How Bob Marley's reggae music sustained 1982 coup

1982 attempted coup ring leader Hezekiah Ochuka (centre) was hanged. [File, Standard] 

Bob Marley’s songs gave away the game. Chants of power...power and a staccato of gunfire around the city confirmed Kenya’s worst nightmare.

A group of junior airforce soldiers had taken over the government. And one of the most recognisable voices of Leonard Mambo Mbotela confirmed this. August 1, 1982, was real and a coup was underway.

At first, it appeared that the mutineers had timed perfectly. President Daniel arap Moi was out of Nairobi in his Kabarak home. His Vice President Mwai Kibaki was relaxing in his home in Othaya.

The military big boys were out of town too. The previous day, July 31, the president had attended the Agricultural Show at Ruringu stadium, Nyeri.

The coup was originally set to take place the second week of August, while Moi was in Tripoli, Libya, attending the summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). However, the plotters rushed through their plan after it leaked.

Their timing though was still opportune because, on that fateful Sunday, most of the 13,000 Kenya Soldiers were travelling back from Lake Turkana where they had been undertaking military training. 

The reggae music from Voice of Kenya, studios was however unceremoniously halted when the plotters who lacked firepower and proper planning were overwhelmed.

In their haste to capture the Broadcasting House, they forgot to secure the transmitting facilities.

And by evening when the president triumphantly drove into town, guarded by loyal forces from other divisions of the military, the key plotters were on the run.

Within a month about 1,000 soldiers had been convicted of treason. Hundreds died in the streets and so did civilians caught in the crossfire.

The ring leaders led by Hezekiah Ochuka and Okumu Oteyo were hanged. And a purge never known before witnessed in independent Kenya got underway. Anybody perceived to be sympathetic to the coup or was anti-government was dealt with ruthlessly. Raila Odinga was detained.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who had been detained once by Jomo Kenyatta learnt of a plot to detain him once he returned from London where he had gone to launch his books, Devil on the Cross and Detained: A Prison Diary, went into exile.

Others fled Kenya on learning that they were on the Special Branch’s wanted list. The coup presented a golden opportunity to cut to size some Kenyatta-era politicians. First to go was the powerful constitutional minister Charles Njonjo and his allies, G G Kariuki and Joseph Kamotho who were condemned to the political dustbin a decade. 

The Kenya Air Force was also disbanded and the entire security system was reorganised. Kenya’s political system changed and it would take 20 years for the country to reclaim some of the freedoms curtailed during the one-party system.

To the remaining second liberation heroes, the gunfire that rocked the city 41 years ago still echoes in their lives.