Detention torture, confessions that never were and sweet freedom

Raila Odinga lights a candle for Oduor Ong'wen during the launch of the book 'Stronger than faith' at the Nairobi National Museum on October 6, 2022. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

When Oduor Ongwen was arrested alongside 66 others for allegedly plotting the 1982 coup to dethrone President Moi, the State agents tortured them in a bid to extract confessions, which however were not forthcoming. In his final installment, he relives his prison days, how they were finally set free, as well as the withdrawal of treason charges against Raila

Each of the 67 of us went through a similar routine of questioning and torture. In their warped psychology, the Special Branch believed that playing on ethnic sentiments would enable them to nail us.

Tactically, the Special Branch first tried using the threat of charging us with treason, then dangled a lesser charge of celebrating the coup, which in their explanation would attract a sentence of just a few months. When all this failed, they resorted to persuasion. Their last card was a plea bargain. Each of us was promised freedom with a bond to keep peace if he pleaded guilty

The exercise was an unmitigated failure. They did not extract even a single confession. After more than two months of incommunicado detention at Embakasi GSU Training School, the Special Branch had to make some movement. I was handed over to someone, Mutua Sila, an officer at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). That was about the fifth occasion I was being taken to Carpet House from Embakasi. Sila initially pretended to be friendly, but his friendly mask did not last. He promised to be more brutal "than those Bravo people".

This was the first time I learnt that the Special Branch and the CID were different entities in the Kenya Police, but had a very open rivalry. When he realised he was not making much headway with me, Sila told me that I was to be isolated and dealt with. That evening, I was not taken back to the GSU Training School, which had become like home. I was driven away from Carpet House to Muthangari Police Station where I stayed overnight. Unknown to me, the next cell's inmate was Ogony Adongo, the SONU Secretary General. The other one adjacent to it had housed Raila Odinga. I learnt these from police officers on the morning after both had separately left to undisclosed destinations. That is when I learnt that Raila had been arrested. Shortly after a breakfast of tea and two slices of bread, the Kombi came and drove me back to Carpet House.

At Carpet House, I was dumped in the usual empty Waiting Room where I sat for close to four hours without knowing what would follow. Then a few minutes after midday, a sentry came and led me into another office, where I sat for some five minutes Sila made his entry. He did not have any preliminaries. He just went straight to the business of the day. I was to be charged with the offence of sedition. He read to me a charge and caution, and then began taking a formal statement from me, which I signed. At about 3pm, I was back in the Kombi heading to GSU Training School. There were three vans full of Embakasi GSU Training School inmates. All of them had been charged, cautioned and their respective statements recorded.

Within the next three days, each of us being held at the GSU Training School had been made to sign a cautionary statement. At the end of two months incommunicado detention at the GSU Training School with intermittent visits to Carpet House for interrogation, threats and torture, our captors decided to formally charge us with criminal offences

The charges were individually read to us 'under caution', and they were identical. Under the political offence of sedition, the particulars of the charges were that we "took part in public demonstrations the purpose of which was to excite disaffection against the Government of Kenya as by law of established".

For two days, we were driven to Kamukunji Police Station for fingerprinting and photographing. I appeared in the Chief Magistrate's Court with 33 others on September 30, 1982. The Chief Magistrate was Abdul Raouf, while the prosecutor was Harwood. We all denied the charges The Court denied us both bail and legal representation and sent us to the Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison at Industrial Area. Another batch of 33 students followed on Tuesday, October 5, 1982, bringing to 67 the total number of University students charged with sedition.

Earlier, the same court had jailed Titus Adungosi for 10 years on a torture-induced 'own plea of guilty'. Four or five students, among them Mwandawiro Mghanga and Aduke remained at the GSU Training School and were eventually released unconditionally. After our 'not guilty' plea, we were taken down to the cells at the basement of the Law Courts (now the Supreme Court) and later driven to the Industrial Area in the green prison vans, known as the 'Green Maria'.

At the basement, we met David Onyango Oloo, a First Year student who had been arrested at Voi while on a train ride to Mombasa. An overzealous policeman had taken him out of the train when he identified himself as a university student, searched his bag and found an unfinished essay titled, 'A Plea to Comrades'. The policeman handed Oloo to the local Special Branch office, who concurred that Oloo was a dangerous student and took him back to Nairobi, where he was charged with possession of a seditious publication.

Oloo had been at the prison facility for six weeks and had, therefore, become an 'expert' on prison life. He briefed us on what to expect. Some of the things he told us to expect, like anal searches, were unfathomable. But they came to pass. We were spread between blocks A and B, and each provided with one old lice-infested blanket each. A cowshed would have been much more preferable than the position where I was shown to place my blanket as my spot to sleep for the night. It was teeming with human waste and the floor was permanently wet.

My first morning in prison exposed me to a world I had never imagined existed. Act Number One was to squat in sets of five to be head counted. After the count, breakfast was served. It consisted of a scoop of porridge poured into a mururu. Mururu is an aluminium tin shaped like a glass but big enough to carry about two litres of liquid. It was amusing to see a scoop of porridge measuring barely 100 millilitres served in the two-litre mururu. When one drank porridge, the whole head was covered and made such a pitiable spectacle.

The porridge was almost raw. I skipped eating it in the hope that I would make good during lunch which, when it came at around 10.30am, was worse. Lunch was a thin slice of ugali (maize meal) and a cupful of beans Like the porridge, the ugali was only half-cooked. I gave my share to one of the inmates whom I later learnt had been in remand for two years.

