A rankled President, a VP in hiding and a country on tenterhooks: David Musila recounts how Air force mutiny tested his leadership skills to the limit in new book Seasons of Hope.
I was aware of an imminent military coup as we neared August 1982. I knew of it because the information was covered in our Provincial Security summaries. It began as rumours, which I thought should not have been cause for undue alarm. Then as we neared the date of the 1982 Central Kenya Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) Show, a popular agricultural and trade fair hosted in Nyeri town, rumours started escalating. According to the rumours, the coup was to take place that show weekend. The ASK Show was staged annually at the end of July and the Head of State always graced the opening of the Show at the Ruring'u Stadium.
A few days before the scheduled date, I received a call from the State House Comptroller, Abraham Kiptanui. He informed me that after opening the Show on July 30, 1982, the President would spend the night at the nearby Sagana State Lodge. As was customary, I organised a few troupes of popular traditional dancers for the President's evening entertainment. I also detailed Chief Munyingi of Mweiga to deliver 10 young Dorper sheep for consumption by the President and his guests.
I then travelled to Nairobi, where I spent the night of July 29 as I waited to escort the President to Nyeri the following morning. My sleep was disturbed. I could not remove the coup talk from my mind, so I prayed for peace to prevail in our beautiful country. On the morning of July 30, I went to State House and had breakfast with the President. We had a hearty meal. Just before we departed for Nyeri, President Moi called me aside. He informed me that he would not spend the night at Sagana State Lodge.
"You should allow all the arrangements for the presidential visit at Sagana State Lodge to continue as planned. But do not tell anyone about my change of plans," he warned. I clearly understood the President especially because of my concern for the rumoured coup. The President seemed to be in a jovial mood as we left for Nyeri. We stopped at many towns and shopping centres along the way for him to acknowledge greetings from wananchi.
When we arrived in Nyeri, we drove straight to my official residence, where we had lunch before we left for the stadium with my official car in the lead. We found the Kenya Air Force at the stadium, ready to mount the presidential guard of honour. The President, the Air Force Commander Major General Peter Kariuki, the Chief of General Staff General Jackson Mulinge and I mounted the ceremonial open Land Rover and did a lap of honour round Ruring'u stadium, acknowledging cheers from the huge crowd. Everyone in my company appeared tense. With the coup rumours and with the President's intimation to me about his change of plan, a cold feeling sank into my stomach. My worry was that the intelligence information was not clear which arm of the Defence Forces was planning the coup. The President was composed but I was very jittery. Many terrifying images ran through my mind as I thought of the assassination of John F Kennedy, President of the USA. I visualised a masked man opening fire on the Land Rover.
However, some strange events did take place (in Nyeri). During such functions, what in military jargon is called the beating of retreat is normally performed at 6pm by members of the defence forces. This act involves them lowering the national flag and then marching off. On that day, as we went for tea at 4pm, a snap decision was made for the beating of retreat to be performed immediately; this was unusual. The parade and Army band were quickly assembled and we conducted the ceremony in a hurry.
Then the President's motorcade was summoned and soon we were on our way towards Nakuru via Nyahururu town. I was supposed to escort the Presidential motorcade up to the boundary between Nyandarua and Nakuru districts. As tradition demanded, I would bid the President farewell and hand him over to my Rift Valley counterpart. This time, however, the PC Rift Valley Province was nowhere because he could not be notified of the change of plans. Nevertheless, as my official car was in the lead when we reached the official point of handing over, I stopped to wait for the President.
When he arrived, I thanked him for his visit to Central Province and said goodbye. He looked at me, paused pensively then asked me to accompany him to Nakuru State House. We proceeded to Nakuru as requested by the President--I and other members of the Provincial Security Committee; Barnabas Kipkorir arap Chemase, the Provincial Police Officer (PPO); and Samuel Wathome, the Provincial Special Branch Officer. When we reached Nakuru State House, I again asked the President for permission to leave but he insisted that we have dinner together. During the meal he appeared agitated and repeatedly narrated the great achievements Kenya had witnessed during his short tenure. "Now", he lamented, "there are some elements planning to plunge the country into anarchy". We listened quietly. After dinner, he allowed us to leave, "Chungeni hii nchi (take good care of this country)!" he said as he bid us goodbye.
How Musila hid Mwai Kibaki in an unhygienic golf store
The following day was Saturday, July 31, 1982. I was scheduled to be the Chief Guest at the Central ASK Show. I woke up to a rather dull day. I was not sure whether the public had heard of the coup rumour but we, the members of the security team, were in a panic. Chemase, the PPO, would occasionally give me alarming news of the unrest in the military. This greatly raised my levels of discomfort. Thankfully, some of the news turned out to be false. I was able to preside over the Show and even toured a few stands to admire agricultural produce, industrial and manufactured goods.
Throughout the day, however, I could not get rid of the dull feeling that had settled in the pit of my stomach the previous day. The President's mood also disturbed me. His insistence that we accompany him to Nakuru, his lamentations at dinner, his lecture about the country and its achievements, and his parting words, ran through my mind relentlessly. At 6pm I took the salute from the parade mounted by the Kenyan Army as we lowered the Kenyan flag and then proceeded to my residence. I did not sleep that night. I did not want anything to happen to our President and my country. The President had been in power barely three years. Why would anyone want to remove him? What would be the motivation for such a coup? My long night came to pass with the famous Voice of Kenya broadcast by Leonard Mambo Mbotela, announcing to the nation that the government had been overthrown.
