By Charles Horsby
On Sunday, August 1, 1982, Kenya experienced its first true coup attempt. At around 2am, non-commissioned officers, mainly Luo, from the air force rebelled.
They took over Embakasi, Eastleigh and Nanyuki airbases, then seized Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the post office and the Voice of Kenya, the State owned TV and radio broadcaster.
Kenya Air Force troops moved through Nairobi, firing, inciting civilians to revolt and waving clenched fists with the slogan ‘Pambana’ (power). Most of the army was in the north on exercises. The rebels’ first nationwide radio broadcast at 6.30am declared, “Rampant corruption, tribalism, nepotism have made life almost intolerable in our society. The economy of this country is in a shambles due to corruption and mismanagement.”
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They announced the establishment of a People’s Redemption Council and the release of all detainees. Most Kenyans hesitated in fear for the rest of that morning. In contrast, many University of Nairobi students openly supported the coup. Some had been deeply involved in its organisation.
President Daniel arap Moi was up-country at his farm in Kabarak in northern Nakuru, protected by the Presidential Escort Unit. Coup plotters would normally have attempted to capture or kill the president, but on this occasion appear to have made little effort to do so.
Moi was evacuated from his home into a maize plantation when the news broke. A trustworthy police officer was dispatched to the Lanet barracks to find out whether the army units there, headed by Brigadier John Musomba, were involved. They were not. Moi was safe.
The coup failed. Neither the army nor the General Service Unit rebelled in sympathy, despite KAF expectations of support. The coup was poorly organised, with many rebels drunk and looting rather than preparing for a counterattack. They failed to capture or kill any of the political leaders they had targeted and did not seize army headquarters.
Without army support, the rebels had only surprise, their limited numbers and their aircraft as weapons. Two F5 fighters were loaded with bombs to attack the army and GSU headquarters, but the bomb loaders and pilots did not support the coup.
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They deliberately sabotaged the bombs and the pilots dropped them over forests rather than on targets.
For the rest of that day, there was fierce fighting in Nairobi between the KAF, with their student supporters, and troops loyal to the regime. Deputy Army Commander Mahamoud Mohammed, Sawe and two other senior officers still in Nairobi led the government’s immediate counterattack.
The recapture of the Voice of Kenya radio station at about 9.30am and a subsequent broadcast that the rebels had been defeated contributed to the collapse of the coup as the ‘bandwagon effect’ ended.
Eastleigh base, the nerve centre of the revolt, was the last major installation to fall, hit by missiles from an army helicopter. Seeing their plans disintegrating, two coup leaders, Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Okumu Oteyo, hijacked a cargo plane and flew to Tanzania.
There was mass looting in the city by soldiers and then by civilians, taking advantage of the chaos. Asians were the particular victims of both KAF robberies and generalised looting and violence.
A deeply shocked Moi returned to Nairobi the same evening, escorted by an army platoon. The official death toll was 159, but unofficial estimates ranged from 600 to 1,800.
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The country was effectively under military rule for weeks. The airport remained closed for several days while the army conducted house-to-house searches for looted goods and escaped rebels.
Raila Odinga, deputy director of the Kenya Bureau of Standards, was amongst those arrested, following testimony from interrogated rebels that he and his father were involved in the coup. He, a Luo journalist and a Luo professor were all charged with treason, a capital offence.
Charges were eventually dropped, however, after advice that a conviction would be difficult and would further fuel international criticism following allegations that rebels and students were being tortured. Instead, after weeks of interrogation, all three were detained in March 1983. Raila spent the next five years in jail.
His father Oginga Odinga was placed under house arrest and his ministerial ally Oloo-Aringo was sacked. Clearly, Moi believed the Odinga family and their allies were implicated.
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