A few years ago, two nosy journalists arrived at the Engashura home in Nakuru of James Erastus Mungai.
From a distance, the then 80-something-year-old former deputy commissioner of police-turned fugitive could see the intruders.
They walked on, one step at a time, hoping to get the story of a lifetime. The old man was at the verandah waiting: A large German Shepherd dog by his side.
“How are you Mr Mungai,” the one on the lead stretched his hand for salutations. Mungai pretended not to see the hand.
“And who are you?” he snorted, ignoring the stretched hand which was meekly withdrawn.
“We are journalists from Nation.”
Mungai glanced at his watch. He scornfully looked at the two 30-somethings and turned slightly.
He perhaps did not wish to be dragged backwards, across the surface of his past life. Then he spoke.
“In one minute,” he said with irrevocable command, “I want you out of this compound.”
The journalists looked at Mungai – then at the big German Shepherd. Though the order was unmistakably clear, they naively thought there was an option.
“We …” they desperately tried to mellow him out.
“I said get out!” The finality was frightening.
The intrusion had perhaps made him uncomfortable.
For many years, Mungai never loved the press.
When Koigi wa Wamwere became a journalist with Sunday Post, before he was elected to Parliament in 1974, he faced the wrath of Mungai too: “Every time an article (about Kenyatta) appeared in the Sunday Post, the police came for me … it was a life of incredible terror orchestrated by the provincial police officer James Mungai … they arrested me so many times that I lost count and lost faith that I could use journalism to effectively challenge the injustices of dictatorship under Kenyatta,” Koigi, a former Nakuru North MP, writes in his book I Refuse to Die.
THE NGOROKO AFFAIR
Mungai’s farmland is vast: a former colonial farm that he has turned into commercial use, breeding horses and rearing dairy cows.
But his career inside the Jomo Kenyatta government, and the transition into the Moi regime, is a testimony on how fluid the takeover was.
Now in his 90s, the story of Mungai and whether he established the modern-day Kenya Anti-Stock Theft Unit in the mid 1970s as a killer “Ngoroko” squad will never be known.
The Ngoroko affair still remains one of those stories threaded with rivulets of rumours, political mischief, gossip and spin.
Although the days when Mungai was the object of intense curiosity are long gone, he remains a big lesson on power, influence and the fate of those who President Moi deftly outmanoeuvred.
Perhaps he is still angry that his colleagues and friends spurned him and that when he started falling, he was all alone, spending the Christmas of 1978 in wintry Europe and on the run.
The name James Erastus Nyingi Mungai hardly rings a bell today.
He had risen through the ranks to become a Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police in October 1974 after being posted by then Commissioner Bernard Hinga to be the police commander in the Rift Valley in January 1973. Then he was tasked to form the Anti-Stock Theft Unit and the story began.
With Kenyatta ailing, a change-the-constitution movement had been started to stop the automatic handover of power to Moi.
The face of this movement was Nakuru political operative Kihika Kimani, a man who had collected millions of shillings from poor farmers with his Ngwataniro-Mutukanio Company.
While this attempt to stop Moi from succeeding Kenyatta was nipped in the bud by the constitutionalists led by then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, it later emerged that the formation of the Anti-Stock Theft Unit was part of a larger scheme to assassinate Moi, Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki — the most senior politicians opposed to Change-the-Constitution movement.
It was Njonjo, shortly after Moi was sworn in in October 1978, who sounded the alarm and said that they would crack down on those connected with the Ngoroko.
“We will not rest until those culprits have all been punished,” said Njonjo in an interview. The Head of Civil Service, Geoffrey Kariithi, had also said that the “paymasters of this band of highly trained Ngorokos were known and police were investigating them.”
Mungai knew he was on the radar screen and went to see the Head of Special Branch, James Kanyotu, together with his deputy, Mwangi Stephen Muriithi.
After explaining his fears and after suggesting that an investigation be carried out, Kanyotu did not seem to be in a mood to salvage Mungai from his predicament: “You see Mr Mungai, little knowledge is always dangerous, personally, I know very little about this unit.”
By this time, Mungai was still in charge of this unit based in Nakuru.
It was after he was ordered by Commissioner of Police Bernard Hinga in September 1978 to transfer the unit from Ngong that he started feeling that the end had come.
A few weeks later, he was ordered to scatter the personnel to all provinces and then the entire unit was transferred to the General Service Unit.
Parliament was at this time debating Legal Notice No 222, which had been published in October 1978 as a legislative supplement.
In essence, it was to give the new President Moi powers to detain individuals without trial.
During the debate, MPs were demanding the detention of those behind the Ngoroko Affair.
On November 1, 1978, a frightened Mungai telephoned Njonjo seeking an appointment.
“My aim was to go and explain to him fully about the Stock Theft Unit, clear any misunderstanding on the Unit, and discuss the rumours…” he would later tell the GSU Commandant Ben Gethi in a letter.
ON THE RUN
A call from Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge at odd hours had alerted him that he was in danger.
“He on each occasion told me that he had heard about my arrest and violent death,” he told Gethi.
