Kenya: 16-Hour Blunder That Cost Wycliffe Ogalo His Top Prisons Job

(file photo).
28 November 2021

On a cold Sunday night on November 14, a warder approaches Cell No A8 at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, where four terror convicts are being held. She is not supposed to be here tonight, but a surprise rotation of warders has placed her on Cell Block A.

She has checked roll call records, which indicate all prisoners are in their cells. But an instinct tells her to carry out a physical count of the cells, and at Cell No A8, she discovers three suspects are missing.

She checks the roll call records once more and confirms that warders on the earlier shift had indicated that this cell contained four convicts. The warder immediately calls her superiors and tells them something is amiss.

At 1:30am, 30 minutes after the initial discovery of the escape, the warders place calls to the officer in-charge of the facility, Mr Charles Mutembei. They can't reach him. Desperate, they reach out to prisons commissioner-general Wycliffe Ogalo. He is also unavailable. It is approaching 2am, and no action has been taken yet to launch a manhunt for the escapees.

After trying to reach both Mr Mutembei and Mr Ogalo on phone, they send WhatsApp messages to them, telling them that it appears there had been a prison break. In the meantime, in the period between 2am and daybreak, they scour the entire prison looking for clues of the escape. They find none.

The chronology of events on the night three terrorists escaped Kamiti paints the picture of a chaotic night that caught prison bosses with their pants down. Quite surprising, it was not until 4pm on Monday, November 15 that Mr Ogalo called Interior minister Fred Matiang'i to break news of the escape to him.

Crisis meeting

It is not clear why the high ranks of the prisons system took more than 16 hours to alert the ministry of the escape. Sources told the Sunday Nation yesterday that the chaotic way in which they managed the episode, their delays in physically going to Kamiti to coordinate recovery efforts, and the fact that no one, really, knew when the terrorists had escaped did not go down well with Dr Matiang'i and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Word spread through the prison during the morning parade on Monday, yet it was not until 9:10am that the WhatsApp messages to Mr Ogalo were delivered. Forty minutes after that, Mr Ogalo convened a crisis meeting at his office in Magereza House in Upper Hill.

The meeting lasted two hours, and at its conclusion, it was agreed that Mr Ogalo will not communicate the escape to his superiors until all efforts to trace the escapees had been exhausted. This delay is being viewed within senior security circles as highly risky and is assumed to have given the escapees enough lead time to clear the bounds of the city and its surroundings.

As another night of chaos loomed, Dr Matiang'i informed President Kenyatta of the escape at 4:05pm, five minutes after Mr Ogalo's call to him. Three minutes later, at 4:08pm, the National Security Advisory Committee convened a virtual meeting to discuss the matter and agreed to break the news to the public with a Sh60 million bounty offer for information leading to the arrest of the escapees.

At 7pm, Dr Matiang'i accompanied by Correctional Facilities PS Zeinab Hussein, her Interior counterpart Karanja Kibicho, senior police officers and Mr Ogalo met at Kamiti to assess the scene of crime.

Sources told the Sunday Nation yesterday that Mr Ogalo and his junior, Mr Mutembei, disagreed on the time Mr Ogalo was informed of the escape.

At the prison, the team was shown a hole in the first barrier wall to the prison and told the convicts had burrowed to their freedom. An escape through this hole, however, would have led the terrorists straight to a six-metre wall manned by armed officers. Dr Matiang'i briefed the President about the assessment a few minutes past 11am, and a decision was made that night to replace Mr Ogalo.

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