Daniel Nicodemus was one of a kind. He wore size 12 boots, while none of his team mates went beyond size 10.
He had an almost maniacal dedication to training.
On most occasions, he was the first to arrive on the ground and the last to leave.
He was a well-groomed man, donning expensive leather jackets and designer shirts when some of his team mates mended their threadbare trousers with the market tailor’s Singer sewing machine.
He was his mother’s boy, devotedly helping her to serve customers at her roast goat meat kiosk at Kariokor market.
He was generous to a fault, at hand to help a hard-up team mate or friend.
He was the doting uncle to many nephews.
He travelled comfortably, taking taxis when others counted their cents to ensure they added up to enough fare for the scheduled city buses.
Nicodemus wasn’t exactly a loner, but he enjoyed his solitude.
He preferred to drink his beer alone, even in team parties at Kanyim’s bar in Kaloleni. He took gulps straight from the bottle and never from the glass that came with it.
He always stood in a strategic corner where he had the view of the entire place, particularly the exit.
He rarely let whoever came to pick conversation with him know what was on his mind. Still, he was nice to be with, despite his remoteness.
On the day after the discovery of his cold body on the hard cement slabs of the Nairobi City Mortuary, there was an uproar in Parliament.
James Orengo, the MP for Ugenya, rose to say this: “I beg to ask the Minister of State, Office of the President, the following question by Private Notice: Is the Minister aware that on the 20th June, 1981, police searched the house of a Mr Nicodemus Odhiambo (Arudhi) in Nairobi in his absence?
“Is he further aware that Mr Odhiambo later reported to Shauri Moyo Police Station and the Criminal Investigation Headquarters as asked to do so by the police and that, thereafter, he was not seen again and his body was later found in the City Mortuary? Could he explain the circumstances that led to the death of Mr Odhiambo?”
Three parts of the question
The answer Orengo got added fuel to the legend of Daniel Nicodemus. It was given by Mr Isaac Salat, the Assistant Minister in the Office of the President.
He said: “Mr Deputy Speaker, I beg to reply. Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to consider the three parts of the question as one. I am aware of the death, on the night of 21st and 22nd June, 1981, of Mr David Odhiambo son of Nicodemus, alias Daniel Odhiambo son of N. Owiti, alias Daniel Odhiambo son of Nicodemus, alias Daniel Nicodemus.”
An MP asked: “Are all those names of one person?”
Salat replied: “Yes, they all belong to one person.”
But he had forgotten, or was unaware, of one more: Arudhi Ogwanjo wuod Salome.
Salome was his mother.
This name was a favourite of people close to him. Fans who adored the work of his big boots also liked to mention her name alongside his. It was an expression of their appreciation of her motherly demeanour.
Her meat joint was a favourite of Nicodemus’ football crowd.
The man with all these names is one of the most colourful personages ever to wear the shirt of the Kenya national football team.
He is also the only sportsman whose fate would merit, even in infamy, debate in Parliament. His three jobs were playing for Kenya, helping Salome in her kiosk, and robbing people.
For the third, he regularly did time in police and remand jails.
Before his death, he had clocked two lengthy prison sentences.
He left behind a legend, which began when he was still alive.
People said that he was such an indispensable member of the national team that arrangements were routinely made to free him from jail for just the time needed to play for Harambee Stars in do-or-die matches – and then return him to serve out his term.
This wasn’t true, as his friend and teammate Allan Thigo explained to me, but it was coming from somewhere.
He was in and out of remand on bail so often that many people could no longer keep track of his status.
In January 1973, he appeared before a Nairobi court charged with stealing Sh10 at the Bird Cage Club along Government Road, since changed to Moi Avenue. He was released on bail.
In May of the same year, the hearing began. Nicodemus swore a statement telling the court that he was a regular patron at the club.
On the material day, he accompanied a girlfriend, Margaret Atieno, to a club dance.
