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Moment of bravado that changed Kenya

Tuesday July 31 2012

FILE | NATION Traders forage through what remained of their businesses in Nairobi in August 1982, after an attempted coup to overthrow Daniel Moi was crushed by loyalist forces. The mastermind, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, was Kenya’s “president” for less than six hours, but the adverse ripple effects of the abortive coup lasted more than two decades.

FILE | NATION Traders forage through what remained of their businesses in Nairobi in August 1982, after an attempted coup to overthrow Daniel Moi was crushed by loyalist forces. The mastermind, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, was Kenya’s “president” for less than six hours, but the adverse ripple effects of the abortive coup lasted more than two decades. 

By KAMAU MUTUNGA [email protected]

In the early hours of 1 August, 1982, exactly 30 years ago today, Kenyans woke up to a coup attempt by junior rebel officers of the Kenya Air Force against the government of then president Daniel arap Moi.

More than 100 soldiers and 200 civilians died, including two (West) Germans, an Englishwoman, and a Japanese male tourist and his child. Two Asian women committed suicide after being raped, and the economic damage kissed the Sh500 million ceiling.

The madness lasted less than 12 hours, but the damage is still with us. The mastermind, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, was Kenya’s “president” for less than six hours, but the adverse ripple effects of the abortive coup lasted more than two decades.

Yet the poorly planned coup could have been nipped in the bud.

Lieutenant Leslie Kombo Mwamburi of the Kenya Air Force, Nanyuki, had informed his superiors about the impending revolt, even giving the date and time of the onslaught. Mwamburi had taken oath of allegiance to the coup but had a change of heart and sold out the plot, as he later testified during the court martial that followed at the Lang’ata Barracks.

Also, a month to the coup, Peter Ngare Kagume, the acting commander of the Kenya Air Force, Nanyuki, informed commanding officer Colonel Felix Njuguna of the plot. Nothing was done.


At Nairobi’s Moi Air Base, where the coup was plotted by the swimming pool, Air Force commander Major General Peter Mwagiru Kariuki had been informed about the coup plans. The Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Joseph Mulinge, asked Major General Kariuki to ensure that the informer was arrested and made to give the details and names.

Major General Kariuki, despite pleading that he had been misled by the military intelligence that a coup was impossible, was later discharged from the army and jailed for four years in January 1983 for failing to suppress the mutiny.

The Special Branch too, which had infiltrated the military, knew about the coup and even had the names of the perpetrators-to-be. Indeed, two days to the coup, James Kanyotu, the then spy chief, had asked President Moi for permission to arrest, among others, Sergeant Joseph Ogidi (who had tried to recruit Mwamburi), Corporals Charles Oriwa, Walter Ojode, Bramwel Injene Njereman, and Senior Privates Protas Oteyo Okumu and Hezekiah Ochuka.

But the President did not deem it fit that the police should get embroiled in military arrests as that would have been tantamount to insubordination. The matter, he said, would be dealt with internally on Monday, 2 August.

But alas! At midnight on August 1, the coup, which envisaged seizing control of the Voice of Kenya, the Kenyatta International Airport’s control tower, the Wilson Airport, the General Post Office, and the Central Bank of Kenya “to protect people’s money”, besides blowing up State House Nairobi, JKIA, and President Moi’s home in Kabarak, started in earnest.

Retired President Moi was never the same again after surviving the coup by “stupid fellows who had no manners”, as Charles Njonjo termed them.

Here is how the failed 1982 military coup affected Kenyans, directly and otherwise:

Era of political repression

President Moi once told Ronald Ngala to “take it easy, our time will come”. Ngala was then wondering why Moi allowed himself to be cold-shouldered and demeaned by hirelings in the Kenyatta administration.

Well, the attempted coup provided him with an arsenal to settle old scores and assert himself by systematically instituting an oppressive one-man state through consolidation, centralisation, and personalisation of power while neutralising disloyal elements, real and imagined.

In his book, African Successes, David Leonard notes that the coup attempt was “a piece of good luck” for Moi. The attempt legitimised Moi’s reorganisation of the command structure of the armed forces and the police. Once the attempt had been made and suppressed, he was able to remove leaders from positions that were most threatening. The armed forces and the police “were neutralised”.

Ben Gethi, the Commissioner of Police, for instance, was detained at Kamiti and later retired “in public interest”. Moi also eliminated Kikuyu and Luo officers from the military and put in Kalenjin and non-ethnic challengers. For instance, he named General Mahmoud Mohammed — an ethnic Somali — the army chief of general staff.

With the disciplined forces in the hands of handpicked loyalists, the political structure was next. President Moi had a Bill enacted that granted him emergency powers, and the provincial administration and civil service came under the Office of the President, for the first time in post-independence Kenya. In effect, a DC could stop an MP from addressing his constituents.