A cold chill ran down my spine. I jumped out of my bed! The rumours had come to pass. As Provincial Commissioner and Chair of the Provincial Security Committee, I rose to take charge of the situation and face whatever consequences were in store for me. I reached for my hotline to talk to the President. It was dead! All other telephone lines had been disconnected too. I could not even reach the DCs outside Nyeri District.
I gathered my family together and informed them what had happened. I told them that as a PC, I was the President's personal representative in the Province and that the job came with its unique hazards. I further explained to my wife that my position in government made me a prime target of the coup plotters and, therefore, asked that they stay indoors. Beatrice displayed a degree of courage that fortified my nerves; her attitude encouraged and rejuvenated me.
I knew the Administration Police officers, who manned the gate of my residence, were no match to the big guns of the Kenya Air Force. I rushed to the gate and told them not to fire a single shot or even struggle if the Kenya Air Force soldiers decided to come in. They should just allow them to enter and direct them to me. It was for moments like these that a man is made the leader of other people.
Surprisingly, now that the nightmare had become a reality, I was very calm on the outside, but internally my whole being was spinning. It was as though I was functioning on autopilot. After issuing instructions at my home I rushed to my office, opened the safes and drawers, removing all sensitive official documents that were in my possession. I lit a bonfire and burnt them all in my compound.
I then called a special meeting of the Provincial Security Committee. We directed that all police officers in the province remain on high alert and ignore the radio broadcast. After we critically assessed the situation, it was a relief to learn that only a section of the military had staged the coup.
Still, something else made us very jittery, most of Kenya's military, particularly the Kenya Airforce, was based in Nanyuki, an area in my Province not far from where we were located in Nyeri. We were, therefore, very close to the section of military that was directly linked to the coup. This situation prompted us to protect all security installations including water plants, power generating stations, public buildings, cereals depots and coffee stores.
The next step was to secure all the VIPs who might have been within the Province at the time. VP Mwai Kibaki had been at the Nyeri Agricultural Show together with President Moi, and we suspected that he was residing at his home in Othaya. Kibaki frequently travelled to his Othaya home during the weekends. I called him to find out if he was safe and informed him that I was sending a Senior Police Officer whom he knew well to pick him up. It was important that I send someone he could trust. Samuel Wathome, the Provincial Special Branch Officer (PSBO), was at the rank of a Deputy Police Commissioner and Mwai Kibaki knew him very well.
The VP was gravely concerned about the turn of events. He wanted to know what was happening but I could only give him general details as I had heard them on Voice of Kenya (VoK) radio. Samuel Wathome armed himself with a machine-gun and assembled a group of well-armed police officers. We feared there might be soldiers in Nyeri town, who could attack us or were closing in. It was important that we quickly find a safe place for the VP. I asked Wathome to inform the VP that we could only guarantee his security if he followed our instructions.
Actually, it was more of an order than a request. When the VP reached Nyeri, I could see that he was shaken by the events. It was no surprise, after all he was the VP of the government that had just been toppled, and if there were people who the coup plotters would have loved to lay their hands on, surely the VP would have been ranked top on their list!
The first place I thought we could hide him was at the Nyeri Club. We found a tiny storeroom, small and somehow unhygienic, and locked him in it. I reasoned that the coup plotters would not think of looking for the VP in a place like that. A few hours later I started questioning my decision about the VP's hideout; the space was too tiny and was obviously an undignified place to squeeze a man of Mwai Kibaki's stature. I made further consultations with the security team, we quickly put together a large contingent of security personnel and we moved him to his own house near the Mount Kenya Hospital in Nyeri town. I directed that he be guarded round the clock and that my wife would be in charge of all his meals! She would make lunch and take it to the VP under very heavy escort. I gave firm instructions that no one outside the detailed personnel should come near that house. I seconded a Senior Police Officer to enforce my directives to the letter! No exceptions were to be tolerated! I received updates from time to time on the security status of the VP.
Back in town, I took charge and started patrolling the urban area to evaluate the situation. I ordered that everything continue as usual. It was important that the Agricultural Show continued to the end to instil some confidence in the people, I requested Nyeri DC Norman Njuguna to look after the affairs of the Show while I concentrated on matters of National Security. Later when I went to inspect how things at the Show were progressing, I found that most of the attendees had gone back to their homes. It seemed no one wanted to be caught in town. By afternoon, Nyeri town was completely deserted. At around 6pm that day, I received the good news that the Air Force mutiny had been crushed by superior and loyal Kenya Army forces under the command of Major General Mahamoud Mohammed. The government was back in power!
I was delighted to hear the news that the President was back in his constitutional position. I picked up the VP from his hideout and brought him to my house for dinner. The danger was now over and telephone lines had been restored. It was during dinner that I managed to put a call through to President Moi through my hotline. I first congratulated him and then quickly gave him a brief on the security situation in my province that everything was fine. President Moi sounded nervous and quite agitated.
Vice-President Mwai Kibaki was curiously listening as I spoke to the President and before I hung up, he asked to speak to his boss. I informed the President of the VP's request to speak to him. Kibaki was actually standing next to me as he waited for me to hand him the receiver, but alas! The President retorted rather sharply that he did not want to speak with the VP.
I was embarrassed to be in this uncomfortable situation. It was a very awkward moment for me because I had to concoct a lie to the effect that the President had declined saying that he was feeling tired.
Mwai Kibaki, being an understanding man, calmly sat back. Early the next morning, I put together a large security contingent to escort him back to Nairobi for a special Cabinet meeting that had been scheduled for later in the day.
I was happy that he was safely out of my hands.
Next: Read how Raila surprised Simeon Nyachae with 'Kibaki Tosha' remark and the inside story of Kibaki's game of deception, later on.