A jailer of liberators


By Amos Kareithi

Beads of perspiration dot the parched arid space surrounded by greying hair as the owner hurriedly downs the frothy substance.

The trademark moustache and the penetrating glare is missing from the face of the man the residents of Kiamuringa in Embu have nicknamed ‘Saddam’.

The man is nick named after former Iraq strongman, Saddam Hussein, but there is little resemblance between the two.

Peter Njiru shows his miraa farm in Embu where he spends most of his time after retiring from Prisons Service where he served for over 30 years. Photo: Peter Thatiah /Standard

On this evening, Kiamuringa’s Saddam is in a solemn mood. The 64-year-old rests his cherished bottle on the wooden table and sighs staring into space.

His brow knots in concentration as he travels back in time, an age when he walked with a swagger.

John Peter Njiru winces as if in pain as he recalls the darkest hour in his three decades of service preventing hardened criminals from bolting out of jail.

He almost lost his job for letting Kenya’s most guarded prisoners enjoy a few minutes of sunshine.

When he graduated from Kiamuringa Primary School in 1960, Njiru had no idea that he would one day confine Kenya’s fiercest liberators.

His career started on the wrong footing shortly after he joined the Kenya Prisons Training College and completed a nine-month course in 1965.

Fresh from college, Njiru thought his posting to Gathigiriri Prison in Kirinyaga District, a short distance from Embu town was a blessing.However, it turned to be a curse.

"I was transferred to Garissa in 1970 on disciplinary grounds. I was involved in a fight and my boss was not impressed," he recalls.

His stay in Garrissa was not long. After two years, he was given marching orders to Kakamega before being dispatched to Garissa again in 1974.

This time, he went to Garrissa to defend Kenya’s sovereignty, which was under threat from Somali insurgents who executed the Shifta War.

Mobile jailer

And it was the Shifta War, which saw him take prisoners to Kamiti, Kenya largest jail.

"I was involved in rounding up insurgents. We took some to Kamiti and others to Naivasha. The Somali soldiers captured were extradited to Somalia," he says.

After the war, Njiru was transferred to Lodwar, Murang’a then Thika before he found his way to Kamiti where he served for two years at a time when Kenya was faced with major political crisis.

He vividly recalls life at Kamiti following the aftermath of the aborted 1982 coup.

"One day, the corporal was not around. After pleas, I decided to let my prisoners bask for a few minutes. I knew I was risking my career but I have no regrets," he says.

"I was almost sacked after some colleagues snitched that I had been letting out the political prisoners," Njiru recalls.

At the time, the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga was detained at Kamiti over his alleged involvement in the aborted coup.

Raila, like other political detainees, among them Maina wa Kinyatti, Anyang’ Nyong’o and Otieno Mac’Onyango were being held at the infamous G block.

"Raila asked me to open the doors so that they could venture out. He was not bossy or defiant. He politely requested and I obliged," Njiru adds.

Although by the time the corporal in charge returned Raila and his friends were safely in their cell, somebody released the information.

He got off the hook with a strong reprimand but the next time there was trouble of a political nature, the warder was not lucky.

The coup brought tribulations to the warders and by the time the rebel Kenya Air Force servicemen were overwhelmed, the Chief of General Staff Maj General Jackson Mulinge was livid.

Armed soldiers surrounded the facility and directed that all the warders surrender and join the estimated 2,000 inmates into the cells.

Mulinge was so incensed and accused the warders of supporting the coup but he was talked out of it.

The warder, just like the soldiers he had been guarding and at times escorting to court, also met his waterloo in Kamiti owing to the coup.

Leaking state secrets

Trouble started when five mutineers who were being taken to Lang’ata court martial were tipped about their fate before they arrived for sentence.

The military top brass was livid and accused the warders of leaking State secrets.

"Interrogations were done and it was decided that the warders who had been escorting the military officers to the court martial had revealed secrets," he says.

Some warders were sacked and for the second time, Njiru was transferred to Lodwar.

Before he kissed Kamiti goodbye, Njiru recalls how he witnessed Maj General Peter Kariuki, the then Air force Commander, break down after he was jailed.

"I handed him (Kariuki) a plate of ugali and comforted him that he was not the only one suffering because of politics. He was lucky because some of the soldiers were hanged," Njiru says.

The officer recalls a time when a soldiers’ destiny was decided by shuffling of cards. A red one after interrogation marked one for court martial and death.

He recalls witnessing such interrogations where his colleagues were grilled to determine their role in the coup.

The man chuckles as he relives some of the most interesting episodes in his career.

"On the day Andrew Mungai Muthemba was freed by a court in Nairobi, I was there. I saw a smartly dressed woman throw bundles of currency notes from a briefcase. Civilians and prison warders scrambled for them. It was quite hilarious," recalls Njiru.

Muthemba, who was associated with the then Constitutional Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo, was accused of acquiring arms and forming a scheme to topple the Government.

He, just like the political prisoners accused of being members of the clandestine Mwakenya group, was detained at Kamiti during Njiru’s time.

After being shuffled to all the eight provinces in Kenya, Njiru ultimately retired from the Prison Services in 2000 after serving for 35 years.

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