Media / Watchdog
Wednesday, 08 Jun 2016 09:15 EAT
Apart from the legal instruments that established it, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), was a product of deep reflection by Kenyans as a nation— a nation severely scarred, both psychologically and physically, by the post-election violence of early 2008.
The unprecedented violence that saw communities shockingly take up arms against one another in the guise of rage over disputed election results exposed much more than anger over a bungled electoral process— it exposed a highly-fractured society burdened by underlying grievances against each other either as individuals, as communities or against the state machinery.
A careful review of the underlying factors that led to the post-election violence reveal that the deep-seated grievances that Kenyans have against each other at individual, community and government levels have a history— a history of bottled-up anger veiled in a semblance of peace and stability.
To resolve these grievances effectively, it demanded that Kenyans revisit their past collectively as a nation, establish the source of their ‘anger’, then make a deliberate effort to address these grievances amicably and move forward as a united nation-state.
The TJRC was, therefore, a platform upon which Kenyans would look into the past to establish what grievances they had against each other and the origin of these grievances.
Like any other truth commission, the TJRC was a quasi-judicial tribunal that was meant to provide a platform for victims of injustices to render account of their ordeal and release the bottled-up anger. On the other hand, it was to afford perpetrators of injustices the opportunity to voluntarily confess their crimes, seek forgiveness and hopefully offload the burden of guilt that comes with being a perpetrator.
The beauty of a truth commission is that its proceedings are not adversarial because nobody is on trial, yet it provides a platform for both victims and perpetrators to come face to face with each other in a quest for non-retributive justice and resolve to bury the hatchet by pledging to live together harmoniously.
In view of the foregoing, the TJRC was required to compile an accurate account of human rights violations in Kenya. But in compiling this account, a very critical plank of Kenyan society could not be ignored— the media.
Being a marketplace of ideas, the media has played a critical role in the making of the Kenyan nation. However, in the course of playing its role in the making of the Kenyan nation, the media has been both a victim and perpetrator of human rights violations.
It would, therefore, be imperative that a complete and accurate account of human rights violations as per the TJRC mandate includes violations suffered by the media.
It will, therefore, be interesting to see how the media both sinned and was sinned against in the bumptious history of independent Kenya. The following is an account of how real journalists suffered in the hands of state security agents while in the faithful discharge of their duty as watchdog of society.
The experience of veteran journalist Salim Lone encapsulates how state and political machinery was used to suppress freedom of conscience and freedom of media in Kenya. Here is Salim’s story.
Having worked for the New York Times, veteran journalist Salim Lone had the credentials and clout that any journalist would need to make an impact in the bumptious Kenyan democracy that was entering its second decade by 1974.
Eleven years after independence in 1963, Salim Lone was a respected, independent-minded journalist holding the position of chief editor of the Sunday Post— one of the most analytical and independent newspapers in Kenya at that time. But Salim’s professional career started to run into politically-erected speed bumps in 1974.
It is important to point out that 1974 is a significant year in Kenya’s political history because of the general election held that year. It was a high-stakes election because of the immense political emotions that preceded it— keeping in mind that former Economic Planning minister in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government, Tom Mboya, had just been assassinated in 1969 while former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had been kicked out of government in the acrimonious 1966 realignment of the ruling party KANU, resulting in a bitter and disastrous political fall-out that continues to hound the country even today.
Besides, there had been talk of an attempted military coup against Kenyatta’s government in 1970/71 that saw some top military officers arrested and subsequently ‘retired’ from the service in ‘public interest.’
But the centre of gravity of these political emotions was the increasingly poor health of President Kenyatta due to advanced age— a factor that set in motion an intense succession battle in the event of the President’s death.
The Jomo Kenyatta succession battle was characterized by the infamous “change the constitution” campaign orchestrated by powerful individuals in the late President’s inner circle. The change the constitution crusade was meant to ensure that then Vice President Daniel arap Moi did not constitutionally assume the presidency in the event of Kenyatta’s death.
As chief editor of the Sunday Post, Salim was operating in a highly-charged political environment and his publication was bound to have immense impact on the politics of the day.
Earlier in 1973, Salim had published an article submitted by Koigi Wamwere under the headline “Why there is no free education in Kenya.” In the article, Koigi said there was no free education in Kenya because top government officials in Kenyatta’s government had siphoned off public funds to private accounts for personal benefit. This article angered the powers that be because it portrayed them as looters of state coffers at a time they were headed to a crucial election— a plot was thereafter hatched to tame Salim and the Sunday Post.
It didn’t take long before Salim started feeling the heat of political and state machination against free media. Before the 1974 election, the Sunday Post published articles and commentaries that Dr Njoroge Mungai, President Kenyatta’s brother-in-law and personal physician, did not to like.
It must be remembered that Dr Mungai was a powerful minister in Kenyatta’s government and among the most powerful politicians from Central Province who were determined to ensure that the person to succeed Kenyatta was “one of their own.”
Sensing that Salim Lone’s articles could spoil their party, Dr Mungai’s group sought a way to cajole the Sunday Post to sing to the tune of the Central Kenya power brokers of the time.
To tame the Sunday Post, and specifically Mr Salim Lone, Dr Mungai used his influence to convince Print Pack, a subsidiary of the Standard Newspapers, to demand upfront payment before they could print subsequent issues of the Sunday Post. By demanding payment upfront, there are no prizes for guessing where the Sunday Post was headed to.
Later, the Mungai group approached the board of directors of Sunday Post and cajoled it to do what turned out to be clear plot to tame Salim. To ensure that the Sunday Post sings to the tune of “the government”, Brian Tetley was hired as chief sub-editor with the exclusive mandate to write all headlines and decide what stories to be published.
He was to also to ensure that all stories did not go more than 600 words— a clever way of ‘killing’ the analytical and stinging pieces that Salim was best known for given that the Sunday Post was a weekly paper. Hence, by curtailing its analytical capacity, Brian Tetley’s ‘bosses’ succeeded in removing the sting from the Sunday Post’s journalism.
