Amos Kareithi & Mwangi Muiruri: Inside River Road’s den of thieves

In 1998 and 2001, Kenya’s national security was seriously violated by terrorists. The foreigners bore Kenyan identification cards and passports. CCI tells you where to buy the crucial documents.

It’s a bleak Monday morning, chilly and gloomy – just the perfect weather for the heavy coat and hood that I am wearing. Colleague Mwangi Muiruri is in similar attire, which welds well with the River Road environment where we are about to descend, and make a home for the next week.

In ten short minutes, we amble from the paved, spotless segment of the city to… the other side of life where paths twist into serpentine coils and buildings merge to a maze of stone and screed.

The city passes by as the nondescript, middle-aged man in a green hat, watches. He is sitting on a roughly hewn building- stone, a spitting distance from the busy Luthuli Avenue.

By his side, near the entrance to the cheap lodging house standing wobbly, a shabbily dressed young woman with a baby strapped to her back, bids her time. Every too often, she hurls some choice epithets to a passer-by, then smiles sweetly to another to beg for alms, only to pursue him with string of curses if ignored.

It is only 10.00 am but from the actions of those assembled in River Road’s countless bars, it’s hard to tell whether the debauchery just started or is the previous night’s carry over.


We are here to do business – the sort that authorities pretend does not exist. With slightly over Sh20,000, we want to create a new man – born and bred in Kenya – and arm him with the requisite documents coveted by most citizens: a passport, the national identity card and a driver’s licence.

And since land is something of a national obsession, we want to bequeath him a piece of land in the Kitengela, just outside Nairobi, and secure him the title deed to prove ownership.

Of course this may sound insane, but this is Kenya, where virtually everything lies in the realm of the possible.

In the adjoining bar there is a communion of failed, retired, wannabe and active crooks of all shades and shapes. The lone man sitting on the stone soon receives a call and swaggers around, at times leaning on the pick-ups waiting for business.

He enters the bar full of excitement. Yes, he says, he can procure a passport for us.

The man flatly refuses to give his name. This is understandable as every business has its ethos. The man gives a raft of requirements to be met before his friend, who is a friend of the man to deliver the documents.

This is typical River Road parlance; no one can admit to know what is available where. They all claim a friend of theirs knows a friend who knows another… This endless chain of alliances is partly to secure own safety and evade arrest.

The ID requires a down payment and a picture (of unspecified quality) and biographical data of the "applicant."

We decide our new man was born in April 1975 in Ndeiya, Limuru, just half an hour from Nairobi.

Ordinarily, one would have been armed with letters and testimonials from area chief to authenticate his roots, if not a religious leader who ministers there. In River Road, those are unnecessary details; all we need is the date and place of birth for us to secure an ID.

Money is about to change hands but it is not to be displayed in the pub, nor in the open where we have been sitting all day, so we disappear into the tiny urinal with a pungent, acrid smell.

The urinal too is set in a unique fashion. It has a mirror allowing the user to see anybody entering or exiting the pub. The user too is visible to more than half the patrons.

Hurriedly, the man pockets the wad of notes that we offer, all totalling to Sh10,000, and saunters off, zipping up his fly as he does so.

The waiting game begins.

In the meantime, the morning give way to noon, and dusk is fast approaching. The nameless man in green hat returns and beckons us to the pub.

He thrusts a scrawny hand and displays a brand new ID and a title deed marking the birth of a brand new Kenyan, Amos Kimani Kinyungu, whose names are picked from the names of three Standard journalists.

The title deed, declaring Kinyungu’s ownership of 10 acres of land in Kitengela bears the official government seal – red as the crimson and authority.

We choose Kitengela on the man’s recommendations. He helpfully gives suggestions on the measurements to be entered in the form as well.

The nameless man in green hat has done remarkably well, perhaps better than all civil servants put together. There is no doubt that the documents are kosher, printed on official government stationery.

The whole process takes about three hours. Two down, three to go…

Then all hell breaks loose. A few meters to the dark alley, gunshots ricochet, followed by cries for help. More shots follow, and then silence.

