What you need to know:
- The attempted coup of August 1, 1982, was a personal catastrophe for the junior plotters. But if the executed seven soldiers are to be believed, senior plotters got off lightly
- How young military men ganged up against Kanu in a tragic push for power and political freedom
Kenyan coup plotter Joseph Ogidi Obuon deeply implicated former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the 1982 failed coup, according to police statements seen by the Saturday Nation 26 years after he was hanged for treason.
Sergeant Ogidi, an armaments technician, was executed at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in 1987 along with six other soldiers of the Kenya Air Force for their role in the coup that attempted to topple the repressive regime of President Daniel arap Moi.
The principal conspirators of the putsch, as Kenyans have always known, were Air Force soldiers Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo.
But from his statement recorded with the police — copies of which have been obtained by the Saturday Nation — it would appear that the known plotters were pawns in a wider conspiracy borne of ethnic and political disaffection with the Moi regime.
Ogidi was based at Laikipia Air Force Base, then known as Kenya Air Force Nanyuki Station, where he told police he had worked since March 1, 1971. The base, the second major installation of the Air Force after its headquarters in the sprawling Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, was constructed as a home to its developing squadrons of fighter jets.
In his 28-page hand written statement, Ogidi begun with a detailed account of how he was recruited by his fellow Nanyuki serviceman Oteyo. “I do remember,” he wrote, “that sometimes in 1981, in August or September, Senior Sergeant Oteyo called in my house and told me that he wanted to talk to me.
“Oteyo asked me what I felt about the government and the Armed Forces. I asked S/Sgt Oteyo (what he was concerned about). S/Sgt Oteyo told me that he wanted to know my feelings as far as the government was treating the community, how the Luo were being treated in the Armed Forces.
“I asked S/Sgt Oteyo what he really meant. He told me we (the Luo), being the second largest tribe in the country had not made the rank of a Colonel or Brigadier in the Armed Forces (the senior most Luo soldier at the time was a major).
Oteyo also talked about the distribution of the Cabinet; that the Luo had only three Cabinet ministers as compared with other tribes like the Luhya.
“Oteyo also discussed about the dismissal of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga from Cotton Lint and asked what my feeling was about the above points. I told Oteyo that the points were not pleasing but I could do nothing about them.”
The picture that Ogidi paints of himself is that of a naive, impressionable young man who questions from a sympathetic position and is unable to object to any of Oteyo’s entreaties. He is easily taken in by the long litany of grouses that Oteyo has against the government and the Armed Forces and the overt slights to the Luo based on its cultural practices. He is a ready-made recruit.
“Oteyo started telling me that change was necessary and that the change could be effected,” he wrote.
“He told me that there was no other way of effecting the change constitutionally other than taking up arms against the government. I asked Oteyo how I could take up arms against the government single-handedly and he told me that I was not alone.”
In January, 1982, Ogidi undertook a course that ran into February. Thereafter, he was granted three days off which he planned to spend in his rural home. “Before I left, S/Sgt Oteyo told me to go and see Oginga Odinga and explain to him what he (Oteyo) had told me about the change in the government. This was towards the end of February.
“I asked Oteyo how I was going to see Mr Odinga since I had not been known to him. S/Sgt Oteyo told me just to go and introduce myself to him and he might listen. I enquired from Oteyo how I was going to get to Mr Odinga and Oteyo told me that if it was a working day I could ring his office and if it was a weekend I could ring his house.
“When the time came, I left Nanyuki for home – Migori, where I stayed for two days. After this, I left for Kisumu and when I reached there, I rang Mr Odinga in his office and got him personally on his direct line. I told him that I was from Kenya Air Force Nanyuki and that I wanted to see him. Odinga did not object and asked me to go and see him in his office.”
“Once in his office, I tried to explain to him about what Oteyo had told me – overthrowing the government. Odinga told me to wait for him in his secretary’s office. While there a man from Odinga’s office came and told me to accompany him to a car parked outside. After a while, Odinga joined us and a driver came and drove us to his home.
“In Odinga’s house, which is a storey house, I and Odongo — as the man was called — sat in the sitting room while Odinga went upstairs. (But) before going upstairs, Odinga told me to explain everything to Odongo. After my explanation, Odongo went upstairs to see Odinga. A short while later, Odinga and Odongo joined me in the sitting room.
“It was while there that Odinga told me that the idea we had was not bad. He said that he had also been thinking about the same idea but he had not got anybody who came from the Armed Forces to tell that.”
Ogidi then told the police how Jaramogi enquired about how many recruits the plotters had and committed to funding them. He was assured that recruitment was going on in other bases besides Nanyuki. Odinga also recommended that they expand their recruitment to other Kenyan tribes and not solely rely on Luo servicemen.
This accounts mirrors the narrative in Raila’s biography: Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics by Nigerian writer Babafemi Badejo. The book documents Jaramogi and Raila’s role in the coup attempt.
After that fateful meeting, Ogidi was driven back to Kisumu and was soon on his way back to Nanyuki.
There, he was re-united with Oteyo who was elated with Ogidi’s meeting with Jaramogi Odinga. Oteyo told Ogidi that the time for serious recruitment was then.
He told the police that he went to Gilgil to see his cousin, Sergeant Obuon Guya, who shared his sentiments about the need for a change in government. He and Guya recruited Corporal Charles Oriwa, another soldier who was later hanged.
He then described how he met the coup mastermind as Kenyans came to know him.
“In April 1982, S/Sgt Oteyo took me to KAF Eastleigh where Senior Private Ochuka was then introduced to me. At that time, S/Pte Ochuka asked me about the journey I had made to Kisumu and I was surprised as I did not know how he knew. I explained to S/Pte Ochuka how I had gone to Kisumu and he (Ochuka) commended me and S/Sgt Oteyo and said that we should continue recruiting more people.”
