Omar Abdi Shurie: My manhunt for ‘Commander Muthee’ accused of plotting coup

Police officers

Police officers guard looted property recovered from a lodging in Kirinyaga Road, Nairobi, following the failed coup attempt on August 1, 1982.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

‘You will go for him,’ the police boss told officer Omar Abdi Shurie. It was the ultimate order before he left on a secret and risky mission to arrest a wanted enemy of President Daniel arap Moi.

In the weeks that followed, he was disguised as a hawker and a taxi driver to infiltrate his target’s inner circle in an intriguing chain of events before zeroing in on the target …

In this final instalment of our exclusive three-part serialisation of ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’, Mr Shurie, a battle-hardened former police commander, spills the beans on a Kanu-era cloak-and-dagger operation that nobody ever told you about:

Omar Shurie Abdi with Internal Security Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo

Former Commandant of Administration Police Training College Omar Shurie Abdi (left) with Internal Security Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo during the launch of Mr Shurie’s book ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’ at the National Police College Embakasi  Campus on Thursday, April 18. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Commander Muthee (not his real name) was suddenly thrown into the center of public attention in the 1980s on account of his alleged role as the mastermind of a plot to cause insurgency against the government of President Daniel arap Moi.

The mention of a coup, real or imagined, made the blood of many run cold. The emergent ethnic rivalry within and outside the military in Africa was worrying. It stirred security agencies to put all their strength into preventing tumult. The fragile statehood in Africa had to be saved. But statehood was sinking in the new culture of dehumanizing military dictatorships…

These events gave accelerationists reason to fear and doubt the sustainability of African civilian leadership. It kept governments on the edge.

Instead of peace promised at independence, Black Africa counted 52 coups, 56 coup attempts and 102 plots between 1960 to 1982, (Jenkins and Kposowa, 1992). These coups resulted in riots, looting, protests and violence along ethnic-secessionist lines.

But Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Vice-chancellor of Ife University in Nigeria, and Dr Kofi Busia, the chair of the political commission of Ghana’s Ruling National Liberation Council, expressed views that the military was unfit to replace civilian rule. The thought was gaining traction across Africa. It gave strength to public anger against military rule. That anger came with harsh punishments including death by firing squad, and decades in jail for insurgents.

Kenya Air Force rebel

A Kenya Air Force rebel on top of a car addresses a crowd at Kariobangi Petrol Station on August 1, 1982. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group


It caused security agencies in the remaining civilian-ruled countries, like Kenya, that counted themselves lucky, to work themselves to death to prevent any surprise of breakdown of law and order.

It is against this background that Commander Muthee, an offshoot of the East-West ideological proxy wars, became a top security agenda in Kenya. Commander Muthee had cast himself as a liberator against ‘oppression’ in Kenya, and vowed to undertake a mission akin to overthrowing the Government of President Moi.

President Moi denounced him publicly. It generated news which set the stage to bring to book this daring architect of an imminent bloody revolution. The country immediately burst out in angry daily demonstrations that dominated the streets to demand the immediate arrest of this planner of chaos.

The task to smoke out Commander Muthee from wherever his hideout was and hand him over for trial fell on my shoulders.

I had no doubt in my mind that this covert operation was strategic to peace and national stability. Intelligence sources indicated that the Commander had found a base outside Kenyan borders. Before I embarked on the high-risk capture mission, I had a one-on-one discussion with my seniors. I was given some non-negotiable conditions.

‘You will go for him,’ the boss instructed me.

His tone betrayed the urgency with which security agencies had been handling the matter, which had triggered political tension since the President denounced Muthee and his fellow insurgents.

‘Yes, I will sir,’ I replied, acknowledging the Press-induced stress. The media went to town daily with headlines on huge public demonstrations that swore absolute loyalty to the President, and the Constitution of Kenya. The stories highlighted condemnations of Muthee and company. They questioned the role and the whereabouts of security agencies, in view of the fact that a fugitive, and lackey of foreign powers, was roaming freely in the streets, planning insurgency and bloodshed.

‘One last thing Shurie,’ my boss said, ‘Not a single shot is to be fired on foreign soil. And that’s an order!’ With this restraining order ringing in my mind, he released me to embark on the mission.

I made my way through the border with a small team of colleagues, all of us travelling separately and incognito. We arrived in a mid-sized town located about two hours drive from the border. Once in the town, I did all I could to blend with the locals. Luckily, I quickly acclimatized to the situation. I then began hustling as a petty trader hawking merchandize, a role that gave me the access I needed to different places without raising suspicion.

After three or four days, it became clear I needed better mobility within and without the town. I bought a ramshackle saloon car, and started running a taxi business, concentrating on errands that gave me proximity to my target area.

