Cornels Akello Onyango was dazed when a beautiful young brown woman menacingly approached him brandishing a razor blade. “Get ready to be circumcised,” she barked as she walked towards him.
For him, the fact that the threat was coming from a woman was a shock in itself. The look on her face left no doubt that she was capable of carrying out the threat.
Onyango, stark naked, frightened and his mind in a turmoil, was in front of a group of about 10 stone-faced men.
The looks on their faces left no doubt in his mind that at some stage the encounter would develop into a violent and vicious confrontation.
Onyango’s experience illustrates a fraction of the suffering, denigration, humiliation, physical and mental abuse of the victims and survivors of the Nyayo House torture chambers and other places of detention during the Moi regime.
Author and historian Maina wa Kinyatti describes the scenario thus: “I was ordered to strip naked and sit down on a chair. My hands were chained to the chair and I could not move at all. From the moment the brutal interrogation started, everything in the room changed and the language of coercion and violence was introduced.”
(Nairobi lawyer) Ng’ang’a Thiong’o’s incarceration at Nyayo House has yet to be erased from his mind.
“The hood was removed and there I was in a dark cell. The next morning I was put in a lift while blind folded and upon landing several floors above I was taken into a room, put on a seat and there I found myself in front of nine mean-looking guys.
‘Tell us about yourself, your friends and your involvement in the struggle,’ the interrogation began. Questions and more questions for hours without end were followed by beatings with slaps, kicks, whips, wooden pieces of wood and burning with cigarette ends.
“My screams did not help and as they continued brutalising me, they were insisting that I confess all that I knew or they would kill me. After collapsing due to exhaustion, I was returned to the basement cells. The guards were instructed to continue with the beatings.
The beatings continued relentlessly and only the methods varied. One day, they would remove pistols and threaten to shoot me. There were screams from the neighbouring rooms with men screaming at the tops of their voices. I lost count of the days and time, whether it was day or night. It was a total nightmare.
“I ended up being taken before Chief Magistrate H.H. Buch who declined to take my plea as I was his student at the School of Law. A court was hurriedly convened under Mr Joseph Mango and it was packed with the very people who had been torturing me.
“I was charged with neglecting to prevent the commission of a felony contrary to Section 392 of the penal code. I told the magistrate that I had undergone a harrowing experience in police custody where upon he said he would first enter a plea of guilty and then hear the details.
The then deputy public prosecutor Bernard Chunga rose and read a six-page statement on my alleged activities to overthrow the government. Without asking any question, the magistrate wrote that the facts were true and correct. He then wrote mitigation on my behalf and sentenced me to fifteen months imprisonment.”
Former Runyenjes Member of Parliament Njeru Kathangu was arrested on July 11, 1990 at Mutugi’s Bar and Restaurant in Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi.
Kathangu, who was a former senior officer with the Kenya Army, recalls his arrest and interrogation: “Between the time of entering the cell there was nothing – no food, nobody talked to me.
There was no need of a short call. I guess it was July 13 that someone came and opened the cell door. I was blindfolded and led to the lift. Nobody was talking to me all the time. I was taken upstairs.
“It was bright and sunny. There were about twelve men and a woman sitting in a horseshoe formation. I was seated in the middle of the room in front of them.
They started throwing words wildly and at random. This was an uncoordinated way of interrogating people. One of the questions from (agent) Opiyo was ‘Tell us General, were you the person to become chief of general staff in your government? George Anyona says that you were recruited specifically for that.’
“After those wild statements I got an opportunity to speak. I told them I was surprised that the Kenya police did not appreciate how difficult it was to overthrow dictators.
This was the first time I was slapped by someone from behind me. He asked, ‘Who is a dictator here?’ I didn’t answer that. James Opiyo rose and walked to where I was sitting and pretended to slap me.
I raised my hand to protect my face. The man behind me slapped me again. At that time Opiyo challenged me to stand and fight saying that if I could not fight I would be taken back to the cells. I stayed in the cells and I was not given any food.
