When the demands of safeguarding a Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in times of a coup is thrust on the supple shoulders of a 28-year-old father of one, it would be an understatement to describe the mission as dangerous and daunting.
It was at such a crossroad that a young major found himself in, just hours after spending two weeks of grueling military exercise in the unforgiving and suffocating heat of Lodwar.
Today, 32 years later, we revisit the exploits of Maj Philip Kipkoech Chebet who by the time he retired, was a brigadier.
As Chebet disembarked from a military chopper in Lanet on July 31, 1982 at around 6pm, little did he know he was just about to embark on the most difficult assignment in his life. He thought at the time that the flight from Lodwar to Nakuru had saved him some trouble on the road but soon he would go through hell.
The major, who at the time was in charge of personnel and logistics at the Armoured Brigade Headquarters in Lanet, was looking forward to being reunited with his wife Martha and his 2-year-old daughter, Daisy in Nakuru after the two week mission.
He had no time to rest because when he arrived home, his prayer partners, Samuel Teiimuge, Laban Rono both teachers and Francis Sang, an Undersecretary in the Ministry of Environment were to come for the monthly prayer meetings at his home.
Any plans he had of sleep fizzled for the guests arrived shortly after and after dinner held lengthy prayers. His battered body had barely rested when he was violently woken up at around 6am by his wife who hysterically informed him that there had been a military coup.
He tried to shrug off cobwebs of sleep and demanding answers from his wife, who in turn expected him to know something, Chebet gleaned whatever information he could from Martha, who had been informed about the coup by a friend.
“I did not understand who could have overthrown the government because all the troops were still 600km away in Lodwar on their way back after the joint military operation,” Chebet recalls.
After waking up his guests, Chebet ventured out of his house and sought out Maj Paul Opiyo and Col Mbau who shared the same compound and sought answers about the coup but they too were clueless.
Shortly after his Land Rover tore into the compound with orders that he report to Brig Joseph Musomba, the commander of 2 Brigade at the Command Post at 3 Kenya Rifles Unit in Lanet.
As he hurriedly wore his uniform and grabbed his guns, Martha, who was heavy with their second child clung to him crying as she demanded to know whether he would return safely.
“When I arrived at around 9am, Brig Musomba told me that there had been a coup by Kenya Air Force servicemen. I retorted that the servicemen had no capacity to stage a successful coup without other other services.”
Musomba explained that the army was in the process of quelling the coup in the city and that Chief of General Staff, Gen Jackson Mulinge, was coordinating the exercise. By this time, Maj Jack Tuwei had commanded a company of infantry from Nakuru to Nairobi to quell the rebellion.
Initially, Chebet was to lead troops to Nanyuki where they were to capture Laikipia Airbase in Nanyuki but things changed and was ordered to mobilise a company of soldiers to head to Nairobi.
“Brig Musomba instructed me that I was to escort President Moi from the State House in Nakuru to Nairobi. My orders were to ensure that the Head of State arrived safe at State House Nairobi.”
At the time Chebet got the orders at around 11 am, Nairobi was in chaos and Kenyans did not know the fate or state of their president and so this sounded like a death sentence.
“I was shaken because I knew the rebels would target President Moi. I feared that they would use fighter jets to target the President’s convoy. This is why I requested Brig Musomba to let me get four armoured cars, fitted with anti-craft machine guns which could attack low flying aircraft,” Chebet recounts.
When his request was okayed, he called School of Armour and got the four armoured cars, some troops in lorries headed to Nakuru State House where the do or die mission was to begin.
Brig Musomba momentarily left his command post to escort the convoy to State House, Nakuru where he introduced Chebet to the President whom they found agitated pacing up and down. Shortly before entering State House, Chebet, recalls seeing, Nkanda, the commander of the Signal Battalion based in Kahawa.
He was heading to Nairobi from Lodwar and he too was roped into the plan with instructions to precede the presidential convoy and brief Chebet the state of the road so as top avoid any nasty surprises.
Inside State House, Chebet recounts seeing the President in an agitated mood as he paced up and down and appeared to be in a hurry to go to Nairobi so that he could take charge of the situation.
“We persuaded him to calm down as we made preparations for his evacuation. We decided to sandwich the president’s motorcade. Two armoured cars were to lead the convoy followed by two lorries and a Land Rover full of soldiers armed to teeth. “
According to Chebet, the President was to be at the centre, followed by a lorry while an additional two armoured cars guarded the rear. Chebet who was in his Land Rover was to follow the president.
“I was sure that in the event of an attack, the rebels would meet formidable firepower. We could also take care of the Jet fighters,” Chebet added.
He explained that it would have been undignified for the president to be crammed inside the armored car, which although relatively safe and faster would have been quite difficult to squeeze their tall Commander-in-Chief.
When the convoy departed Nakuru at around midday, the road was quite deserted but the pace was slow because of the military lorries which could not cruise at a higher speed.
They encountered the first road barrier was erected at Lanet and was being manned by the military, and another had been placed at Gilgil and Naivasha.
At around 2pm, the convoy reached Uplands where Chebet says a crowd of curious but frightened people lined the road. When they saw the military vehicles sandwiching the presidential limousine, they took off screaming.
It was at this point that the President instructed his Aid de Camp Peter Ikenye to tell the soldiers to stop so that he could address the people.
“I was very apprehensive as this could compromise his safety. Since I could not defy my Commander-in-Chief, I ordered the convoy to slow down. I realised that the civilians were afraid and instructed the troops to start clapping and chanting “Nyayo, Nyayo.”
And as the gun wielding men thundered Nyayo as they clapped, the people came nearer. President Moi then emerged from the sunroof and gave his first address, assuring Kenyans that he was protected by loyal soldiers and that everything was in control and that the rebels would be crushed.
“I remember one woman who I later learnt was a kiosk operator tearing from the crowd a towards the President sobbing loudly. Mzee are you really the one? I was fearing they had harmed you. We thought you are dead!” The President calmed her as the convoy eased off heading towards Nairobi, but again the President demanded to speak to his people at Dagoretti.
Here, Chebet narrates, the soldiers were worried for even as they stopped, they could hear gunshots coming from the city centre.
Soldiers rounded up
After the speech, the convoy snaked through Ngong Road, which had by now been secured by soldiers who lined up both sides up to State House. When the convoy finally entered State House at around 4pm, Chebet was immensely relieved for he had ultimately executed the orders given six hours earlier.
By the time the President addressed the nation through the state controlled Voice of Kenya radio at around 6.30pm, some normalcy had returned in the city, although some gunfire could still be heard.
His nightmare was not yet over as he had to take the President to Kabarnet Gardens, his residence after dinner.
“We agreed to have the President ride in an unmarked vehicle which we surrounded with armoured cars. We followed this procedure for nearly a month, escorting him to State House every morning and returning him to his residence in the evening.”
Two days after the coup, Chebet and other soldiers guarding the President had a scare when a gang of four men stealthily crept to Kabarnet Gardens and unleashed a volley of fire which sent everybody scampering for safety. All lights were switched off as the soldiers ran towards Nairobi Dam direction but they never caught the attackers.
Although he had expected to reunite with his family after a few hours, Chebet was to remain at State House for a month as loyal soldiers rounded up the rebel air force men.