By the time he died this week, crime-buster Joginder Singh Sokhi was little known outside Royal Golf Club which he patronised — and the ageing circles of the 60s and early 80s when he ruled the streets of Nairobi — together with the late police reservist Patrick Shaw.
Nairobi was then the regional capital of smugglers of Uganda’s coffee and Zanzibar’s cloves. It was also the hotspot for gun-traffickers and the brazen den of cold war espionage. Amidst all that, Mr Sokhi was Nairobi’s Sherlock Holmes — the fictional character in Conan Doyle’s works. He was the man to snuff out crime and he carried his task with gusto.
At times, he was just overzealous.
Dateline Friday, May 22, 1981. Joe Rodrigues, then the Nation’s Editor-in-Chief, was about to leave his house when the phone rang. It was a furious President Daniel arap Moi on the line. President Moi was angry that the Daily Nation had attributed an unsigned statement from the ruling party Kanu condemning a national strike called by doctors and released by Kenya News Agency as “anonymous.” Moi, then going through a confidence crisis, thought that the newspaper was belittling him and followed the call with two more statements and a police raid led by Mr Sokhi.
The first statement was a tirade: “Kanu is the ruling party. It is the government and therefore my voice. How can the publishers of the Nation imagine the views of the party are anonymous? They also want to say Moi is anonymous.” Later on during a public meeting President Moi threatened to ban the newspaper. “I have full powers to ban this paper. I think such publications have grown horns because of our democratic nature. They have become irresponsible and outright rebellious.”
And the man to put sense to the journalists was Joginder Singh Sokhi, then an Assistant Commissioner of Police. Just when everyone was busy trying to get the paper to bed, Mr Sokhi parked his police car outside Nation House, along Tom Mboya Street, and walked to the first floor with a bevy of policemen.
The first to be arrested was Joe Kadhi, the Managing Editor, and John Esibi, the acting News Editor. Mr Rodrigues and three other journalists — Philip Ochieng, Gideon Mulaki and Pius Nyamora — would be picked up later and taken to Lang’ata Police Station. It was here that Mr Sokhi conducted mental torture on the journalists as Mr Kadhi would later recall: “This man Sokhi, as he was interviewing me, was polishing his gun, not pointing it at me but polishing it and blowing on it.”
Although the journalists were supposed to be charged with sedition, they were never taken to court and instead the Nation ran a page 1 apology to Moi and Kanu.
But that was just a tiny political assignment.
Born in Mwanza, Tanzania, Mr Sokhi was not a regular cop — but a crime-buster whose sophistry and accuracy was unmatched. He had apparently joined the Kenya Police in 1953 as a Police Constable during the crackdown on Mau Mau and rose to the rank of Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Crime Desk.
His biggest task of all times was to resolve the July 1969 murder of Tom Mboya, Kenyatta’s 39-year-old Minister for Economic Planning and Development. Mboya had been shot as he stepped out of Government Road’s (now Moi Avenue) Chhani’s Pharmacy. Mr Sokhi had been assigned the task by Mr John Bell, the last expatriate head of the Criminal Investigations Department. Others were a Senior Superintendent Francis Okomba and a junior officer Jairo Obegi. It was Mr Sokhi who tracked Mr Nahashon Njenga — the murderer.
At first, Mr Sokhi had gone to Njenga’s office, Room 27 of Lombard House in then Victoria Street (Tom Mboya Street) and after a search, they went to Njenga’s house in Ofafa Jericho, Plot No. U3, House No. 4486, where they found the gun, wrapped in a handkerchief.
Mr Sokhi would later tell the court that he asked Mr Njenga: “Is this the gun that killed Mboya. He replied in English: “Why don’t you go and get some big man. We did what we were told.” I immediately asked him for the name of this man. The accused did not say anything further.”
By managing to successfully investigate Mr Mboya’s murder — although he never cracked the identity of the big man — Mr Sokhi’s star rose and was regarded as Kenya’s most brilliant sleuth.
It was Mr Sokhi who cracked the bizarre murder of a Ugandan socialite and President Milton Obote’s undercover detectives Lillian Millie and her friend Sara Massa in 1969. Their bodies were dumped in the Athi River after they tried to penetrate militants associated with deposed Kabaka.
It was Mr Sokhi, together with Uganda’s CID boss Ian Stephenson, who travelled to Uganda and brought back the five men who had been accused of the murder. “I believe these murders to be politically inspired. I do not wish to mention any names at present,” John Obbo, one of the accused told Mr Sokhi.
