at Kapenguria Police Station in a siege that lasted well over six hours.
The Nairobi Law Monthly’s investigations have returned a damning verdict, which points to a mega scandal within the Presidency, specifically the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government – the same ministry has previously been accused of appropriating billions of shillings in the space of days in inexplicable expenses; the journalist who reported the story was later arrested for ‘questioning’, and was only released after a public outcry.
By the time the APCs landed at the port of Mombasa from China, they had not been tested locally; neither had Kenyan police officers, who were to be the primary users, undergone any form of training on how to use or maintain them.
Police officers from the headquarters at Vigilance House who spoke on condition that we kept their identities private say that, ordinarily, such equipment needs to be tested in Kenyan terrain for at least six months to establish whether or not they suit our needs, and if they are suitable for our terrain.
For these Chinese-made APCs, this was never the case. On arrival at the port, they were loaded onto trucks and delivered to the General Service Unit headquarters in Ruaraka, where President Kenyatta soon commissioned them.
After the commissioning, our investigations uncovered, the vehicles were transported to the Ngong Training Range where a handful of GSU officers had the first chance to test their efficacy and suitability for police work, as well as their suitability, through live demonstrations, in deterring terrorists and bandits, particularly in Kenya’s volatile frontier districts.
Some of the officers we spoke to, and who were involved in the training, claimed that they only had them for two weeks, duration they say was too short for them to determine their suitability.
“In all my years as a police officer, and I have been in the force for a long while, I have witnessed something like that. The training was a touch-and-go. If indeed the government wanted to equip the police, we should have had them for not less than three months, and that is stretching it. That would have given us the chance to understand their mechanical structure and the usage. As it is, we can’t claim to have trained because we are unable to use them,” one officer lamented.
“Even normal driving schools teach and instruct for at least a month before one can be examined,” another officer said. “Such complex machines as we got ought to entail much more. I cannot understand how our bosses are okay with this… They ought to know better.”
A security expert we spoke to also seemed baffled at what might have transpired to warrant such a hasty purchase.
“It does not make sense to rush into a purchase of such magnitude – obviously huge sums were involved – when the integrity of the units had not been ascertained. The country has been suffering steady attacks, but this is largely attributable to a lack of proper management of our security instruments, and not a lack of hardware.
“There was no emergency, and even if there were, the correct procedure would have been to make such an acquisition from a country Kenya has traditionally done business with, and whose equipment they could trust. This should apply to both the military and the police,” offered the retired Army Major.
Broke down soon after arrival
On this background of “training” that was shoddy at best, the Nairobi Law Monthly has learnt that the vehicles were then distributed across the country’s volatile border regions, including Kapedo in Baringo County, Mandera, Wajir, Boni in Lamu County, as well as Elgeyo Marakwet County, among other places.
Mandera County, for instance, got about three APCs; two of them are at the Mandera GSU Camp near the Somalia border while the third one is parked at Elwak Police Station. Reportedly, none of them are being used.
But it gets gloomier.
Apparently, all the vehicles have never been put to use after they broke down as soon as they arrived. Even the ones that were distributed to the various outposts have reportedly never moved an inch after they were delivered.
Besides the police officers’ claims that there was no adequate training for Kenyan personnel, who are supposed to operate them, the vehicles suffered multiple mechanical breakdowns.
Independent information obtained by NLM indicates that almost all of the APCs have had their air conditioning system malfunction. When once considers that the vehicles are welded shut (meaning the windows cannot be opened), and given the hostile climate in most of the outposts they were distributed, police officers term them as “ovens meant to kill us by a government that doesn’t care.”
“Even if the APCs were deployed in the Antarctica, you cannot stay inside them without air conditioning. It will be a death sentence,” an officer based in Lamu County told the NLM.
Aside from the air conditioning problems, police officers spoke of defective tyres and shock absorbers that are not suited for the rough and harsh terrains in the country, and particularly in the remote areas where they were deployed. What is more, spare parts are also not available locally and the government again has to go back to the supplier for the same.
“Even if there were spare parts in the local market, which Kenyan mechanic has the technical knowhow to repair these things? There was no training by the suppliers even on basic maintenance skills; we were simply given the keys and asked to apply the basic mechanics of driving. No police officer would want to get into a vehicle on the trail of al Shabaab knowing too well that the vehicle might break down and leave you stranded in enemy territory,” an officer based at GSU Headquarters Company in Ruaraka said. This, it turns out, is a fear well warranted.
Apparently, following the defects arising, the government has had to fly in a team of mechanics from China to repair the vehicles at the various locations they are stationed in an attempt to get them to work properly.
In the course of compiling this report, the Nairobi Law Monthly sought input from the Ministry of Interior about the concerns raised by police officers. Specifically, we wanted information regarding the cost of the APCs, areas where have they been deployed, and instances where the vehicles have been used in missions.
We also asked to know how many Kenyan officers were trained on the use and maintenance of the vehicles and where they were trained – in response to claims regarding the functionality of the vehicles, particularly that their Kenyan operators were inadequately trained, that the vehicles have defective and unsound mechanical capabilities, and that Government flew in a mechanical team at the Kenyan taxpayer’s cost to go around repairing the broken down vehicles, in addition to the costs of acquiring the VN-4s.
We also sought to know what the overriding reason for purchasing the APCs for the police was, when the military already have some of the best equipment in their possession. The often-quoted reason by the ministry is that it security issues cannot be discussed openly, but when it becomes clear that an unsound investment may have been made, these question is bound to be asked.
Our enquiries were first met with the standard “we cannot comment on these matters owing to national security reasons”, which later changed to a cautious cordiality with promise of feedback that led us to defer going to press for days. It later turned out no response was forthcoming.