The day the devil came down

Monday July 29 2002


At about 3.30 am on August 1, 1982, gunshots rang out at a military base on the edge of Nairobi. Armed men burst into a dance hall at the Embakasi barracks of the Kenyan military's Ground Air Defence Unit, better known as Gadu. Revellers froze and the music fell silent. An attempt to overthrow the Kenya Government had begun.

It would be three hours before the nation would learn of the upheaval. A few minutes to 7 am, radio listeners awaiting the morning Voice of Kenya news heard the familiar voice of broadcaster Leonard Mambo Mbotela announce in Kiswahili that a new government – a military one – had taken power.

"Serikali ya Kenya imepinduliwa na majeshi. Wananchi wanajulishwa wakae manyumbani mwao na polisi wakae kama raia." (The Kenya Government has been overthrown by the military. People should stay at home and the police are ordered to remain as civilians.")

A barely coherent male voice had been on air earlier with a more specific message. "The Kenya Government has been overthrown and taken over by the People's Redemption Council," it said, explaining that the Constitution had been suspended. "MPs should remain in their houses until further instructions." It demanded the release of political detainees.

The man behind the hesitant announcement, it turned out, was a brash 34-year-old junior air force officer. Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka, attached to the Eastleigh Kenya Air Force base, was chairman of the self-styled People's Redemption Council, which was trying to depose President Daniel arap Moi.

Had the coup succeeded, he would have been named Kenya's third President. Accompanying him was another airman, Sergeant Pancras Oteyo Okumu.

Gunfire rang across the city as Kenya Air Force servicemen, in their trademark blue uniform, drove through deserted streets on the back of official Land Rovers. A BBC commentator would later describe the day as "the Sunday the devil descended and reigned in Nairobi". To broadcaster Mbotela, it was little more than "the work of a few soldiers hungry for power and drank with booze."

The veteran radio personality had been marched out of his house at Ngara, near the city centre, at gun-point to announce the take-over on national radio.

In the court-martial trials which followed the mutiny, Ochuka and Okumu, together with eight others, were named as ring leaders. The others were Senior Private Walter Ojode, Corporal Ogidi Oboun, Corporal Oriwa Hongo, Corporal Mirasi Odawa and Corporal Bramwel Injeni Njeremani. Others were Corporal Okoth Otila, Corporal Robert Ndege and Corporal Odemba Otieno.

The eight, like Ochuka and Okumu, were found guilty of high treason and hanged between 1984 and 1985. They are buried at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, their graves only identified by their prison file numbers.

The evil of the 10 may have been interred with their bones at Kamiti Prison, but the scars of the fateful Sunday mark many aspects of Kenya's military and political life.

As gunmen brought the Embakasi dance to a halt, two terrified privates sneaked out to alert the nearby Embakasi Police Station. Shocked officers immediately relayed the message to Nairobi Area Police headquarters and were given the green-light to move into the base and investigate.

But at the barracks gate, their two police patrol cars quickly made a u-turn and sped away. They were shocked by the ferocity of gunfire inside.

The officers relayed their alarming report to Nairobi Area police headquarters. A frantic message promptly went out to the Department of Defence (DoD) headquarters, which in turn signalled both the military and the civilian intelligence organs to swing into action.

Within moments, the country's security apparatus was buzzing with activity. Rebel Kenya Air Force soldiers had taken over vital installations in the city. The shooting at Embakasi, it turned out, was in celebration by drunken soldiers who thought all was sewn up and it was just a matter of time before they stormed State House.

Their colleagues had captured the Jomo Kenyatta International airport control tower, the General Post Office in Nairobi, Wilson Airport, VOK transmission station in Karen and were on their way to the VOK national broadcasting studios in the city centre.

Ochuka and Okumu, satisfied after patrolling the city that all was going according to plan, stormed the VOK broadcasting studios opposite the Norfolk Hotel. They found rebel soldiers already harassing the few workers on duty.

Duty announcer Swaleh Athmani recalled at a court-martial that a man he identified as Ochuka – he wore officer stripes – ordered everybody around at gun-point. "He told me to obtain military records from the music library but before I could locate the key he ordered a fellow soldier to shoot the lock, which he did."

Tunes by Bob Marley

As martial music was not readily available in the library, Ochuka settled for revolutionary tunes by reggae stars Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. He then made his chilling announcement to the Kenyan nation.

By now the city streets were teeming with pick-ups and Land Rovers packed with university students and airmen shouting "Power! Power!", the rallying call of the rebel soldiers. Undergraduates from the University of Nairobi, woken up by the sound of gunfire, joined in the melee.

Titus Adungosi, chairman of the students' organisation of the university, was driven to the VOK studio in the company of rebel soldiers to announce support for the coup. He invited university students out into the streets to show solidarity with the soldiers. Their colleagues at Kenyatta University, 14 kilometresaway, barricaded the busy Thika Road, where they danced and plastered vehicles with anti-government posters.

Ochuka patrolled the city and received salutes worthy of a head of state. A court martial witness recalled hearing him tell a crowd along Embakasi Road: "My government will not be as corrupt as Moi's. I will take care of all slum dwellers."

