What you need to know:
- Many Kenyans lost their lives in the ensuing fight between the rebelling soldiers and the loyalists.
- Some more lost their livelihoods. And even more Kenyans would lose their futures in the aftermath of the failed coup.
As August came to an end, hopefully going away with the cold of the past four months, there are thousands of hearts of Kenyans out there who shudder at the thought of the month. Today, in Kenyan history, the month is associated with the failed attempted coup of August 1, 1982.
Many Kenyans lost their lives in the ensuing fight between the rebelling soldiers and the loyalists. Some more Kenyans lost their livelihoods. And even more Kenyans would lose their futures in the aftermath of the failed coup. Among the men and women who lived to tell the story of their entanglement in the coup and the subsequent suffering is Frank Munuku.
It is not often that children of victims of suffering tell their parents’ stories. But Robert Munuku and Bertha Munuku chose this difficult task to interview, record and publish their father’s memories in a book, Wounded in Friendly Fire (Mau Mau Arts, 2021). Robert Munuku is the founder of Mau Mau Arts, an organization that is dedicated to the promotion and archiving of Kenyan art and culture, and by extension the country’s history.
So, Wounded in Friendly Fire, can be read as different texts in print. It is an attempt to capture a moment in the history of this country; it is a confessional; it is a candid conversation (private but made public) between children and their parent about his life; it is a provocation to Kenyans to remember and try to re-member the history or this country, especially its fractured politics.
How does a child begin to ask their parent about their life – even if the child has been part-witness to that life? What approach does one use when the parent has been a victim of circumstances beyond their control? What if the past in question, the life that the child wishes to know more about, is painful, such as in the case of Frank Munuku? What then, for the child, if the memory being disturbed, unsettled or reprised is likely to reopen wounds that had seemingly been healing not just within the family but beyond as well? What psychological stamina would one need to have in order to ask prying questions about a subject that Kenyans are unwilling to speak about to date?
Frank Munuku, according to the story in Wounded in Friendly Fire, fell in love with the uniform and decided to pursue a career in the uniformed services after high school. He befriended a friend’s brother who was working in the army, at Gilgil Barracks, and would eventually be recruited into the army in March 1975. He would be among 20 proud men who had been sieved from an original group of between 500 and 600 youths. Munuku would graduate and be given a commission as a Second Lieutenant in December 1975 by the then president, Jomo Kenyatta.
In his words he says, “Everyone was happy and I remember the same officer who was in charge of training praising us for our hard work. Overnight, we had undergone an incredible metamorphosis from being the most useless and lazy people he had ever encountered to first class gentlemen.” Munuku had just joined a small band of young Kenyan army officers who had opted to serve their country in the armed forces.
This is the story of a man who had dedicated his life to the defence of his country. It wasn’t long after graduating before Lieutenant Munuku was serving at the Armed Forces Training College as a Demonstration Platoon Commander – today known as the Armed Forces Training College – training cadets. He would go on to serve his country, do refresher courses and travel to India for a Young Officers’ Course. When he returned to Kenya, Munuku would get married in May 1980, and start a family. He would rise to the rank of Captain in the Air Force before the tragedy that is the attempted coup happened to him, and his life changed forever.
Munuku says that he was not even at his station when the attempted coup happened. These are his words, “When young servicemen tried to overthrow the Government of 1st August 1982, I was not in my Barracks at Embakasi. I was with my Battery in Wajir Air Base guarding the airfield and carrying out my duties as assigned. The Officers who were said to be the ringleaders were not in my Battery and I did not even know them. I was informed by my Radio Operator about the coup in Nairobi on that Sunday morning. My first reaction was to call all my officers and soldiers to parade and tell them to remain calm and await instructions for I had no idea what was happening.”
So, how, then, did Munuku end up being arrested, interrogated and locked up at Wajir Police station for three days without food or water or any news before onward transfer to Nairobi? How was he to interpret the solitary confinement to a cell for two months at the Naivasha Maximum Security Prison before interrogation? What was he to make of the treatment he suffered for two more months of incarceration even when the interrogation panel had told him that he was innocent? Instead of being freed, Munuku and other soldiers would be transferred to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in December 1982. He would be released from prison in March 1983.
But his dreams of going back to serve and defend his country were quashed when he went back to his workplace only to be told that he had been dismissed. He would refuse to pick his certificate of service until the year 1990. For what? He had been declared innocent. He had not been associated at all with the coup. He had only heard about it, like many other officers and soldiers who would also be dismissed from serving their country. In this unfair process they lost their jobs, savings and any future chance of being employed in the country, for the foreseeable future.
Yet Frank Munuku had the opportunity to take the Government of Kenya to court for violation of his rights. He would get a favorable ruling in November 2013 when Justice Isaac Lenaola awarded him Sh5 million in general damages, the cost of the petition and interest. Yet, even though the wise ones counselled that “the wheel of justice turns slowly, but grind exceedingly fine”, this has only been relatively so for Captain Frank Munuku. Yes, he got the award, but can the money replace the job he lost, the family disruption he experienced, the personal dislocation he suffered? Can the money pay for the psychological damage one experiences when one loses that which they have held close to their heart?
However, to date, Captain Frank Munuku has not been paid the award from the courts. He still waits for a government that doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge that it has treated some of its citizens badly. What should the young man who after Form Six opted to join the army and defend his country, served his country honorably and was only a victim of circumstances do to live decently and honorably into his old age? What (good) stories (if any) would he ever be able to tell his grandchildren when his own country continues to forsake him?
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]