Ouko burial: How Moi's surprise attendance went south

Wednesday March 18 2020
Ouko burial

President Moi (fourth left) with other mourners at the gravesite during Robert Ouko’s burial. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By CALEB ATEMI

Fear and anxiety gripped the nation. Violence and riots swept across the country as news of the brutal murder of Dr Robert John Ouko seeped into every part of the Republic of Kenya.

February 1990 was the month Daniel Toroitich arap Moi faced his toughest test as the President.

Kenya had witnessed many assassinations, but none had shaken the country to its core like that of Dr Ouko. With his gruesome murder, part of President Moi’s regime died too.

The Moi government had presided over years of misrule. Hundreds had been killed while agitating for civil and political rights. Scores had been murdered by the State apparatus in extrajudicial killings. Dozens were maimed and traumatised in what came to be known as the Nyayo Torture Chambers.

By 1990, Kenya was about to explode. The Kanu regime had tormented Kenyans for so long, the anger, frustration, and hate of the party and all it represented had turned into a live volcano waiting for a fissure to erupt. Ouko’s murder was the fissure.

The Foreign Affairs minister was picked up from his Koru home on the night of February 12-13 by people known to him. Later on, his remains were found at the foot of Got Alila, a small hill 2.5 kilometres from his home.

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The government announced his disappearance and asked anyone with information on his whereabouts to contact the police. He had been tortured; his bones broken and shot through the head before his body was burnt.

Scotland Yard pathologist, Dr Ian West, told the Commission of Inquiry into the murder that his remains had literally been grilled before being dumped at Got Alila.

When the day came for Dr Ouko’s charred remains to be buried, Kenya was already in flames. We left our Nation Kisumu bureau office before daybreak for Koru.

Kisumu had been turned into a military garrison. Hundreds of military and police trucks and Land-Rovers covered every street and corner. The General Service Unit red berets were on every inch of road from Kisumu to Koru.

“Moi must be extremely brave or insane to attend Ouko’s burial,” I told my colleagues as we drove through the sugar plantations in Muhoroni. Even in the trenches that separated the sugarcane farms from the Kisumu-Muhoroni road, lay armed men.

We managed to wriggle our way into the Ouko homestead. Being early truly helped. The whole place was a security zone. The burial site was already cordoned off. The presidential dais was under the watchful eye of the GSU.

By 8am, crowds had started pouring in. At first, security tried hard to scrutinise and verify mourners, until hundreds of university students from all corners of the republic poured in. Trying to stop them would have caused a stampede. When all the VIP guests and family had settled down, my fears were confirmed — Moi was actually coming. Two military helicopters appeared from the horizon and landed not far from the presidential dais.

As soon as Moi stepped out in his neat blue suit, all hell broke loose. Shouts of “murderer!”, “murderer!” rent the air. “You killed Ouko! You burnt Ouko! Now eat him!” the students shouted repeatedly.

They sang and danced in mockery of the President. Others chanted anti-government slogans while waving placards, calling him a murderer.

The security personnel battled to keep the surging crowds far from the tent where Moi had calmly and majestically walked to.

“He is indeed both brave and mad,” I told my colleagues as I nervously fidgeted with my notebook.

For a moment, I was terrified. What if the crowd manages to break through and reach touching distance of the President? I could visualise the massive gunfire with which the crowds would be repulsed.

I had already witnessed enough bloodshed since the assassination became public. I could not imagine the gunfire and human toll if the President’s life was threatened.

The MC, Wilson Ndolo Ayah, cleared his throat before addressing the mourners. He began his address in English but was quickly shut down with chants of: “Ndolo wach dholuo” (Ndolo speak in Luo). He pleaded with the frenzied students to respect Moi and maintain silence but they would hear none of it.

His voice and pleas were swallowed in the din. All the while, Moi appeared unperturbed. With his hand on his chin, he quietly observed the happenings. The situation was getting out of control when Ouko’s widow Christobel took the microphone and pleaded with mourners.

“My husband Ouko loved peace,” she pleaded.

“Let us accord him the respect he deserves by maintaining respect, honour, dignity and peace.” She requested the students to give Moi a chance. The shouting gradually whittled down to murmers and then silence suddenly descended.

President Moi was invited to speak. He cleared his throat in his traditional style. He went on to mourn Ouko as his best minister. He regretted his death and vowed to bring the killers to book.

I listened to him in wonder. I shook my head as I took my notes. I knew the self-proclaimed Professor of Politics had a very stiff mountain to climb to restore order in the country.

There were no major riots that day, and I thank God because the country needed a night of peace. Moi, with another stroke of genius, cooled the embers of the Ouko murder by announcing that a team of investigators from the Scotland Yard would be flying into the country to probe the death. Kenyans were fed up with the local police, who had attempted to sell the theory that Ouko had committed suicide.

A restless Ouko was supposed to have left his house in haste. Armed with his walking stick, his pistol, a torch, a briefcase with clothes to change and a jerrycan of an inflammable liquid, he walked through the darkness towards the Nyando River.

Upon arrival at the river bank, he undressed, and dipped himself in the cool waters to bathe.

He then dressed up in fresh clothes, broke his leg and left shoulder, shot himself through the head and, just before he died, set himself ablaze, then neatly arranged the stuff he had carried. Then, he lay on his back to die ... slowly. That was the police theory.

It’s been three decades since Ouko was brutally murdered. President Moi, whose government and ruling party Kanu still carry the cross of his assassination, joined his forebears in the month of the Ouko murder anniversary, and a day shy of the date of Opposition politician Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s burial.

He will be interred on February 12, the day Ouko was plucked from the comfort of his bed to his death 30 years ago.

Caleb Atemi is a Communication Consultant. www.calebatemi.com