“The following day I was taken back to the interrogation room and given some pieces of paper stating that we were going to overthrow the government.
They asked me to comment on them. I denied them and complained that I had not eaten since July 10 and demanded to be given food. I was given some bread and cigarettes to smoke. After that I was taken down to a cell which was flooded with water. The water reached the ankle. After about two hours they introduced hot air in the cell. I started feeling dizzy and I fell in the water. While in that state I heard the noise of a woman who was in high heels walking back and forth and shuffling some papers. My body was very cold.
“In the morning I was taken up again to a smaller, slightly darker room where I met Opiyo and another torturer known as Mr Machiri. They challenged me saying that I was involved in covert activities intended to overthrow the government.
I denied being the architect of Saba Saba (events of July 7, 1990 that led to the killing of tens of Kenyans by the police when they attended a pro-democracy rally at Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi) or having any potential to overthrow the government. At this stage Machiri walked out of the room and Opiyo told me.
‘Kathangu, you are an official of KANU and an army man. Why should you be involved with ex-detainees? Please assist us. Tell us about the other three people.’ I declined to respond and Opiyo left the room.
“Immediately after, a brown woman with a Kikuyu accent came to me and said ‘Kathangu, you have not eaten. Why should you torture yourself? You have a wife and children and here you are protecting people who cannot assist you.’
I asked her, ‘Who are you? A policewoman?’ ‘It does not matter,’ she replied, ‘I want to assist you.’ She started fondling me everywhere and telling me that she could assist me get out of the place if only I confessed to having been misled to overthrow the government. She continued fondling me until I pushed her away.
She raised the alarm and Opiyo came back. He gave me a blow on my head and I fell down. He beat me with a wooden chair leg and rubber whip until I could no longer stand. He then summoned some people who came and dragged me downstairs.”
Kamau Munene, a journalist with the Kenya News Agency in Kirinyaga District, was arrested in October 1987 on allegations that he was a member of the underground Kenya Patriotic Front. He graphically narrates his ordeal at Nyayo house.
“It was the beginning of an endless journey of torture. I was continually tortured psychologically, physically and mentally with all the crude methods one can think of.
It was a very cold cement floor in the dungeons, very lonely, in fact lonelier than a grave, horrifying and scaring. Whenever they wanted to torture me, I would be blindfolded, guided to a VIP lift and whisked up to the 25th floor then walked to the 26th. This is where the torture took place.
“My torturers would remove the blindfold, strip me naked and handcuff me before starting their game. ‘You dog, who are you compared to 23 million Kenyans?
Even if you die, you are just a bitch!’ Machiri and Opiyo, who I came to know later, would shout at me while whipping me repeatedly.
“In total, there were seven torturers who were armed with machine guns, batons and whips. Two would work on me until they got tired. A woman torturer would mainly be interested in working on my sex organ which she would pierce with a sharp needle, burn the tip and testicles with a smouldering cigarette while a man held my legs apart. This would continue for several hours every day until I passed out.”
Munene recalls one session when Machiri asked him to confess that he was a member of Mwakenya who was also recruiting Nairobi street children to go and train in Libya as mercenaries.
He was also asked to admit that he was frequenting Libya and Moscow to meet Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader, allegations that he says were untrue.
“At the time, my father was ailing at the Mater Misericodeae Hospital and on learning of my arrest and fully aware of the consequences, the old man died.
At that time I did not know about it. I did not attend his burial though I was his favourite child. While still in isolation, I felt very sick due to the torture and the hardships that I was subjected to.
My right leg had been broken with a rungu and was swollen. At this juncture I believe the special branch had no option but to release me on sensing that I was just about to die.
However, I was released with a strict warning that I would be shot on sight should I disclose what I underwent especially so to the media.”
All the Nyayo House torture survivors narrate how they heard mysterious noises of a lady wearing high-heeled shoes walking back and forth on the floor above the torture chambers. There were also noises of pulling and pushing of furniture, shuffling of papers and cries of small children.
