How drunk American saved Imanyara

Thursday July 08 2010

Imenti Central MP Mr Gitobu Imanyara

What Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara went through is testimony that the push for multi-party democracy was a battle for the brave.

“It was no child’s play. Death was imminent and one feared for the worst every single minute,” says the vocal MP.

At the time, President Moi used detention without trial to suppress his critics, some of whom were subjected to torture and what Mr Imanyara calls “utter humiliation". 

By the time of his arrest, Mr Imanyara was the editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly, a no holds barred magazine highly critical of the Moi government.

In the detention papers, Mr Imanyara was accused of writing and publishing articles which denounced, ridiculed and discredited government.

The journalist was also accused of associating himself with “known anti-government characters such as Charles Rubia and Kenneth Matiba” with whom they had held meetings plotting how to overthrow government using violence.  


Twist of fate

So when Imanyara was arrested in the run up to the abortive July 7, 1990 rally called to push for multi-party democracy, he believes it is a simple twist of fate that saved his life.

A Mzungu (white man) refused to surrender Kenya denomination notes to police at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. At that time, Kenya had tough regulations on movement of currency.

He, instead, tore the notes and threw them to the police. The airport police arrested the man and unwittingly dumped him in Mr Imanyara’s cell, which was heavily infested with mosquitoes. The MP, who had been tortured by the police, was sick and in dire need of medical attention.

Police were tight-lipped about Mr Imanyara’s whereabouts and there were media reports that he had gone missing.

The reports were a source of concern, coming just months after the killing of former Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko in mysterious circumstances. Lawyers put the government under pressure to charge him in court or release him. Other lawyers, John Khaminwa and Mohammed Ibrahim, now High Court judge, had been set free.

The MP finds it irresistible to explain the circumstance under which the drunk Mzungu changed his fortunes.

“After a long period of cursing the policemen and complaining about the condition of the cell, the American settled for a conversation with me.  I introduced myself,” he says.

Apparently, the drunk traveller had read newspaper reports on the multi-party debate and the “missing” Imanyara.

He asked: “So you are the guy they are saying has gone missing?” The mzungu resolved to postpone his travel until he informed US ambassador Smith Hempstone and the BBC about my whereabouts.

“Courtesy of the mzungu the world got to know where I had been confined and I was produced in court two days later.”  His lawyers also called on the government to ensure that he was treated.

Guardian angel

A grateful Imanyara hopes to meet the selfless drunkard someday.

He says times under the Kanu dictatorship were trying but there was always a guardian angel.

But, he is convinced that the sacrifice was worthwhile.

He says most liberties Kenyans enjoy today; the freedom of association, speech, thought, the many political parties and reforms can be traced to that day.

“We have made great strides. These freedoms were worth living for. The battle is not lost,” he says.

“If I die today I would an happy man. Ours was an irreversible course.”

The MP sees the passage of the new Constitution a critical milestone in their journey.

However, like Mr Rubia, the Central Imenti MP says the reform agenda was hijacked by what he calls joyriders and the homeguard class.

“The tragedy with Kenya is that those who sow never harvest.

“For instance, I have no doubt that Jaramogi Oginga would have been President in 1992 even if for a short period had some Mt Kenya leaders not formed the Democratic Party.”

President Kibaki is the founder of the Democratic Party. Though he detests their activities, Mr Imanyara sees the rise of groups such as Mungiki as a “rebellion against the homeguard class calling shots in this country using the Mt Kenya route.”

His trouble started on July 4, when Imanyara had gone to attend America’s Independence Day celebrations. By coincidence, TheNation accosted the MP for this interview on his way to attend the same celebrations this year.

It was while there, that news filtered through that Mr Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia had been seized.

After the 1990 celebrations, an apprehensive Imanyara headed to Sagret Hotel, trailed by security agents and borrowed lawyer Rumba Kinuthia’s car and proceeded to State House Primary school to pick up his children.

Ransack house

But on his way to his house in Nairobi’s Ngumo estate, he realised that the agents were right behind them.

On getting home, Mr Imanyara quickly used the backdoor and entered his neighbour’s house,  from where he watched as the police ransacked his house looking for him.

“I watched from the balcony of my neighbour’s house as I mobilised the media and friends."

Then at 2 a.m., he walked to his house, wore a pullover and surrendered to the police, under the glare of the media. 

Mr Imanyara was handcuffed and blindfolded before he was bundled into a Volkswagen and forced to lie on the floor. This marked the start of months of what he called "utter humiliation and dehumanisation".

The men trumpled on him as they drove around town until he lost consciousness before he was thrown into a dark cell. He woke up in excruciating pain on the chest, his ankles swollen ankles and in total darkness.

Life in the cells was chilling and bewildering. First, the cells were dark, without ventilation and full of cold water rising up to his chest. He was completely naked.

“One urinates and vomits there. It was so dark that you could not tell whether it was day or night,” he told The Nation.

On the third day, a blindfolded and nude Imanyara was bundled into a car and taken to what he came to learn was Nyayo House where the humiliation heightened with female police officers taunting him. He says a candid description of the interrogation at Nyayo House is unprintable.

The MP was given detention papers to sign before he was taken to the famous E Block at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. But because of his poor health, he was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital where he was chained to a bed for months under the watchful guard of six prison warders.

Mr Imanyara’s legs had swollen and he could not walk. He also suffered terrible migraines and chest pains.

“I suspect that top government people thought I would die.”

Because of solitary confinement, Mr Imanyara lost sense of time and had no idea on the arrest of more politicians and lawyers as well as the aftermath of the Saba Saba riots, which had led to the killing of more than 15 Kenyans.