But the plot to completely pacify Salim continued. He was reduced to a night-time editor where he would have no chance to engage in serious journalism. Meanwhile, death threats from unknown people, who in reality was the secret police (Special Branch), were directed at him and he soon realized that it was time for him to quit the Sunday Post after the powers that be made it impossible for him to continue working.
It must be acknowledged that state officers or powerful politicians in Kenya have on many occasions used their influence to put pressure on media houses to either dismiss or not employ certain journalists perceived to be too critical of certain interests. This has amounted to violation of the rights of the targeted journalists as well as denying affected media houses the right to employ the appropriate human resource needed to promote and enhance freedom of expression and press.
Despite the obstacles erected in his way, Salim had a dear friend who really cared about his safety— Mr George Githii, the then managing director of Nation newspapers. Concerned about his safety in the wake of death threats, Githii would occasionally ask Salim to be careful.
When Salim resigned from the Sunday Post, Githii offered to give him a job at the Daily Nation. He called Salim and the two met to discuss the job offer over a cup of coffee.
“Report to work on Monday ready for work,” Githii told Salim during the meeting.
But the offer never came to be, for a crestfallen Githii called Salim 24 hours later to tell him that he could not hire him. In not so many words, Githii told Salim that “powerful forces” had prevailed upon him to cancel the deal, and Salim knew exactly who was behind it.
Githii would later, in 1975, be the one to publish the misleading story that the late Nyandarua South MP, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, was on a trip in Zambia yet his body was actually lying dead in a thicket at the foot of Ngong Hills. The 1975 death of J.M. Kariuki was also the subject of investigation by TJRC under the subject matter of “unresolved assassinations in Kenya.”
After the attempt to get employed by the Nation was thwarted, Salim decided to establish his own media business in the late 1970s, and Viva Magazine became the flagship of Salim’s new media enterprise.
Viva was a middleclass ‘society’ magazine dwelling more on the social life of high-profile people in society and entertainment. Aware of the political enemies that had hounded him since he left the Sunday Post, Salim ensured that Viva’s editorial policy was biased towards social life. But there were occasions when Viva would comment on certain political issues through editorial comments and guest columns.
Apart from Viva, Salim had other publications namely African Perspectives and Mashambani. The former, which took a pan-Africanist approach, used to run detailed analyses on political, social and economic trends in Africa.
However, African Perspectives ran into trouble with state authorities and folded up after publishing two issues only. The article that offended the government was an editorial that condemned the detention of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a former lecturer of English and Literature at the University of Nairobi, who was a critic of the government. Ngugi’s Marxist ideology which he expressed in his literary writings put him at loggerhead with the capitalist elite that controlled the Kenya government.
Mashambani, on the other hand, was a purely farmers’ publication, highlighting issues affecting farmers and seeking to assist them enhance productivity. Oliver Litondo, a former KTN reporter and later actor who stars in the movie ‘The First Grader’, was the editor of Mashambani before it folded up sometime in 1982.
The Moi era
Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978 and Vice President Daniel arap Moi took over in an acting capacity for 90 days as per constitutional requirement. Salim’s encounter with Moi came as a mere coincidence after Viva published a comprehensive, full colour issue in honour of Mzee Kenyatta. But in that issue, Viva also ran an editorial comment that had far-reaching political implications and which also dramatically changed Salim’s professional career as a journalist.
“Apart from publishing a full-colour special issue detailing the life and times of Mzee Kenyatta, I penned an editorial vouching for Moi’s election as president after the transition period,” says Salim.
The special issue of Viva Magazine on Mzee Kenyatta’s death was priced at five shillings and had a print order of 200,000 copies that sold out on the first day it hit the streets. Colourprint Press owned by the Vidyarthi brothers were the printers.
That editorial comment earned Salim a face-to-face appointment with Moi— an appointment that inadvertently enabled him to experience the behind the scenes happenings on how power changes hands from one regime to another.
“Viva magazine was housed at Union Towers along Mama Ngina Street, and after the issue dedicated to Mzee Kenyatta had hit the streets, I received a call one morning from a lady who said she was calling from Jogoo House and that the President of the Republic wanted to meet me,” Salim narrates.
He continues: “I was completely thrown off-guard by that call because I did not expect it all— I initially dismissed it as a prank because being a transition period, the country had not yet come to terms with Kenyatta’s death and the people had not even contemplated the existence of another president. Therefore, receiving a call telling me that the president wanted to meet me sounded quite strange, notwithstanding the fact that I had penned an editorial piece vouching for Moi’s presidency. I, however, collected myself and soon realized that it was Moi who wanted to meet me. But I completely had no idea why he wanted to meet me.”
Indeed, Salim managed to meet Moi through an appointment fixed by one Joseph Rotich who had been the head of the Vice President’s Press Unit when Moi was vice president.
Says Salim: “I met Moi at Jogoo House because he had not yet moved to the office of the president at Harambee House and was, therefore, still operating from the office he had hitherto occupied as Vice President. But while waiting at the reception before I met the acting president, I think I saw how power shifts from one regime to the next. Military and police commanders, politicians, top civil servants and foreign envoys streamed into Moi’s office one after another in what I think was a mission to pledge loyalty to the new president. I went in to see Moi when my turn came after waiting for more than six hours at the reception. But it was the entry of then Attorney General Charles Njonjo that shocked me— Njonjo stormed into Moi’s office without knocking and found Moi talking to me. That incident would later prove to me that Njonjo was indeed the power behind Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency. Moi was startled by Njonjo’s entry and I could see the acting president fidgeting and kind of start apologizing to Njonjo as he hurriedly brought our meeting to an end. What I gathered from that incident is that Moi had been put on a short leash and was not supposed to meet people that Njonjo had not approved.”
