When comrades Wetang'ula and Speaker Muturi risked lynching

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi chats with Senator Moses Wetangula as Cyrus Jirongo, George Wainaina, and Musalia Mudavadi looks on. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Ford Kenya leader Moses Wetang'ula has been promised the position of National Assembly Speaker should Deputy President William Ruto be elected president in the August election. If things work that way, Wetangula will be taking over from current Speaker Justin Muturi.

It isn’t the first time fate has Muturi and Wetangula in the same alliance – for better or for worse. One day – Saturday, May 16, 1981 – when law students at the University of Nairobi, the two narrowly escaped lynching by fellow students who accused them of being “traitors”.

Luckily, they were nowhere to be found the moment “comrades” wanted to nail their hide on the wall. Not finding them in their rooms, “comrades” collected their personal effects – clothing, beddings, photo albums, and music systems – and set them ablaze as they sang "moto umewaka leo" and "Shetani asindwe."

This is background to the incident as related in an unpublished manuscript by one of the student leaders at the time Oduor Ong’wen, who is executive director at the ODM party, and corroborated by press reports at the time. The year 1981 opened with a sad note for Kenya. On the New Year eve, a terrorist bomb exploded at the Norfolk Hotel next to the University of Nairobi main campus. Nineteen people died in the blast as scores were injured.

When the university opened few days later, student leaders convened a Kamukunji (meeting) to discuss their safety and express concerns about Kenya’s foreign policy and international leanings which they saw as the cause of the terrorist attack. The attack was linked to the Palestinians reportedly on revenge mission on Kenya which three years earlier had helped Israelis stage a commando rescue mission of hostages aboard a hijacked French Air Bus at Entebbe, Uganda.

In February, President Daniel Moi made a five-day State visit to India. As was usual in his presidency, he made an address from the airport where he warned university students against planned demonstration to commemorate sixth anniversary of March 2, 1975 assassination of outspoken MP, JM Kariuki. The President warned of stern action against students and lecturers who would take part in the planned picketing. “I am waiting for the day – March 2 - to see whether there are men at the university!” he said. Scared, the students held a Kamukunji and resolved in the light of tough taking by the Head of State they would not venture into the streets but would hold a symposium within university grounds to remember JM. It was not to be. A day to March 2, the government ordered the university closed until further notice. Students were required to immediately pack their bags and get out.

On resumption of studies in mid April students resumed from where they had left it. They invited radical Zimbabwean politician Edgar Tekere to address them. He was in the country at the invitation of the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga family. The university’s Taifa Hall was filled beyond capacity in the afternoon the Zimbabwean was to come only to be informed he suddenly had been deported back to Harare. Two weeks later, radical Nakuru North MP Koigi wa Wamwere was to give a public lecture at the university only for government to order it cancelled at the last minute.

University of Nairobi students when they damaged a police vehicle during demonstrations in May 1981. [File, Standard]

Meanwhile, then Bondo MP Hezekiah Ougo resigned in a quiet arrangement with Jaramogi Odinga who was to contest the seat only to be denied clearance by the ruling party Kanu. University of Nairobi students issued a press statement to protest the decree to bar Jaramogi from contesting terming it a conspiracy to deny the people of Bondo their constitutional right to elect the MP of their choice.

The clouds were gathering. President Moi condemned university students and declared that Kanu decisions “were final and nobody had mandate to challenge them!” Kanu Secretary General Robert Matano parroted the President remarks with a warning that the party would brook no challenge. “There should never be any questions once Kanu has made a decision!” he barked to please the master.

War zone

In May, doctors went on a national strike to protest low pay and working conditions, corruption in procurement at the Ministry of Health and overall neglect in provision of medical services. The government declared the doctors strike illegal and arrested a number of them to instill fear in the rest. Meanwhile, the government announced the university would be closed for nine months for what it called “re-organistion”. Essentially, it was a ploy to tame the increasing student militancy.

Students moved first and resolved to stage demonstrations to resist intended closure, express solidarity with the striking doctors and decry suffocation of democratic space. On May 15, students held a Kamukunji and unanimously agreed to hold peaceful demonstrations to air their grievances. They poured unto University Way, through Moi Avenue, Tom Mboya Street, to River Road. The demonstration was all along peaceful until police and crack GSU squad intervened, lobbing tear gas and charging on students and civilian caught up in the ensuing melee. For almost entire day, the CBD and River Road area was a “war” zone as police run amok, as students paid back in same coin pelting the police with all manner of “missiles”. A police car was overturned and about to be torched when reinforcements arrived.


Meanwhile, eight six students sneaked away from the “comrades” and made their way to a newspaper office on Tom Mboya Street where they denounced the student demonstration. Among them were two law students, Justin Bedan Muturi and Moses Wetang'ula. They claimed that a large number of the students were opposed to the demonstration and urged the government to arrest those who had addressed the morning Kamukunji at the university. The eight made a wild allegation that the demonstration had a “foreign” support and urged the government to investigate who was behind the “student agitators”. The eight said their names shouldn’t be disclosed fearing reprisal from “comrades”. The newspaper didn’t mention their names but carried their picture. It wasn’t rocket science for “comrades” to identify who was in the picture.

Early morning the following day, a newspaper cutting with a picture of the eight students was pinned at the main notice-board at the Central Catering Unit (CCU). Alongside were names of the students, their halls of residence and room numbers. All remained calm until mid-day when word came that student leaders who had addressed the previous day Kamukunji had been expelled. Among them was classmate to Muturi and Wetang'ula, Makau Mutua now the Azimio spokesperson and a law professor in the US.

Sympathetic “comrades” suddenly abandoned their lunch and went to express sympathy with their expelled colleagues. In the evening, students held an impromptu Kamukunji and resolved to go for the eight students who had been to the newspaper offices. They resolved that the eight who they condemned as “traitors” be brought to “stand trial” for betrayal. Not finding them in their rooms at the halls of residence, “comrades” collected their personal effects and made a bonfire.

Postscript: Recently on hearing Speaker Muturi and Wetang'ula had joined a political formation opposed to one he supports Prof Mutua dismissively shrugged off saying: “Who cares what side the two supports! They have no loyalty to anybody or anything but themselves.” Sounds like he never forgot or forgave!