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The robbers who sang hymns: A look at one of the most bizarre bank heists in Kenya’s history

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Without firing a single shot or using violence of any kind — only brains — robbers in Kenya perfected some of the most incredible bank heists in the 1990s. In 1999 alone, records show that there were more than 30 bank robberies and only 13 foiled attempts, with Standard Chartered being the most attacked.

But none of these came close to the robberies at the banking hall of Mashreq Bank at the ICEA building on Kenyatta Avenue in 1999. From July-August 1999, the bank was robbed twice. Robbers stormed the building first on July 1, making away with Sh500,000 (4,613 dollars today) while singing Christian hymns to the hostages. The second time — on August 17 — they took off with Sh9 million (when the US Dollar was equivalent to Sh18.44) with so much ease.

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And this time too, as they robbed the bank and hostages of their valuables, they continuously entertained their victims by singing hymns, according to statements from the hostages. What was even more worrying about this heist was that the gunmen seemed to know the routine of security guards at the bank as well as each of the staff by names and titles.

Many wondered later if the robbers had good research skills or the whole incident was an inside job. Here’s how everything unfolded the day of the heist, according to a report by The Standard.

At 6.30 am, six men arrived at the bank and managed to convince security guards who were already on duty that they wanted to deliver a parcel for the day’s watchman. As a guard opened the door to receive the parcel, “one of the men whipped out a pistol and ordered him into the bank,” the report by The Standard said.

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“The gangsters stripped the guards of their uniforms, put them on and positioned themselves on the main door to await staff to arrive,” the report added.

As staff entered the bank through the main door, they were met by the gangsters (now in the uniforms of the security guards) who relieved them of their valuables, including watches, jewelry and wallets.

“When I arrived at the bank’s entrance at around 8.45 am, a uniformed ‘security man’ opened the door for me and as usual, I said ‘Good morning’ to him. However, a shabbily dressed man who was sitting on the customers’ seats stood up, came towards me and insisted on shaking my hand,” operations manager Njage Makanga recounted the incident to the East African Standard.

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“When I resisted, the other two guards who were now behind me ordered me to do so while holding a gun to my head and threatened to kill me for defying the order.”

At some point during the robbery, one of the gunmen watching over the hostages (banking staff, security guards and some unlucky customers), started singing out loudly the lyrics to the hymn Abide with Me. Then the other gunmen joined in, clapping and jumping while looking around at the shocked faces of their hostages.

“Toa ndugu, toa dada ulichonacho wewe, umtolee bwana Mungu wako (verbatim translating to ‘Give brother, give sister, whatever you have, give your offering to God’), was the song that greeted hapless customers who walked into the bank unaware of what was going on.

Even when it was time to demand the keys to the safe, the robbers knew exactly who had the keys and the amount of money that was supposed to be in the safe. So they groaned when the money they found was much less than what they expected.

But then the drama continued. Before walking out of the bank with the loot, the robbers asked the terrified hostages if they were willing to join them in a celebratory party the following week. They even gave the venue of the party. And calmly, they walked out of the bank and sped off in a white Nissan Sunny saloon but not without giving back Sh3,000 to a guard “who they said looked poor, and it was ungodly of them to rob him.”

In effect, for three hours, the robbers executed a bank heist with neither the Central Police Station, which is 500 meters away, nor neighbors of the bank knowing what was going on until they had escaped.

“We received an alarm report at 10:20 am, an hour after the robbers had left,” the then central division police boss Bernard Mucheke told a local daily. The police force was lambasted over the incident, while the six robbers came to be known by the following names: lyrical gangsters, the hallelujah hoodlums, the choir-boys, the robber baritones, the sadaka sadists.

With no crimes perhaps more enticing than bank robbery, well-calculated bank heists have continued in Kenya, putting security agencies across the country on their toes.





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