High profile assassinations a stain on our political history


KENYA: The assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya in 1969 and that of Josiah Mwangi (JM) Kariuki in 1975 marked the beginning of a dark chapter in the country’s history and heralded a chronology of murders. They triggered a string of investigations and inquests that would gobble up billions of shillings in taxpayer money but deliver nothing in terms of justice for the victims and value for money for the Kenyan public.

When Mboya, seen in his day as heir-apparent to the presidency, was felled by an assassin’s bullet on Government Road, now Moi Avenue on July 5, 1969 the nation was gripped by shock.

Then the decomposing body of the charismatic Kariuki was found in Ngong forest in 1975 — and the news was received with disbelief and consternation by all those who knew the politician and what promise he held for this country.

The two events charted a dark path in a long road of unresolved high profile murders and punched a worrying footnote in our chequered history.

Unresolved murders

Since then, there have been other prominent murders, such as the killing on February 13, 1990 of Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko, Father John Kaiser of the Catholic Church on August 23, 2000, University of Nairobi student leader Titus Adungosi in August 1988 and Anglican Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge, who died in a suspicious road accident on August 14, 1990.

Nearly half a century since the assassination of Mboya and Kariuki, a string of high-profile murder cases lie unresolved in court registries and in police files as poor investigations, lack of forensic technology and an apparent official conspiracy to cover up political murders continue to dog the country’s criminal justice system.

Perhaps the assassinations of JM and Mboya remain the most intriguing events given their profile as leaders.

Coming as they did soon after Independence, the murders of JM and Mboya and subsequent failure by the authorities to find their killers was quite disturbing.

Mboya, who was said to be quite close to Kenyatta at the time of his death, could have been killed by anyone who saw him as a threat to his or her political ambitions.

But JM’s death may have had a well-orchestrated plot to eliminate him as he had established himself as a fierce critic of the establishment. However, the question remains: Who fired the shot that killed him?

No one has directly accused Jomo of being behind JM’s death but numerous reports and gossip point a finger at the first president’s close confidants and security agents who were at the beck and call of the powerful forces around the presidency.

Millionaires and beggars

The story is told of how by early 1975, somebody had decided that JM had to be eliminated. President Jomo Kenyatta was ailing and JM was believed to have his eyes on the presidency. After all, JM had a dashing style and struck a powerful chord with the masses, which earned him bitter enemies in Kenyatta’s inner circles.

His constant criticism of Mzee Kenyatta’s government may have made matters worse for him. The most recalled attack was when JM remarked during Kenya’s first Independence anniversary in 1973 that Kenya had become a country of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars, at a time Kenyatta extolled the country’s achievements.

The stories of how JM’s murder was planned and executed read like a chapter in a crime thriller. The high level personalities fingered in the various reports, analyses and gossip suggest whoever was behind the conspiracy to murder had state backing.

Some of those who feature prominently in the JM case include a fearsome police reservist, Patrick Shaw, former General Service Unit (GSU) commandant Ben Gethi, CID director Ignatius Nderi and former Nakuru Mayor Mburu Gichua.

The security apparatus would frame JM for being behind a clandestine organisation responsible for several bombing incidents in Nairobi. By the time he was lured to Kingsway House and shot in the upper arm, JM had been desperately trying to meet with top security officials in Government to clear his name over the bombing claims. That evening the killers transported a bleeding JM from Kingsway House to Ngong Hills forest where they finished the job.

Leaning East

Although a parliamentary probe committee was set up to investigate the death, no conclusive findings were made public. Indeed, today, the mention of JM bring to mind a string of assassinations including that of Pio Gama Pinto, who was the first politician to be assassinated in 1965.

Pinto was shot outside his home in Westlands in front of his 18-month-old daughter. Before his death, Pinto was accused of associating with Jaramogi, a man who was viewed by the establishment as a radical leader leaning towards the Eastern Europe and socialism at the height of the cold war.