To succeed, he worked closely with the likes of Sharad Rao, then a deputy public prosecutor and A.M. Khan, another assistant commissioner of police believed to be a close ally of Charles Njonjo, then attorney-general.
Although Mr Sokhi was an assistant commissioner of police in charge of all CID investigations, he was better known than his boss, the Nyeri-born CID Director Ignatius Nderi who ran a separate triumvirate that comprised him, police boss Bernard Hinga and Ben Gethi, head of General Service Unit, the most feared security troika in Kenya.
JM KARIUKI MURDER
And when they needed somebody to cover for them, Mr Sokhi did the business. Perhaps that is why he found himself at the centre of investigations after the 1975 murder of wealthy but populist 46-year-old Nyandarua North MP, JM Kariuki, who had crossed the path of various politicians and businessmen.
The assassination of JM, as he was popularly known, threw the Kenyatta government into a tailspin. On the day he disappeared, he had been spotted walking out of Hilton Hotel with Mr Gethi. And that is how the troika was caught in the muddle. They refused to face a parliamentary select committee that had been instituted to investigate the murder.
That Mr Sokhi, despite his acumen, was never brought to investigate the murder of JM tells part of the story. But the Parliamentary Select Committee accused him of obstructing the investigations by telling the police officer whose son had found JM’s watch in Makongeni police toilet to keep quiet.
But what is known is that with senior police officers implicated in the murder, the investigation would head nowhere. Years later, when the JM family accused Mr Sokhi of being privy to the murder he retorted: “If police think I am guilty, then they should come for me."
In his early years as a police inspector, Mr Sokhi had earned a reputation for trapping criminals. Shortly after independence, he received information that some suspects were selling stolen drugs. Posing as a doctor in his final year at the University of Nairobi, Mr Sokhi told one of the suspects, Kabage Ikenya, that he wanted to open a private practice. He wanted to buy a large consignment of penicillin and Mr Ikenya, naively took him to where they had hidden the loot. The story earned him page one coverage in the newspapers.
In 1977, he was the man behind the arrest of Embakasi MP Muhuri Muchiri and his Makuyu counterpart Mwangi Gachago over the theft of 500 coffee bags worth Sh1.8 million then. The two would later be jailed and it is now known that they were released at the behest of Njonjo who had then driven to Muchiri’s Muthaiga home to apologise in April 1980. Mr Njonjo said he had them jailed for siding with Dr Njoroge Mungai — then a powerful Cabinet minister. Fast-forward to 1979, Mr Sokhi would be on the front page of the newspapers after he led the team of CID officers that went to meet former police chief James Mungai after a 13-month self-imposed exile. Mr Mungai had fled the country amid allegations that members of his Anti-Stock Theft Unit had been trained to assassinate several Kenyan leaders after President Kenyatta’s death.
Mungai had arrived home shortly after 9am aboard a SwissAir DC-10 only to be met by scores of CID and uniformed officers. “What is happening?” Mungai asked a former colleague in Kikuyu before Mr Sokhi ushered him into a CID car and drove off. After that, Mr Mungai kept a low-key lifestyle in his Nakuru farm and Mr Sokhi was months later decorated with Distinguished Service Medal (DSM).
Mr Mungai believed that the Ngoroko crisis — as the assassination accusations involving the paramilitary group came to be known — was perpetuated by Mr Njonjo and Mr Nderi who had to actually promise to prosecute Mr Mungai for leaving the country without permission as a serving officer.
Sokhi’s last major assignment was the investigation on the 1982 coup plotters (junior officers of the Kenya Airforce who attempted to remove President Moi from power). He was a familiar figure during the prosecution. The coup, however, changed the power matrix in State House and Mr Njonjo soon found himself edged out of the inner circle. The exit of Mr Sokhi was part of these troubled 80s when Njonjo’s henchmen fell like dominoes.
First, he was transferred to the CID training school after his name came up during a parliamentary debate in which Bank of Baroda had some issues with local staff. It was claimed that Mr Sokhi should not have led those investigations since he had an overdraft with the bank. So was Deputy Public Prosecutor Sharad Rao.
While his transfer was perhaps triggered by the death of Mr D.J. Irwin, who had a heart attack, Mr Sokhi’s transfer was more political than everyone thought. Some said it was tied to the deep relationship between the two – where one collected the evidence and the other prosecuted. When they connived to nail a politico, few escaped and at best some escaped to exile – the way Chelagat Mutai, a former MP – did when Mr Sokhi caught up with her.
By the time he died this week, Mr Sokhi was leading a quiet life — away from the mobs that feared him even after all these years — but as a private detective. Om Shanti Om - Peace!
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