The flowing royal blue robe and a hand-held wooden cross that indicated allegiance to the Legio Maria sect lent the towering figure of Jared Odek Ochoko (popularly known as Ochok) a whiff of piety whenever he made his characteristic fleeting public appearances in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
But despite his distinctive religious attire, Ochok’s stock-in-trade was something less reverent. To some, he was a passionate land dealer and real estate investor who was occasionally forced to be a little aggressive to navigate Nairobi’s urban jungle.
To others, he was a ruthless land grabber who commanded a gang that invaded and sold private property with impunity in a practice referred to in Sheng as mradi (project). But in between were those who considered him to be something of a benevolent villain, a modern-day Robin Hood who took over idle land and sold it at affordable prices to those who would not in normal circumstances have been able to afford it.
He seemed to give orders with the fewest possible words to groups of young men who often hung around him as though the mere blinking of his penetrating eyes, the flicking of his fingers or the limp waving of his hand was communication enough. He was the “president” or “patron” of a “self-help group” that operated mainly on Kangundo Road and his word was law, especially in Obama and Chokaa estates which he is credited with having established.
Ochok never shook hands in greeting, preferring to clap. Some say this was in line with his Legio Maria beliefs, others say it was to reinforce his mysterious image.
Despite his reputation in parts of Nairobi, Ochok was notoriously media-shy. Now, he will never get the chance to speak for himself after his life was violently cut short in a gangland-style shooting three weeks ago on Manyanja Road near Umoja.
LEFT TO SPECULATION
Instead, his story is left to speculation, urban myth and accounts from those who knew him well. One of them is Mr John Otieno*, an associate who describes the life of the man who will be buried today in Kakwajuok village, Kendu Bay, in almost messianic terms.
“He was my saviour,” says Mr Otieno, “How else would you describe what he did for me?”
A few years ago, Mr Otieno was a lanky school dropout who believed that travelling to Nairobi from his dirt-poor village in Nyanza would be his passport to prosperity.
When he arrived to live with a relative, his best efforts at fitting in with the urban sense of style was a faded T-shirt, a pair of worn jeans and battered flip-flops.
“Look at me now. I own a house in Nairobi, and on a good week I can make as much as Sh20,000,” he says.
With few academic qualifications or professional skills, Mr Otieno, like thousands of youths in his circumstances, found it hard to secure a job. That was when a relative told him of a risky, but lucrative job in Njiru.
“I joined a group of young men to provide security at a quarry. We were armed with machetes and iron bars, but our leader had a pistol. Our brief was to prevent anybody from taking over the place. Lorries would drive in and out throughout the day and sometimes at night, carrying building stones and kokoto (ballast). Sometimes I was paid as much as Sh5,000 a day. I was told the owner of the quarry was a man from Kendu Bay, but I never met him,” says Mr Otieno.
When he eventually met Ochok, the mysterious quarry owner from Gendia in Homa Bay County, it was in a violent setting. Mr Otieno was among tens of armed youths – perhaps 200 or 300 – who had been called to fight off a rival group that was trying to take over a vast piece of land on Kangundo Road.
According to Mr Otieno, there was no violence during the standoff, but the rival group, which he thinks may have been the Mungiki, left after realising it was outnumbered.
Mr Otieno was, over the years, to be involved in similar confrontations and would occasionally interact with the “president”.
“He gave me and other youths pieces of land and encouraged us to build houses. All I had to pay was an ‘administration’ fee to the office. It took me a long time, but I eventually completed my house,” he says.
Otieno adds matter-of-factly: “I was ready to die for this man who changed my life. I know many people who can say the same thing. How can anybody say he was a bad man?”
It is this conflicting image of Ochok that emerges from multiple interviews with his close associates — many of who have gone into hiding and do not want their identities revealed — land owners, the police and local leaders.
He was said to be the darling of the police, having assisted many of them to acquire land. At least four senior officers built modern houses on plots issued by Ochok within the Chokaa area and Mihang’o Ward. Other beneficiaries are politicians, both serving and retired.
“After a youth was arrested, he would make a phone call to the police, and the suspect would be released immediately,” said a land agent in Ruai.