Waweru Kariuki says: “While in the cells, I heard a woman and children crying. I did not know where the sounds were coming from. Later, the interrogator came to my cell and told me that my wife was there with my children and had confessed. The interrogator had a gun that he used to intimidate me. He told me either to confess or be shot.”
It was later learnt that all the noises were simulated and piped into the cells as a form of psychological torture.
Waweru also went through a harrowing experience with the intriguing light skinned woman.
“A brown, pretty woman speaking English and Kiswahili with a Kikuyu accent, was brought to the cell in the basement. I was brought to the open space between the toilet and the control room.
She started interrogating me in a persuasive manner urging me to confess. She fondled me, taunting me. She told me that my wife and children had been brought there but I would not be allowed to see them.
“The interrogators then came and found us talking with the brown woman. They reprimanded me and tied my testicles using rubber bands. It was very painful. In the meantime, the brown woman was burning me on my thighs, organ and scrotum with a cigarette.”
Prof Edward Oyugi remembers that he was locked up without being entered in the occurrence book at Muthangari police station. He was removed from the cells at night, blindfolded and driven around the city.
“I was later taken to Nyayo house basement cells where for about two and a half weeks I was subjected to inhuman and degrading torture.
During that time I was put in a waterlogged cell. Early one morning Opiyo paid me a visit to confirm whether I was still in the water.
Opiyo was still in his pyjamas and slippers. I got so annoyed and asked him, ‘Have you come all the way from Langata to enjoy my suffering instead of being in bed enjoying the warmth of your wife?’
“Opiyo was so stung and infuriated by my apparent insolence that he picked one of his slippers and threw it at me.”
Oyugi also recalls two women torturers threatening to circumcise him. In an attempt to break down the victims’ resistance to physical methods of torture, the torturers would sometimes use the victims to incriminate each other.
Wachira Waheire, a sales executive with a private firm, was arrested at his place of work on December 2, 1986. After being tortured for days without accepting that he was a member of Mwakenya, he was informed that the special branch already knew who had given him an oath.
He says, “I was asked whether I knew other colleagues like Mwandawiro Mghanga, Njuguna Mutonya, Njuguna Mutahi and David Murathe, among others.
When I answered in the affirmative, I was told to accept that these colleagues had recruited me and had also given me copies of Pambana and Mpatanishi.
When I maintained that that was not true, I was subjected to further beatings and burning with smouldering cigarettes. I was again submerged in the waterlogged cell for a further three days without food or drinking water.
When I was removed from the cell I was taken upstairs to a room where Murathe was being held and asked to identify him as one of those who were administering the oath. I again refused to incriminate him and was taken back to a brightly lit cell in the basement.
“One of the officers was appearing in the cell every morning and telling me that I had little option but certain death if I did not cooperate by accepting that I was a member of Mwakenya. I survived on bread and tea for six days when I broke down and accepted that I had taken an oath.”
Waheire was taken to court at 5.30 pm and convicted on his own plea of guilty. He was jailed for four years on December 17, 1986. His plea of guilt obviously meant that Mghanga, Mutonya, Mutahi and Murathe recruited him.
For Maurice Adongo Ogony, then a lecturer at the Mombasa Polytechnic, Nyayo House was a place of discoveries.
“I made a few interesting and sometimes painful discoveries in that joint,” Adongo who was arrested in April 1986 narrates.
“The one thing that frightened me the most when I first got the blindfolds removed from my face and got to see outside my cell were the bundles of clothes in front of the opposite doors. I kept asking myself and imagining endlessly where the heck the folks who once put on those clothes could be.
“It didn’t take long for me to find that out – thanks to one James Opiyo – who on my third day of interrogation ordered that I be taken to the swimming pool.
When I arrived at the door, I was told to remove all my clothes including the underwear and enter. I could feel a smile creeping into my face when I realised that the once proud wearers of those now miserable looking pieces of clothes must have been in the pool all this time I had been worrying about them.