That night of November, he tried to reach James Karugu, then Deputy Public Prosecutor.
He hoped that Karugu would in turn brief his boss, Charles Njonjo. After he was given an appointment for November 6, he knew it was time to leave.
By this time, the Ngoroko Affair had morphed into a national catastrophe.
Mungai told some senior officers in Nakuru that he was heading north to Lake Turkana where he would spend his holiday — an unusual destination for a man who loved the coastal breeze where the political and security elite converged annually to watch the Indian Ocean waves lap on the shore.
He then drove in his Mercedes Benz to his confidante, Assistant Minister for Labour Simon Kairo on the evening of November 1 with a single request.
He wanted to borrow his driver the next day. It was not an unusual request, according to Kairo.
The two were in-laws and had farms in Rongai. Kairo also ran a hotel in Nakuru town named Malaika and it was here that Mungai was to pick up the driver.
At 5 am, Thursday, November 2, 1978, the man who had been at the helm of police in Rift Valley for more than 10 years wore his official uniform, took his Range Rover, KLM 874, and drove out of his home.
He picked up Kairo’s driver, John Murumujo, outside the hotel and they drove north, passing by Mungai’s home where they picked his herdsman, 48-year-old Luchama Lomodei, a former policeman who hailed from Turkana District.
He also collected his two rifles: double-barrelled shotguns; a pistol, plus some ammunition — just in case.
Six jerrycans of petrol were also put in the car and a blanket.
Mungai then gave his first order: “Drive to Lodwar.” It was now 6:30 am and they had to take a tortuous 530km journey.
By 2am, they reached Lodwar and were now running low on fuel, according to Murumujo.
The two jerrycans could take them to Lokitaung, a frontier town whose 220km road winds along the western shores of Lake Turkana.
It was a dangerous ride, too, at night. Luckily, by 6am they reached Lokitaung and entered the local police station.
Mungai was known by everyone in the police force. He was given tea, and some officers were sent to fetch petrol for him.
The escape continued as they drove towards the small town of Makutano where they arrived at 6.30 pm and drove on towards Lokichogio where they arrived at 2 am, tired and sleepy.
As Murumujo would later tell police, Mungai asked them to go to the local police station. “(He) approached the policeman on guard. He was told we were heading to the Sudan. The policeman fled into the police post with his whistle blaring. Mungai followed him and introduced himself. We were told to go left from the post. After 300 yards or so, we decided to stop the car and sleep.”
They woke up at 6 am. Although the Sudan border was 30km away, the group got lost and were re-directed by some white missionaries who were also heading to Sudan. They followed.
Back at the Nairobi headquarters, there was no information about Mungai’s escape. After all, he was within his province.
The group crossed the Sudan border (Mungai had his diplomatic passport stamped and said the others were his employees and they were let in without papers) and reached the small town of Kapoeta where they were given a room by the local police chief. It is not clear whether he was waiting for them.
Mungai told him that he was “touring the country … and after here, I am going to Khartoum. I want to see more of your country.” It was a lie.
The herdsman, Lemodei, was left at Kapoeta as Mungai and his driver drove in a missionary car towards Juba after selling the Range Rover to an Arab at Kapoeta for Sh60,000.
The buyer also rode with Mungai, then 43, and was to pay the balance, Sh10,000 in Juba.
Back home, it was not until November 15, 1978 that it was confirmed that Mungai had escaped to Sudan.
That day, Kairo was picked up by police for interrogation and denied assisting Mungai to escape. He was never charged.
From his hide-out, Mungai penned several letters to senior government officials.
“Forgive me,” he told Kariithi, then Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President. He appealed to Kariithi to plead with President Moi and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo on his behalf: “I am very frightened to return … where did I go wrong?” he asked. “There was absolutely no plan to harm anybody … they were just dedicated policemen who were being trained to deal with one of the menaces in the Rift Valley (Ngoroko cattle rustlers).”
Njonjo had told Parliament that the country would have come under military rule had the Ngoroko Affair succeeded.
Afraid that Sudan might hand him over to Kenya, Mungai took a flight to Switzerland.
“We did not know what sort of activities he was engaged in, when he crossed the border and when he left,” said then Sudan President Gaafer Numeiry after Mungai left.
In Nairobi, a warrant of arrest had been issued by the High Court after he was accused of “embezzlement.”
On Wednesday, December 19, 1978, Mungai returned to Kenya aboard a Swissair DC10. Scores of CID officers were waiting for him.
Mungai did not leave with the other passengers and, according to media reports, two CID cars drew up at the foot of the gangway used by engineers and aircraft staff.
Dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying a briefcase, Mungai spotted a police acquaintance, a former colleague: “Kurathie atia? (What’s going on), he asked in Kikuyu.
His lawyer Pravin Bowry was also at the airport.
Mungai was never charged and never opened his mouth about the Ngoroko Affair. The government later declared the matter a closed chapter.
Whether or not there was such a plot will never be known. But one man was left holding the short end of the whole saga — James Erastus Nyingi Mungai.
Kamau is a senior writer at NMG; [email protected]