I manoeuvered my way and during one of the night errands, I was able to infiltrate Muthee’s circle. I finally laid my eyes on the Commander, after a local contact, and my mole in his group, led me to a location, and pointed him out to me. There was the man I was looking for, Commander Muthee, a tall man of magnificent physique. Obviously jovial, a celebrity of sorts, and somewhat cheerful gentleman, Muthee stood in sharp contrast to the angry, maybe impatient and narcissistic, hurried coup plotter I had read about in the Press.

Had it not been for the perceptible hyper-vigilance of his aides and the spectacle of well-groomed women of superficial charm hanging around him as he went about his business around town, no one would have singled out this dissident.

It was hard to connect him to the Commander who was sending shivers down the spines of many powerful politicians and security personnel back home in Kenya. My taxi business gave me enough reasons to remain within the vicinity of his base 24/7, and access to the other places he frequented. My gaze unerringly focused on all his movements and those of his team. The gossip by his inner coterie, and my own gaslighting, enabled by my in-born gift of superficial charm, yielded critical information about Muthee’s schedule for the entire month.

His security team, of mainly young, muscular, and moneyed men, worked seamlessly. Their well-knit and cohesive group had in its short period of existence earned itself a reputation of being a good source of easy money in the parts of the town where I operated.

1982 attempted coup

Civilians caught up in the attempted coup of August 1, 1982 walk on the streets while displaying their ID cards.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Normally, the locals earnings came from the sale of foodstuffs, clothes, and agricultural inputs realized every market day. Big buyers from Kenya arrived in trucks to take away silk, cotton, tomatoes and maize. This made Muthee’s team quite an attraction to many women hangers-on, a perfect cover for those on sex-espionage missions.

Peddlers of amphetamines, cocaine, cigarettes and bhang found enough attraction in the Muthee group, adding to its vibrancy. This mix of brokers, wheeler-dealers, and pimps, holding together for individual interest rather than a common cause.

The group dynamics within saw it swing from solidarity marked by healthy rapport, to conflictual relationships that brought it to the edge of collapse. Those around him let out too much information during their melodramas of hysterical fights over many things.

Inability to keep information away from outsiders claiming to help them repair their fractured relationships, was the group's weak point that we exploited. As in all armies, discipline determines success. This was lacking in the Commander's team. Thanks to those who had to resort to lies and spinning tales to fight off the bullies in the group.

‘You see these people are sending me here and there, yet they do not want to pay me. Gen Muthee gives out money that never reaches me ...’, one would confide in me, and it was my chance to learn more.

‘Are you saying they get money from the Commander in your name? That is quite unfair,’ I would respond.

‘Yes, they do. Wait until he returns from the capital on Friday ... I will complain to him,’ she said.

‘You do that. In this town you’ve got to be smart to survive. Besides, the Commander may not have money after that. You’ve got to see him early. He could also be absent for long and you may suffer.’

'By the way, is he around this week? I also want to see him... if he can give me something to do, I am so broke,’ I would move the narrative along.

‘The Gen will be here ... I do not see him leaving town before the weekend. I could also take you to him’, she offered. The spies were quite useful in verifying any other information we obtained from different sources on Muthee’s schedule, level of security, and movement. I had developed a healthy rapport with most of them, having become familiar with each other in the course of our rounds in town. We made ourselves available to run errands like picking up and chauffeuring their guests to any place within town, some on credit, and it was easy to see the group in the pretext of asking for payment for services rendered.

It took a short time to confirm his schedule and plans, after which I called for reinforcements from Kenya. They arrived and lay in wait as I kept track of our target, largely relying on members of his team, who though peripheral, had unfettered contact with his inner coterie of trusted lieutenants. Finally, the stage was set. Everything had fallen in place, and we were approaching the climax after almost a month of patient, painstaking intelligence work. It was now time to execute our plan.

We confirmed that Commander Muthee's main business in town would be attending a party that Friday. It was now or never!

I made a decision. We would execute our mission. I signalled my team—D-Day was here.

Friday came, and the most beautiful ladies of the group were in town to grace the event that afternoon. The venue where Commander was expected was a big dancing hall. We visited the decorated venue with beautiful chairs arranged all around the room. This left a spacious dancing area in the center of the hall.

It was in the leafy upmarket area about 2 kilometers out of town. I liked it as it gave the venue a semblance of a private club where few eyes would pry. We liked it even more after scouting the escape routes. We noted the roads were motorable, unless there was a heavy downpour. By the look of things, this looked like a remote possibility. I said a small prayer for the conditions to hold.

The afternoon progressed as the ladies got busy putting final touches on the chairs. They were wiping the tables, arranging glasses, and another team was testing the sound system ready for a grooving night.

Soft music wafted from powerful speakers. The girls in a pair of jean trousers, or skirts with deep slits that showed their thighs and contours of their curvy bottoms, moved around the room. They really amused me by carrying trays balanced finely on the fingers of one hand, as sweet scented perfumes followed them. They carried glasses and bottles of beer to the tables, as guests arrived one by one or in pairs. As the hall filled up, the volume of the music was raised.

