Friday, December 11, 2009

How heroic trio of fighter pilots scuttled mission to bomb State House and GSU

 

By ROY GACHUHI

On November 24, 1982, Corporal Bramwel Injeni Njereman, an armaments technician with the Kenya Air Force, became the first Kenyan to be convicted of treason for trying to overthrow the Government of Kenya.

According to judgement passed by a court martial sitting at the Kenya Army’s Langata Barracks, Njereman was found guilty of five overt acts during the attempted coup of August 1, 1982.

Among these acts was “forcing Major David Mutua to fly an F/5 aircraft on a bombing mission to Nairobi and accompanying him at gunpoint.” He was sentenced to death by hanging.

About a month later — on December 16, 1982 — Cpl Walter Odira Ojode became the second Kenyan to be found guilty of the same offence by the same court.

According to the presiding judge, he “locked up servicemen and officers and ordered Major David Mutua and Capt John Mugwanja to fly F/5 jets to bomb some targets in Nairobi.” He, too, earned the death penalty.

Both servicemen appealed and lost their cases. Along with coup leader Hezekiah Ochuka and principal conspirator Pancras Oteyo Okumu, they were executed on the night of July 10, 1985 at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

Career hangman

The executions were carried out by Michael Wanjuki Kirugumi, a career hangman with dozens of hangings to his name in the colonial-era facility.

To date, they remain the last people to be lawfully killed by the Government of Kenya.

Who was Major David Mutua? Who was Capt John Mugwanja? And who was Capt John Baraza, the third pilot not mentioned in the aforementioned judgements.

They were fighter pilots skilled in flying — in the case of Mutua and Mugwanja — the most potent warplane in the Kenya Air Force inventory, the F/5 Tiger.

On the bright Sunday morning of August 1, 1982, they flew a mission of hitherto scant detail to Nairobi that could have changed the course of Kenya’s history forever.

As the three pilots relaxed at home with their families, rebel servicemen at Laikipia Air Base, known then as KAF Nanyuki Station, serviced and armed three jet fighters. Mutua’s two-seat F/5F Tiger was loaded with 500lb bombs and Baraza’s Strikemaster with high explosive antitank rockets. Though not carrying bombs, the guns of Mugwanja’s single seat F/5E Tiger were loaded.

The pilots were rounded up from their residences and at gunpoint, Cpl Njereman ordered them to suit up and get into their cockpits. The mission — to bomb State House Nairobi and the General Service Unit headquarters, also in Nairobi. He took the back seat of Mutua’s plane to enforce the order.
This was to be the three pilots’ last mission and military and political scholars can argue indeterminably about what Kenya would have become had they done what their captors ordered them to do.

A former air force pilot familiar with the events of that day told Saturday Nation: “The pilots went through all the motions of obeying their captors’ instructions without any intention of carrying out the decisive order. They bid their time knowing a simple thing — they were abductees on the ground but in charge in the air. Njereman had never flown in a jet before, much less a high performance one like the F/5. Mutua decided to teach him a lesson.”

Njereman and other rebel servicemen were working at the behest of their leader, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka, who wanted State House and General Service Unit headquarters bombed. Loyal to his boss he doubtlessly was, but according to this pilot, he was none too clever.

“That ride could have killed him. With exposure to as much as 7gs, the likelihood of throwing up is high. Suppose he threw up into his oxygen mask? He would have choked in his own vomit.”

He was also cut out from all communication by the pilots whether or not he could hear what they were saying because for the most part, they spoke in coded language or simply used hand signals. The aircraft itself can also be manoeuvred in such a way as to signal something to the other pilot.

Team briefing

Adds the pilot: “Before every mission, the formation leader gives his team a briefing. There are standard codes for emergency situations but for every mission you can come up with certain signals to mean certain things. And it is possible still to maintain complete radio silence for a full mission.”

By whatever method he deemed fit, Mutua indicated to his fellow abductees that they would perform aerobatics over Nairobi and then damp the bombs in Mt Kenya forest on their way back. All three pilots synchronized their flight plans. Then the F/5s took off together and were followed shortly by Baraza’s Strikemaster.

It typically takes 10 minutes for an F/5 jet to get to Nairobi from Nanyuki. On the fateful day, the two F/5s were seen over Nairobi at around 10am They came in high and then made a steep high speed dive over the Kasarani area before making a perpendicular assent at the same speed.

Even experienced pilots do sometimes get blackouts when they perform these manoeuvres. The purpose of the g-suit is to squeeze blood into the head and stabilize the flow when the body is exposed to these forces. Mutua knew that Njereman wasn’t going to survive these pressures. After the first run, the gun dropped out of his hand.

To ensure that Njereman was enduring maximum discomfort, Mutua kept asking him questions such as: “What can you see? Where is that?” The exposure to so much g-forces was taking a heavy toll on Njereman, but Mutua kept talking to him to tire him further. After three runs, the gunman could barely speak. It was safe to make the trip home.