Nonetheless, Salim says that all that Moi wanted was to “thank” him for publishing a good issue of Viva Magazine dedicated to Mzee Kenyatta’s memory. But Salim reckons that Moi was thanking him more for the editorial comment that supported his ascendancy to the presidency than the articles and pictures dedicated to Kenyatta. But whatever reasons Moi had to meet Salim, the bottom line is that the meeting resulted in a personal relationship between the two— a friendship that would later fail the acid test in 1982 when Moi was firmly in control of the instruments of state as president.
Events of 1982
When Moi was finally elected President in the 1979 election, he began to consolidate his power base to insulate his regime from the old networks in Mzee Kenyatta’s government that had tried to prevent him from ascending to the presidency through the infamous ‘change the constitution’ crusade. He also sought to prove wrong those who had viewed him as a “passing cloud.”
In 1982, parliament was placated to change the constitution by introducing the infamous Section 2A that declared Kenya a de jure one-party state. That meant that the constitution had outlawed all other political parties except the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU).
The introduction of Section 2A raised alarm in political circles and prompted the emergence of clandestine pressure groups that posed a challenge to the Moi regime. Among the notable figures that opposed the autocratic tendencies that Moi started exhibiting included James Orengo, George Anyona, Chelegat Mutai and lawyer John Khaminwa. They were joined by a host of Marxist-leaning academicians like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Micere Mugo and Maina wa Kinyati.
As a veteran journalist, it was difficult for Salim not to engage in this conversation. Occasionally, Ngugi wa Thiongo would visit Viva offices at Union Towers because of the personal friendship he had with Salim, keeping in mind that Viva had once published an article condemning Ngugi’s detention during the sunset years of Kenyatta’s regime.
Since Ngugi was already a marked man due to his opposition to the policies of the infant Moi regime, his visits to Viva offices also meant that Salim was a marked man, notwithstanding the fact that he had also written an editorial piece supporting Moi’s ascendency to the presidency and had even met him personally during the transition period.
But Salim’s altercation with the Moi regime was ignited by an incident in 1980 that was completely unrelated to Ngugi’s visits to Viva offices.
In 1980, Prof Wangari Maathai went through a bitter divorce case with her husband and later granted an interview with Viva in which she said the entire judiciary was corrupt. Salim and Viva were accused of contempt of court for publishing Wangari Maathai’s interview and was fined Ksh14,000. Despite getting away with a hefty fine, Salim knew his problems with the state were just beginning.
A year later in 1981, the murder of one Maurine Njeri by a United States Marine soldier Frank Sundstrom hurtled Salim into an open confrontation with Moi’s regime. At that time, the United States had deployed its military engineers to dredge the Kilindini habour at the port of Mombasa in order to allow American battleships to dock there.
Frank Sundstrom was among the US soldiers deployed to the dredging exercise and while in Kenya, he picked up Ms Njeri with whom they had a steamy love affair. When Njeri was one day in 1981 found dead in the hotel room she shared with Frank, there was public outrage. The US soldier was arrested and charged with Njeri’s killing but his trial was rushed and the accused got away with a Ksh500 fine with a suspended sentence—there was more outrage.
Salim got into trouble about this case because of one bright journalist called Mukami Ireri Coleman. Mukami was married to renowned American saxophonist, violinist and composer Ornate Coleman and she came to know the truth about Maurine Njeri’s murder. She wrote a feature story about it which Salim published in Viva Magazine— the story irked the authorities in Moi’s government because they felt it had exposed the government’s complacency in letting a murderer go scot free. This and the Wangari Maathai interview gave state authorities a perfect excuse to put Salim on the radar of the dreaded secret police— Special Branch.
June 1982 was a turning point in Salim’s personal and professional life as a journalist. Already under the radar of the Special Branch due to the articles he had published and his continued association with government critics like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Salim knew it would not be long before his worst fears were confirmed.
One morning in June 1982, Special Branch officers came to his office and questioned him about his alleged use of his media business to distribute seditious literature known as “Pambana.” Pambana was any literature critical of the Moi government and was circulated among people thought to be government critics operating under the name Mwakenya. It turned out that most of Pambana literature was in fact concocted by secret police and planted on perceived dissidents to create an excuse for their arrest and detention. At that time, and many years to come, any Marxist-leaning literature was also condemned as seditious and would earn anybody in its possession a date with the Special Branch.
On this day, the officers who came to his office tried as much as possible to link Salim to activities of subversion. They cited dates on which they claimed Salim had moved from various points distributing seditious materials. Fortunately, Salim had a cast iron alibi, because the dates they claimed he was at some place distributing seditious literature, he was actually on a trip to Germany and his passport proved that. The officers left but Salim knew more was to come.
At that time, a crackdown on perceived dissidents was already underway and the likes of Orengo and Chelegat Mutai were in exile while the likes of John Khaminwa, Willy Mutunga, Gibson Kamau Kuria and George Anyona were in detention.
One morning, Oliver Litondo who was the editor of Mashambani walked into Salim’s office to inform him that there was a lady at the reception seeking to talk to him in private. When the lady went to see Salim, she delivered a chilling but not so unexpected message.
“I work in the office of the assistant commissioner of Police and from the conversations I have heard, you are next to be arrested. Am giving you this information in good faith and please don’t ask me who I am, but do what you have to do to save yourself. I suggest you leave the country immediately,” the visitor said.
Although Salim had never contemplated fleeing the country, this time he had a very compelling reason to do so. But Salim could not leave the country and leave his family behind. When he told his wife about this, she urged him not to waste any time and leave the country.
Meanwhile, there had been a known plot to cancel Salim’s wife work permit as a way to put more pressure on the veteran journalist — she is an American citizen and was at that time working as deputy chief editor of Viva.
In those days, purchase of air tickets was done through the Central Bank because tickets had to be purchased in foreign currency, and since foreign currency exchange was directly controlled by the Central Bank, it enabled the government to know and monitor anybody purchasing an air ticket to fly out of the country. Hence, if Salim were to purchase an air ticket to leave the country, the Special Branch would know.
