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A journalist’s personal story of Moi era purges

Discussion in 'International Forum' started by Geza Ulole, Feb 18, 2011.

  1. Geza Ulole

    Geza Ulole JF-Expert Member

    Feb 18, 2011
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    A journalist’s personal story of Moi era purges

    Posted Friday, February 11 2011 at 21:31
    In Summary

    • Njuguna Mutonya joined the University of Nairobi during its most turbulent period under Daniel arap Moi’s regime. He was arrested for sedition in 1986 and held for 14 days at the infamous Nyayo torture chambers and then jailed at Industrial Area, Kamiti Maximum, Manyani and Shimo la Tewa prisons.

    The skies were overcast and a slight squall swept the tarmac road giving it a slimy, slippery sheen. I took shelter at a petrol station at Bora Bora, Bamburi.
    A man wearing the light blue overcoat of a Daily Nation vendor stood near, shielding his papers from the wetness. I could read the newspaper’s headlines beneath the plastic cover. ‘Mwakenya: two more jailed.’ In spite of the cold I felt, a light sweat broke out on my forehead, and my heart skipped a beat.
    Every day of that year, Kenyan police arrested left-leaning, former student leaders and radical politicians in a purge, which had enveloped the country in a blanket of fear. I had more than enough reason to worry because I knew most of those arrested as they had been classmates at the University of Nairobi. Most were close associates with whom I had for example, volunteered to produce the student newsletter, Sauti ya Kamukunji.
    I called out to the vendor and bought a copy of the newspaper. I read the main story quickly, and identified the new arrests as two former student leaders who were then teaching in the Western Province. I sat in the bus headed for town and my new office in Kwale with a deep sense of foreboding. For the first time, I thought of the possibility of fleeing the country, as a few others had done.
    Although I had committed no crime, I felt an invisible net closing around me. It seemed inevitable as my circle of friends and associates were taken in one by one. I could feel the tension growing each day, waiting for the police squad to come for me.
    I resolved to collect my salary as soon as it was ready, and cross the border into exile in Tanzania, and possibly further away in Europe.
    But I remained hesitant. My life was just starting to show signs of a bright career with my recent promotion as head of the government’s District Information team.
    I loved my job and I was already planning the changes I would implement, where I had replaced an ineffective alcoholic who had been recalled to head office. I had already been allocated a house, Jayne had accepted my hand in marriage, and we were planning to move in together immediately her university term ended in July. I therefore wavered about exile.
    Two weeks before, my best friend J.M. Adongo, who was a lecturer at the National Polytechnic, had been arrested and no one knew where he was being held. We had been neighbours in Tudor estate and constant companions because of our common political orientation. He had been the secretary-general of the student union during my time at the university. Three days after his arrest, his housemate, who also worked at the polytechnic, was arrested.
    My stomach was churning. A knot had formed inside my chest and I was short of breath; a mood of impending doom was all over me. Even the weather remained foul that day, with grey clouds hanging over the Kwale Hills, and an unusually chilly wind that bit into the bones.
    I got off the bus and walked to the office, greeted by my secretary, Mwana Siti. She smiled at me in her usual disarming way. Talk of sunshine on a gloomy day!
    At 10am, I headed for the Town Hall where the district executive committee, of which I now was a member, was meeting to discuss development options for our region.
    Half-way through the meeting, I noticed a messenger come into the hall and discuss something with the DC, who glanced at me briefly before he continued with deliberations.
    A few minutes later I saw a tall, dark fellow lumber across the room to where I sat. He politely asked for my name. I told him and he requested me to step out for a short chat.
    “I am Inspector Maritim of the Special Branch and I have instructions to search your office.” He told me this while his narrow, shifty eyes ran up and down my body. My heart skipped a beat, a sweat broke out on my forehead, but within a few seconds, I found myself surprisingly relaxed: at least the tension was finally over. This is it, I told myself, as my mind whirled, and I tried to look ahead where all I could see was darkness. What happens next? I wondered.
    I returned to the meeting hall, picked up my files, and asked a fellow officer, who was a common friend to Adongo and I, to inform my housemate that I had been arrested. We went to my office where Inspector Maritim quietly stripped my desk apart. He found nothing incriminating apart from some post cards, which I had written to my younger brother describing Mombasa’s invasion by boisterous United States navy marines during a port call.
    After the search, Inspector Maritim informed me I was under arrest.
    We drove straight to the Provincial Headquarters where I was put in an empty room as the senior officer mobilised a squad to search my house at Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach.
