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?”
Says Njoroge: “We didn’t ask him where they were. We just assumed that he had tried to reach them in vain.”
It fell upon Kiilu, the operations man, to make the first presentation of the options open to the quartet who at that time comprised the entire operational command of Kenya’s Defence Headquarters. Kiilu was a British-trained officer with a fine intellectual mind. He had a remarkable capacity to analyse and synthesise issues with clarity and mastery of detail.
According to Njoroge, Kiilu took good note of the fact that the rebel airmen had struck when the army barracks were virtually empty.
Says Njoroge: “Kiilu told us, ‘We must begin by assuming that Nairobi has fallen.’”
At this point in the presentation, Njoroge recalls that Mohammed was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. There was little doubt that he didn’t like what he was hearing. Kiilu proceeded to recommend that they wait for the returning army units and halt them in the western gates of the city, in the vicinity of Kiambu, from where it would prepare its assault on the city.
But before he could go on, and all of a sudden, Mohammed burst out: “Bernard! This is crazy! We cannot wait that long! We must stop it now!”
Remembers Njoroge: “I was by far the most junior officer there. I was only a major. I was timid. I did not make any contributions. If I spoke, it was only if I was spoken to. I just took notes.”
“What do you have in Langata?” Mohammed pressed. “What do you have in Nairobi?” He was referring to troops. Evidently, he was calculating his chances of success in fighting back, which he already seemed hell-bent on at that moment.
Then he said, addressing his boss Sawe: “I suggest you give me instructions. Tell me what to announce when I take back the station when I stop this. I want you to tell me what to tell the country. And I don’t want interference from this headquarters. Humphrey, you are taking notes!”
“Yes, sir!” Njoroge affirmed.
Sawe then asked Mohammed: “Are you sure you can do it?”
Mohammed replied: “Yes, sir!”
Sawe gave him the go-ahead. The meeting was over.
Njoroge noted how Mohammed had managed to take command of the operation while at the same time having it on record that he was the authorised operation commander.
Njoroge was impressed. Mohammed was a man who had barely seen the inside of a primary school classroom, by far the least educated of the officers present. He was just an infantryman, with no special skill or trade to his name.
Over the decades, he had risen from private, the army’s lowest rank, to major-general, a mere two stars away from the very top. Semi-literate he may have been, but he had other qualities going for him. Not least among these was an acute understanding of human psychology and an elephant’s memory.
Here, he showed an uncanny understanding of a complex situation and at once assumed leadership.
Recalls Njoroge: “Citing urgency, Mohammed sought and obtained Sawe’s permission to leave, taking me along. We left Sawe and Kiilu behind. ‘Humphrey,’ he said as we left, ‘continue taking notes.’ On the way, we bumped into Col Alex Mwangangi. He is the one who gave us the frequencies we would use to communicate among ourselves.”
Once inside the office, Mohammed told Njoroge his plan. “Humphrey, go to the main gate. I want you to assemble all the crack shots. Tell Warrant Officer One Kaptich to assemble all the crack shots. Specifically, I want all those from 1KR who won trophies during the Armed Forces Rifle Meeting. Go.”
1KR (1st Battalion, the Kenya Rifles) was the first military unit to be established by Kenya’s new government at independence. It was established in February 1964. It is an infantry (foot soldier) battalion. Mohammed, who had joined the colonial army in 1953, had served as its commanding officer from 1969 to 1978. Though it was years since he had left, he knew the troops there by their first names, especially the best shots. Now he urgently sought them.
Njoroge requested half an hour to carry out the instruction. He returned with two or three dozen soldiers carried in Land Rover ambulances. A few soldiers, himself included, wore doctors’ white coats. The ambulance vehicles and white coats were for a purpose. It was now about 5am. Sporadic gunfire from various parts of town three kilometres away intermittently interrupted the early morning calm.
Mohammed looked at what Njoroge had brought and was satisfied. The troops were not told where they were going or what they were going to do. Only Mohammed and Njoroge knew the plan — which was to retake KBC, the country’s only broadcasting station.