Dr Ouko was murdered in February 1990 and his charred remains were found at the foot of Got Alila near his home in Koru Nyanza. He was then the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of President Moi. A US trip where he had audience with then US President George Bush turned sour and could have triggered the ire of powerful forces in government. Hezekiah Oyugi, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President, was implicated in his death among other prominent persons. A series of inquiries into his death stretching two decades did not come up with any answers.

Following on this tradition, more recent high-profile murders have not been resolved to date. They include that of University of Nairobi don Crispin Odhiambo Mbai, former MPs Mugabe Were (Embakasi) and David Kimutai (Ainamoi) in 2003. Others are of Virginia Nyakio, wife of former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga in 2008, human rights activist Oscar Kingara in 2009 and the controversial Muslim Cleric Sheikh Samir Khan in 2012.

Dr Mbai, who was the chair of the devolution committee at the Bomas Constitutional Conference, was killed when three gunmen stormed his house along Ngong Road around 3pm on September 14, 2003 and shot him three times. He died while being treated at the Nairobi Hospital. The gunmen took nothing from him.

High stakes

Initial speculation linked Dr Mbai’s death to politics, with claims flying around that some elements in government or the Church who were opposed to some of his ideas on devolution may have taken the university don out.

But if the killing was suspicious — coming at a time when the country was grappling with high political stakes — the theatrics and apparent cover-up that charaterised the investigations were ominous. Three suspects who were arrested and arraigned in court for the murder confessed to the crime — but would later be released and the case terminated for ‘lack evidence’.

Close family members termed the investigations a sham and the court’s decision to terminate the case a miscarriage of justice.

And was Khan’s murder predictable? The activist was in the league of Aboud Rogo, the controversial Muslim preacher who died in a hail of bullets along Malindi-Mombsa road in September last year when unknown people trailing their car opened fire in broad daylight, killing him and two others and seriously injuring his wife. Just like Rogo, Khan had been in and out of police custody several times accused of a litany of terrorist acts.

So when his body (Khan) was found in Tsavo National Park in April the same year, the question in my people’s minds was, was it just a coincidence or was it a meticulously planned murder delivered with deadly precision?

It wasn’t difficult for people close to him to rush to the conclusion that he was a victim of foul play. He was a marked man, both his family and friends claimed, saying it was just a matter of time before the police killed him.

Khan had been driving with a colleague in a taxi in Mombasa when they were abducted by unknown people, bundled into two separate cars and driven away at high speed. The body of Khan and Mohammed Kassim Bekhit, who was a blind preacher at the Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, were later found at the Tsavo National Park.

Abdullahi says there has not been a police investigation into the murder, adding that the police have been reluctant to follow leads offered by close family members in pursuing the case. “Even when the pair was abducted, there were eyewitnesses who saw the abductors and the vehicles used but they have not been allowed to record statements,” he says.

Mugabe Were was shot outside his gate in Woodley estate in 2007 soon after he won the Embakasi seat in the general election. And although four people were arraigned in court for the murder, the case dragged since 2008 until it was dismissed in late 2010 for insufficient evidence.

His Ainamoi counterpart David Kimutai’s killing was even more dramatic — a scene straight from Hollywood. The assailant (a traffic police officer) riding on a motorbike approached the MP, who was in the company of a policewoman, Constable Eunice Chepkwony in Eldoret town and shot them in close range. The MP died instantly but the woman died while being treated at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. The assailant later surrendered himself to the police.

Commuted charges

So was his a case of murder, a crime of passion or was it a political assassination? Coming just days after the shooting of Mugabe Were, the ODM bigwigs termed it a political assassination and accused the government of seeking to reduce ODM numbers in Parliament.

Controversially, High Court Judge David Maraga reduced the charges from murder to manslaughter, handing the suspect the less punitive sentence of 10 years. The decision would come back to haunt Maraga during the Judges and Magistrates vetting process when he was at pains to explain what informed his decision.