Secrets of the 1984 Wagalla massacre emerge

By John Oywa

Fresh secrets of the Wagalla massacre in which more than 3,000 people died have come to light.

Documents seen by The Standard on Saturday and which have been tabled before the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission which is trying to unravel the truth about the bloody operation that shocked the world, show a tale of intrigues and a series of undercover events that could shed light into how a planned security operation to recover firearms and discipline members of a clan in Wajir District went awry.

Twenty-seven years after the killings that the United Nations once described as the worst form of human rights abuse in Kenya, many questions remain unanswered.

Last week, the Wagalla ghosts hovered in the horizon after witnesses to the TJRC, former senior government officials and members of the powerful and secretive Kenya Intelligence Committee (KIC) who visited the district a day before the killings, distanced themselves from the deadly security operation.

Frequent attacks

Some members of the KIC had denied ever holding a meeting in Wajir, leave alone meeting the local District Security Committee.

It has now emerged that the decision to round up the Degodia clansmen who had been accused of frequent attacks against their Adjuran neighbours was issued by the Wajir District Security Committee on February 9, 1984, a day after the KIC delegation that included four Permanent Secretaries had left Wajir.

Permanent Secretaries Joseph Mathenge (Security and Administration, Bethuel Kiplagat (Foreign Affairs), David Mwiraria (Home Affairs and J Gituma (Information) led the KIC delegation.

They met the Wajir District Security Committee on February 8, their first day of the three-day familiarisation tour of the larger North Eastern Province, but minutes seen by The Standard on Saturday show the operation against the Degodia was not discussed. We could, however, not ascertain whether the issue was discussed but not recorded.

Minutes reference No PA 3/3A/63 authored by the then Secretary in the Office of the President, Mr J P Mwangovya, quotes the then acting Wajir District Commissioner, Mr M M Tiema, as telling the intelligence committee that the security situation in the area had slightly improved.

"The acting DC briefed the committee on the insecurity situation in the district. He said the tribal clashes between the Degodia and Adjuran had slightly improved. The Degodia were reluctant to surrender arms. The Adjuran who surrendered fire arms fear they might be victimised," the minutes indicated.

The minutes do not show the response from the KIC delegation over the security situation in Wajir, but only quotes the provincial police officer requesting that the Wajir Police Station be fenced.

But a day after the KIC team left, members of the Wajir District Security Committee hurriedly convened an emergency meeting at 3pm to plan the assault on Degodia community.

Mr Tiema chaired the meeting with the Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD) as secretary. Others in attendance were Mr S M G Kibere of the Special branch, Major W W Mudogo of the Kenya Army and Capt D W Situma of the ’82 Air Force.

Tiema said he had convened the meeting to review the security situation in the district and cited recent incidences in which the Degodia had attacked their Adjuran neighbours, killing people and escaping with thousands of livestock.

"After the meeting, it was resolved that an immediate joint operation of Kenya Police, Kenya Army and Administration Police be mounted to spread all over the district and to arrest the brutal killers," read the minutes.The raid began at dawn and the outcome was disastrous. More than 3,000 people were said to have been killed at he Wagalla Airstrip where they had been ferried in trucks. Those who escaped the bullets died of torture, hunger and thirst or grim exposure to the adverse weather conditions during their three-day confinement at the airstrip.

But even more intriguing is the fact that the North Eastern Province Security Committee was never briefed about the killings. Why did the Wajir District Security officials withhold the serious incident from their bosses? Were they acting on orders from other quarters?

At a meeting held on February 24, 1984, nearly two weeks after the incident, the Provincial Security Committee chaired by PC Benson Kaaria protested the secrecy of the operation and demanded an explanation from Tiema, according to minutes No B.6/VOL.VI/25-2/84.

"The Provincial Security Committee could not comprehend why the District Security Committee decided to keep the authority un-informed of the incident until when the PSC visited Wajir on Monday February 13, 1984," read the minutes.

In a letter to Mr Kaaria, the then Wajir DC Joshua Matui, who was on leave when the incident happened, says the shooting started after some of the detainees allegedly tried to attack Government officials who had visited the airstrip on the third day of the operation.

In his letter, Matui confirms that 16 other people died of extreme exposure to hunger and dehydration. The debouchments say 381 people died but locals put the death toll between 3,000 and 5,000.

Survivors, he says, were only released on February 13. He also confirms in his letter to the PC that the dead were buried in mass graves.

As widows and orphans from the Degodia clan wait for answers, questions are being asked whether the truth commission will ever lift the lid on the massacre and facilitate healing in the troubled North.