What you need to know:
- His eyes and his face moved, but they gave away little. And he almost had no body language, making it a mission impossible for colleagues to guess what was on his mind.
- He left Laikipia Air Base for a course at the National Defence College, the military’s school of higher education, before joining the National Anti-Terrorism Unit.
- The Special Branch banished its name and terror practices under the leadership of Boinett. Under President Kibaki, Gichangi took over from Boinett.
True to the stealthy nature of the profession of security intelligence, Maj Gen (rtd) Michael Gichangi, the departing Director General of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), spoke little and listened hard.
If you met him for half an hour, you were likely to talk for 25 minutes and he for five. He was also a precision questioner with a highly developed sense of word economy.
His eyes and his face moved, but they gave away little. And he almost had no body language, making it a mission impossible for colleagues to guess what was on his mind. Yet he was so polite, friendly and facilitative and his nice smile, rare though it came, made him more attractive than forbidding.
His grey hair and moustache, which he got before his years, made him cut a sagely figure, augmented by his intensely thoughtful nature.
AIR FORCE BOSS
If ever a man made a career of the job that he was primordially designed to do, it was this one.
On a journalistic assignment for the Nation to Laikipia Air Base, the fighter wing of the Kenya Air Force in 1998 where he was then the Base Commander, this writer had a free-wheeling chat with the pilots about their career prospects. Some were going to pursue their military careers as far as they could go while others were on their way to the civilian world in due time.
“And the boss?” I asked. “What does he plan to do?”
“The boss plays his cards very close to his chest,” one of them told me. “It is impossible to know what he is planning to do.”
Gichangi cut his teeth in the Kenya Air Force, which he joined straight from Mangu High School. He was a graduate of the Air Force’s Flying Training School Course No 20 and became one of the first pilots to fly the F-5 jet in 1978 when the nation first acquired American aircraft after depending on Britain since independence.
His decision to become a pilot is illuminative of the man. By the account of a schoolmate, there is something Gichangi did at Mangu, the only school that was running aviation courses at the time that so annoyed his instructor that he snapped at him: “You will never make a pilot!” In my encounter with him at Laikipia when he was boss of the most elite of Air Force pilots, I asked him whether that was true. He confirmed. “Actually,” he told me, “I wanted to go to the University of Nairobi and study medicine. But when my teacher said I could never become a pilot, I decided to prove him wrong. And I did.”
And in a big way, too. He became the first pilot in the Air Force to log 1,000 hours on the F-5 and was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Order medal flying this jet.
He was a survivor. In 1982, some elements in the non-commissioned ranks of the Air Force attempted to stage a coup against President Moi’s government. They were violently beaten down by the Kenya Army and what followed next was a purge of the entire Air Force with its attendant victimisation of many innocents.
In an article published in the official book commemorating 50 years of the Kenya Air Force in June this year, Gichangi wrote touchingly — and sometimes humorously — about his colleagues, the original fighter pilots of Nanyuki.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “When the coup was suppressed, all the aircrew who were in Nanyuki and its environs were dismissed from the military. In one swoop, the population of operational fighter pilots was reduced by nearly seventy five per cent. The KAF has since never been able to attain the aircrew levels of that time”.
This is a statement that belongs to the era of democratic freedoms and not the dark days of the Kanu tyranny. It also, read with the body of the whole story, shows a trait of Gichangi known to those close to him — loyal to his friends, even dead ones.
He left Laikipia Air Base for a course at the National Defence College, the military’s school of higher education, before joining the National Anti-Terrorism Unit. That was the real start of his career as a spy. It is during this time that the tenure of his successor at the National Security Intelligence Service, Brig Wilson Boinett, came to an end.
The NSIS had succeeded the Special Branch, a state agency that symbolised torture as an instrument of governance.
The invisible face of the deeply hated and dreaded face of the Special Branch was James Kanyotu who only became visible to Kenyans when he left office only to face charges of defrauding the country through the Goldenberg mega scam. He died as one of the country’s wealthiest men.
The Special Branch banished its name and terror practices under the leadership of Boinett. Under President Kibaki, Gichangi took over from Boinett.
What sparked his departure? On matters security, Kenya is a country going through a difficult patch. Its citizens, high and low, are scared. But is it too much of a stretch to say that Gichangi failed? Intelligence work, experts say, requires, among other traits, meticulousness, secrecy, orderliness and a high degree of efficiency.
Gichangi had his blind side like the next man, but as one of the best fighter pilots to come out of the Air Force, he had all those. But the country is bleeding and the President must be seen to act and some heads in the security establishment had to roll. His is one of them.