It was some minutes past midnight on August 2, 1982. Erastus M’Mbijiwe, then the Rift Valley police boss, was fast asleep when his phone rang.
It was a colleague from Central Police Division in Nairobi.
“Are you awake? Have you have heard what is happening?” the colleague asked.
“No, I have not heard,” he answered.
“Are you in the office?”
The police boss was starting to get irritated.
“Just go ahead and tell me what is happening,” M’mbijiwe responded in a firm voice.
The caller then switched to mother tongue. What he told the police boss had him sit up, all traces of sleep gone.
“Can’t you stop them?” M’Mbijiwe asked.
“No, that is above me,” said the voice on the other end.
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M’Mbijiwe scrambled out of bed and was soon inside his car, heading full speed towards Nakuru State Lodge.
This is how M’Mbijiwe earned a place in the book of heroes - as one of the men who helped retired President Daniel arap Moi during the attempted coup by some officers in the Kenya Air Force.
Duncan Wachira, a former colleague, remembered the 1982 incident and how he called M'Mbijiwe to ask if it was safe for them to be at their station or whether they should abandon duty.
"He said: 'You must be at your place of work. We are also on our way escorting the President back to the Nairobi,'" recalled Wachira. "He was a man of courage; no one would have driven from Nakuru to Nairobi that day. The roads were swarming with soldiers."
Two weeks later, M’Mbijiwe was promoted from Rift Valley police boss to General Service Unit Commandant. He rose to become Senior Deputy Commissioner of Police before he retired in 1987.
These are the heroic acts friends and family gathered to celebrate yesterday, during a memorial service for M’Mbijiwe who was eulogised as a dedicated father and serviceman, selfless, incorruptible and passionate about his work.
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“M’Mbijiwe was Mr Law and Order. He hated corruption and anyone who was sloppy, he would tell you to your face that you were corrupt and lazy,” said John Maragu, a childhood friend.
It was M’Mbijiwe who helped Prof Maragu buy a car.
Their friendship began when their two families met in 1946. Despite drifting apart after a few escapades as friends pruning coffee in Meru County, they reconnected again in 1956.
By then, M’Mbijiwe had joined the police force and was working in Meru while Maragu was working with a timber union.
Maragu wanted to buy a car. So M’Mbijiwe, who owned a pick-up truck then and who knew the capital city well, took him to Nairobi.
“We bought the car for Sh4,000, paid Sh120 as insurance and, you will not believe it, we filled the tank with Sh30,” Maragu told the Lavington United Church congregation that burst out laughing at how much times had changed. A litre of petrol now retails at Sh130.
Apart from friends and family, who included his widow Mercy Kagiri M’Mbijiwe, the event was attended by former police bosses David Kimaiyo, Matthew Iteere and Joel Kitili. Aaron Ringera, former director of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, was also present.
Wiping away tears with a white handkerchief, Ms M’Mbijiwe described her husband as strict but romantic. He would not allow her overtake on a continuous yellow line even when there were no oncoming vehicles, but would faithfully buy her flowers and sentimental gifts without her asking.
“To this day I have no idea where he learnt to arrange flowers. He was the best florist I know,” she said.
She described her husband as protector of his friends, family and everything he owned.
“It did not matter if it was just a nail. He protected his friends, some of them in the police force. I have lost a best friend and mentor."
The widow disclosed that her husband had been in the process of writing a book.
“I promise that I will try and finish the book, but you, his friends, will have to help me,” she said, recalling how in their early days, M’Mbijiwe made fun of the way she spoke English, saying she spoke with an Indian accent.
James Kanji, M’Mbijiwe’s son, who followed his father to the police force, also seemed to have inherited his father's humour.
When he rose to eulogise his father, he began by poking fun at his own accent.
“We police officers are not very good with English, so just bear with me,” he said.
General Service Unit Commandant Douglas Kanja, who represented Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet, said the foundation laid by M’Mbijiwe at GSU was still strong.
“M’Mbijiwe was so dedicated to his job that even after retiring he attended the passing-out parades of new recruits,” said Mr Kanja.
M’Mbijiwe died aged 86 on August 29 at the Nairobi Hospital after a series of respiratory illnesses that began in April.
He was cremated at the Lang’ata crematorium in Nairobi according to his wishes.