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Under the curfew lurks gloom, fear and anxiety

Thursday March 26 2020

1982 coup.

Soldiers patrol Nairobi streets after aborting a coup in 1982. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KHAKHUDU AGUNDA
By KHAKHUDU AGUNDA
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The word curfew has not been so animatedly spoken about in the country for a long time.

It is, of course, something that does not happen often. And when it does, the people’s lives are drastically changed.

Ironically, the tough measures imposed are for the direct benefit of those who see them as a form of oppression.

However, when the curfew is finally lifted, it is a moment of celebration for all, as they look forward to resuming their normal lives.

I have in my life witnessed only one curfew. Therefore, the one that begins tonight, as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, evokes harrowing memories.

Nearly 40 years ago, precisely on August 1, 1982, some elements in the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow the second President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi.

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I was then a student at the University of Nairobi and lived in the Halls of Residence on Lower State House Road. A 6pm-to-7am curfew would then be declared.

PERSONAL SAFETY

The coup attempt happened early in the morning on August 1, and for six hours, some disorderly Air Force rebels were literally in power, having announced the takeover on the Voice of Kenya Radio, just across Uhuru Highway, from our Halls of Residence.

On August 2, President Moi announced that the attempt by junior Air Force officers to overthrow his government had been crushed.

He then advised Kenyans to stay at home "until this trouble is over". However, some sporadic firing could still be heard amid a mopping-up operation by loyal soldiers, mostly from the infantry, led by Major-General Mahmoud Mohamed.

He would later be promoted to a full general and appointed the Chief of Defence Forces.

The University of Nairobi had been a vibrant place for robust academic and social life. It had been boisterous, highly politicised, funny, and interesting, and then the gloom descended.

The worst thing about a curfew is the great uncertainty about personal safety and even whether there will be food.

REDUCED COMMUNICATION

Suddenly, your freedom to move about and enjoy yourself is gone. The short distance between the Main Campus on University Way, for us, became a no-go zone during the nearly five days.

It was a dusk-to-dawn curfew that turned the once vibrant university community into a rather life-less place.

We could not party anymore and worse, we could not even move around and did not know for how long this denial of freedom would go on.

It was as if death lurked everywhere. You could not even venture into the city centre. Nightlife was dead. There were no lectures. Nothing.

Unlike today, there were no mobile phones and, therefore, many of us who had relatives in the city’s residential areas could not visit them.

My father and part of our family lived at Jericho Estate in the Eastlands. It felt like being marooned on a remote island, with anxiety heightened by reports of killings in the mop-up operation against the Air Force rebels who had been overpowered and driven out the old Voice of Kenya, where they had announced the takeover.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

It was scaring. Some people, who will never shy away from taking advantage of such adversities, were out looting the shops and the city centre looked like a ghost town.

It didn’t help matters that some university student leaders had foolishly appeared to endorse the coup.

However, it was not surprising, as the relations between the students and the increasingly oppressive government, which had been strained, were at their worst.

Being confined to our rooms and hardly venturing out felt like being in a jail.

Hardly was there any physical presence of the soldiers or the GSU, but the students dared not move around, and they knew that being identified as one, and therefore, a rebel sympathiser could spell doom. It felt like being abandoned on an island for eternity.

It was the first attempted coup in Kenya, which had been independent for 19 years, and considered a haven of peace in a sea of regional turbulence.

NORMAL LIFE

Next door, Uganda presented the worst-case scenario, having endured military dictatorship and a struggle for the restoration of democracy and human rights raging.

No wonder when the curfew was called off, the students poured out of the Halls of Residence in a mad rush, headed for the residential areas and many to try and find a way to head upcountry.

Scores of student leaders and many others had been arrested, quickly tried and jailed, some for up to six months or more.

On August 7, 1982, the government eased the dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed after the abortive Sunday coup as much of Nairobi returned to normal.

Most government offices were back in operation. Businesses reopened, traffic returned to normal and tourists were returning.

The deathly silence, with gloom hovering over all, remains etched in my mind.

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