That Ochok, a polygamous father of nine, was an influential land dealer with hundreds of youths under his command is not in doubt.
According to police sources, he was among the kingpins of vicious land-grabbing gangs – some fashioning themselves as “self-help” groups – in Nairobi’s Eastlands that invade private property, sub-divide it and sell it off. Those who buy the land are given “share certificates” to prove ownership as the sellers seek to change the records at the Land ministry and City Hall.
In areas such as Njiru, some grabbers turn the land into quarries, which are reclaimed years later and sold off.
Sources say the cartel involves the police, officials from the Nairobi County Government and the Land ministry who provide protection, insider information and documents.
“They mostly target land whose owners have not paid rates for many years. Sometimes they manufacture a dispute that even goes to court and continue to sell the land even as the case drags on,” says a land broker familiar with the dealings of the groups.
Recent investigations identified Kasarani and Embakasi East constituencies as the worst affected with Njiru, Ruai, Mihang’o, Kayole Central and Matopeni/Spring Valley wards the most prone to such invasions that have taken on an ethnic angle. Gangs in Nairobi are not new, but what worries the authorities is that they are becoming more daring and ruthless––and nobody seems to be stopping them.
Nairobi County Commissioner Njoroge Ndirangu, who also chairs the security committee, said in a recent interview that the invaders demonstrated the “highest level of impunity”, and the government had listed at least 50 pieces of land that had recently been lost to the cartels and 100 that had long-running disputes.
“The invasions have posed one of the greatest security challenges in the county. Apart from private land, the gangs target power wayleaves, road reserves and any undeveloped land,” said Mr Ndirangu, who admits the situation is complicated because most of the land had been sold to third parties.
Local leaders who oppose the grabbers and the genuine land owners are usually threatened by the gangs, and some are said to have been killed.
Mr Francis Ngugi, who in a previous interview said he could not access his land near Njiru trading centre that had been sub-divided by a gang, says he was once beaten and left for dead when he attempted to access the property.
“I can’t go there. There have been several attempts on my life,” he said.
The 800-member Njiru Ageria Land Buying Society also claims its 180 acres of land have been turned into a building stone quarry by gangs, and no amount of litigation has helped. The police are said to be receiving “protection money”.
“Some people colluded with City Hall officials and manufactured documents to kick off a dispute. Our members were to get a plot each, and they are still waiting,” said a member of the society.
Not even land belonging to the late tycoon Gerishon Kirima in Mihang’o Ward has been spared with the family saying they have been threatened with death if they dare attempt to evict those occupying the plots.
To show how ruthless the gangs are, on August 23, they set alight machinery belonging to a construction company after the firm attempted to access a disputed 30-acre plot of land in Mihang’o.
“The police and some chiefs have been furnished with details of the invaders, but the problem is that they get money every week,” Kasarani MP John Njoroge said in an earlier interview. Ironically, associates of Ochok suspect some senior Nairobi politicians and government officials used rogue policemen to execute Ochok.
“We know they also want to kill those who were close to him, that is why we have gone into hiding,” he says.
That police took their time to respond and the confidence exhibited by the gunmen, who were armed with a pistol and AK-47 rifles, has raised suspicions that the authorities knew of the attack.
Since his death, four other land dealers have been shot dead in Nairobi in almost similar circumstances. Police have denied any involvement in the killings.
Those who were close to Ochok paint a portrait of a man who was living in constant fear of his life. A confidant says Ochok would not stay in one place for more than 10 minutes, changed cars two or three times whenever he was being driven around, and at some point stopped using mobile phones, apparently to avoid being tracked.
“Sometimes when he feared his security was compromised, he would move to a Legio Maria church in Got Alila (Kisumu County) for a few weeks until things cooled down,” says a source close to him.
His associates say he was a millionaire who had invested in real estate, quarrying, the transport sector and at a gold mine in Migori. With police investigations ongoing, there are indications that the “self-help” group he left behind is looking for a new leader to fill the “patron’s” big shoes.
*John Otieno is not the real name of Ochok’s associate who spoke to the Sunday Nation