The little that is known about this five-storey building along Loita Street in Nairobi is telling enough.
Stories told by those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves behind its walls give the a horrifying history about Nyati House, a building that is as inconspicuous as it was feared by those who dared oppose former President Daniel arap Moi’s rule.
Tales are often told of how deserted the street was during this period, with some remarking that it had an ‘aura of death’, as its torture chambers preceded those of the infamous Nyayo House.
Political science students going to the Libyan Embassy across the street seeking Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Green Book would often be accosted by officers and dragged to the building for ‘questioning’.
The building had a Nyati (buffalo) emblem facing Loita Street — the upper floors seemed unoccupied — for years and had no curtains. There was a café downstairs in the mid-80s but nobody seemed to go past the gate.
The legwork done while researching for this article is a story of its own. Each time I would mention that I was looking for information about it, people would either give me worried stares, shake their heads or giggle and wish me good luck.
Curiosity led me to Nyati House, where security agents were just as reluctant to give me any information, even about its architectural structure, remarking that they would “let me know” when an “officer” authorised to speak to me was available. It was clear that they had no intention of calling me back.
Nyati House’s infamy sprouts from its purpose as Special Branch headquarters. James Kanyotu, who died in 2008, was Kenya’s longest serving spy chief.
The agency collected intelligence on persons and groups that threatened national security and would then pass it on to Mr Moi. They also served State by providing vetting services and collecting information from foreign sources on matters of national importance.
Special Branch was a department of the Kenya Police headed by the director of intelligence, who also held the rank of deputy commissioner of police.
However, the agency’s mandate fell outside that of the police. That is why President Jomo Kenyatta signed a Presidential Charter to legalise its operations in 1969, an executive order that Mr Moi reviewed in 1978.
Moi’s order remained in force until December 1998, when the National Security Intelligence Service Act was enacted to create the National Security Intelligence Service in January 1999.
To better understand what happened at Nyati and contextualise the stories of those who ended up in there, one must first understand how its location reinforced it as the epicentre of terror in the midst of a second liberation led by university students in the 1970s and ’80s.
With the murder of JM Kariuki in 1975, student activism rose a notch higher and Nyati House, after opening its doors in the early 80s, became the centrepiece of fear.
Surveillance by Special Branch of university students when Josephat Karanja was vice-chancellor became a norm. Many radicals opposed to Dr Karanja got a taste of Nyati House.
The university, after Moi became president in 1978, became the main arena of opposition politics. Many who would face detention without trial would go through Nyati House for interrogation.
In the months leading up to the August 1, 1982 coup attempt, Professor Micere Mugo, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the university, was taken to Nyati House for questioning.
The faculty was the most outspoken against the Moi government at the time. She was questioned and tortured by Special Branch officers for two days, an ordeal that led her to go into exile in Zimbabwe and US upon her release.
Maina wa Kinyatti of the department of history at Kenyatta University College was also taken to Nyati House in the middle of the night in early 1982.
After refusing to co-operate with the officers, they denied him food and water and chained him, naked, until he “confessed”.
Other notable detainees at the building included Koigi wa Wamwere and members of the Mwakenya Movement, a group that sought to open up democratic space in Kenya. Others are George Anyona, Katama Mkangi, and Raila Odinga.
Today, millennials casually stroll past the building, unaware of its significance in the second liberation and the dread it imposed.
Though its current function is unknown, it is still quite guarded and one cannot enter without an appointment. Though it is overshadowed by the atrocities at Nyayo House, the feelings it evokes in the hearts of Kenyans makes it hard to forget.
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Some of these were opposed to Dr Karanja’s appointment by President Jomo Kenyatta, a decision which many assumed was ethnically motivated, students and staff from the faculties of Law, Arts and Education engaged in activism to fight for the right to their freedom on campus.