    We left in a convoy of three vehicles and were joined by another contingent of police from Bamburi station.
    Over 20 officers descended on our three bedroomed house, which they searched from top to bottom. They found an assortment of books and magazines from my university days, which seemed to satisfy them that I really was a dangerous dissident.
    One of them called ‘Doctor’ was the proud finder of my copy of Nicollo Machiavelli’s The Prince. His excitement knew no bounds when he read the blurb on the back page, ‘Instructions on how to take over a government! Although the story was based in Europe in the middle ages, it made the agents lick their lips with pleasure. Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest state of Capitalism and a few other books and magazines on socialism proved beyond reasonable doubt that I was an enemy of the State.
    My housemate, Peter Karanja Gichigo, a trade officer and a truly magnanimous friend, arrived just then and stared, dumbfounded, as they tore the house apart. I bade him farewell and asked him to inform my parents and friends.
    I was driven to the Port Police Station where a cell was cleared of its inmates for my benefit.
    One of the constables on duty gave me the centre page of the day’s newspaper, which I used to protect my face from the mosquito onslaught.
    I fell asleep some few hours to dawn, but was soon woken by a senior officer early in the morning. He wanted to know what crime I had committed. Apparently, I had slept in a holding cell as my arrest had not been entered in the occurrence book. I told him about the search of my office and private house. I explained that I too, was in the dark about any charges against me. He sounded sympathetic and even agreed to make a call to a friend, Kenneth Mwema at the local newsroom.
    The police came for me that evening and told me to collect my stuff for a short journey. I panicked. Why did they have to wait for darkness?
    We headed for Nairobi Highway, and I thought then, that they planned to take me to the forests beyond the airport. In the Landrover with me were four officers and a driver. We drove past Miritini and Mazera’s until we reached Mariakani where we stopped for fuel. That was when the senior officer informed me that we were going to Nairobi.
    We arrived in Nairobi very early the next morning to a chilling drizzle, dark clouds, and mud on the streets. I was taken to a very cold cell at the Kileleshwa Police Station and my escorts, with whom I had developed some intimacy during the long journey, actually bade me farewell.
    I was put in a cell with a man who was suspected of robbery with violence. He showed me scars from torture by the police who were demanding that he show them where a certain gun was hidden. Was this too, going to be my fate? I wondered, as I drifted to an uneasy sleep.
    I could tell that I was in an empty room even with the blindfold on. A fat, jolly cop had picked me from the cell, accompanied by another dark, slim joker who was to become a good friend in later days. We passed through corridors before we entered what I recognised as a lift because of that vacuous feeling in the pit of my stomach as we ascended — for a long time.
    When we stepped out of the lift, I felt the vertigo that accompanies heights as I was led across the building. Fleeting sunshine hit my forehead, and for a moment I had the sick feeling that they planned to throw me off a tall building. Instead, I was thrown into a room and the blindfold was removed.
    The windows of the room were sealed with dark cloth, but there was a single bulb which hung from the middle of the high ceiling to reveal the brown walls of a modern building. Something about the colour and architecture of the room rang a bell and it took only a few minutes to recognise it — Nyayo House.
    Soon after graduating, I worked on the eighth floor of that building in the provincial information offices, so I knew very well the building’s interior decor. I also knew that the top floors housed the notorious police unit.
    A few minutes later, my escort returned and put back my blindfold; I was alarmed at the way I was getting used to it. After a few metres’ walk through corridors, I was pushed into a room and onto a chair.
    Suddenly, the blindfold was whipped off. I was made to sit on a wooden chair in the middle of a huge, windowless room. Sitting directly in front of me, was a row of ten or twelve smartly dressed men sitting behind a long, wooden table. The chair in the middle was empty. I felt disturbed and agitated: why can’t they say something? I asked myself, scanning their faces. One of them, a bald, grey haired man in a shabby tweed jacket looked familiar, but I was not too sure.
    The door opened and a huge fellow with a pot-belly and trousers belted at his midriff swaggered in. The seated men stood and snapped to attention as he took the centre chair. A file was quickly placed before him. He scanned it for a few minutes then turned to stare at me.
    “How are you Mr Njuguna? How is Mombasa?” the big man asked me with a sneer.