For a bomb dropped from an aircraft to explode, the pilot must first arm it before releasing it from the plane’s under-wing hold. If he releases it unarmed, it will simply drop to the ground like a stone. That procedure is called dumping. Njereman had no way of knowing that that is what his captives did over Mt Kenya forest.

Back at the Base, he looked dizzy and confused as he staggered out of the jet. He announced to other servicemen that they had bombed Nairobi. But by that time, the Army was closing in on the base.

As if participating in a macabre play, the three pilots found themselves in the back of a prison truck headed for Kamiti Maximum Security Prison shortly after this mission.

All three have passed on and here the story is taken up by a fellow officer who was with them from the time they were arrested to when they were released seven and half months later.

Maj Fred Wachira was an air traffic controller at Laikipia Air Base in 1982. At the time of the attempted coup, he was Acting Officer Commanding Flying Wing and worked directly with the pilots.

Coup crashed

He remembers: “For a few days after the coup attempt was crushed, there seemed a genuine effort to separate good people from bad. But that was short lived. Soon, the Base Commander, Col Njuguna, the Air Force Commander, Maj Gen Kariuki and all of us in the service found ourselves as suspects.

“Maj Mutua, Capt Mugwanja, Capt Baraza and I boarded the same prison truck, a Black Mariam, which took us to Kamiti Prison. After a few days at Kamiti, we were herded into another prison truck and taken to Naivasha prison. En-route and during our stay at the two prisons, we were treated like common criminals and subjected to the most degrading treatment you can think of.

“The worst part about all this is that our families were kept in the dark about our whereabouts. They had no way of knowing whether we were dead or alive. There was also no pay for us and on top of the psychological torture of not know the fate of their loved ones, our families were denied the support which we gave them in normal times. This went on for seven and a half months.”

The purpose of the incarceration was supposedly to screen and separate the innocent from those with a case to answer. The innocent were to be freed and, logically, resume their duties. Those with cases to answer were referred to a court martial sitting at Langata Army Barracks. But the process defied logic and fairness right from the start.

On November 24, after a trial lasting only nine days, Cpl Njereman was convicted of his offence and sentenced to death for treason. On December 16, 1982, Cpl Walter Odira Ojode followed Njereman as the next Kenyan to be sent to face the hangman.

As this was going on, Cpl Amos Kunikina Marani was charged with servicing F/5 jets, doing all the pre-flight checks and signing Form 700 certifying that the jets were ready to fly. He admitted to the offence of mutiny and was sentenced to 13 years in jail.

It didn’t seem to occur to anybody — or to bother them — that people were being convicted of treason and other serious offences while their victims were doing time in jail.

Recalls Maj Wachira: “The interrogators did their job. The only question is how it could possibly take almost eight months to do that and what compensation would be offered to those found innocent. All the same, we hoped that once cleared, we would resume our duties and life would return to normal.”

It turned out to be wishful thinking. At the end of the apparently endless screening process, the three pilots were found without a case to answer.
Says Wachira: “The four of us were together on the day we were set free. We were loaded in a military truck — not a prison Black Mariam this time — and driven to Kahawa Barracks. We were taken to a tent pitched in a nursery school within the complex.

All this time, we were looking forward for the onward trip to Nanyuki. But we were in for a rude shock. Maj Mburu from Moi Air Base told us that our services had been terminated. Apparently, this decision had been arrived at much earlier.

Terminal dues

“He gave us 30 shillings each for bus fare to town and ordered us to leave. The three pilots and I took a matatu to town where we went to a restaurant for tea to “enjoy” our terminal dues. In the next few months, we struggled through the DoD process of obtaining our termination certificates.”

Maj Wachira showed Saturday Nation his certificate which read among other things: “His commission was terminated on being retired from the service. His discipline and conduct was good.”

Save for the bus fare he got at Kahawa, he didn’t receive a penny for his 12-and-a-half years service with the Air Force. But the certificate served him in good stead and he was able to get a job with the Directorate of Civil Aviation as an air traffic controller where he worked for three years.

Top notch pilots

This is how Maj Wachira remembers his colleagues: “Those gentlemen were top notch pilots and it is unbelievable that they could be treated the way they were. Though I was an air traffic controller and not a pilot, I was their officer commanding and I knew them very well. There are many things that can be proved – like facts backed by records. But there are also many things that cannot be proved. Like just why we were treated like common criminals after so many years of devoted service.”

He adds thoughtfully: “Agreed it is an employer’s right to terminate service when he no longer needs it. But it should be done legally and humanely. Enormous suffering to us and our families followed our unjust and lengthy imprisonment in Naivasha and things were never the same again.

“Those three pilots were my colleagues of many years. They exhibited the highest level of courage and patriotism under very difficult circumstances. Though gone, there must be justice for them and their families.”

Roy Gachuhi is Director, East Africa School of Journalism. (roygachuhi@yahoo.com)

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