Supper arrived at 4pm and I regretted not marshalling the courage to eat breakfast or lunch. It comprised another thin slice of half-cooked ugali and water with a few chopped leaves of decaying cabbages. I decided to forego this as well. To start with, I don't eat cabbages at all. Coupled with how it was prepared and its appearance, I could not eat supper. All the while, the old inmates were amused. They told me that soon I would be longing for the food I so despised. They did not have to wait for long. I woke up the following day with a searing hunger in my stomach and a feeling of weakness. I had to force myself to eat the porridge and the half-cooked ugali for lunch. For supper, however, I was unable to eat the cabbages throughout my stay. I later informed a doctor from Kamiti when he next visited and he prescribed another serving of beans for me at supper, plus a packet of fresh milk. I was grateful to Dr Adala.

By the fourth day, the prison food had become quite normal to me. Meanwhile, my clothes - like those of everyone else - teemed with lice. The second and final batch of student detainees from Embakasi GSU Training School joined us after five days. With their arrival, we became the largest and most visible group. After a few days, Block D was evacuated and we were all placed there. This was like being accommodated in a five star hotel. Before independence, it was reserved for Asians.

In the first two weeks, we were denied access to newspapers and toiletries that our relatives and friends were willing to supply. When it was obvious that prison authorities would not acquiesce to our demands, we took the struggle so the courtrooms. We appeared in court every 14 days. Since we were two batches charged five days apart, there was a group appearing in court every week. Oloo was appearing even more frequently as the hearing of his case was supposed to commence but his advocates were trying to persuade him to enter a 'guilty plea' in exchange for a lenient sentence. He adamantly refused and his two counsel withdrew from the case in quick succession. He ended up representing himself and made a good job of it.

We had resolved to make an application for bail at every court appearance. Magistrate Raouf would rule against it even without the State Counsel Harwood making his objection. But this did not deter us. We narrated the ill-treatment we were subjected to in prison, which led to a prison visit by then Senior Principal Magistrate Mary Ang'awa. We managed to have the court issue orders allowing our relatives to supply us with newspapers, soap, tissue paper and books, subject to 'reasonable' censorship. Maina wa Kinyatti, a respected lecturer of History at Kenyatta University College, had been arrested in May and charged with possession of a seditious publication, Moi's Divisive Tactics Exposed. He had denied the charges and was facing a trial. As expected, he was denied bail. He was also remanded in Industrial Area and had been appearing in court every fortnight.

Soon after we arrived, the hearing of his case started in earnest. He, therefore had to attend court daily. Kinyatti was being held in Block G, which was reserved for individuals facing capital offences. I was not acquainted with him, but he was close to Kenyatta University College students like Jeff Mwangi, Wahinya Boore, Wachira Waruru and Ong'ele O'Pala. These students became our day contacts with him. Kinyatti's case had attracted considerable international attention and we were quick to leverage on this to expose our plight to the outside world. After we had been at Industrial Area for three weeks, Kinyatti was pronounced 'guilty' and sentenced to six years in prison on October 18, 1982. He was taken to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where I joined him less than four years later.

Our stay in Block D was short-lived. On November 1, 1982, the prison warders tried to beat Oloo one morning as he was being taken to court for the judgment of his case. We did not know why but we could not countenance the warders meting a punishment on one of our own, who had not been convicted. We all stood by the grills of the cell windows and shouted at the warders. They were shocked as this was not what they were used to. The warders stopped harassing Oloo and turned on us, warning of dire consequences. That day, we expected to be beaten senseless. The beating did not occur, but we were once again transferred from Block D. We were taken to Block F, which was completely concealed from the view of the rest of the prison. Block F was not bad and we spent the rest of our remand stay there.

Oloo was found guilty and sentenced to six years in jail. He was also taken Kamiti. The rest of our stay was routine, with each group appearing in court fortnightly, applying for bail, which was quickly denied, being fed at the basement cells with food brought by a group of Catholic faithful coordinated by Professor Father Joseph Donders. The only break to the routine occurred on Christmas Day. Donders had applied to the Commissioner of Prisons to be allowed to celebrate Christmas with us. The request was granted on condition that they would not discriminate against other inmates. So, for the first time in the history of the prison, the inmates had food and drinks from outside served to them on Christmas Day.

The year 1983 opened with the usual routine. The regular court appearances continued without any indication from the State of when the hearings would begin. Then on Friday, February 18, after we had had supper and were locked in, the warders came and called out six from among us. These were Mwangi Boore, O'Pala, Ephantus Kinyua, Thomas Mutuse and Kitui Simiyu. They were ordered to take with them all their personal belongings. There was no word about the new development. The following morning, we tried to question friendly warders but they pleaded ignorance.

Getting information in prison over a weekend was not the easiest of tasks. But by noon on Monday, word had filtered back that the six had been transferred to Kamiti.

Uncertainty took hold of the remaining 61 of us. We tried to analyse and speculate on the meaning, significance and possible consequence of this move by the State but we were unable to arrive at a logical conclusion.

Stronger Than Faith: My Journey in the Quest for Justice

Genre: Autograph

Author: Oduor Ongwen

Publisher: Vita Books, 2022

Copyright 2022, Oduor Ongwen

Availability: Distributed by African Books Collective (ABC)

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