By Kipchumba Some
It is not clear when he was appointed head of Task Force (TF), but the choice of Opiyo was not coincidental. It was something that was well thought out.
At the time of his appointment, the greatest opposition to the Kanu regime was seen as coming from the Luo and the Kikuyu.
But it was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – regarded as the doyen of Kenya’s opposition politics – who made the threat posed by Luos to the Kanu regime more potent and real.
"The Luo dissent presented the greatest challenge to the former regime in early 1980s," explains a retired director of the National Security Intelligence Service, the successor to Special Branch, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I will use a common analogy to explain the choice of Opiyo to head the unit. It is said use a thief to catch a thief," explains the former director. "The Government needed a Luo to deal with their own; somebody who spoke the language and understood the Luo mindset."
The job could have gone to any other Luo, he says, but he believes that Hezekiah Oyugi must have recommended and even influenced the appointment of Opiyo to head the unit.
"He was known to be a fierce pro-establishment loyalist. He had no qualms about doing anything his bosses asked him.," he said.
If the aim of Opiyo’s appointment the whole operation therefore was to break the backbone of the Luo-fronted resistance to the former regime, then he did not disappoint.
Former personal assistant to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and journalist Odungi Randa had personally known Opiyo when he served as an intelligence officer in Kisumu. But this counted for nothing when he appeared before Opiyo.
"He came to my cell with a plateful of nyama choma. I had been denied food for weeks and I was starving. He sat on a chair at one corner of the cell and started eating the meat, piece by piece and then ordered that more water to be poured into my cell as he left with a warning that if I talked about my torture to anyone, I would be shot dead in the streets," recounts Randa.
Wilson Angonga, a former prison officer who was also charged with associating with Mwakenya convicts detained in Nakuru GK Prison rues meeting Opiyo.
Once Opiyo and his men had successfully tortured a suspect to confession, another Luo awaited to give the whole thing a legal cover. That man was Bernard Chunga, the Chief Justice from 1999 to 2003.
Most of the suspects who confessed to being dissidents were sentenced before the courts opened or after they had been closed. Constantly present during these after or before court hours was Chunga.
It has been alleged that Chunga directed judges on the jail terms to be handed an individual after receiving recommendation from Opiyo and his team.
"Actually intelligence officers usually scribbled on the back of files of victims brought to court the number of years they should be jailed," said Wafula Buke, a torture survivor.
Our efforts to track Chunga in his home in Sakwa, Bondo, were unfruitful. However both friend and foe describe him as a man of sharp legal mind. The Narc Government fired him in 2003.
Upon the disbandment of TF, Harrison Owuor Angir, a former senior intelligence officer whom Opiyo had unsuccessfully tried to recruit in 1988, disclosed to us that Opiyo tried to change his identity.
"We met in 1994 in the corridors of Nyati House and when I greeted him with his surname, Opiyo, he flew in to a fit. He actually reprimanded me for about 15 minutes in the corridor. After calming down, he informed me that he was now known as James Obunge," remembers Angir.
The name Obunge, we established, belongs to Mangara, the father who actually sired him. His ‘father’, Opiyo, died before his mother conceived, and as per the Luo customs a close relative inherited her. This custom dictates that the sired children belong to the deceased man.
The resulting children technically belong to the deceased man and that is why the boy, Opiyo, bore his departed father’s name according to Luo custom. Nonetheless, he remained close to his biological father throughout his life.
A DC in Nyanza who served as an under secretary in the Office of the President in the late 1990s, reckons Opiyo had become mentally imbalanced in the run-up to his retirement.
"He had become extremely paranoid. One day he brought a high-level security meeting to a halt by claiming that he had heard a gun being fired. When we checked there was nothing. He was simply hallucinating," he says.