He told the court that the girl had been a friend of the club manager, a Mr Walter Ambala, but he was given to understand by the girl that they had since parted.
Nicodemus said that he had some drinks with Atieno who, after a while, excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. After waiting for some time, he grew impatient and suspected something.
He decided to go looking for her.
“In my search,” he told the court, “I came across the manager near the club’s store. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was looking for my girl and I suspected she was with him since they were former friends.
Suddenly, the manager started shouting: ‘Thief! Thief! Thief!’ after he told me that I was there to steal.
Later, after a crowd had gathered around us, I saw the police come and I was arrested. I also saw the manager hand over a chisel to the police officers, which he claimed I had used to break into the store.”
At the conclusion of the trial, Magistrate SP Handa said that proof enough had been made that the football star had broken into a store at the Bird Cage Club and stole Sh10.
He sentenced Nicodemus to three years’ imprisonment, the second time he was going to jail.
In the run-up to the 1972 Africa Nations Cup, Kenya played a Swiss Premiership side named Grasshoppers.
It had three Swiss internationals.
Player-coach Jonathan Niva’s starting side was solid and the ace in his sleeve was Daniel Nicodemus who could play in a variety of positions comfortably.
Of the accounts I have put together regarding the life of Daniel Nicodemus, the most lucid is the one given by Thigo.
It corroborates the accounts of his nephews, cousins and that of a close family friend.
Thigo told me: “In 1972, we were together in the national team. Some people have alleged that he was freed from prison to strengthen the team for the Nations Cup tournament but that is emphatically not the case.
I know this for a fact. He was a good friend of John Rabuogi, then a Superintendent with Kenya Prisons, and also of Job Omino, the FA of Kenya secretary. These were senior people in Government. He played with them in Luo Union before joining Gor Mahia.
“He was particularly close to Rabuogi. That connection might have made people think that Rabuogi was using his office to free him from prison for the convenience of the team and then take him back. But that never happened.
“Nicodemus was my friend. He was gentle, generous and very hard working. He was crazy about training. But he had a secret: the guy was a gangster! He never told us, though. He kept this to himself. To his closest friends, he often gave gifts such as radios, watches and shirts.
“For a long time, people didn’t know where he was getting these things from. It was only later that it became clear. He had curious drinking habits. After a game, he would hail us and say, ‘chagueni mbili, mbili!’ (Guys, select any two of your choice) and then retire to a corner in solitude. He took his drink quickly and before you knew it, he was gone.”
When his shadowy job became known, nobody had the courage to talk to him about it. People just whispered.
One day, on his way to Starehe Boys Centre where he was an assistant director, Patrick Shaw, the mountainous crime buster of the 1970s, passed by Kariokor Market.
Thereafter, word swept through the team that he had told Salome: ‘Tell your boy to stop what he is doing or else I will stop him.’
Shaw was a police reservist who operated by his own rules, a system within a system.
He was so famous for issuing such warnings to the many criminals that he later executed in cold blood that this statement is eminently plausible.
It was thus only a matter of time before Nicodemus made his rendezvous with death. On the night of June 22, 1981, his bullet-riddled body was dumped on a slab at the City Mortuary. They buried him in his native village at Alego Ng’ia.
Of his team mates, only his best friend, William Chege Ouma, attended the funeral.
Common sense logic
The rest were too scared of Shaw’s dreadful habit: he went to the funerals of his victims to scan the mourners using the common sense logic that funerals are attended only by a deceased person’s closest people.
Nicodemus’ team mates were apprehensive that Shaw might pounce on somebody.
In Parliament, the furore caused by this extra-judicial execution remains without equal for an ordinary sportsman.
His case was taken up by Orengo, then into his second year as a Member of Parliament after a sterling stint as a student leader at the University of Nairobi. Today, he is the Nasa coalition’s chief legal brain.
There have been few utility players as good as Nicodemus was in the country’s 54 years of independence.
What we shall never know is whether he could have ended up on death row or as the poster boy of a reformed criminal.