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Captain's hand in Kenya’s coup bids

Sunday August 02 2020
HINGA

Commissioner of Police Bernard Hinga (centre) and Major-General Ndolo (right). PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By NYAMBEGA GISESA

In 1971, one the most dramatic and heavily publicised trials in the history of Kenya started. The Chief Justice and military chief were mentioned in court in a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Despite overwhelming evidence of their connection to the conspiracy, both the then Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa and then head of the armed forces Major General Ndolo, were not called to the witness stand. Major General Ndolo, who was never charged in court, resigned from office shortly after the conspirators were jailed. CJ Mwendwa also resigned from office.

Years later, Ndolo and Mwendwa died from mysterious road accidents, which to date have never been conclusively investigated.

The trial in which both CJ Mwendwa and Major Gen Ndolo were not involved despite being frequently mentioned saw 12 men tried and sentenced to 91 years in prison collectively.

The group of 12 included distinguished professors, legislators, and top military and civil servants except for one former soldier known as Joseph Daniel Owino, described in court as one with “little education”.

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The others included Prof Ouma Muga, Apollo Abraham Wakiaga Odare, Juvenalis Benedict Aoko, Joshua Omoth Ooko, Silvanus Christopher Okech Oduor, Gideon Mutiso, Ahmed Aden, Juvenalis Aoko, Silvanus Oduor, Jefetha Oyangi and Captain Fredrick Collins Omondi.

But despite the high profile of the accused, the prosecution led by the Deputy Public Prosecutor James Karugu, who was later to become Attorney-General, pointed out Mr Owino, the least educated and least influential of them, as a “ring leader” of the plot.

As an officer cadet, Mr Owino had been court marshaled in 1964 for “incitement to mutiny” at Lanet barracks and jailed for seven years.

The prominence given to Mr Owino was quickly noted by trial magistrate S K Sachdeva who wondered how such a person with “little education” could hold sway to professors, legislators, and top military and civil servants in organising the coup.

But the Sunday Nation has confirmed the suspicions raised by the trial magistrate S K Sachdeva that Mr Owino was not the brains behind the coup plot. New information shows that Captain Fredrick Collins Omondi might have played a bigger role in the 1971 attempted power grab than previously revealed.

In new revelations following interviews with friends, associates and relatives, Captain Omondi also inspired Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka, the key architect of the Kenya’s second coup attempt in 1982.

The story starts in a little known village called Koguta in Upper Nyakach, which probably has no any other known (mis)achievements except for producing two of the country’s notorious coup plotters, Captain Omondi and Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka.

The story of the Air Force cannot be complete without the story of the two men, both for their valour and cowardice, depending on the side you stand.

Omondi’s story is as old as that of the Kenya Air Force.

A few months before Jamhuri Day, Omondi is picked among five Kenyan flight cadets namely James Mukirae, David Kanagi, Hannington Apudo and Dedan Gichuru in the first-ever pilot course training at the Flying Training School.

Incidentally, the five cadets had left Kenya on January 8 1962 to be part of a class of 20, which had five cadets each from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Brazil. They trained at the Haifa Flying School in Israel for one year, the book, The Kenya Air Force Story 1964-2014, notes.

While Cadet Mukirae becomes the first student to get airborne locally on February 2, 1964, Kanagi and Omondi become the first two students to undertake solo flights on March 3, 1964.

The course, which starts in early 1964 ends with a ceremony held on February 22, 1965, when Omondi who was the most outstanding on the course is presented with the sword of honour by President Jomo Kenyatta, becoming the first Air Force personnel to receive the decoration in independence Kenya. He was just aged 20.

After the graduation ceremony, the newly commissioned pilots are allocated the first ever Kenya Air Force service numbers.

Fredrick Omondi is allocated the service number P/O Omondi 027003, becoming the third individual to be registered as a member of the Kenya Air Force.

FURTHER TRAINING

Shortly thereafter, the five are dispatched for further training at the prestigious RAF Feltwell in the UK.

Apudo in unable to pass the course and is later on discharged from the Air Force for refusing to obey lawful orders while Mukirae is discharged due to a medical condition.

The newly created air force now remains with three jet fighters, Gichuru, Kanagi and Omondi.

Due to his outstanding performance, the stature of Omondi in the military continues to grow and with it he starts to push for the “Kenyanisation” of the Kenya Air Force, which was still dominated by the British, especially in senior ranks.

Notably, two years after the 1971 coup conspiracy Lt Colonel Dedan Gichuru is promoted to Colonel , and appointed as the fourth and first indigenous Air Force Commander on April 17, 1973, at just the age of 30 years.

As the push for reforms in the military continues, Captain Omondi inspires a horde of young people from his Luo community, especially from Nyakach to join the military and in particular the air force.

Prominent among them was his villagemate Hezekiah Ochuka.

Other than coming from the same village, both Ochuka and Omondi shared similar attributes and comparable predicaments within the forces.

Although both men had an appealing mien, were great orators and mobilisers, their vertical climb within the forces had stagnated. Despite graduating as the most outstanding student in the pioneer air force class, the career progression of Omondi had been slowed down, believably due to tribal politics.

SENIOR PRIVATE

By the time, Omondi was being charged over the conspiracy in 1971 he was a Captain yet his coursemates like Gichuru, who was from the founding President’s tribe, had been promoted to the rank of Lt Colonel within just about 10 years.

Ochuka led the coup when he was in the rank of senior private, having served in the military for almost 10 years and promoted only once in that decade.

They blamed this unfair treatment on the fallout between Mzee Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1966, which had resulted in the discrimination of Mr Odinga’s tribemates in government and security circles.

The Ochuka-led coup took place just a few months after the release of Captain Omondi who had served 10 years in jail after pleading guilty over the 1971 plot.

Friends and relatives argue that this occurrence was not a coincidence.

Ochuka joined the Air Force in 1976, the same year that Gilbert Deya started his church in Nairobi. He was to become among the first members of Bishop Deya’s church.

Prison records indicate that Deya was among the individuals who frequently visited Ochuka while he was incarcerated at the Kamiti Maximum Prison.

Ironically, Ochuka and Deya also share the same dubious history of being among the very few Kenyans to be brought back to Kenya to face trial. Deya could also serve prison term in the same section at Kamiti Maximum Prison where he used to visit Ochuka.

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