Witness recalls the 1969 Kisumu massacre that marked Jomo Kenyatta’s visit

By Joseph Karimi

Kenya: Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya outside a Nairobi pharmacy on July 5,1969, President Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of Western and Nyanza provinces to familiarise himself with the development projects.

Kisumu was Kenyatta’s last stop in Nyanza where he was scheduled to open the New Nyanza General Hospital. The 1.2 million pound hospital had been built with USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republic) aid.

The country and specifically Luo Nyanza was still tense. Due to the role Mboya had played in the succession politics, spontaneous political instability had erupted pitting Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups after the Mboya assassin was identified as Mr Nahashon Njenga from Kiambu.

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President Kenyatta was accompanied by Vice-President Daniel arap Moi and a strong team of government ministers and top officials. They included Kenyatta’s former Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who had fallen out with Kanu and became chairman of Kenya People’s Union (KPU), a new political party.

Stone throwing

The president’s entourage arrived in the outskirts of Kisumu town to be welcomed by stone throwing youth lining up the sides of the highway shouting “Ndume, Ndume” as the motorcade zoomed into Kisumu. Police had opened fire sending the youth scampering with gun wounds. Those caught were thoroughly beaten by the security.

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Mr Odinga himself arrived at the playground, the venue of the public rally ahead of the presidential motorcade. Odinga was welcomed with roars of “Ndume! Ndume! Ndume!”, (Bull) the symbol of KPU.

Shortly before noon, similar shouts of “Ndume! Ndume! Ndume!” greeted Kenyatta to the venue of the public rally, thereby infuriating the President.

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After the National Anthem was played, the Nyanza PC Isaiah Cheluget introduced the Vice-President who was to welcome the President to Nyanza Province. But then a scuffle ensued between Kanu and KPU youth wingers who threw stones.

Luo Nyanza was Odinga’s political stronghold and the President had essentially walked into an ambush. The doyen of opposition politics was preparing for a political verbal duel with Kenyatta at his home ground.

Mr Charles Mathenge, then popularly known as “Fundi wa Mitambo”, was on live broadcasting from Kisumu through OB (Outside Broadcasting) relaying the happenings direct to listeners of the VoK (Voice of Kenya) radio.

Mr Mathenge narrated an eyewitness account of the incident of 44 years ago in an interview with The Standard outside his Nyeri Gatumbiro Photographer Services recently.

He recalled: “We arrived in Kisumu with my crew around 11am ahead of the presidential party and set up our OB (Outside Broadcasting) equipment at the playground where the public rally was to be held before moving on to the Kisumu Russia Hospital for official opening by President Kenyatta. This event was to be broadcast live through our Nairobi VoK studios,” Mathenge said.

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He remembers seeing crowds swelling and packing the playground. Odinga’s arrival was spectacular with thrilled crowds chanting the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) slogan of “Ndume! Ndume! Ndume!” filling the air as the KPU leader arrived and took his seat at the dais. There were school children to provide entertainment during the event. 

Mathenge recalls that after about an hour, the presidential motorcade arrived at the playground. “As President Kenyatta set foot, he was welcomed by organised gangs of youth shouting “Ndume! Ndume! Ndume! The presidential security ushered the President to the dais and the programme started.”

Before the Vice-President got a chance to introduce the President to the people of Nyanza, there were wild shouts. Stones started being lobbed to the area where the dignitaries were seated.

Mathenge says: President Kenyatta then called the unruly crowds to calm down and be orderly, but his calls fell on deaf ears. More stones were lobbed at the presidential dais. Soon chairs were flying everywhere as the chaotic situation prevailed.

“The presidential bodyguards opened fire to scare off the surging crowds. At that moment, I switched off the live radio broadcast and came out of the studio built in the Land Rover, our Mobile OB. I then went to secure our microphones and shut the system to gag live broadcasting.

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“It was chaos in the making. There were people felled by the bullets, some dead or dying and many others injured. Many people were shot. What caused more havoc was the stampede that ensued when gunfire shattered the air. Many people, and especially children, were trampled on as the crowds now fled to escape from the gunfire. Injured people were lying all over the playground.

 “It was a terrible moment. I saw one of the presidential guards, Mr Gicheru, a hefty bouncer hoist President Kenyatta on his shoulders and dash with him feet off ground to the parked presidential limousine some distance away from the dais. The security realised the President was in danger of being injured as missiles flew in the air directed to the dais.

“As soon as the president was secure in his vehicle, the security cordoned the limousine. Top security officers around, including Ben Gethi, then commandant of GSU, and Mr Njino, then head of Presidential Escort joined Mzee for consultation.

Security situation

“They had quickly assessed the situation which was precarious, too fluid, dangerous and insecure for the Head of State. It was their honest opinion that the best alternative was to escort the President out of the town. But adamant Kenyatta overruled them declaring they were not moving away.”

Mathenge quoted Kenyatta telling his top security: “We came here to open the hospital, which we must accomplish. I am the highest ranking individual in this country of Kenya, no other. We shall open the hospital and we shall go there by 2pm.”

The President had already sent for “Fundi wa Mitambo” Mathenge to come. He was waiting near the limousine to get instructions. “Mzee told me that we were to go to the hospital for the official opening at 2pm. It was around 1pm. I was allocated a number of GSU men to guard our van. We collected our equipment and drove to Russia Hospital and by 2pm were already set for the official opening. 

The president meanwhile went to the PC’s residence and the entourage drove to the hospital around 2pm for the main event to start.

The presence of security personnel in the precincts of the hospital was not being felt but seen. There was tight security all over, GSU and regular police were everywhere, while the presidential escort kept around the President. Odinga sat among the dignitaries comprising top government officers and Nyanza political leaders from the province. Wananchi too flocked the precincts of the hospital grounds to witness the opening of their health facility. 

Soon after the President officially opened the hospital, it was time to return to Nairobi. Mathenge and his crew packed their equipment and the presidential motorcade drove out of Kisumu headed for Nairobi.

What fascinated Mathenge during their non-stop journey to Nakuru was the desolate nature of the road and the trading centres….” not a single vehicle or human spotted during the 195-kilometre journey to Nakuru town.

“Several GSU and military Land Rovers and trucks packed with soldiers escorted the presidential motorcade to Nakuru. By 6pm, we were in Nakuru. It was the last trip President Kenyatta made to Kisumu until his death in August 1978,” Mathenge says.

The Kenyatta Government proscribed KPU and Odinga was placed under house arrest.

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Jomo Kenyatta Kisumu massacre