In those days, he who called the shots at KBC, then known as Voice of Kenya, owned the country. There was no other source of instant information. The first target for all African coup makers was the national broadcaster and Kenya’s rebel airmen were working to script.
The convoy was readied and Njoroge took his seat in the first Land Rover. Mohammed took his in the second one and the others lined up.
Then the convoy rolled out of Army Headquarters and headed for Argwings Kodhek Road. It then turned left at the Silver Springs Hotel round-about and joined Valley Road.
The operation to save Moi from his own catastrophic error had begun.
The convoy cruised down Valley Road, getting into Uhuru Highway, then University Way and onto Harry Thuku Road where they headed for KBC. Other vehicles followed. All over town were rebel soldiers and university students shouting “Power!”.
Says Njoroge: “Whenever we encountered them, we shouted “Power!” and punched the air with our fists. A lot of looting was taking place already. There were huge celebrations by university students around Broadcasting House with loud music.
Just outside the Norfolk Hotel, they stopped and Njoroge, resplendent in his doctor’s coat, stepped out of his vehicle and went straight to the KBC gate. Everybody else remained behind. He recalls: “There were very many rebels there and they were armed. I identified a man who wore a general’s ranks on both his shoulders. On one shoulder was air force insignia and on the other army insignia. It was a bit dark.”
He approached that “officer” and told him: “We are from Memorial. We are here to help you.” He was referring to the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital and made sure the “officer” saw the line of ambulances parked outside the gate.
The officer looked pleased and said: “Good. Carry on.” The encounter lasted less than five minutes but that was all Njoroge needed to survey the field. He walked briskly back to the Land Rovers.
He says: “I have reason to believe the man I spoke to was Ochuka. I did not know him and neither did he know me. I will never be sure, but something told me I had just spoken to the coup leader who from later accounts turned out to be there at that time. There was something in his demeanour that made him stand out from the rest.”
Back to where the Land Rovers stood, Njoroge told Mohammed: “Sir, we cannot attack them. They are too many and they are well armed. Even if we succeed in overpowering them, we do not have an exit corridor. We cannot leave and no reinforcement can reach us. We shall be trapped here.” He suggested they go to Kahawa Garrison and seek reinforcements.
He also said they should contact the Embakasi-based 50 Air Cavalry Battalion to create a corridor when it was time to withdraw. Mohammed asked him: “Are you sure this is what we should do?” Njoroge affirmed and remarks: “Mohammed is a good senior officer who listens to good advice. He is not opinionated. He just said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
The convoy headed to the Globe Cinema round-about and took Murang’a Road and drove to Kahawa Garrison where it arrived around 6.30am. At the gate, they learned that Sawe had issued firm instructions that nobody should be allowed in or out of all military bases in the country. They were thus stopped by the sentries and flatly denied entry.
A furious Mohammed walked up to Cpl Halake, the sentry in charge and asked him whether he knew who he was. Halake politely told him yes, he knew he was the Deputy Army Commander, but no, he was not going to allow him in.
His instructions from Gen Sawe, he told Mohammed, did not exempt anybody, sorry sir. Mohammed cocked his gun and thundered: “I am going to shoot you!”
Looking at the angry boss and perceiving the company he was in, the sentry relented and opened the gate. There isn’t any doubt in Njoroge’s mind that Mohammed meant his threat.
The convoy rolled in. Garrison Commander Col Njiru was holed up in a meeting with his officers while the troops were in their quarters.
Mohammed took charge of the meeting. There were two officers from his previous command at 1KR whom he particularly liked and wanted with him — Maj Wanambisi and Maj Kithinji. Two others, Maj Cheboi and Maj Kiritu from Langata, would also play crucial roles in his scheme of things.
“He wanted people he could trust,” Njoroge says. “These obviously had to be people he knew very well.”
Mohammed told the gathering that he wanted the troops gathered and the top shots who had won trophies during the armed forces rifle championships identified. That done, Maj Wanambisi was assigned the vanguard group and Maj Kithinji the back-up. Weapons were then distributed. Depending on their specialties, the troops were given submachine guns, G3 rifles and light machine guns. Nobody was told what the mission was.
