How Hezekiah Oyugi used special district officers to terrorise critics

Mr Hezekiah Oyugi

Mr Hezekiah Oyugi. was the When he reigned, Oyugi, Kenya’s most powerful permanent secretary for Internal Security, behaved like Deimos, the Greek god of terror.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Of late, there has been some interest in Hezekiah Oyugi’s special duties district officers. When he reigned, Oyugi, Kenya’s most powerful permanent secretary for Internal Security, behaved like Deimos, the Greek god of terror. Out of power, and while serving as chairman of General Motors Kenya, Oyugi was “poisoned”, according to family members, and this lead to the neuromotor complications that led to his death on August 8, 1992.

Fate had driven Oyugi to power. On August 1, 1982, as President Daniel arap Moi was battling the Kenya Air Force rebels who had staged a coup, a few loyalists had dashed to Moi’s side and were with him at Kabarak. The first was Elijah Sumbeiywo, then the President’s senior bodyguard, who advised Moi to go and hide in the bush as he prepared to drive him to Eldoret – and if the coup succeeded, fly him to exile.

“Alternatively,” according to Moi’s biographer, Andrew Morton, “they could head north-west and rally the Pokot, a fiercely loyal warrior tribe who could have fought to the bitter end to protect their Kalenjin president.”

‘I will die for you’

Besides Sumbeiywo, the only other senior person in the Kabarak think-tank that morning was Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Hezekiah Oyugi, who had told Moi: “I will die for you, Mzee. I am not going anywhere.”

According to Morton, “Moi, then facing the possibility of death, was deeply impressed by the expression of loyalty, a gesture which would have a profound influence on the future governance of the country.”

After the army reinstated Moi back to power, Mr Oyugi had earned what every politico wanted: Moi’s confidence and entry into the inner circle. This came soon and in 1986 he was appointed as a permanent secretary at the Office of the President in charge of Provincial Administration and Internal Security. While traditionally he was supposed to be based at Harambee House, Mr Oyugi’s office was in State House. The other two Office of President PSs, Joseph arap Leting and B. Mwangi, were left in Harambee House. Power went straight to Oyugi’s head and in his Rongo town, he was nicknamed “The Governor”.

Ruled Nyanza

“For five years, Mr Oyugi ruled Nyanza, making the careers of Luo politicians such as John Okwanyo, Dalmas Otieno and Job Omino, and his home area of Rongo boomed into a modern town,” British historian, Charles Hornsby wrote in his book, Kenya: A History since Independence.

Once within State House corridors, Mr Oyugi decided to clip the powers of the long-serving intelligence head, James Kanyotu, by establishing his own parallel network. It was this network that would include special district officers sent to the various divisions to gather intelligence on Oyugi’s behalf on those who were opponents of the Nyayo regime. They were all given government vehicles.

“Even when a delegation of senior military and police chiefs spoke to the President about the duplicity of Oyugi, they were sent packing,” wrote Morton on the role that the Special district officers were playing.

Part of that network included Superintendent James Opiyo, who was based at Nyayo House, and who was to extract information from all those arrested for offering alternative leadership to President Moi. Mr Opiyo, like his master Oyugi, hailed from Ranen village in Rongo – which explains why he treated pro-democracy advocates with so much bile. His survivors were normally taken to court at the point of mental breakdown, often late in the evening, and in front of an amenable judge.

No defence lawyers allowed

The court, to appear civil, was populated with Special Branch officers though in most cases, no defence lawyers were allowed. Those who dared were detained. The chief prosecutor, for almost all the criminal cases, was another Oyugi man, the Nyanza-born Deputy Public Prosecutor Bernard Chunga. The short story of Nyayo House is that those who did not die still walk with limps or carry other physical and emotional scars.

The special district officers (SDOs) – whose work was to spot radical voices – were mostly young graduates who, during their university days, had been part of the spy network within the University of Nairobi. Here, especially during Prof Philip Mbithi’s reign as vice chancellor, had formed Kanu branches within the university or were the officials of the district organisations that were devoid of democracy. Though they were unpopular within the radical student organisations, they used the ever-flowing money from politicians to buy loyalty. Those who became SDOs after graduation were recruited from these groups and remained loyal to only one man – Oyugi.

In a bid to escape censure over the treatment of the Nyayo House torture victims, the Moi biographer seemed to lay blame on Oyugi.

“During his tenure at State House, Oyugi effectively dismantled the Special Branch, creating his own intelligence service which shadowed the work of the official security forces; he even organised for Ketan Somaia to conduct intelligence snoops on his own Asian community. Moreover, just as he shaped the security forces as a personal fiefdom, so he controlled the civil administration of the provinces with an iron rule,” wrote Morton.