Fortunately, Viva Magazine had a special arrangement with Spanish airline Iberia which issued him a ticket without him having to purchase it through the Central Bank process. In this regard, the day Salim left the country for London, the Special Branch officers who had been detailed to follow him did not suspect anything when he left for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. According to the officers, there was no way Salim could have purchased a ticket to leave the country without going through the CBK process.
Salim, therefore, managed to leave the country for London where he met Ngugi wa Thiongo who had fled the country a month earlier. In London, he tried to seek the assistance of a longtime friend in order to secure the safety of his family back in Kenya. That friend was none other than then Kenya’s High Commissioner to London, Bethwel Kiplagat.
Mr Kiplagat would later be appointed chairman of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation (TJRC) but his appointment was bitterly opposed by human rights pressure groups who questioned his integrity to hold such a position, claiming that he played a role in the planning and execution of a government security operation in Wajir that led to the 1984 Wagalla massacre when he was Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When Salim first sought audience with Mr Kiplagat, the envoy promised to help, but asked him to persuade Ngugi to come along. Indeed Salim passed the message to Ngugi, but the latter declined to accompany him to see Kiplagat. In the meeting with Kiplagat at the Kenyan High Commission in London, the envoy pulled out a telex which contained a dossier on Salim. Taken aback, Salim realized that the government had dispatched telexes of dossiers on all perceived dissidents to all Kenyan missions abroad. Nonetheless, Kiplagat promised to help Salim and he would do so by calling a senior person at State House Nairobi to plead Salim's case.
Indeed Kiplagat picked the phone and called Nairobi, and although Salim could not tell who was on the other side of the line, he suspected Kiplagat was speaking to President Moi himself.
Kiplagat later assured Salim that all was well but cautioned him to be careful and stop his ‘radicalism’ against the government. Kiplagat tried to reassure Salim that all was well and prodded him to return to Kenya. Kiplagat, however, put a condition— Salim had to apologise to a certain politician in exchange for amnesty.
But when Salim shared with close friends and associates what had transpired in the meeting with Kiplagat, they smelt a rat and advised him not to return to Kenya. One of the people who counseled Salim against going back to Kenya was lawyer Timon Njugi who, by coincidence, was once Moi’s lawyer.
But while he was still thinking over Kiplagat’s offer, something else happened in Kenya— junior officers of the Kenya Air Force attempted to topple Moi’s government on August 1, two months after Salim had fled the country. His wife, who had remained in Kenya, was still running Viva and published a special issue on events of the abortive ’82 coup under the title ‘Hours of Chaos.’
Events that followed the coup attempt were very tense as security agents mounted a massive operation to arrest those behind the coup plot. Both military officers and civilian dissidents thought to have had a hand in the coup plot were rounded-up and detained. Luckily for Salim’s wife, the US embassy in Nairobi arranged to have her leave the country safely and Salim was to later join his family in New York where he started a new life in exile.
While in New York, Salim got a job with the United Nations Information Office as Moi continued to consolidate his power back in Kenya after the attempted coup. Many people thought to be government critics, including journalists, were rounded-up and detained as others went into exile. As Moi reorganized his government after the coup, Bethwel Kiplagat was recalled from London and appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he would, among other critical functions, sit on the National Security Council— the country’s top advisory organ on national security.
As Permanent Secretary, Kiplagat would later visit the United States many times on official duty. On one of these visits, Salim invited Kiplagat to his house to compare notes on various issues in Kenya, especially politics. On this visit, Kiplagat asked Salim why he did not return to Kenya after their London meeting. Although Salim cited the August ’82 coup as an excuse not to return to Kenya after the London meeting, he could see that Kiplagat was not convinced by that explanation. Instead, Kiplagat quipped that the failure to return home despite the assurance of safety made Salim look guilty of engaging in subversion.
In 1986, Elijah Mwangale also came to New York in his capacity as Foreign Affairs minister. Mwangale and Salim had known each other way back in 1975 when the former sat on the Parliamentary Committee that probed the death of JM Kariuki.
As it turned out, the report of the parliamentary committee that probed the death of JM Kariuki placed the murder of the former Nyandarua North MP squarely at the door step of President Jomo Kenyatta. This report irked Kenyatta and his inner circle and saw a number of MPs who sat on the committee—including Elijah Mwangale, Martin Shikuku, Sharif Nassir and then deputy speaker of the national assembly Jean Marie Saroney—arrested and detained.
Mwangale, who had huge political ambitions, invited Salim to his hotel room in New York and asked him to return to Kenya to assist the Foreign Ministry set up a newspaper. Although Salim looked at this offer favourably because he did not doubt Mwangale’s intentions the way he doubted Kiplagat’s, he kept in mind the fact that there was still an intense crackdown on perceived dissidents in Kenya, and he was not sure that Special Branch had removed his name from the wanted list.
Salim took the risk to return to Kenya, arriving in Nairobi in July 1986 accompanied by his two sons. Once in Nairobi, he rented an apartment at the Norfolk Apartments opposite the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation headquarters. He also used the opportunity to check out on old acquaintances, a mission that took him to Nakuru to see human rights lawyer Mirugi Kariuki. Mirugi Kariuki was known for representing political detainees and agitating for the release of political prisoners. But he would also pay the price for his agitation when he, together with Koigi wa Wamwere, were arrested in 1990 and detained. Mirugi later became MP for Nakuru and assistant minister for Internal Security in the first Kibaki government. He died on April 10, 2006 in a plane crash in Marsabit where he had led a delegation on a peace mission.
When Salim returned from Nakuru, the secret police came calling. That night, six armed men raided Salim’s apartment at Norfolk Apartments, conducted a search, arrested him and locked him up at the nearby Central Police station without even booking him in the Occurrence Book.
Without his arrest being entered in the Occurrence Book, it was difficult for anybody to trace his whereabouts. Fortunately, when the police came to take him away in the middle of the night, Salim was with his eldest son while the other son had spent the night at a family friend’s house in the city.
