Where were you on August 1, 1982?

Published on 01/08/2009

By Oduor Ong’wen

That Sunday morning, Kenyans woke to a rather unusual programme at the Voice of Kenya. The station used to open at 6 o’cloc in the morning with a winding flute tune followed by some church choir recordings then prayers by different faiths. Not that Sunday. The station opened at the usual time but instead of the daily menu, it was repeatedly blaring out Tabu Ley’s Maze hit, then atop of the charts.

Business unusual

Then came the voice of Raphael Tuju, followed by that of Leonard Mambo Mbotela. One brief message: The military had taken over the Government. A firm voice of a soldier confirmed the message in English then with a Kiswahili announcement that serikali sasa iko mikononi mwa wanajeshi. Hii serikali ina mikono mizito na polisi wakae kama raia (the Government is now in the hands of the military, which is a high-handed authority and the police should act like civilians).

That was how the rest of Kenya learnt that it was business unusual. Not so with the students of the University of Nairobi. By the time of this announcement, the main campus had been active for more than three hours. Some student leaders had had hints of impending coup slightly earlier. This development was quite welcome to the majority of students. I will explain why later.

By the time of the radio announcement some of us, including Titus Adungosi, who I have reason to believe had no prior knowledge of the impending coup d’etat, had travelled to the campuses of Kabete (upper – lower Kabete did not exist as a university campus then) and Kenyatta Hospital and talked to students there. Our tours of these campuses were followed by busloads of celebrating students. Contrary to popular opinion, we did not incite them to celebrate.

As their elected leaders, we felt duty bound to urge them to remain within their campuses and not be hostile to the “new government.”

However, by 6am, Uhuru Highway was teeming with commandeered buses, lorries and limousines. Soon, some merchandise from looted shops was being ferried into the main campus.

The excitement led many to the conclusion University of Nairobi (and then its constituent Kenyatta University College) were co-conspirators with officers of the Kenya Air Force. The truth is: there wasn’t any prior coordination.

The suspects

For the preceding six weeks, the Government had descended on university campuses arresting and detaining progressive lecturers or charging them with trumped-up crimes.

Between May and August 1, 1982, it had detained Wachira Kamonji, Edward Oyugi, Al-amin Mazrui, Mukaru Ng’ang’a and Willy Mutunga. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Shadrack Gutto and Micere Mugo had been forced by this crackdown to flee the country. Katama Mkangi and Oki Ooko-Ombaka, among others had been arrested, released and were under round-the-clock shadowing by the then Special Branch.

Less than two weeks before the coup attempt, the Kanu regime had bulldozed the country into a one-party dictatorship in spite of non-violent protests by students. A number of student leaders – including myself – were permanently trailed within and without the campuses.

The coup came in the wake of a tense situation. The student leadership had issued the Government a 14-day ultimatum to drop its intentions then to introduce mortgage of title deeds and such other collateral against student loans.

The ultimatum was to expire on August 12, 1982.

Fast forward, by 8 o’clock on Sunday, it was Joseph Kamaru, not Ley, ruling the airwaves at VOK. The song: Moi songa na mbele tujenge Kenya yetu (Moi match forward and let’s build our country). Yes, the government of the Peoples Redemption Council had unravelled.

Eventually, on Monday August 2, I dodged the Special Branch officers and made it to my rural home in Siaya.

But my retreat to the ‘safety’ was short lived as on Monday, August 16, a heavily armed contingent of police and special branch officers came for me.

My way to GSU Training School in Embakasi had begun. On the way — and in various police stations, I was joined by others. After six months behind bars, we were released.

Almost every adult American remembers where he or she was on November 22, 1963, when JF Kennedy was assassinated. May I ask: “Where were you on August 1, 1982?

—The writer is Country Director of Seatini Kenya



Read all about: Hezekiah Ochuka attempted coup kamiti prison mutineers soldiers army Eastleigh barracks Kenya airforce koigi wamwere



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