For his sheer sustaining power, you can’t help but salute Opposition leader Raila Odinga, whether or not you are in the same political divide.
Like the biblical Caleb, he has wandered the political wilderness for 40 years. But unlike Caleb, he is yet to deliver Canaan where Kenyans will enjoy full political liberties, economic prosperity and an electoral body with servers open for scrutiny to ensure every vote counts.
By the way, what it so difficult in opening the servers if the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has nothing to hide?
All the same, you have to admire Raila for the courage and stamina to keep the flame of struggle alive 40 years down the line. Indeed, his biography published 10 years ago is aptly titled: “The Flame of Freedom”.
This week as I watched Raila declare that Azimio street demonstrations will resume on conclusion of Easter and Ramadhan festivities, I saw in him the same strong will as when he was first whisked away from court corridors, to detention, without trial in April 1983.
Raila’s sustaining power reminds one of the words of biblical Caleb recorded in Joshua Chapter 14 verse 10-11. It reads: “Behold the Lord has kept me alive for forty-five years ever since the Lord spoke this word to Moses while Israelites wandered in the wilderness. And now here I am this day, 85 years old. I am as strong this day as I was on the day Moses sent me. Just as my strength was then, so now is the strength for war, both for going out and for coming in.”
Until the abortive August 1, 1982 military coup by junior members of the Kenya Air Force, the name Raila Odinga was hardly known outside his family and business circles.
He lived in the shadow of his father, Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga, who was independent Kenya’s first vice president before he fell out with powers-that-were, to become the indomitable father of Kenyan Opposition politics. Jaramogi passed on in January 1994 aged 83 years.
Recently, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua scornfully referred to Senior Odinga and son Raila as having been thorn-in-the-flesh of Kenyan leadership for the 60 years of Kenya’s independence. The DP can be understood for equating constitutional right of free expression to subversion. It isn’t easy to teach an old dog new tricks, less so domesticate a wild one!
Gun shots at dawn
I was a Form 2 student at Nanyuki High School during the 1982 coup attempt. Nanyuki happened to be the other epicentre of the coup activities after the capital, Nairobi. At the school, sandwiched between two main army barracks – 4th and 7th battalions of Kenya Army and the Laikipia Air Base, were many sons of army or air force officers serving in Nanyuki. So you can guess why, as students, we kept abreast with news relating to the abortive coup.
Raila was seized and placed in custody a few days after the coup attempt. Weeks later, he was charged with treason jointly with an editor of The Sunday Standard, one Otieno Mak’Onyango, and a University of Nairobi lecturer Prof Vincent Otieno.
Six months later on April 14, 1983, the treason charges were dropped without reason and the trio placed in detention without trial.
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While detained at the General Service Unit (GSU) headquarters, Raila says he was visited by the then GSU commandant, Ben Gethi, who demanded that he put in writing all he knew about the attempted coup.
On reading what Raila had written, the GSU head who, according to Raila, was inebriated and chewing on a goat-rib, tore it describing it as ‘total rubbish’ as he walked away, warning Raila that he better voluntarily confess because they had other means to make him ‘talk’. It was his way of saying torture would be applied on Raila until he ‘sang like a canary’.
Guilty as charged
I got the impression that Raila was neck-deep involved in the ’82 coup when I first met him for an interview in 1992. I asked him point-blank whether or not he had any role in it.
He laughed and gave me an answer which told it all. He said: “At this juncture, I wouldn’t talk about whether or not I was involved in planning of the 1982 coup. When the time comes, I shall tell the entire story as I knew it”.
True to his word, he kept the promise when 20 years later he published his memoir and owned up to his role. In the memoir, he discloses that his family (him and his father) gave generous financial support to the plotters. He also actively took part in planning meetings held at the Ngong’ Road house of Prof Vincent Otieno, with whom he was detained. He also discloses the ownership of the vehicle that coup leader Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka drove when patrolling the capital to monitor progress on the morning of the coup.
A retired air force officer who rose to the pinnacle of military leadership told me that on the morning of the coup, he actually spotted someone like Raila in company of Ochuka patrolling the city streets but didn’t shoot at them because orders had not yet come to open fire on the coup plotters.
Following his arrest, Raila was first charged with treason while in custody for six months. A retired senior Intelligence officer Essau Kioni tells me that the State had foolproof evidence to convict Raila and sentence him to hang, the punishment provided for in the penal code.
However, political ramifications prevailed over the letter of law, says Mr Kioni. “Yes, Raila could have been found guilty and sentenced to hang. But what would have been the political cost of hanging him? We considered all factors at play and advised against it.”
Mr Kioni, who was also involved in investigating the planned but scuttled 1971 coup, tells me the same happened with the first coup when, after gathering all the evidence and having the culprits arrested, the Intelligence advised Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to have the culprits detained and others sentenced to long prison terms.
He says: “In as much as these people were guilty, remember they had families and the communities they came from. We could have taken them to the gallows, but what were the ramifications?”
He says that once the culprits were assured that they wouldn’t be hanged, they agreed to confess, information that was very vital in foiling other potential coups. “Why hang a few individuals and not get to the bottom of the matter to prevent other coups?
One would have thought that on narrowly escaping a date with the hangman and a six-year stint in detention, Raila would change his ways when released from detention in 1988. No way! He plunged headlong back into what he knew best – working in the trenches.
It happened that in the wake of the failed military coup, political opposition went underground in the form of a clandestine movement called Mwakenya, which published what the government called ‘seditious material’ but was actually genuine concerns about budding dictatorship and plunder of public resources.
Within days of release, Raila, now hardened by prison life, quickly touched base with other progressive forces fighting in the trenches.
Once again, police went for him and back to detention. He was in for a year, to be set free in June 1989 when the campaign for multi-party democracy was picking momentum. Again, he plunged into it full-blast. As expected he was grabbed by police and returned to what had now become his second homes – Kamiti and Manyani maximum security prisons.
Multi-party finally came but except for several brief spells when he served in the government, fighting in the trenches seems to be where Raila is most comfortable – of course until Canaan beckons.