That smile was abruptly wiped off my face when I stepped into the pool. The water was chilly and there were some creepy stuff floating there.
“I quickly turned back to Opiyo who was standing beside me. You can’t put people in here, I said half begging half angry. He slammed the door in my face as if to announce. ‘Yes I can.’
Adongo was yet to make another discovery not any bit more pleasant than the first one. “My second discovery happened on my third day at the pool.
I was exhausted, restless and feeling terribly sick. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand and my head was heavy like lead.
Somewhere in the middle of all these I fell asleep while standing and fell down on the concrete floor with a thunderous splash. In my dazed state again there was that mischievous smile creeping on my face.
I said to myself, ‘So that explains the terrible landing noises I had been hearing from neighbouring cells?’ Folks were falling down like leafs from exhaustion. That is what I know about Nyayo House. It was a place of discoveries”
Spouses of Mwakenya suspects were also not spared by the torturers. Emma Ainea Weyula, a copy typist in the ministry of Education, was arrested together with her husband on November 29, 1990 in Milimani Estate, Bungoma Township.
She was recovering from a caesarean operation that she had undergone only two months earlier.
She tells her story: “I was arrested by a team of 14 special branch and CID men led by Superintendent Kasera, Inspector Clement Masinza and deputy DCIO Wang’ombe.
There was no woman in the team. They thoroughly searched our house, slapped me and told me that my husband’s case was serious and he might not come back.
I was bundled into the back of a car and driven to the Bungoma Police Station a few minutes after they had driven off with my husband in a Land Rover. At the police station, we stood outside and they started interrogating me.
“During the interrogation, they wanted to know more about my husband, Cornelius Mulumia, especially his activities in Mwakenya and other underground movements that I did not know about.
They also wanted to know if I had any idea of the allegedly seditious documents which they had taken from our house, and if Koigi Wamwere and Raila Odinga had ever visited us.
They later took the typewriter from my office at the ministry of education to compare with the characters of the machine that had typed the documents found in our house.
For the 14 days I stayed in custody I felt as if it was 10 years. All this time my young children, a daughter aged 5 and a son aged 3, were under the care of my neighbours.”
The husband takes up the story: “After the search that lasted for over an hour, they drove me in a Land Rover to Bungoma police station where I found my wife being interrogated by a group of over six policemen.
I was put in a cell and through a small hole on the door I could observe my wife being taken to another cell. One hour later, they came for me and took me to the special branch office where I found her being interrogated.
As we entered, they welcomed me with slaps and kicks before they returned me to the cell where I stayed for another three days.
“From December 10, 1990, to February 18, 1991 they shuttled me from Bungoma, Eldoret forest, Kakamega, Webuye Falls and back to Bungoma.
In between, they beat me using a whip, pierced my fingers with a needle and forced me to do all sorts of exercises including press-ups while demanding information on guns and underground movements like Mwakenya. In June 1991 I was finally released but I have yet to recover my health and social status.”
Torture in the Nyayo house basement resulted in death. The most well known case was that of Peter Njenga Karanja, a businessman who was arrested from his Chelsea Coffee House in Nakuru on allegations of being a member of Mwakenya.
In February 1987, Karanja died from internal bleeding and open wounds inflicted upon him during two weeks of brutal torture at Nyayo House.
The public outcry and international condemnation of Karanja’s death forced the Moi government to concede to a governmentcontrolled inquest into the death.
During the inquest horrifying facts of criminal abuse of human rights going on at Nyayo House were revealed. Dr Peter Antony Carberry, who examined Karanja, told the inquest that when four Special Branch officers brought the deceased to him, he appeared “malnourished, restless and uneasy”
“He was weary looking, extremely sick, full of anxiety and not a forthcoming person. …..he was crumpled in a wheelchair,” the doctor said.
Commenting on the wounds and sores on Karanja’s body during cross-examination by the late Dr. Oki Ooko Ombaka, representing the Karanja family, Dr Carberry said: “The ulcers on his body were bad, open and quite visible to the naked eye. The skin was badly shattered. The whole thing looked like a crater, a deep tissue with pus emanating from it.”
