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March 2003

Stunning revelations

Zachary Ochieng

Former president Daniel arap Moi must be reeling in shame following the exposure of the skeletons in his closet two months after leaving office. Even as he claims to champion regional peace after establishing the so called Moi Foundation immediately upon retirement, the crimes that his regime committed against humanity have finally been brought to bear, casting doubts over his ability to arbitrate in regional conflicts when he could not tolerate dissent in his own country.

Following the removal of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) from power, former detainees and political prisoners have come up with revelations of how the former regime used to torture them to extract confessions on alleged crimes committed, or to implicate an individual perceived to be a dissident. At the heart of the revelations is the existence of secret torture chambers where victims would be interrogated for months before being hurled to detention.

The torture chambers came into existence in the early 80s and are housed at the basement of Nyayo House, ironically named after Moi’s philosophy of peace, love and unity. Situated in the heart of the city, Nyayo House is also the headquarters of Nairobi province. During the Moi era, hints on the existence of the torture chambers would be dismissed as untrue by the authorities. But the truth finally came out early February when the doors to the chambers were flung open to the public, with the outgoing Nairobi provincial commissioner Cyrus Maina leading the way.

Former victims of the torture chambers, who visited them this time round as free men, wept as they recounted their ordeal at the hands of mean interrogaters. Shem Ogola, 56, could not hold back his tears as he showed his torture scars to the press. The torture squad was constituted immediately after the abortive coup of 1982, which was staged by disenchanted Kenya Air Force soldiers. Although the squad had been existing dormantly as an intelligence unit since Moi came to power in 1978, the coup attempt was used as an excuse to give it a mandate to crack down on political dissidents.

The squad was drawn from the Special Branch (security intelligence officers), derisively referred to as the political police, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), the Kenya police and the armed forces. When the squad was formed, every security agent wanted to be part of it, as the task was politically glamourous and lucrative. Their zeal was driven by the fact that the political atmosphere after the coup attempt was such that clipping the wings of anyone posing a threat to the government assured one of career progression and financial gains.

Their targets included politicians, radical university lecturers and student leaders and lawyers who dared represent the perceived dissidents. Any lecturer who espoused Marxist-Leninist ideas was put behind bars. Charges ranged from possession of seditious publications to plotting to overthrow the government. It was also during this period that the government curtailed press freedom by proscribing any publications deemed to be supportive of opposition figures.

It was with the promise of cars and other luxurious gains in mind that the squad embarked on a crackdown on perceived dissidents on a scale only then known in former communist bloc nations. The crackdown was also reminiscent of the hunt for communists in the US in the 1950s.

To buttress the squad’s actions, the political establishment and the security apparatus invented a nondescript underground movement going by the name “Mwakenya” (Mzalendo wa Kenya) – Kiswahili for a Kenyan patriot. All the victims rounded up allegedly belonged to this underground movement whose existence remains a mystery to date. While the victims maintain that “Mwakenya” was a creation of the security agents, the latter insist that the movement actually existed before and after the 1982 abortive coup.

What cannot be disputed, however, is that the torture methods used were very dehumanizing and degrading. Tales emerging from the victims can only be associated with the torture chambers of Romania and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. Upon arrest, the victims would be blindfolded, bundled into a car boot and driven to Nyayo House. On arrival, they would be stripped naked and held in dark, waterlogged cells for weeks and would be sprinkled with cold water from a powerful hosepipe.

Sometimes a powerful light would be flashed on their faces. They would also be forced to spend the night with dead bodies of those who had succumbed to the torture. A number of victims claim that they lost their manhood after their testicles were crushed with hammers. Many died in the process and their kin were never informed. Some victims would be hurled to death from the 24th floor of the building, after which the government would claim that they committed suicide.

The most dehumanizing treatment that the victims underwent was being forced to drink their own urine and eat their faeces. The minister for Public Works, Roads and Housing Raila Odinga, who served three detention stints under the Moi regime sadly reminisces: “I spent ten days standing in water. That is when you know how long the night is. They would then pour very cold water on me at midnight and at 5.00 am”. Little wonder that very few victims failed to plead guilty when they were finally hurled to court.

The court procedure itself seriously violated the rights of the perceived offenders as they were taken to court after hours, with no legal representation. Besides the victim, only the prosecutor and the magistrate would be available in court. There was a lot of interference with the judiciary as the government ensured that only magistrates who would hand over sentences as directed presided over the cases. The prosecutor at that time was Bernard Chunga, who Moi later rewarded with the post of Chief Justice, though he was not qualified for the job. Chunga finally resigned in February when public pressure mounted on him over the crimes he committed against humanity, but not before President Mwai Kibaki had appointed a tribunal to investigate his conduct.

In spite of the stunning revelations, opinions are sharply divided over what action should be taken against Moi and his torture squad. While some victims want all those involved to be punished, others feel that this may destabilize peace in the country, considering that some of those who perpetrated the crimes are in the current National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government. They include a number of MPs, assistant ministers and the Attorney General Amos Wako, who is also under pressure to resign.

“I have forgiven Moi. But that doesn’t mean he should not face the law. We were tortured and some of us were killed, yet his government kept saying the torture chambers never existed”, says former MP Njeru Kathangu, once a “guest” at the chambers. However, Odinga, while condemning Moi’s atrocities, says he is not for revenge. Says he:” I do not want to revenge. What I can say is that the threat to Moi was imaginary. He embraced torture to pacify the kind of opposition that was mounting and went ahead to ban multi-partism. There was no justification at all for the kind of force the regime used against us”.

Most victims, however, want a truth and reconciliation committee, similar to the one set up in South Africa at the end of apartheid. It is only after the perpetrators of the heinous acts confess that they can be forgiven. But still, there are those who are not willing to forgive and have threatened to sue and demand compensation from the government. Former Nyeri town MP Wanyiri Kihoro – one of the victims forced to drink his own urine is adamant: “I am unable to forgive the Moi administration because whatever it did to me it did deliberately. I spent 74 days in the cells, 24 of them in cold water and was then detained for three years”.

The victims are unanimous on one point; that such kinds of atrocities should never be perpetrated again against government critics. Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere, a survivor of the torture chambers beseeches the NARC government never to resort to such crimes against humanity. “If the NARC government wants to remain in power, let it not repeat the same mistake”, says the NARC MP.

Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kiraitu Murungi - also a survivor of the torture chambers – is quick to assure the public: “There are a lot of us in the government. We share the bad experiences. I don’t think this is something we will allow to happen again”. Murungi said the torture chambers would be preserved as “a national monument of shame”. Among the survivors who are now members of the cabinet include Murungi, Odinga, Planning minister Prof Anyang Nyongo, Trade and Industry minister Dr Mukhisa Kituyi several assistant ministers and MPs.

What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that it will take time before the wounds are completely healed, considering permanent injuries that some of the victims sustained. Former leader of official opposition in parliament Kenneth Matiba, who was detained in 1990 for championing multipartism suffered a stroke and is paralysed on one side of the body. His mental faculties are also not intact. His colleague in the struggle for democracy – first African Nairobi mayor - Charles Rubia – lost his voice in detention and has not recovered to date.

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