Different groups of friends occupied different tables. As the evening gave way to night, the sitting arrangements were slowly relaxed. People talked to whoever was seated next or adjacent to them. They cracked jokes and expressed excitement on meeting each other. They bought each other drinks.

They toasted and drank to the health of each other as though they had just met for the first time after decades. The dancing kicked off and synchronized well with drinking and lively discussions, bringing a bonhomie atmosphere which enveloped the party. Then Commander Muthee strode in just at the peak of the excitement. He was surrounded by pompous young men wearing dark glasses. They walked with exaggerated swings, and threw their eyes left, right and back from time to time, unable to hide their inflated sense of self-worth.

Muthee, a man of immense charm, smiled upon seeing the guests cheer and waving at him as he waved back. Walking a few steps to the middle of the hall, and bowing while facing this and that side each time to show appreciation triggered applause. The cheers and happy mood flooded the party, leaving no doubt who the big man was. Finally, he sat down on the most decorated and elevated table near the rear exit, where a soft wind blew from outside.

Now everybody had eaten and drinking had started in earnest. People started getting to the floor to dance. The Disc Jockey, demonstrating his skills and love for his work, played music by Mpongo Love, Zairean maestro Franco Makiadi, Twist of Daudi Kabaka, among others. The music was blaring, and I could see Muthee on the floor, inundated by so many beauties with requests for a dance.

It was now dark outside and peaceful. The rotating disco ball with hundreds of tiny mirrors of different shapes threw rays of different colors on the floor. The colors fell on people's faces, and on the drinks. It created a surreal atmosphere that only heightened the sense of anticipation of my men and I.

The Commander, looking stylish in made-to-fit trouser and coat, raised his hands together in the air. He then moved forwards and backwards, protruded his back as if he was bending, then jumping to bump onto a lady whose movements synchronized with his. Then he would jump again and they would bump onto each other with their waists mid-air then their backs, hips would bump and so on.

It was fascinating to watch him, as he was a very agile dancer. The revellers cheered, their voices mixed with music rising to a cacophonous sound of happy people in real celebration. As the dancing went on, other ladies flooded the floor and Muthee, a man gifted with energy, and a flexible body jumped and bumped onto them one by one. The Disc Jockey did his work well, and the excited revellers appreciated by asking for more and more drinks, and dancing more and more energetically.

My mind remained on high alert. My senses in full battle mode. My eyes imperceptibly kept scanning the entire panorama, picking out my men, mapping any potential obstacles, especially the men I had come to recognize as Muthee’s bodyguards, and counting down to the last minute.

Everybody was friendly, and we mingled with whomever we chose. A man as tall as I was sidled up to me, and addressed me in a drunken slur. ‘You look ...fa..fa..fa... faaamiliar,’ he stuttered. I smiled, nodding my head, but he obstinately pushed on, asking where I came from. He pulled up so close to me, and I stepped backwards to create a social distance between us. He became more aggressive, relentlessly pushing towards me near the wall. This was becoming dicey. I signalled my men, and they came with bottles of vodka we had bought. The man’s attention was immediately diverted when he was handed the bottle and moved on to enjoy his drink. The moment passed.

From then on, and through the girls serving as our moles, we passed drinks including brandy, wines and spirits to the revellers. The drinks passed quickly and spread in the hall, with most of those who received not caring who had bought or given out. They just drank. Those who had been taking beer took spirits, and those who had been taking wine took brandy, and finally they consumed anything that came. I kept my sights trained unerringly on Muthee.

‘Have this one ... it is good for you tonight ...’, a now visibly tipsy, sweating, and tired Muthee said to a girl, when the drinks reached him. The girl feigned shyness, drank as commanded to please her boss, and danced to rhumba. I could see Muthee, now exhausted with too much dancing and drinking, seated and leaning against the wall, holding the girl who submitted to his hand. His hand found its way all over her body.

The music, which was now loud enough to split the head, would not let me hear what they were saying. It was around 3am when my men struck.

Commander Muthee was seated with his back against the wall, sandwiched between two women. My colleagues seized him by the hand, and another by the trouser. They lifted him onto his feet when he was still half-asleep. The women, who were in a drunken stupor, opened their eyes groggily, then closed them and changed position to be more comfortable. We held onto Muthee's mouth, and others lifted him up and out, as my men holding sentry at the door kept vigil.

'You shut up,' I ordered the hall guard in flight mode, as I felt the beats of my racing heart, which stabilized as the guard quickly obliged without resistance.

Within the twinkling of an eye, we were in our vehicles, with our cargo intact. We hit the road, driving like mad on the earthen zigzag road and negotiating corners and hills.

Just before daybreak, we crossed the border onto Kenyan soil. I called (my boss): ‘We have Muthee here, Sir. As per your orders, not a single bullet fired on foreign soil.'