Without the fear of arrest, looters targeted shops in the city centre. They broke into jewellery and clothing shops and carted away expensive goods. Gold shops on Kimathi Street, Kenyatta and Moi avenues were gutted and suit shops looted bare. Nothing was impossible. Looters brought down heavy metal grills and smashed reinforced wooden doors.

Unknown to them, the fight-back had begun. Ten kilometres way at Langata, forces loyal to President Moi moved into action. The 7th Kenya Army battalion was ordered to re-capture the VOK studios together with the Ngong transmitting station and the GPO.

Soldiers from Kahawa barracks prepared to storm the city as they waited for reinforcement from the Gigil-based 5th Kenya Army battalion. In the meantime, Nanyuki based 4th Kenya Army battalion descended on the Nanyuki Kenya Air Force base as the Lanet battalion moved to ensure the safety of President Moi.

The man in charge of the armed forces, Gen Jackson Mulinge, would later recall: "There was no way we were going to allow a few indisciplined soldiers to mess up the reputation of loyalty we had built over the years."

Later that afternoon, an impatient Gen Mulinge was to order a communication facility at the Eastleigh Air base bombed to hasten collapse of the coup. All the shooting, sound and fury was targeted at one man: President Moi. The Head of State (in his fourth year then) was at his Kabarak home.

His escort commander, Elijah Sumbeiyo, now an assistant minister, was asleep at Nakuru State House, 20 kilometres away, when he received the news. Sumbeiyo immediately called his younger brother, Major Lazarus Sumbeiyo (Now General Sumbeiyo, the army commander) then at the Lanet army barracks.

Armed with two machine-guns and driving a beaten Peugeot car, the two dashed to Kabarak to evacuate the President even as they awaited further orders.

Sumbeiyo was later to recall: "As we drove to Kabarak, I felt like we were walking through fire. We did not even stop to think of possible roadblocks – and death".

Arriving at the President's home, Sumbeiyo was taken aback at the loyalty but helplessness of a few security men around the President. "You could see the willingness to die with their leader in the eyes, and that only because they felt they could do nothing to save the situation."

The Sumbeiyos' biggest hurdle was to convince Moi to abandon his Kabarak house. Told that he had to leave the soonest possible, an adamant Moi had replied: "You think I am a coward. If they have to kill me they will do it in my house". It took a lot of tact by the Sumbeiyos to convince Moi to move out.

Chance to fight back

"My biggest fear was that rebel soldiers may bomb Kabarak," Sumbeiyo would later tell President Moi's biographer Andrew Morton. "However, in getting out of the house, we had a good chance to survive it all and fight back."

The Sumbeiyos considered driving northwards to get the President out of the country or work on plan B of organising a counter-attack from the northern frontier of West Pokot District. Neither of the two options became necessary. While in the bush, they received information that loyal forces were fast turning tables on the rebels and it was safe to come back.

Elsewhere, the then director of the Directorate of Security Intelligence, Mr James Kanyotu, had found his way to the office and was busy supervising jamming of Kenya Air Force communications.

In Nanyuki, the acting commander of the 4th Kenya Army battalion, Major Nyamangwa, managed to crack the rebel Air Force communication code and break their lines by faking support for them. Ochuka's men were surrendering in droves and they were fast losing ground. Desperate, Ochuka ordered the bombing of the VOK studios, Langata army barracks, the DoD, GSU Ruaraka headquarters and Nairobi's State House.

His link man at Nanyuki Air base, Cpl Walter Ojode, acted promptly. He commandeered two Air Force pilots with a Tiger F-5 jet for the vengeful mission. Cunningly the two pilots, while communicating on a secret channel, agreed to execute daring manoeuvres in the skies and drop the bombs in Mount Kenya forest while cheating the rebels they had hit their targets. The trick worked.

None of the Nairobi residents glued to their radios ever realised how close they had come to being blown out of their homes. But they sensed that something was going wrong with the coup. KBC radio suddenly went off air at about 9.30 am and resumed broadcast two hours later.

In between, deputy army commander Mahmoud Mohamed had taken the decisive step which set off the coup's collapse. With a squad of soldiers, he stormed the broadcasting station and killed or captured the rebel soldiers inside. When the radio came back to life – to the great relief of Kenyans – it was Leonard Mambo, again, on air.

This time he announced that the rebels had been defeated and President Moi installed back in power.

In the city centre, the GSU had swiftly re-captured the GPO as soldiers from Kahawa barracks closed in to chase away the rebels out of the city streets.

By midday, the battle had moved from putting Moi back in power to smoking out pockets of rebel soldiers hiding in city streets and gutters. The other campaign was to chase away hordes of looters.

When heavy gun-fire stopped shortly before 2 o'clock, hundreds of people lay dead and property worth millions of shillings was destroyed.

But it was not over for many Kenyans until 6 pm when a shaken President Moi spoke on radio. "This is to assure Kenyans that my government is in full control. The morning disturbances were caused by a few who would wish to destroy the good job we are trying to do for our country and people. They have since been defeated."

Neither President Moi nor the politics of Kenya have been the same ever since.