Dr Jason Kaviti, the then chief government pathologist who performed an autopsy on Karanja’s body, told the inquest that the wounds were caused by a blunt object. Kaviti told the inquest that the small and large intestines had ruptured. He concurred with Dr Carberry that the wounds were about two weeks old at the time Karanja died.
In his ruling, the Chief Magistrate, Mr Joseph Mango, declared: “Karanja died like a caged animal as police stood guard over him throughout his dying moments”.
The magistrate concluded that he had no doubt that some offence had been committed but could not say by who because the policeman in charge of the Mwakenya interrogation, Superintendent James Opiyo, refused to give identity of the officers who interrogated Karanja claiming such information would compromise state security.
“On the evidence of the suspects (the police officers who had handled the deceased) I cannot rule that no offence has been committed in so far as the treatment of the deceased was concerned. The investigation carried out by the police was not up to the standard. It was done with some kind of fear.
“My opinion and therefore finding is that the matter needs further investigations as I have no doubts that some offence was committed leading to the death of the deceased. I cannot say by who and so in terms of section 387 (4) of the criminal procedure code direct that this ruling for whatever it is worth be typed and be forwarded to the Attorney General to take any other or further steps that he may deem necessary.”
The Chief Magistrate ordered that the Attorney General needed to carry out further investigation to identify and charge those responsible.
However, no further investigations were carried out and although there has not been evidence to show otherwise police have never come out to deny the findings of the inquest or to explain how Karanja died while in their custody.
“Life in Prison is very brutal. It is an endless torture like a flowing river. It is gradual destruction of humanity. It is a slow death. …Since we were thrown here many prisoners have died. In addition we don’t sleep at night because of the lice, fleas, ticks, bedbugs and vicious mosquitoes. They eat us alive.”
Letter smuggled from prison, 1988
One prominent judge described Kenyan prisons as death chambers. Justice Emmanuel O’Kubasu, while describing the harshness of the prison conditions, said those who entered prisons left alive only by the grace of God.
Even for ordinary criminals, Kenya’s prison conditions are brutal. From the food, sleeping arrangements, medical services, overcrowding to sanitation, the prisons are not designed to rehabilitate but to dehumanise the prisoners.
And although the law prescribes relatively humane ways of treatment of prisoners these are largely ignored through lean budgetary allocations, the level of training of prison warders and a cumbersome process for prisoners to demand these legal rights.
Because they were regarded by prisons’ authorities as enemies of the state, conditions for the Nyayo House torture survivors who went to prison were made extra harsh.
Ironically, a lot of those who went to prison did so after pleading guilty to avoid the inhuman torture they were being subjected at Nyayo House. But it did not take long for them to realise that the difference between the torture in Nyayo House and in prison was more of time rather than intensity.
Because they wanted to achieve their goals in a short period the torturers at Nyayo House, James Opiyo and his group, did their job fast. But the prison conditions inflicted more pain and claimed more lives in the long run than Opiyo and his group in Nyayo House.
Political prisoners, including those jailed for the 1982 Air Force coup, were ridiculed and beaten by prison warders whenever an opportunity was found.
Indeed, the degrading treatment started immediately one entered the prison gates.
Maina wa Kinyatti tells his experience at Industrial Area Remand Prison: “Finally, I was escorted to the next check point.
‘Take off your clothes including your underwear and shoes and give them to that askari over there, then come back here,’ the guard ordered. I hesitated … I thought the guard was pulling my leg. ‘Professor, did you hear what I just said?’ The guard screamed.
“Reluctantly, I obeyed the order. He examined my ears, armpits, nostrils, genitals and then he commanded, ‘Turn around and bend over with your legs apart…Damn-it, bend over more… and if you fart, I will skin you alive.’”
“We Lived to Tell: The Nyayo House Story” is published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) © Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
© Citizens for Justice
Available at: http://kenya.fes-international.de/publications/live2tell.pdf