For abundance of caution, Salim had given his sons a series of telephone numbers to call in case of any emergency or something unusual happening. He spent the night in the cells at Central Police station and the same officers who arrested him turned up at 7.30 the next morning to pick him up. Before taking him away, the officers blind-folded him and bundled into a Land Rover while handcuffed. In addition to the blindfold and handcuffs, they threw a blanked over his cuddled body and drove away— this time the destination was Shauri Moyo police station where he was again locked up in the cells without his name being entered in the Occurrence Book.
The tactic of holding suspects incommunicado was perfected by the secret police in order to break down their victims psychologically before being subjected to intense interrogation. It was also a way to ensure that family members, friends and relatives were not in a position to trace people arrested under such circumstances and press for them to be brought in court. Since the security agencies knew that they had no concrete evidence with which to charge suspected dissidents, they used the tactic of not entering the names of suspects in police records in order to conceal their illegal activities and violation of the suspects’ rights.
So, Salim spent another night at Shauri Moyo police station without anybody telling him why he was being held. The next morning, the officers picked him up, blind-folded him and drove around the city for about one hour before entering what Salim could tell was the basement of a building.
“While blindfolded and a blanket thrown over you, you can only use your instincts to figure out where you are being taken. We drove around the city for about an hour and I could tell from the sound of traffic that there were times we went on the outskirts of the city and came back to the city centre. At last, we entered what I could tell was a basement,” Salim narrates.
Indeed, the veteran journalist ended up at the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers where he was locked up in a dark cell.
“The dark cells at Nyayo House were terrifying. I could hear shrill screams from nearby cells, and I believe that was meant to send a clear message of what awaited me. I was scared stiff, not at the thought of being harmed, but the idea that nobody from my family knew where to find me,” he adds.
After staying for about half-an-hour in the Nyayo House cells, they came for him again, blind-folded and bundled him into an elevator that scaled about 20 floors. Once outside the lifts, the officers pulled the most scaring stunt that Salim had ever experienced.
Says he: “Aware that we were more than 20 floors up, these guys pushed me onto what felt like a balcony and tried to push me over. Because I was blindfolded, I could not see what was happening but I felt the gush of wind and the sound of traffic from bellow as they pretended to push me over. It was indeed terrifying.”
Nonetheless, they took him into a room and removed the blindfold where Salim found himself facing a panel of about ten mean-looking men. One of them who appeared to be the chief interrogator, a Mr Opiyo, was pacing up and down the room as he ordered Salim to take a sit.
“Opiyo first asked me why I was found in possession of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s book titled Not Yet Uhuru yet Kenya had gotten independence more than two decades ago. This question stunned me because I was not aware that it was illegal to be in possession of the said book. I, however, told him that Not Yet Uhuru is just a book like any other book and it does not mean that everybody who reads it believes in its contents.”
The interrogators also accused Salim of having come back to Kenya to help revive the Mwakenya movement which the government had succeeded to pacify.
“These guys were good at cooking up stories and creating crimes of subversion out of them. They claimed that while in the United States, I would occasionally travel to Ethiopia to buy weapons and supply them to dissidents in an effort to create a military wing for Mwakenya. This shocked me, but I could tell where it was coming from— my job at the UN Information Office in New York included coordinating information about the 1984 famine that devastated Ethiopia and other parts of the Horn of Africa. Besides, the late Mohammed Amin of Camerapix was a professional colleague who did photography work for Viva Magazine, and since Mohammed Amin also did a lot of camerawork about the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, the police tried to manufacture the crime of subversion from my past relationship with Amin,” Salim explains.
Apart from claiming that Salim was engaged in supplying weapons to Mwakenya dissidents with an intention to create a guerilla army to topple Moi’s government, the Special Branch also claimed that Salim had returned to Kenya to replace Waruru Kanja as Libya’s pointman locally. Of course all these were fabrications, but they served to give an excuse to hold him incommunicado and subject him to psychological torture.
After the interrogation, the officers prepared a self-incriminating statement which they asked Salim to sign before taking him back to the cells at the basement of Nyayo House.
Meanwhile, there was already concern and uproar in the UN fraternity about Salim’s disappearance after his son called the numbers his father had given him. The disappearance took an international angle after one Paul Amina, corresponding for Reuters News Service, wrote a story captioned; “UN official goes missing in Nairobi.” The Daily Nation picked up the story and published it prominently on its back page, and so did the New York Times which published it on its front page.
Journalist Paul Amina would also pay dearly for publishing the story about Salim’s disappearance. He was arrested, detained and tortured by the Special Branch and his experience also appears elsewhere in this report as part of the human rights violations against journalists and freedom of media.
The news of Salim’s disappearance prompted the UN to step-in to establish his whereabouts. Aware of the pressure that the international body can exert, the Special Branch caved-in and released Salim in a rather anticlimax fashion.
After being held incommunicado for three days, the Special Branch officers picked up Salim from his Nyayo House cell on the fourth day and drove him, this time not blindfolded, to the General Post Office (GPO) bus stop and set him free. But they gave him strict instructions not to leave the country, saying they still needed to interrogate him further.
Salim returned to his rented apartment at Norfolk Apartments and got in touch with his family. Later, the country head of Unicef called Salim advising him to leave the apartment and move to the Unicef boss’s residence in order to guarantee his safety.
“I later learnt that the head of security at the UN office in Nairobi, a Mr Rabanni, took a personal initiative to secure my release. This means that I was lucky because I was a UN staff, otherwise I would have been detained,” says Salim.
Aware that his safety was not guaranteed, UN officials in Nairobi decided that Salim had to be spirited out of the country irrespective of Special Branch’s instructions that he should not leave the country. Two days later, Rabanni personally escorted Salim and his two sons to the airport, put them on a plane to the US and ensured the aircraft was airborne before he left. At the airport, Salim could see Special Branch officers hovering around but for fear of the diplomatic immunity that Rabanni enjoyed, they would dare not intervene to stop him.
