Untold story: Night meeting that saved Moi presidency
Posted Friday, July 30 2010 at 21:00
- This is the previously untold story of the small band of Kenya Army officers and men who faced off and subdued well-armed Air Force units that briefly took power from President Moi in the early hours of August 1, 1982. The President was in hiding and the Chief of General Staff was for some reason unreachable when four senior officers gathered around a table at the Kenya Army Headquarters, Nairobi, to steer their country back to civilian rule. Outside, the sound of sporadic rebel gunfire echoed above the shouts of “Power! Power!” from university students. On the eve of the 28th anniversary of the failed coup, retired general Humphrey Njoroge — whose first role that night was to take minutes — recounts the events to ROY GACHUHI
There is no doubt in Lt-Gen (retired) Humphrey Njoroge’s mind that the coup attempt in which scores were killed and hundreds injured — on top of huge losses to business — was wholly avoidable.
“Everybody who needed to know knew that there were plans for a coup and the leaders were known,” he says.
“After the opening ceremonies of the Nyeri ASK Show on Friday, July 30, the chief of intelligence, James Kanyotu, asked President Moi for authority to arrest Sgt Joseph Ogidi, Cpl Charles Oriwa, Cpl Walter Ojode and Cpl Bramwel Njereman from the then Kenya Air Force, Nanyuki Station. He also wanted to arrest others from other KAF bases.”
Njoroge, who was a major at the time, quotes a colleague who was privy to that Nyeri meeting. According to him, Kanyotu told the President: “Your Excellency, my people are in place. Can we arrest these people?”
At that time, the Special Branch had infiltrated the barracks and knew everything about the planned coup.
“But acting on contrary advice,” Njoroge now recalls, “President Moi withheld such authority. He decided to wait until Monday when the armed forces would supposedly deal with the matter internally without involving policemen who were considered subordinate in the disciplined services structure.
“General Jackson Mulinge, who was Chief of the General Staff promised the President that the matters would be dealt with at that time.”
Chief of operations
But at midnight on August 1, 1982 rebel airmen stormed what is today the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation headquarters, took control and announced the establishment of a military government.
And so it is that Lt Gen John Sawe, who was Army Commander as well as Deputy Chief of the General Staff, his deputy in the Army, Maj Gen Mahmoud Mohammed, the Chief of Operations at Defence Headquarters Brig Bernard Kiilu and Maj Humphrey Njoroge, a staff officer in charge of training at Army Headquarters were hurriedly gathered at 2am the same night to consider the options of a quick counter-coup.
As they spoke, Nairobi echoed to the sound of gunfire from the rifles of rebel airmen of the Kenya Air Force drawn from Eastleigh and Embakasi bases.
Several hours earlier, unknown accomplices had stolen the keys to the armoury at Defence Headquarters, but a quick-thinking senior officer had ordered fresh locks bought and fastened on the door.
These activities were the subject of that meeting in Sawe’s office that night.
War games just ended
“We were planning how to restore President Moi’s Government,” recalls the now retired Lt-Gen Njoroge. “That was the original strategy meeting that reversed the 1982 coup attempt.”
The meeting had not been convened by any higher authority. The four had found themselves there by the dictates of the peculiar circumstances of the time. All units of the Kenya Army were at that time en route to Nairobi from Lodwar where war games had just ended.
Most of its leadership were there. But the senior-most commanders, after routinely accompanying the President at the Nyeri Show, had retired to their homes for the weekend.
Sawe presided over the meeting and opened it thus: “The C-in-C is not available. The CGS is not available. What must we do?”