Twenty metres away, a man lies dead. He is a mugger, people say, and has been felled by a plain-cloth policeman.

The nameless man in green hat begs patience, saying: "I have been in this game for a long time. I was with the Government Printers. Now I make a living from this business (forgery). What is Sh.10,500 to me?"

Wednesday proves to be the longest day in our lives. The nameless man and our contact issue a terse warning:

"Do not call any more. We will contact you when the document is ready," he said before explaining: "You see, this thing takes long. First, a genuine passport has to be stolen. Then taken to the people who buy stolen passports. That means a prostitute or a mugger and other thieves have to first work. Then sell it to the agents."

But before cutting the link, the nameless man redeems himself by producing – in just one hour – the driving license for another character, fictitious as far as we know, in the name of Ishmail Khalid Mohamed. The picture on Mohamed’s licence is that of a Standard journalist.

Thursday proves to be an even longer day. There has been no word from the nameless man. We spend the entire day seated on the roughly hewn stone. This seems to be the only place in the world where one cannot be arrested for idling.


Just when we are about to call off the stakeout our guide makes contact, asking to meet us at a seedy bar on Luthuli Avenue. It’s 3.30 pm.

The contact calls again to issue fresh instructions. We are needed at another bar three minutes away. The man casually walks to the meeting place accompanied by a sharply dressed, well fed man in office wear, who appears to be in his late 30s.

After a few minutes search, the nameless man then enters the bar, which is unusual for him for the few days we have known him.

Huddled in a corner, a man is seated on a low stool busy brushing his shoes. There is an unoccupied seat in front of him. This man is the resident shoeshine boy. He also acts as a watcher as he lazily brushes his shoes as he sips a hot drink.

At the corner of the bar is another man, ironing clothes and a sewing machine by his side indicates that he too repairs clothes. Everyone seems to know everybody here.

The nameless man enters the pub, surveying it as he does so, then walks to our table, casually placing the passport in my waiting palm, then joins a woman at a nearby table where a half bottle of beer is waiting for him.

When no suspicious character storms the joint, our contact joins us to explain that there is a mistake.

There is a printing error declaring our new man is Kinyanjui – instead of Kinyungu but no matter, it is a handiwork of forgery and it wraps up our business in River Road.

Quite chillingly, the four documents were secured by a single individual who combined the offices of Registrar of Persons, Immigrations Department, Lands ministry and Motor Vehicle Inspector into a one-man show.

Price of citizenship

I.D card:Sh.4,500

Driver’s Licence: Sh.4,500

Passport: Sh.10,500

Title Deed: Sh.5,000

What you need:

Pictures to go with the documents and requisite fees. Simply show up at Munyu Road and look for the man in green hat. No questions asked.



Using former colleagues in the civil service, the crook in River Road was able to secure official government seals, stamps and authorising signatures on documents he is forging for his clandestine clients.

It is understood that a special paper is bought from the Immigration Department at Nyayo House.

"That paper is not available elsewhere; even those stealing it from the safe rooms have to take their time," the nameless man said.

Passports are stolen and the replacement of the original owner’s details is done on a special machine in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, which is allegedly operated by a fugitive from Somalia.

Intelligence sources cite Eastleigh as the nerve centre for forged visas, passports, birth and marriage certificates, travellers’ cheques, banks credit cards and air tickets.

Consequently, Kenya is listed by US Justice Department among Africa’s countries whose documents are easy to forge. Others are South Africa, Uganda, Somali and Ethiopia.

The materials used to make identity cards are secured from Government offices at NSSF Building, where the nameless man gloats: "The guys at the NSSF Building know their work and are faster."

The NSSF Building holds the offices of Registrar of Persons and the database and processing centre for all the IDs.

Also linked to the forgeries at Eastleigh is an outlet distributing programmed and printed airtime for the leading cell phone network providers.

Eastleigh, which is the destination of choice for motley of foreigners from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, runs a thriving, illegal small arms market.

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