    “I am fine.” I managed to croak back. Let me make it very clear to you before we start. I am sure you know why you are here and that you are going to cooperate with us. The more you cooperate, the easier it will be for you. But let me warn you: if you try to play games with us, you will only have yourself to blame. Keep in mind that we have the means, the time and the capacity to get all of the information we need from you — so it is up to you — clear?” he ended firmly.
    “Yes sir, but since I was arrested, I have never been told what I have done and I have no idea why I am here,” I retorted.
    He tapped the file in front of him as he continued, as if I had not said a thing. “You alone will determine the course of this interrogation by either making it easy for you, or difficult. I guess I have made myself clear.”
    With these words he gave a short curtsy to his colleagues who breezed out of the room without another word. “Njuguna,” he began. “Tell us what you know of Mwakenya which we know you are member of.”
    “I know absolutely nothing apart from what I have been reading in the papers,” I answered.
    “Have you taken the oath of the group?”
    “No, I have not.”
    “Have you ever attended a meeting of the group or attended its congress anywhere?”
    “No I have never.” I replied.
    “You liar! Remove all your clothes immediately!” The genial face turned into a terrifying, angry mask. I removed my shirt, trousers and shoes and stood in my socks and pants.
    “All of them!” He thundered.
    I could not believe it — stark naked? I peeled off the socks, then my underwear. I was embarrassed to see how small my penis looked.
    “Do a hundred push-ups!” the man ordered as the grey haired man stood over me, holding in his hand the leg of a broken chair. I have to say that I am not much of an athlete and the last time I had done exercises was many months before. A hundred push-ups! Out of the question! I huffed and puffed, trying my best until I finally collapsed in a heap. The grey haired man hit my ankles and elbows with the chair’s leg and I started again — one, two, three, four...eight…I collapsed again.
    I was beaten thoroughly despite my screams of pain. Then I was ordered to lie on my back facing the men, and do legs up in such a way that while my legs were in the air, my buttocks, and my shrivelled testicles faced the panel. “Ten degrees, ninety, fifty five, apart, 10 degrees...” it went on.
    For the next two days, I was called up to the interrogation room more than six times, and on each occasion I was placed before a panel of two or three interrogators who questioned me persistently about my relationship with known, left wing former student leaders. Their aim was to make me accept that I was a member of Mwakenya, a fact I vehemently denied. The interrogators produced what they claimed was signed confession by Adongo linking me with Mwakenya. I learned later that it was false.
    They produced entries from my diaries in which I had mentioned meetings with people they considered dangerous to the security of the country, but I denied all their charges.
    “How can you be so friendly with all those people against whom we have proof that they are working illegally against the government, and yet claim innocence?” they kept posing.
    I explained that most of the people were classmates at university.
    “You received a copy of the Mwakenya documents. You agree the contents were outrageous — why did you not inform the police?” asked the slim, bespectacled officer whose sharp intelligence I could not deny.
    “I have read dozens of pamphlets and leaflets accusing the government of all manner of crimes against the people and calling for change. To me the Mwakenya document was no different and that is why I did not take it seriously,” I replied.
    “Can you deny you were oathed at the Ngumba Estate house where you were given the documents?” another asked.
    Then came the shocker. “It seems you have been properly trained in the art of evading interrogations and because you are refusing to cooperate with us, we will deal with you as a hard core. Take him down!” barked a previously quiet officer.
    Throughout the interrogations, I had been sure that my performance was convincing. I could even imagine my soon to come freedom.
    Suddenly, all that was shattered, and I was faced with new, more grotesque forms of torture. My despair quickly turned to anger and as I was being led down to the lift, I demanded that I be allowed to contact a lawyer.
    “Why don’t you just accept the charges and this will be over?” the fat, jolly agent asked me.
    He guided me into the black cell and ordered me to pass him the mattress and to remove all my clothes. I paused, and he shouted at me. I immediately stripped. I stood naked in the cell, clutching at my privates, anticipating the worst.
    Then I heard footsteps and the door was yanked open. Before I knew what was happening a jet of icy water from a fire hose wielded by the fat agent hit me so hard that I was thrown against the wall, gasping. He trained the jet on my face, private parts and back for over 10 minutes of painful hell, then closed the door leaving me wet, shivering and shocked, standing in four inches of water in the dark cell.
    “I can handle this” I told myself bravely, assuming that this torture would last for a few hours and then I would be called up for interrogations again. I was terribly wrong.
    Njuguna Mutonya lives in Mombasa where he writes for local and international media on politics, human rights, the environment and culture.
    Daily Nation: - News |A journalist

    A sad story indeed...