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The comedy of errors that shut down 1982 failed coup

The excitement of being at the helm of the country’s leadership blinded the coup plotters. [File, Standard]

Today marks 40 years since disgruntled members of the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow the government of President Daniel Moi.

Faced with such a monumental task, it would have been assumed the soldiers had put all their ducks in line. However, the excitement of being at the helm of the country’s leadership blinded the coup plotters.

Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka, the head of the ‘People’s Redemption Council’ seemed to have no clear command and August 1, 1982, would turn out to be a modern-day rendition of William Shakespeare’s play, Comedy of Errors.

Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka. He was hanged in 1987. [File, Standard] 

A compilation of the day’s events from the then influential Drum Magazine showed Ochuka had to use innuendos to convince his fellow soldiers of the seriousness of the coup. For example, he told them Russia was sending a warship to Mombasa to protect them. He also claimed Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan were eager to support his cause.

“Ochuka made up these stories to encourage his ‘recruits’ to take risks in the mission,” stated Drum. And rather than taking control of his men, Ochuka was busy that morning hunting down popular radio anchor Leonard Mambo Mbotela, to announce the coup. According to the magazine, Ochuka could only believe he had overthrown the government if he heard it on the radio. 

Leonard Mambo Mbotela at VOK's continuity studio in 1968. [File, Standard]

More comedy was on the way as the soldiers got to the broadcasting studios along Harry Thuku Road. Under normal circumstances, a coup would be accompanied by carefully-selected martial music. Ochuka and his team had none apart from the refrain “power” that came to punctuate the day along the streets of Nairobi. 

“They captured the national radio, a requirement of all coups, but they could not find any martial music to broadcast. So the brief chants of “power” in the streets were accompanied by the reggae tunes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff,” wrote the Washington Post a few days after the attempted coup.

The head of the ‘People’s Redemption Council’ seemed to have no clear command. [File, Standard]

The soldiers seemed to have forgotten their mission as they led civilians in acts of debauchery. According to one of the key plotters, Sgt. Pancras Oteyo Okumu, most soldiers “became too busy looting”. In a few hours, the now rudderless ship had run aground.

Rather than eat humble pie, Ochuka told his men: “I’ve been a president. Though it was just for a few minutes, the whole world read and heard about me. I’ve made history.” The two key coup plotters were among the last people hanged in Kenya in 1987 by Kamiti’s last hangman, Kirugumi wa Wanjuki.