The convoy then headed back to the city through Thika Road, Forest Road, past Parklands Secondary School, Forest Lodge before finally stopping at the Museum Hill round-about. That is where the final briefing took place and it is where the troops were finally told what their mission was.
Said Mohammed: “Tunaenda VoK na tunaenda kufa.” (“We are going to VoK and we are going to die.”) He then told them the plan was to make the rebel airmen surrender peacefully without a fight. But the orders were to return fire when fired upon or to fire in pre-emptive self-defence.
This is exactly what happened in literally the next instant. Just as the briefing was about to end, one Private Odero saw an airman take aim at Mohammed who was standing prominently in front of the troops. Instinctively, he let out a burst of machine gun fire that felled the airman and several others standing near him. At that point, the plan changed. It became a full scale assault.
Abandoning their vehicle after their final briefing, Mohammed’s troops inched towards the broadcasting station slowly, the crack shots taking out drunken air force servicemen one after the other.
When it became apparent that they were under siege, one airman exclaimed: “Kwa nini GSU wanatupiga?” (“Why are the GSU attacking us?”) He was under the mistaken impression that the attackers were GSU officers because the coup had been timed to take place when the Army was out of town. Coupled with the fact that the southern entrances to the city were blocked by airmen from Embakasi, he was sure these troops, coming from the direction of Westlands, could only be GSU personnel.
The Army force from Kahawa numbered less than 30. But it exacted a huge toll among the drunken airmen, who were partying with university students. The actual number who died in the assault may never be known, but it was reliably estimated to be between 100 and 200.
At that time, there was no perimeter wall around the broadcasting complex. The invaders were therefore able to enter from Uhuru Highway.
The first soldiers to reach the radio studios killed five rebels inside there. They then went back and told Mohammed, who was close behind, that the route to the studio was clear and Leonard Mambo Mbotela, the famed broadcaster who had been kidnapped from his house and forced to announce Moi’s ouster, was still inside. Mohammed strode in, Njoroge with him.
“I am General Mohammed,” he told Mambo, “I want you to announce that Nyayo forces have retaken the country.” Njoroge, who kept taking notes of every detail of the operation, then gave Mambo a list of officers whose names he was to broadcast as being at the station. These were Maj-Gen Mohammed, Maj Wanambisi, Maj Kithinji, Maj Kiritu, Maj Cheboi, Maj Mulinge and himself, Maj Njoroge.
He then went to the library and fetched a gramophone record, Safari ya Japan by Joseph Kamaru. “Play this,” he told Mambo who did. The record and the composition of the list of soldiers were meant to reassure soldiers everywhere that Nyayo was indeed back in the saddle.
“It was a psychological ploy,” he says. “Not all the officers whose names I gave Mambo to read were at Broadcasting House.”
Outside the station, the assault had turned into a chase and mop up operation. Airmen were fleeing in numbers. But Ochuka, Njoroge was to learn later, was still insisting he was Commander-in-Chief. Through the armed forces communication system, he kept insulting Sawe and threatening him with dire consequences for resisting.
It was then that Sawe ordered helicopters to blow up the communications facility at the Eastleigh air force base. Without communications, Ochuka’s coup collapsed and he was soon on his way to Tanzania.
It was not until about 3pm that the invading party was relieved from Defence headquarters. Accompanied by Njoroge, Mohammed then went DoD to find Mulinge, Sawe and a few other senior officers.
The gathering embarked on mop-up plans. But first they had to get a devastated Moi, who had been brought to town in an armoured convoy from Kabarak led by Maj Gen Musomba, to announce to Kenyans that he was back as President. Few Kenyans who watched him on TV that evening will forget the crushed look in his face.
After that Moi, whose regime had already been fairly repressive, launched a clamp down on dissent that gradually turned Kenya into a police state.
Roy Gachuhi is Director, East Africa School of Journalism. firstname.lastname@example.org