Next was Parliament, whose privilege to access information from the Office of the President was revoked, thus subordinating it to the presidency. The Legislature could only rubber-stamp — not check — the excesses of the Executive. That is how, in 1986, it imposed limitations on the independence of the Judiciary, where Joseph Kamere, Attorney General at the time of the coup, was replaced with Cecil Miller.

Two expatriate judges — Derek Schofield and Patrick O’Connor — resigned, lamenting that the judicial system was “blatantly contravened by those who are supposed to be its supreme guardians”.

Parliament also gave police powers to detain critics of Moi’s authoritarian regime. Detention without trial, which had been suspended in 1978, was reintroduced through a constitutional amendment: George Anyona, Koigi Wamwere, Gitobu Imanyara, John Khaminwa, Gibson Kamau Kuria, Kiraitu Murungi, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, among others, were detained in inhumane conditions. Many fled the country afterwards. Others died.

It did not end there. The freedoms of the press, expression, association, and movement were curtailed.

In effect, Kenya became a police state.

Omnipresent head of State

President Moi ensured that his presence was felt everywhere; he stared at you from the currency in your wallet and mandatory portraits in every business premise. Streets, schools, a stadium, university, airport, and monuments were named after him. He gobbled half the news time on radio and TV, where he was always the first bulletin item.

Ministers wore lapel pins with his photo on them. Indeed, one Cabinet minister in the Moi government was said to have had a dozen suits, each with its own pin lapel… just in case he forgot and wore the wrong suit!

Moi was felt in the education system, in which students recited a loyalty pledge, learnt about the Nyayo philosophy in GHC, and drank Nyayo milk. In the remotest parts of the country, the local chief was the president’s eyes and ears.

Comical ‘mlolongo’ system

Kanu replaced the secret ballot with a system where voters lined up behind candidates in 1986. Parliamentary candidates who secured more than 70 per cent of the votes did not have to go through the process of the secret ballot in the General Election in what was more or less a “selection within an election”.

In case of disputed polling over a head-count, a repeat was not possible. Kenyans lost their right to vote for parliamentary candidates of their choice, with ridiculous consequences.

Take the case of Kiambu coffee picker Mukora Muthiora. He “defeated” the late Njenga Karume for the Kanu sub-branch chairmanship.

Karume was then a former assistant minister for Cooperative Development. Provincial Commissioner Victor Musoga declared Muthiora the winner, yet he never participated in the election.

‘The den of dissidents’

The coup provided Moi with the opportunity to crack down on lawyers, authors, activists, scientists, and (especially) university lecturers perceived to be critical of his authoritarian rule. Most were detained for what the State called “over-indulgence in politics” and having “Marxist leanings”. Among these were Prof Edward Oyugi and Mukaru Ng’ang’a.

Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, then a University of Nairobi law lecturer, had earlier been detained for having “seditious” literature purportedly advising “J M Solidarity. Don’t be fooled. Reject these Nyayos”.

Other university lecturers did not fare any better, such as Mau Mau historian Maina wa Kinyatti, Al-Amin Mazrui, Kamonji Wachira, Prof Micere Mugo, and Dr Kimani Gecau, who fled to Zimbabwe.

The University of Nairobi, which Moi called a “den of dissidents with foreign backing”, was closed for almost a year after the coup. It was never the hotbed of “intellectual pyrotechnics” again.

People’s Redemption Council sought ‘equality’

Every uprising, bloodless or otherwise, has triggers. The 1982 coup attempt was precipitated by, among others, official corruption, abuse of power, and economic degradation. Turning Kenya into a single-party state, besides the more apparent poor conditions in the armed forces — particularly the lack of recognition for non-commissioned officers — also fuelled discontent within the forces.

The Kenya Air Force officers who were implicated in the coup were predominantly from the Luo community, which James Waore Diang’a, the mastermind of the revolt, said was under-represented in the army and politically shortchanged. The Moi Cabinet at the time of the coup, Diang’a noted in his book, 1982, had only three Luos.

He had recruited Hezekiah Ochuka in 1981, but his plot was discovered by intelligence moles. Diang’a was arrested on 15 January that year and charged with treason. But the court martial concluded that since his accomplices could not be traced, it was impossible for one man to overthrow the government. He was accused of “planning an act of sedition” and jailed for three years at Kamiti.

But his bloody dream never faded.

The charismatic Ochuka took it over in March and recruited members of the People’s Redemption Council, mostly from the Air Force bases in Nairobi and Nanyuki, with him as chairman. The Czechoslovakia-trained John Odongo Langi would link the plotters through transport and logistics.

That done, setting a date for the coup was next. Sunday had minimal activity, and thus minimal collateral human damage. The army was out in Lodwar for military games and the top nabobs were at the opening of the ASK show in Nyeri by the president that Friday, 30 August.

Rumours that the Kikuyu were planning to overthrow Moi and instal Kibaki forced the plotters to fast-track the coup date to 1 August. But forces loyal to President Moi helped crush the uprising.