Salim was to get back to the US safely after the intervention of UN officers. But a few days later, he was to receive a call from a fellow UN staffer, Mr Gibril Diallo, who was the head of personnel in West Africa. Mr Diallo wanted to find out from Salim why he (Salim) had lost his Kenyan citizenship.
“I was shocked to hear from Diallo that I had been stripped of my Kenyan citizenship. I came to establish later that a Gazette notice had been published in Kenya stating that I had disowned my country both in word and deed, and I had therefore been stripped of my citizenship. I think the authorities were incensed by how the UN threw a shield around me and spirited me out of Kenya. So they hit back at me by revoking my citizenship,” Salim recalls.
Salim was to stay in exile in the US while working for the United Nations in New York as his Kenyan citizenship remained revoked. But as Kenya’s image abroad continued to be tainted by the intensified crackdown on perceived dissidents, pressure was being mounted on the Moi regime to end the repression and return the country to multiparty democracy.
Meanwhile, there had been a tradition where the UN Staff Union would persistently hold demonstrations outside the UN headquarters in New York and in other stations like Geneva to denounce all countries that had detained or persecuted UN staff in various ways. The revocation of Salim’s citizenship earned Kenya the wrath of the UN staff demonstrations, and whenever there was any major meeting of the UN, demonstrators would gather carrying placards with Salim’s picture on them and denounce the Moi regime as among those that persecute UN employees.
Indeed Salim’s case caused significant embarrassment to the Moi regime, and since Moi was eager to portray himself as a good leader after caving-in to pressure and allowed the return of multipartysm in 1990, the government restored Salim’s citizenship in 1994 on the advice of the then Kenyan ambassador to Geneva, a Mr Ogada.
“Mr Ogada advised the government that it was no-longer necessary to deny Salim his citizenship since the country had already accepted the return to multiparty democracy. According to the envoy, there was no point in Kenya continuing to be embarrassed by demonstrators at major UN meetings after the government had already conceded to the demands of pro-democracy pressure groups,” Salim explains.
Despite having his citizenship restored, Salim was to get into another altercation with Moi— an altercation that consequently revealed the bitterness that Moi had haboured against him since 1986 when the UN spirited him out of the country.
In December 1996, Kofi Annan was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in a move that surprised many but improved the clout of Sub- Saharan Africa.
In view of Annan’s elevation to the top UN post, staffers were invited to give suggestions on how to enhance the portfolio of the SG’s office, and Salim was among those who gave suggestions that were really received well by the SG’s office. Salim suggested that, like First Ladies of many countries, it would do a lot of good if the spouse of the UN secretary general was given a public role to play, especially in charity and humanitarian functions.
This suggestion was promptly adopted and Salim was assigned to Mrs Annan’s office in order to add value to humanitarian and charity activities under the SG’s office. The first foreign function Mrs Annan held under her new portfolio was a trip to Kenya in 1997 which Salim coordinated.
On this trip, Mrs Annan’s delegation held a high-profile meeting with representatives of grassroots women in an effort to improve the socio-economic wellbeing of rural women. She also visited Daadab refugee camp and capped her trip with a high-profile press conference at the Grand Regency hotel (today’s Laico Regency). But the icing on the cake was a meeting with President Moi at State House, Nairobi.
On the morning of the State House meeting, Mrs Annan arrived with her delegation which included Salim. When their turn to meet Moi in the conference room came, it emerged that State House orderlies were under instructions not to allow Salim to accompany Mrs Annan and her delegation in the room where they were to meet the President.
Hence, as Mrs Annan was being ushered into the meeting, security officers pulled Salim back and told him that he was not allowed to go in, claiming that the meeting was for women only.
“Two security officers tried to intercept me along the corridor as we made our way to the meeting room. But they caused a commotion that attracted the attention of Mrs Annan who stopped to inquire why I was being restrained. The officers gave the ‘women only’ excuse, but Mrs Annan held her ground that if I was not allowed into the meeting, she would also not attend it and would rather go away. This caused a stalemate, and the orderlies had no option but to let me go through in order to avoid the embarrassment that would have resulted in Mrs Annan snubbing a scheduled meeting with the President,” says Salim.
When they entered the meeting room, Moi was visibly enraged to see Salim come in, but he tried to control his anger without betraying himself to his visitors.
“I knew Moi was furious to see me come in but he really restrained himself to show his anger. I believe he thought that his orderlies had defied his instructions, but he obviously didn’t know that it was Mrs Annan who had taken the firm position that I be allowed in. It is also good that before I came to Nairobi with Mrs Annan, I had briefed her in advance about my previous altercations with Kenyan authorities, and I think that is why she demanded that I accompany her to the State House meeting.”
After the successful trip to Kenya, Salim briefed the UN secretary general what had transpired and Mr Annan thanked him for that. But Salim made a comment which, although infuriated the SG, exposed the identity of the person who pulled the strings to have him released from custody way back in 1986 and enable him leave the country to escape detention.
“Commenting on the State House incident in which security tried to stop me from attending the meeting with Moi, I jokingly tried to compare Mr Annan to his wife. I said that Mrs Annan has nerves of steel, and that she did something that he (Mr Annan) would not have done because of his diplomatic demeanor. But being the African man that he is, this comparison somehow annoyed Mr Annan and that is when he retorted angrily; ‘If you think I am too soft, who do you think got you out of jail in 1986 and saved you from detention?’ This is when I came to know that it was indeed Mr Annan who secured my release from Nyayo House torture chambers ten years earlier and ensured I left the country safely,” Salim explains.
Indeed, Mr Annan was the UN Director of Personnel in 1986, and he was the one who piled pressure on Moi to have Salim released from Nyayo House cells. It, therefore, looks like that Moi was not happy with the pressure that Annan put on him over Salim, and by the time he was meeting Mrs Annan in 1997, it was like meeting his nemesis.
Despite the cold shoulder Moi showed him in 1997, Salim still believes that the people around him are the ones who had poisoned the former president’s mind against him.
