Ex-KTN editor: Saba Saba rally cut short my career

Youth demonstrate during Saba Saba in Nairobi, July 1990.  [File, Standard]

On Monday July 8, 1997, I was at Gate A to State House, Nairobi at 6am sharp. My early morning presence at the citadel of power was not pleasant but I had no option on this matter. Although short, the drive through the State House gardens to the parking lot turned out to be the loneliest and most agonising in my entire life.

The security detail had apparently been instructed to let me through with minimum delay. I knew I was expected but the reasons for my trip sent jitters down my spine.

I was Head of News, the equivalent of Editor-In-Chief at the then premiere private Kenya Television Network (KTN). Courtesy of that position I was in the presence of President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi on that fateful day.

I had driven alone while the rest of the summoned KTN team of board members and my deputy came in a van. We were herded into a waiting room located just behind the entry to the expansive house on the hill. Then the waiting began. As time ticked away we kept being moved from one waiting room to another.

In between we took in a great deal of tea. Eventually, Mr Franklin Bett, then Comproller of State House called for the KTN team.

“Watu wa KTN waingie” (let the KTN people get in). We rose and followed him. We turned at least three corridors before stopping on a thickly carpeted section. A door opened and we were ushered in.

I happened to sit right next to the chair that would be occupied by the President. After a short while characterised by intimidating silence, an inner door opened and in came His Excellency the President. Behind him was a team of powerful individuals who constituted what we of the media referred to as the kitchen or war cabinet depending on the circumstances.

Walking closely behind the president was his loyal deputy Prof George Saitoti. Behind him was then powerful Energy minister Nicholas Kiprono Biwott and equally influential Kanu Secretary General John Joseph Kamotho. Bringing in the rear was head of the Presidential Press Service Lee Njiru. We all stood as Mtukufu Rais entered the room and remained on our feet until he took his seat.

We were here courtesy of our coverage of Saba Saba riots the previous day. On that chilly morning Nairobi had awaken to a day of tension.

Riots and street battles had marked the better part of the day. In what came to be known as Saba Saba riots, pro-reform activists poured on the streets in defiant of government orders restricting them from holding public rallies at Uhuru Park.

In defiance, they attempted to march to the park. The police responded by charging at the crowds lobbing teargas and water cannons and even live bullets at them.

The situation quickly degenerated into running battles between the police and the protestors who had turned rioters and worsened with entry of the University of Nairobi students.

That Saturday, the riots were characterised by ugly scenes of unprecedented police brutality. Men and women were clobbered senseless by anti-riot police forces. Protesters who included politicians, civil society as well as religious leaders were pursued to church compounds and nearby residential estates and clobbered senseless.

At the All Saints Cathedral, daredevil cleric Reverend Timothy Njoya was cornered and beaten mercilessly as he sought refuge in the house of God. In Muthurwa Estate Off Landhies road, women with babies strapped on their backs were pursued and beaten. In the central business district, street battles turned into sporadic breaking and looting of shops.

The KTN crew recorded all these to their minute details. By evening of that day, we had what we called fantastic footage.

The footage included victims nursing various wounds ranging from bruises, broken limbs and gunshot wounds. At least two people succumbed to stray bullets.

Sirens wailed mournfully as St John and the Red Cross ambulances ferried the injured to hospital and the dead to the mortuary.

Our crews followed in hot pursuit and recorded the cries of pain as doctors and nurses washed, stitched and rejoined bones and muscles.

As the sun went down, a cloud of fear hung precariously over Nairobi. Meanwhile, in our newsroom, the events were packaged into the top story of the 9pm KTN Prime News bulletin.

Before that fateful bulletin was over, orders had already been issued for me, my deputy and entire board of directors of KTN to report to State House at 6am the following day. Here, the president asked just one question.

‘Kwanini mulifanya hivyo “(why did you do that”) - put on the screen those pictures of brutality. The question was directed at nobody in particular. There was dead silence. We had been warned by the board chairman not to respond.

It was the Vice President who broke the silence and did in a devastating way that instantly sealed our fate. Saitoti said “Your Excellency, they wanted to show the world that yours is a police state.

Lee Njiru weighed in with an equally incriminating observation. “KTN had embarked on a campaign to destroy the country,” Njiru asserted adding rather ominously that it was a mistake for me and my deputy to have been hired as editorial managers at KTN.

“The two of them should not be anywhere near a newsroom’’. With that, the enraged President stood up and said “Malizeni na wao” (finish with them). He was apparently leaving for a function upcountry as two military choppers were awaiting him.

As he exited, the rest of the team hurriedly followed him out leaving the KTN team in limbo. Slowly, each of us stood and left without uttering a word to one another.

I drove out of State House the way I had come. Alone. I knew straight away that I and my deputy were the target of the president’s parting shot. Back to the station, the board went straight into a crisis meeting to deliberate on the president’s order to “finish with us”.

At about 9amb next day, my deputy and I were summoned to the office of Managing Director Sam Compton and promptly handed suspension letters and ordered to stay away for three months.

Just a month after our suspension was lifted due to international pressure from media lobbyists and foreign missions, I found myself out of KTN on December 22, 1997 only five days to the General Election of that year when my position was declared redundant alongside those of six senior managers.

The writer is a former Head of News at KTN and Editor-In-Chief at KBC

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