Maj Gen (rtd) Duncan Wachira (pictured), the seventh commander of the Kenya Air Force, was a decisive man.
Before his appointment as chief of logistics at Defence headquarters, senior military officers used to drive their gleaming Peugeot 504 saloons to fuel pumps in their bases and simply order the attendants to fill the tanks. It was a charmed life. As soon as Wachira took over, he put a cap of 20 litres per vehicle. Anybody who wanted more than that had to make a written justification for it.
The tough edict, and other strict cost-cutting measures he instituted, caught the attention of Mahmoud Mohammed, the army general who crushed the 1982 attempted coup and became Air Force commander on his way to succeeding Gen Jackson Mulinge as Chief of the General Staff, as the nation’s top military officer was known then.
Mohammed had Wachira succeed Maj Gen Dedan Gichuru as Air Force commander.
Gichuru, the first African to head the service, had made a second brief tour of duty at Eastleigh in the turbulent post-coup years.
Military chiefs by their very position wield considerable influence on the President but as the man who saved Moi his presidency, Mohammed was in a class of his own. The President owed him the world and his preference of a service commander was always going to have his way.
Soon after Wachira was installed at the top office at Moi Air Base, the Air Force headquarters where many years ago he had learnt to fly military transport planes, he called a meeting of key personnel.
He wanted to know why the Kenya Air Force could not train its own flying instructors instead of sending them abroad where the steep costs kept on rising every year. In the military, the difference between the boss’ opinion and order is the same. Wachira wanted training costs cut and they sure were going to be. Out of that meeting, the Air Force Qualified Flying Instructors programme – African instructors giving advanced training to African pilots - was born.
Strictness, which seemed mapped in the DNA of this meticulous pilot and logistician, is a positive that attracts respect. But taken beyond certain limits, it becomes overbearing, which is a negative that instils fear in subordinates. By the account of some officers who knew him, Wachira spread fear in abundance.
“He was an excellent pilot,” one of them told me. “He flew even when he became the Air Force commander. But he didn’t forgive mistakes. He meted out punishment immediately. Many people thus tried to avoid him as much as possible.”
His towering physique, which would have deterred even a heavyweight boxer from thinking of engaging him in a duel, made him all the more forbidding.
Another one said he was impossible to understand or interpret.
“When it came to work,” he said, “you could not find anybody more dependable. He was competent and committed. He was the kind of officer who performed over and above what was expected of him. He deserved every promotion he got. But his social life was mysterious. He was intensely private. Unlike others, he never even brought along his wife during official social functions at the Officers’ Mess.”
He added: “I liked him. He was my friend. I knew him for many years. But it is only after his death that I realised that I didn’t know any of his family members. I wanted to condole with them upon learning of his death but I discovered that the only number I have on my phone is his. I am looking for people who knew him like anyone else.”
He was probably the best-suited person to head the Air Force during its wilderness years in the aftermath of the coup attempt instigated by elements in its rank and file. It was a broken service. It had lost some of its best and brightest. It had lost its colours; the cherished sky blue was now an earthy beige that survivors of the purge found painful to wear. It had even lost its name – it was no longer Kenya Air Force but 82 Air Force. The name rankled. Its future seemed as cloudy as any day could get. There was even talk that it could be disbanded altogether and be made a division of the Army, which administered it for a number of years and whose officers milked every small chance to remind those smart alecs who looked down on them who was boss now.
The no-nonsense Wachira was imminently suited to restore Air Force self-belief because he could get things done. And yet, life is not a straight course. It is possible to achieve admirable accomplishments while leaving too many aching bones in your wake. Inspiring and motivating were not his strongest points.
He was at the helm when the Air Force marked the 10th anniversary of the darkest chapter in its history.
This was his appraisal of where things stood: “This year we are celebrating 10 years of the 82 Air Force. The events surrounding the formation of our service are still very vivid in our minds. We started off with an acute shortage of manpower, low morale and general apathy. Currently, our manning levels are adequate, morale is high and we have renewed confidence in the future of the service.
“We can now effectively carry out our operational and training tasks. More aircraft have been added to our transport fleet and now we have a dedicated VIP Squadron.”
One of the steepest costs Kenyans pay today is the cost of dying. It can wipe out everything one worked for in life and still saddle those left behind with unmanageable debts. Fortunately for him, his family is not facing that daunting prospect. Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) minds its own. As soon as he breathed his last following a long illness and treatment at Nairobi Hospital, Defence headquarters quietly established a funeral committee.
His colleagues in the retired Air Force fraternity did the same. They will ensure that all his medical bills are cleared and that he is given a funeral service befitting a service commander of KDF. He commanded the Air Force during the dark days of dictatorship and played his part to return it airborne after it had flown into terrain in 1982. His battles with wastefulness and dedication to training which saw more African pilots graduate from Air Force flying school than could otherwise have, if he didn’t change the status quo, are his greatest legacies.
Today’s young pilots, who know him only from historical records, must thank him for his initiative.
[Roy Gachuhi is a writer and documentary film producer with The Content House]