Towering Kisii Central Ward Representative Kepha Mogaka, famously known as Councillor Mrefu and who refers to himself as the Idi Amin of Kisii, is just a foot shy of the world’s tallest man, Turkish Sultan Kosen who is 8’3.
But Mrefu, who delivers speeches in a mix of Gusii and English, is more known for being among amachuma a Nyachae.
Amachuma – which can be loosely translated to “tough people” in Ekegusii, since echuma is the local language word for metal – was a vigilante made famous by its association with former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae, who died on Monday.
Politicians rely on “brave” youths during their campaigns. The young men offer security. Such groups in Kisii are commonly referred to as Amachuma.
According to Mr Eric Ongeri, a journalist who has covered Gusii politics, the word was coined by former Nyaribari Masaba MP Hezron Manduku, to refer to youth who were campaigning for him against Prof Sam Ongeri in 1988.
“After the General Election, the term was adopted to refer to youth wingers,” Mr Ongeri said.
By the time Nyachae was making his debut in politics in 1992, the amachuma tag for youth wingers had gained currency.
Mrefu was first elected councillor for Kisii municipality in 2002, courtesy of Nyachae’s Ford People party. Despite having dropped out of primary school, he went on to become Kisii deputy mayor.
Mrefu became acquainted with Nyachae when the latter was contesting the Nyaribari Chache parliamentary seat for the first time in 1992.
Having been a hawker in Kisii town, he easily identified himself as a Kanu youth coordinator and Nyachae’s lead youth mobiliser. His home is in Kiamabundu on the outskirts of the town.
He was the figurehead of Nyachae’s campaign team “Amachuma group”.
“Nyachae was my mentor. I would not be a leader without his assistance. Later, I went back to school and even got a university degree,” Mrefu said in a previous interview.
The Amachuma played a big part in Nyachae’s success and eventual fall in politics and Ford People party.
Ford People split from Ford Asili just before the 1997 elections. It won three parliamentary seats, with its presidential candidate Kimani Wanyoike garnering 8,306 votes to emerge ninth out of 15 contestants.
Despite being a Cabinet minister, Nyachae threw his weight behind Mwai Kibaki’s presidential bid in 1997. The Democratic Party leader beat President Daniel arap Moi in Gusiiland by nearly two to one votes.
After a falling out with Moi in 1999 when Nyachae resigned from the Cabinet, he joined Ford People and announced his bid for the presidency.
“The work of the Amachuma was to protect, spread and defend the message of Nyachae and Ford People,” said former councillor Robert Maubi, who once served Nyamira Town Council chairman.
Mr Maubi, who worked alongside Mrefu, Mekenene Ward Representative Alfayo Ngeresa and former councillor Steve Arika in the Amachuma, said the group was so effective that it managed to lock almost all the other parties out of Gusiiland in the 2002 poll.
Used as bodyguards
It is this team that fuelled Nyachae’s ambitions, plotting against President Moi’s chosen successor Uhuru Kenyatta and eventual winner Kibaki.
“Nyachae called us to his home in Nyosia and told us to support him and ensure that no other party campaigns in Gusii,” Mr Maubi said.
Apart from Amachuma, Nyachae enticed women’s groups, notable among them Amariba, which was deployed to sing and dance at his functions.
Nyachae’s clarion call was “Ford People Watu!” to which the crowd yelled back “Watu Wengi Sana (Very many people)!”
MrMaubi said they agreed to rally the region to vote for Ford People candidates for presidency, parliamentary and councillor seats.
During meetings, Nyachae, whose message became even sweeter when he reached into his deep pockets, convinced the region that other communities had agreed to support his bid.
To appear more convincing, Nyachae held meetings at his home with delegations from other parts of Kenya.
He created a political wave in the region in which Ford People won all the 10 parliamentary and the 200 civic seats.
The 2002 Ford People wave in the region saw the fall of Kanu bigwigs Chris Obure, Joseph Kiangoi and Ongeri. Prof Ongeri garnered 30 per cent of the vote in Nyaribari Masaba constituency.
“Anyone who was against Nyachae lost,” recalled Mr Obure, now the Roads Chief Administrative Secretary.
Kanu presidential candidate Kenyatta got 65,993 votes in Nyanza, Mr Kibaki had 495,684 while Nyachae garnered 269,843.
Of the 362,668 votes Nyachae got in the 2002 vote, only 92,825 came from the other seven provinces.
In the period before the 2002 election, Amachuma became known for violence.
The highlight of their notoriety was in 2000 when the group accompanied Nyachae to the funeral of South Mugirango MP Enock Nyankieya Magara.
As the ceremony progressed, Amachuma stoned and ejected Prof Ongeri from the funeral. Moi had sent Prof Ongeri to read his message to the Magara family.
Minister of State in the Office of the President Julius Sunkuli declared Amachuma one of 18 outlawed groups in March 2002. Mr Sunkuli said members of the group were being used by politicians as bodyguards.
Apart from Amachuma, the government also banned Chinkororo, which the minister described as another gang with roots in Gusii.
The other groups banned were Mungiki, Jeshi la Mzee, Baghdad Boys, Sungu Sungu, Dallas Muslim Youth, Banyamulenge, Taliban, Runyenjes Football Club, Jeshi la Kingole, Kaya Bombo Youth, Sakina Youth, Charo Shutu, Kuzacha Boys, Jeshi la Nazir, Kosovo Boys and Kamjesh.
Nyachae was associated with Amachuma and Chinkororo. He deployed the group members to guard his homes and the events he attended.
In the months leading to the 2007 General Election, Chinkororo attacked ODM official William Ruto as Nyachae sang war songs.
Dr Ruto, now deputy president, had attended a fundraiser in South Mugirango when the youths surged towards him as they shot arrows and threw clubs, stones and spears at him.