Why probing basis of coup attempt in 1982 is still elusive

Former KDF officers who lost their jobs after the coup in a packed courtroom in Kisumu where they sued the government for compensation. [File, Standard]

Thirty years after the collapse of the August 1 coup d’état, the ideological inclination and political basis of its most prominent proponent, the late Snr Private Hezekiah Raballa Ochuka, remain undocumented.

Not unraveling the ideological basis of this event and the Peoples Redemption Council (PRC) masterminds remains a lingering failure of Kenya’s journalism and scholarship despite the coup attempt’s significance to Kenya’s post-independence history.

PRC was a group of junior Air Force servicemen chaired by Ochuka.

Whereas mainstream scholarship has depicted Ochuka as the mastermind of the August 1 event, emerging consensus from interviews with former veterans suggests that Sergeant Injene Injeremani and Pancras Oteyo Okumu were the ideological brains behind the coup attempt.

Injeremani, who was the first to be executed on or around  July 7, 1997, after the court martials of 1983-1984, and Okumu were members of the PRC.

They were deemed to be the most leftist and radical of the nine-member PRC. To stall its split, they settled on Ochuka, who emergent scholarship suggest was a compromise choice during planning the putsch.

Ochuka was the natural choice due to his charisma. In an interview with a journalist in Garissa on July 31, 2007, a veteran of the Air Force who had known Ochuka since 1974 claimed thus: “Ochuka liked to read newspapers. He was social but I never heard him discuss politics.”

Unanswered questions

The former serviceman who was court martialed and detained for close to two years in Naivasha and Nairobi described Ochuka as a charismatic person who also loved sports.

“We used to meet in the same mess. He was a brilliant man. I had known him since my employment in 1974. He loved sports, especially football.”

Despite these claims, most veterans of the Air Force shun discussing the events preceding August 1, hence curtailing a deeper understanding of the ideology of the PRC.

Kenya’s administrations and the British government have not been helpful in unraveling the many unanswered questions, including how many university students and soldiers died.

The British officials who allegedly intercepted intelligence via Seychellois dissidents in London that enabled the anti-Ochuka forces to succeed also remain quiet.

The Official Secrets Act and closed culture of Kenya’s military inhibit thorough investigation of this matter.

One can also easily be charged for serious crimes, including incitement and treason, for probing the significance of the Ochuka project in Kenya’s political history and development.

A proper contextual analysis of Ochuka’s and the PRC’s ideological bent and whether the plot had external support can be determined if the military declassified this important information.

Such information will disclose whether PRC members had travelled outside Kenya for training or peacekeeping or met anti-Kenya people abroad and their professional and disciplinary records.

But there is growing evidence to suggest that the coup was not a mere ethnic plot within the military by disgruntled/reckless junior airmen as depicted in mainstream writings.

Interviews with veterans of the Kenya Air Force that spearheaded it now admit the uprising by junior servicemen had support within the infantry and naval forces as well and cut across tribes and that the events of August 1 were inspired by the take over of Liberia by the late Samuel Doe in 1980. 

Doe overthrew President William Tolbert by exploiting the popular discontent sweeping across Liberia, which like Kenya, was closely aligned to the British and US establishments.

Critiques of the Ochuka project have often argued it could have succeeded if senior officers were involved, an argument that ignores the many interconnected factors behind the failure and success of these coups in Africa in the 1980s.

In a past interview, a former soldier admitted thus: “Some of us were encouraged by what had happened in Liberia when Doe overthrew the leadership in Liberia in 1980.”

In military history of coups, many insurgencies by young soldiers arise from what is called the copy-cat or contagion factor. In West Africa, several coups followed Doe’s example.

Young soldiers returning from peacekeeping missions and training abroad tended to be inclined to change their societies through force for lack of other alternatives.

Communist links

Between 1977 and 1981, several young soldiers participated in several peacekeeping missions in Cyprus. By 1981 the first military plot against President Daniel arap Moi was uncovered.

Younger soldiers tended to be better-educated and politically responsive hence capable of engaging in military adventure against the status quo. The average age of the Kenyan plotters was 25, around the same time that Doe and Captain Thomas Sankara of Upper Volta took power by force. 

In the Kenyan context, there is some evidence to suggest that because the Air Force comprised educated soldiers, it enjoyed some ideological comity with anti-establishment intellectuals at the University of Nairobi during the Kenyatta (1) and Moi regimes and Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere.

Nyerere’s hatred for Kenya’s regimes was legendary, and as a foremost supporter of decolonisation, he despised the Kenyatta and Moi regimes’ response to events in Uganda under General Idi Amin and apartheid South Africa. When the coup attempt in Kenya collapsed, the natural place to run to was Tanzania and Nyerere offered asylum to PRC members.

There is yet no objective evidence proving Tanzania’s or Libya’s support of the Kenyan coup attempt, although some Kenyan agitators had been sighted in 1980 and 1981 in Libyan military camps alongside Yoweri Museveni.

The alleged communist links of the coup plotters have neither been investigated nor proved.

Like the preceding Mau Mau episode before it, the Ochuka plot appears to have been an internal implosion spurred by worsening material contradictions in the long-term, and a constitutional crisis in the short-term.

Typically, a foreign funded coup would have involved direct funding in money and material or mercenaries.

No evidence has been adduced to demonstrate the coup plotters had separate arms, vehicles and monies from abroad as was common with foreign-funded coups.

This lack of external support and funding, in part, contributed to the early collapse and minimised the risk of external intervention as well.

Politically, the Kenyan public was least prepared for a coup attempt and when the public was invited to show public support, they chose to loot and wreck the nation’s capital instead.

Mass hysteria

This, according to former convict Odhiambo Apiny, created logistical and tactical problems for the coup plotters.

In an interview 25 years ago after his release, Apiny said the mass hysteria disabled the coup plotters from organising defences and deploying across major installations.

A former soldier admits he drove mutinous soldiers to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi but did not see them deploy.

Some of the infantry soldiers he fraternised with at the beginning of the coup attempt in support of Ochuka later turned on the Air Force compatriots, he claimed.

Improper planning unfolded at the former VoK when the putschists deployed untrained university students in the station’s takeover. 

Diplomatic reports by Western embassies now admit the British foreign intelligence relayed information to the government of the impending coup, some weeks before August 1 during which the Ochuka group are also alleged to have moved the coup plan forward by a week on learning a separate plan by a section of the infantry.

Evidently, local intelligence slept on the job. Despite receiving specific and general intelligence from the British (some accounts indicate South Africa and Israel also gave information), local detectives failed to foil the coup plot.

Even when the coup attempt collapsed, loyalist forces were unable to capture the plotters who fled to Tanzania. They were repatriated in 1983 after an agreement between Kenya and Tanzania.

The other side of the argument, now confirmed by former Air Force soldiers, is that the coup plot was known (before August 1) to other military formations, whose officers participated in the initial stages, a fact buttressed by the conviction of many Kenya Army (infantry commanders) at the military tribunals in 1983 and 1984.