“I don’t believe Moi could have just hated me out of the blue given that I was among the people who supported his ascendancy to the presidency after Kenyatta’s death. I think Moi listened and believed too much the reports given to him by his security advisers about people perceived to have wanted to topple his government. He was, therefore, misled and poisoned into believing that I was a member of the shadowy Mwakenya movement that wanted to bring down his government. I wish he knew that I was just a professional journalist doing my job,” Salim concludes his tribulations with the Moi regime.
But even after Moi left power in 2002, Salim still got into trouble with the new Kibaki administration.
Says he: “After Kibaki came to power in 2003, then Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi came to New York on one of the many trips to sell the new administration and cement ties with American authorities. Among other ministers who came to the US around that time included then Information minister Raphael Tuju who later also served in the Foreign Affairs portfolio.”
While in New York, Kiraitu Murungi invited Salim for a chat to get ideas on how to improve the new Kibaki administration that had received immense admiration in American circles.
“When I met Kiraitu, I advised him to ensure that the Kibaki administration puts in place a systematic and thoroughgoing communication strategy to articulate government policy. At that time, I had already noticed a disconnect in government information policy with ministers talking at cross-purposes after the Busia plane crash that claimed the life of then Labour minister Ahmed Khalif. Kiraitu seemed to like my ideas, and when he returned to Kenya, I received a call from him telling me that the Cabinet had met and decided to offer me a job as Government Spokesman,” he recalls.
According to Kiraitu, Salim was expected to take up the job immediately, meaning that he would have to relinquish his job with the UN. But Salim points out that the turn of events caught him by surprise, and as much as he would have loved to take up the job, the period within which he was expected to take up the job was too short.
In this regard, Salim requested for a three-month grace period within he would prepare himself and family to relocate to Nairobi. He also needed this time because his wife was working with Unicef stationed in New York and it would take some time for her to apply to be redeployed to a station in Nairobi. Besides, he had a house on mortgage and it would take some time to put the house on sell in order to settle the mortgage.
While he was making arrangements to relocate to Nairobi, Salim was asked to get in touch with then Information minister Raphael Tuju to agree on the terms of the job. According to Salim, he quoted a salary of US$10,000 per month which was the salary scale for his previous job at the UN Information Office. He also requested that his new job in Kenya entails him being Presidential Spokesman and not Government Spokesman as had been suggested.
Indeed, Salim completed arrangements to relocate to Kenya within the grace period he had requested, but days just before he flew to Nairobi, he got a call from Tuju telling him that the deal was off because the Cabinet had revoked the appointment.
Kenyan media would later quote minister Tuju saying that Salim had declined to take up the job of Government Spokesman because the government would not meet his US$20,000 salary demand.
“This was a total lie because I did not ask for US$20,000 as salary. My figure was US$10,000 and I don’t understand why Tuju claimed that I had demanded twice the amount I had quoted. But I later realized that Tuju and a clique in the Kibaki government had their own person in mind for the position of Government Spokesman. That person was Dr Alfred Mutua. It looks like they also wanted someone they could manipulate and that is why they short-changed me because I am too independent-minded for their liking,” Salim says.
In general, Salim’s experience exposes how state machinery has been used over the years in Kenya to suppress freedom of media by haunting independent-minded journalists. When the journalists were not being arrested and detained, they were being haunted out of employment by placing obstacles in their way.
The experience of former Reuters’ correspondent Paul Amina exposes the callous way that security agents committed egregious violation of human rights by targeting journalists who tried to expose corruption in top office.
Paul Amina first got in trouble with state security agents in 1974 while working with the then independent weekly newspaper Sunday Post.
“Many people in the older generation remember the glorious days of the first East African Community which was the oldest and most successful regional economic bloc in Africa. While common knowledge say that the first EAC collapsed in 1977 because of ideological differences between Presidents Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Iddi Amin (Uganda) and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, the truth of the matter is that corruption perpetuated by sacred cows in the Kenyan government played a big role in the collapse of the EAC,” Amina says.
According to Amina, looting of public resources had been institutionalized by the Kenyatta regime as early as 1973. It is this institutionalized corruption that led former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to quip that; “Kenya is a man-eat-man society.”
In this regard, Amina’s altercation with state security agents began in 1974 when he wrote an investigative piece that exposed how Kenyan government officials had been stealing shared resources of the East African Community and falsifying accounts records to cover up their evil deeds.
“The investigative piece that placed me on the radar of state security agents was about the diversion of 21 wagons loaded with iron sheets meant for the Ministry of Works. When I traced the movement of the consignment which was being transported from the port of Mombasa by the then East African Railways, I found out that the cargo of iron sheets was diverted to a farm owned by then Permanent Secretary for Public Works, an Engineer Mbugua. I wrote my story in the Sunday Post, then under the editorship of Salim Lone, and the authorities did not like it. It was also one of the stories that started to cause problems for Salim as editor of the Sunday Post,” says Amina.
But the most direct altercation with state authorities followed later when Amina published an investigative piece detailing how Kenyan authorities were falsifying accounts records to cover up sleaze in ministries that dealt with shared resources of the East African Community.
“My story which was published in the Sunday Post was based on a confidential audit report, and the story caused the then East Africa Legislative Assembly to institute a probe and censure Kenyan authorities,” Amina recalls.
A few days after the story was published, Amina was arrested by Special Branch officers under the command of one Peter Kimundi. The person who ordered Amina’s arrest was then newly appointed Director of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Mr Ignatius Nderi.
“I was taken to CID headquarters for interrogation where, in a show of might, a furious Mr Peter Kimundi interrogated me while brandishing a pistol. He wanted me to confess that Mr Peter Shioka, who had replaced Engineer Mbugua as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Works, is the one who had leaked the audit report to me. But I declined to confess or reveal my sources,” says Amina.
