By Kipchumba Some
The low, hoarse voice on the other end of my mobile phone asked: "Who is it?" When I replied "a journalist with The Standard", the line went dead immediately.
That was the only successful attempt, in a series of many, made by The Standard to locate and interview James Opiyo, a retired Deputy Commissioner of Police who has repeatedly been mentioned by his victims as the torturer-in-chief at Nyayo House of the 1980s.
Mr Opiyo was the head of Task Force, a unit within the Nairobi Provincial Intelligence Services, which fell under the overall purview of the dreaded intelligence unit, the Special Branch.
It was charged with extracting information from suspects of the underground Mwakenya and Pambana movements in the late 1980s, but has been accused of torturing hundreds of innocent people in the process.
Amid conflicting reports of his whereabouts and health status –some even suggested that he had died – The Standard set out to track down and for the first time reveal in detail the personal and professional life of the man, regarded as one the most cruel executor of torture orders.
But as we found out, even in retirement Opiyo is still an elusive figure both to the Press, and hundreds of victims who want him prosecuted for a litany of human rights abuses.
Exposed and Vulnerable
With great doubts about my chances of succeeding, my sources had adequately briefed me of past failed attempts by local and foreign journalists to interview Opiyo.
Thus, when I set out three weeks ago for Ranen, a trading centre between Rongo and Awendo towns in Migori County, Opiyo’s rural home, I was moderate about my chances of meeting him.
In keeping with tradition of sleuths all over the world, Opiyo is an intensely private man of erratic movement in retirement, as he was in his working days.
Since his retirement from the police force in April 1999, Opiyo has maintained a low-key life. However, that is not to say he shied away from society altogether.
Before 2002 General Election, relatives and friends say, he was just like any other normal retired civil servant – easy with his neighbours, friends and members of his extended family.
"It was easy to get him," said a neighbour, who requested that we keep his identity confidential.
"He used to attend family and neighbourhood functions, such as funerals and weddings," he added.
But everything changed with the election of the National Rainbow Coalition regime to power on December 29, 2002. The Kanu regime, in whose name he is said to have committed the crimes he was accused of, was no more. He found himself exposed and vulnerable.
His Nyayo House torture victims and human rights groups pressed for the prosecution of those who had been accused of human rights abuses during the vanquished Kanu regime.
Fearing that he would become a prime target, Opiyo, we reliably learnt from a close relative, fled to neighbouring Tanzania where one of his sisters is married for about four months until matters cooled down.
"He became very vulnerable. Media and human rights groups, who had hitherto feared to confront him, came calling at his home. There was nowhere for him to turn to for protection and opted to go underground," said a relative.
The other consequence of this sudden exposure was the reinforced security in his home. Unlike other retired senior security officials who are provided with State security, Opiyo does not have any.
Nonetheless, it would require the most cunning minds or force to get in to his gated home. Overlooking the expansive Sony sugar plantations, his house is lost in a canopy of tall cypress trees and bramble. In addition, the gate to his house is constantly under lock and key.
The house itself is both a testament of his grand past and the lean times he has fallen into since. It is an imposing white-painted structure with huge round Greco-Roman pillars, certainly befitting his former stature in Government.
But it has fallen into sore disrepair. The white paint is pealing off. Outside, a rusted white Toyota is aground. Judging by the tall grass that has sprouted underneath, it seems not to have been used for a while.
Homesteads of retired senior Government officials are usually busy, bubbling with activity and constant stream of visitors. But not Opiyo’s. When I visited the home on a Saturday, there was hardly a sign of life inside.
A few cattle grazed nonchalantly inside the compound. A dog walked around unbothered by our presence at the gate. For a moment, it seemed nobody lived there any more.
My source, who happens to be his relative, had informed me that I had a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting him if I introduced myself as a journalist. "He hates journalists with a passion," he said.
In my investigations, we established that Opiyo is an ailing man. He is suffering from assorted diseases that include hypertension, diabetes, a heart condition, and eye problems. A close relative described his situation as critical. So in my first attempt to meet him, I accompanied his former colleague at the Special Branch whom I had informed of Opiyo’s sickness, and was trying to convey a get-well message to him at his home.
We were unlucky. After peeping and knocking for about five minutes at the gate, his third wife Eunice appeared. She informed us that Opiyo had gone to Nairobi for treatment.
But that was not entirely true. The previous day, by chance, I had seen him in the back of a taxi being taken home. I established that he had come from an eye surgery in Kisii General Hospital.
Those who went through his hands describe him as a hulky fellow of gigantic proportions and imposing height. But seeing him in the car, he was a shadow of that menacing figure.
He looked frail and weak, wasted by disease and, perhaps, whatever other fears he may harbour of his controversial past. Brief as it was, that chance sighting indicated how rare a man he has become. As we left his homestead, we could not help reflecting on the manner Eunice had received us. She refused to open the gate although she had the keys in her hands.
Not only that. She also declined to shake our hands and maintained a healthy distance of about 15m from where we were. I was to learn that is how she treats strangers.
"Even neighbours and relatives hardly visit him. Even some of his closest family members cannot enter his compound. So a stranger like you basically has no chance of meeting the man," a neighbour told me.
After failing in our initial plan, I was advised I stood a better chance of meeting him at his local church. Apparently he has become an avid churchgoer after retirement.
But on the Saturday that I attended Manywanda SDA, a church located behind his compound, he was a no-show.
"While he was healthy, he never failed to come to church," a congregant who talked to me in confidence told me. "But nowadays he comes once in a while when his condition allows. And he is not a bad man as you people in the media say," he added. In my third attempt does not bear any fruits either.
Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission who was attempting to take a statement from him over the allegations that have been made against him.
Again, my plot failed. Eunice told us her husband had been flown to Germany for treatment. She said she did not know when he would return. As it was during my first visit, she did not open the gate to the compound, although she had the keys in her hand, never greeted us by hand, and maintained a safe distance from us.
However, this last visit alarmed her greatly. As we left the compound, she could be heard making frantic calls to her elder co-wife, asking whether we visited her.
Earlier, we had met the first wife, Jennifer, in her kiosk in Ranen. She informed us that if you want mzee, you have to talk to Eunice, she in charge of everything nowadays.