He identified their new recruits as Lt Onyango, Corporal Odira and Corporal Mwasi. The plotter then explained how he first met Raila Odinga.
“On July 11, 1982, I attended a meeting in Ochuka’s house in Nairobi Umoja Estate House K 27. On our arrival, I found the following who were introduced to me by Ochuka:
(1) Mr Raila Odinga
(2) Mr John Odongo – the one who found me at Odinga’s office in Kisumu when I paid a visit to him (Odinga).
(3) Richard Obuon Guya
(4) Sgt Opiyo
(5) Cpl Ombok.
“During the meeting, Odongo did not speak but Raila addressed us and he said that there would be some help from the neighbouring countries by putting the army on alert on the day of the coup. On that day, Raila did not mention the particular countries. He also spoke about efforts to get arms from external countries. The meeting ended and I and Oteyo went back to Nanyuki.”
According to Raila’s biography, the push for government change was not a coup but a revolution against a repressive regime awash with corruption and other injustices.
The next critical meeting took place on July 18, 1982. It was held in Ochuka’s house. The agenda was to moot the plans for executing the coup. Ogidi told the police the participants were Oteyo, Ochuka, Opiyo, Ombok and himself. He recalled it thus:
“S/Pte Ochuka addressed the meeting after we had given an opinion on recruitment. This was the day when it was suggested that a council (the team in charge of the coup plot comprising Ochuka, Raila and others) should be in Nairobi on the coup day which was to be on the night of 31st July and (morning of) August 1, 1982.
“This day was suggested by S/Pte Ochuka as it was the day most of the officers had gone out of their stations to up-country to see their relatives and at the same time it was the end of the month when everybody had money. (Ochuka) also said that it was a good day as the schools would be closed to ensure children would not be harmed.
“The day was suggested because it was on a Sunday and there would be no people in town going to work and business. The head of State was also to be up-country at the time of the coup.”
Ogidi would take no further part in meetings after this because he was involved in military exercises involving all branches of the Kenya Armed Forces in northern Kenya. As soon as they were over, he left Nanyuki for Nairobi where he told police he arrived at about 2am on the night of July 30. He proceeded to Ochuka’s house in Umoja but the ring leader was not there.
He was soon joined by Odongo who delivered a note from Ochuka saying that he would not be coming back to his house. He ordered that they meet at Buru Buru shopping centre early in the morning.
“At the shopping centre, they were joined by Oteyo but not Ochuka. “We decided to wait for Ochuka. He came at about 2.30pm in the company of Raila Odinga, Opwapo and a journalist (name not disclosed). The group came in two cars.
One was a Peugeot and the other was a foreign registered car. The group found us in a bar which I learnt later was known as Mausoleum Bar.
“As soon as Ochuka came, S/Sgt Oteyo inquired from him about the password that was supposed to be delivered to Nanyuki. I heard Ochuka tell Oteyo that the password was NAIROBI-KENYA. After some discussion, I suggested that Odemba goes to Nanyuki. Cpl Odera agreed and they left for town in the company of Ochuka, Oteyo, Raila, Opwapo and the journalist. I remained in the bar alone.”
Ogidi’s account puts Raila in the thick of the coup planning which is incredible in its amateurishness. Ochuka, the coup leader, comes across as a man whose movements and intentions are unclear to the followers who would help him.
He has difficulty keeping time and matters are not helped by meetings that are held over bottles of beer after a long day’s work.
Consider what Ogidi told his police interrogators: “At about 8.30pm Ochuka came and told us that he was still busy and that he was going to Eastleigh to pick up a radio.
Ochuka then left with Cpl Odira, leaving me in the company of Oteyo, Odongo, Raila and Opwapo. We waited at the same place and in the course of waiting the journalist came alone.
“It was about some minutes to 9pm. We waited up to about 11.30pm but Ochuka and Cpl Odira did not turn up. At that time, Raila said that since Ochuka knew where we would be, we better go there and wait for him as it was getting late.
“We got into two cars and headed to Ngong Road house. I and Oteyo boarded the foreign registered car that was being driven by Raila accompanied by Odongo. Opwapo and the journalist got into the other car and we all headed into Ngong Road house.” In the biography, the house belonged to Alfred Otieno who was not privy to the coup plot.
The Ngong Road house was supposed to be the plotters’ command headquarters. But the two-way radio that Ochuka eventually brought could not work despite the best efforts of a plotter technician named Odhiambo.
“The radio installed by Odhiambo could receive messages but could not transmit,” Ogidi told the police. The putsch rapidly fell apart. On the morning of August 1, 1982, Raila and Ochuka may well have just escaped with their lives, according to Ogidi.
“At about 11.30am,” he said, “I was told by Opwapo that there was a telephone call saying that Ochuka and Raila had been shot at by the Air Force people by accident. For this reason, I was asked to pick them up. I was not told who of the two had made the call.”
The end came shortly thereafter. “I left the Ngong Road house and drove towards town and on reaching the Grosvenor Hotel, we found a road block mounted by army personnel under the command of a Navy officer. Opwapo and myself were arrested. I was taken to Army headquarters and Opwapo was later brought there. At the time of arrest, I had (a sub-machine gun) and 32 rounds of ammo which were all taken by the army. Later, I was transferred to Kamiti Prison. I have been there in custody since then.”
He was hanged after being convicted of treason following a court martial. And so were Ochuka and Oteyo who were repatriated from Tanzania where they had fled after the coup’s collapse.
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was placed under house arrest. Raila Odinga was placed in detention after treason charges against him were dropped.