Controversy about the 1970s Anti-Stock Theft Unit paramilitary force, popularly known as Ngoroko, in the dying days of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s administration, just won’t go away.
There seems to be a joint effort by former high-ranking intelligence officers to discredit critical aspects of The Kenyatta Succession (1980) by Joseph Karimi and Philip Ochieng’ on the jostling for the presidency, especially their account of the mysterious Ngoroko unit that operated under the command of powerful Rift Valley Provincial Police boss James Mungai.
Certainly, it won’t go away. Not when revisiting such stories rekindles memories of a past that seems to speak to the fears of the present political moment, especially in the expedient telling of Kenya’s history of succession in which the position of Deputy President William Ruto echoes that of then-Vice President Daniel arap Moi in yet another Kenyatta succession web of skulduggery.
In Memories from the Beat, columnist Kamau Ngotho recently weighed in on the subject with an unnamed senior security officer’s account to discredit that by Karimi and Ochieng’ on the Ngoroko plan to assassinate the vice president in 1978 (Plot to kill Daniel Moi that never was, Sunday Nation June 30, 2019).
Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster (2016), a recent compelling account by former intelligence officer Bart Joseph Kibati, also seeks to discredit Karimi’s and Ochieng’s version of events.
Ngotho’s unnamed senior security officer and Kibati’s story dismiss The Kenyatta Succession’s attribution of a big political motive to the “Ngoroko Affair” — the claim that the paramilitary unit was a highly trained standby assassination squad formed to execute an evil mission on behalf of a faction to which Mungai belonged.
The accounts by the two spies, however, concur that Mungai held Moi in contempt. Nonetheless, they see Karimi and Ochieng’ either as patsies or accomplices in the witch-hunt of high-ranking Kenyatta-era security officers by the unholy trinity of Moi (who became President in 1978), Ignatius Nderi (CID Director) and Charles Njonjo (Attorney-General).
But the accounts by the two former intelligence officials are silent on the ethnic profile of the Ngoroko officers: were they drawn mostly or exclusively from then-Kiambu District and why?
While Kibati and Ngotho’s sources agree on why Ngoroko was formed – to fight the rampant theft of livestock in the Rift Valley – they differ markedly on how this storied but short-lived paramilitary unit came into being.
According to Ngotho’s source, it was sanctioned by the Cabinet, “formed and commissioned by the President (Kenyatta) at a function covered by the media, where the Head of State inspected a guard of honour, watched parachute landings, and opened a senior officers’ mess”.
Instead of dismissing the Ngoroko narrative in The Kenyatta Succession as a figment of the imagination of two journalists, or insinuating that their book is a product of unequal intellectual labour (with Karimi supposedly providing dubious intelligence and Ochieng’ the English mill), attention should be paid to a question all the three accounts seem to raise even today: Is there an effective democratic, civilian control of the disciplined forces that dispels fears of influential individuals forming a rogue and politically partisan secret security unit, especially in a fraught moment of political transition?
Perhaps, how one answers that question evaluates the claims and counterclaims on the political motives of the Ngoroko.
Whether or not they were political largely depends not only on which of Mungai’s Janus-face one sees, but also how one feels about the long history of involvement in politics by Kenya’s security apparatus, most markedly in the well-documented disputed 2007 Presidential election.
The writer is a graduate student, Makerere Institute of Social Research