Face of corruption

Somaia, who would become the face of corruption in Kenya, had shared history with Oyugi. It is known that Oyugi’s father worked as a cook for Somaia’s family. Oyugi, in return for kickbacks, used Somaia to do the dirty work. Somaia would set up Delphis Bank and bring it down, “buy” Muhoroni Sugar Factory for a song, and engage in other vices that saw him jailed in the UK.

Back to Oyugi, it was claimed that so powerful was the PS that district commissioners would stand to attention when answering his phone calls – perhaps fearing that the SDOs might tell on them. Oyugi and Moi would spend hours together.

“When Oyugi was with the President, the rest of the staff at State House knew that they were on ‘Nyanza time’; any plans to leave at the usual time of five o’clock would be forgotten when Oyugi held court, for he would often chat with the President until late into the night.” Morton was told by one of Mr Oyugi’s confidants that the late PS “had an uncanny hold over the President — he instinctively knew all the right psychological buttons to press. Even though he was always laughing, that was a mask because all the time he was calculating, trying to use every situation to his advantage … he had the ability to engage and hold the President’s attention, laughing and joking all the while, as he put a word in here, a comment there, any of which might make or break a career.”

Harboured presidential ambitions

Many careers ended on his desk. According to Morton, Oyugi also harboured presidential ambitions, though it is not clear how he intended to achieve that. What is known is that Oyugi was the brains behind the 1988 election rigging, which led to the transformation of the political landscape. In his Nyanza backyard, he had managed to contain most of the politicians apart from Dr Robert Ouko, the minister for Foreign Affairs.

Thus, when it was announced that Ouko had gone missing on February 13, 1990, all eyes turned to Oyugi. It later emerged that Ouko, on the last weekend of February 3 and 4, before he disappeared; had driven to a meeting at Oyugi’s home. That Monday, he met President Moi at State House together with Permanent Secretary Bethuel Kiplagat as they received the Canadian high commissioner. Whatever the parting shot was has always been the subject of speculation, but Ouko left for his country home in Nyanza.

Oyugi happened to be in Nyanza too, and had been booked into a Kisumu hotel. He was also sighted near a post office close to Ouko’s home on the day that the minister disappeared. The minister’s charred remains would later be found near Got Alila, triggering speculation that Oyugi had a hand in his murder. Later, Scotland Yard detective John Troon, the man hired to investigate the death, placed Oyugi at the centre of the gruesome murder. Perhaps, not far were his intelligence networks.

Monitored all calls

Since Ouko was set to fly to Gambia that Monday – and after the bodyguard sounded the alarm over Ouko’s disappearance – it is said that Oyugi “hovered over the telephone switchboard at State Lodge (Nyeri) monitoring all calls so that he could censor any news before it reached the ears of the President” who was then touring central Kenya.

By Tuesday, those who saw Oyugi said he was behaving in a “disturbed, sullen and reserved” manner, which was “a far cry from the bombastic and ebullient man everyone knew.”

As Abraham Kiptanui later told Morton, Oyugi — as they rode to State House, Nakuru before Ouko’s body was found — remarked: “If Ouko is dead, I will join politics.”

By then, everyone was hopeful that Ouko would be found alive.

And it came as no surprise that the other man who was linked to the murder was Nakuru District Commissioner Jonah Anguka – who reported to Oyugi.

Intrigues and deaths

What followed was a series of intrigues and deaths. On October 27, 1991, President Moi sacked Oyugi as permanent secretary. He was also set to appear before the Gicheru Commission of Inquiry. The commission, however, had suspended itself, in protest, after it discovered that some Special Branch officers had been discovered bugging hotel rooms and phones of the judges. Whether these were Kanyotu’s or Oyugi’s men was not clear. But what we know is that on the day Oyugi was set to testify, on the morning of November 26, 1991, Moi dissolved the commission and asked the police to take over the investigation.

Oyugi was detained for 13 days at the General Service Unit headquarters. His family claimed that after that, he never spoke coherently. In seven months, he was dead. It was only during his detention that Parliament got the guts to question the role of the special duty district officers. The Minister of State in the Office of the President, Kanyi Waithaka, said “they are no longer there”.

He admitted that they existed between 1989 and October 1991 – just about the time Oyugi reigned as the god of terror.

Oyugi’s fall scattered the special district officers and most of them hardly admit they worked for his unit. It is too shameful.

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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