After being held for two days, Brian Tetley, who was then in charge at Sunday Post as chief editor, filed an affidavit seeking to have Amina arraigned in court if at all the police had evidence to charge him with any offence. But as it turned out, Amina was released without charge.
From then, Amina enjoyed a stint of relative peace free from police harassment because he lost his job after the Sunday Post folded up due to pressure from the powers that be. But during this period of relative peace, he would still informally encounter Special Branch officer Mr Peter Kimundi and another one called James Opiyo.
Peter Kimundi and James Opiyo would later become the key Special Branch officers in President Moi’s regime assigned the duty of interrogating perceived dissidents at Nyayo House which served as the Nairobi provincial headquarters of the dreaded secret police. The duo was also responsible for preparing charge sheets and bringing suspected Mwakenya operatives to court to face charges of subversion and treason. The TJRC later traced Opiyo and issued him with summons to appear before it to render account of his activities during the crackdown on suspected Mwakenya members.
In 1987, Amina once again found himself on the wrong side of the Special Branch while he was corresponding for Reuters News Service in Nairobi.
“By 1987, the crackdown on perceived government critics was at its worst and was characterized by the infamous court proceedings where suspected members of the Mwakenya Movement would be brought to court to face charges of treason or subversion past 6.00pm, way after official working hours. I was corresponding for Reuters and I was among reporters who would attend these court sessions. Interestingly, my tormentor in 1974, Peter Kimundi, was among the police officers, together with one James Opiyo, assigned the duty of escorting suspected Mwakenya dissidents to court. These court sessions were usually conducted secretly and that is why they would be held at such odd hours, but as journalists, we used to get tips on when a suspect would be brought to court,” says Amina.
On August 4, 1987, Amina was tipped off that a suspected dissident would appear in court to face charges of subversion. His informer told him that the case that was supposed to be brought to court on that day had to with the death of journalist Baraka Karanja who had been shot and buried secretly a couple of weeks earlier under mysterious circumstances. So when Amina went to chance at covering the case in question, he went with a colleague, Monica Brady, who had come to Nairobi as an intern at Reuters.
When they arrived at the Nairobi Law Courts, they met Peter Kimundi who was busy preparing to escort the yet to be known suspect to court. But Kimundi had to stop those preparations when he realised that Amina was accompanied by a ‘stranger.’ He called Amina aside and asked him why he had brought Brady along, to which Amina replied that Brady was a professional colleague dispatched by their employer to cover the case like any other journalist.
“I could see that Kimundi was furious with me for bringing Ms Brady along. In fact, the scheduled appearance of the suspect was cancelled immediately and the court dismissed. Later, court orderlies approached to inform me that the Director of Police Prosecutions wanted to see me in his office. I immediately sensed danger and declined to go see the DPP. But before I could leave the court compound, Kimundi had already dispatched a car with four police officers to pick me up. I was driven to CID headquarters where I was confronted by a furious Kimundi who wanted to know from me who Ms Brady was and why I had brought her along,” Amina narrates.
Events of 1974 replayed themselves as Amina was interrogated by Kimundi who said the government was not happy with what he was doing.
Says Amina: “Kimundi slammed his pistol on the table the way he did in 1974, and demanded me to confess that Monica Brady was an agent of Amnesty International. But I insisted that Monica was an intern with Reuters, and if at all she was an agent of Amnesty International, then I was not aware of that.”
After the brief interrogation, Amina was locked up at Kilimani police station without being booked in the Occurrence Book and strict instructions left to the officers manning the station that nobody be allowed to see him.
The next day, the officers picked up Amina and drove with him to the Reuters offices in Nairobi. They wanted to search the office but the then Bureau Chief, Evelyn Leopold, really played with their psychology.
“Ms Leopold cheekily dismissed the officers who wanted to search my desk. She told them that Reuters was a highly professional international organization and if there was any written information they were interested in, then they would have to get it from the Reuters headquarters in London because the bureau offices do not keep any information,” says Amina.
The officers gave up the idea of searching Amina’s desk at Reuters and instead took him to his house which they it turned upside down, taking way several documents including his certificates which he says have not been returned until today. After the search at his house, the officers locked him up at Kilimani police station for the second night.
On the third day since his arrest, the officers came for him at Kilimani police station and this time blindfolded him before bundling him into a vehicle. They drove around with him while blindfolded until they entered what Amina could obviously tell was the basement of a building.
Blindfolding suspects and driving around the city before entering the basement of Nyayo House was a tactic used by Special Branch to ensure victims did not get to know that Nyayo House had secret cells where suspected dissidents were detained and tortured. It was not until after 2003 that human rights pressure groups demanded that the veil be lifted on the secret cells at the basement of Nyayo House which would be christened ‘Torture Chambers.’
Indeed, Amina was taken to the dreaded Nyayo House secret cells where he would be locked up in a dark cell.
“I came to realize that the Nyayo House secret cells operated by Special Branch had a control centre through which they could introduce hot or cold air into the cells. They could also fill the cells with water, dust or even ants depending on how they wanted to torture a suspect,” says Amina.
After spending about 30 minutes in the Nyayo House cells, Amina was taken to the interrogation room on the 26th Floor of Nyayo House where he was confronted with a panel of about seven people.
Says Amina: “The interrogation session was very humiliating because they stripped me naked and started asking me questions as a lady served tea in the room. They first wanted to find out if I pay taxes, then prodded me into confessing that I was a member of the Mwakenya Movement. But the worst of it was when they beat me up with timber from broken furniture as they demanded that I reveal the names of people who were working with Amnesty International with an intention to topple the government. Of course I could not confess to these accusations because I knew nothing about them.”
When they couldn’t squeeze something out of Amina, they took him back to the Nyayo House cells at the basement where they instructed the guards to ensure he did not get any food. So far, he had been in custody for ten days and during the intervening period, the Fourth All Africa Games were taking place in the country.
On the eleventh day, one of the guards at the Nyayo House cells gave Amina false hope, telling him that he had information that he would be released the following day.
“This was sweet music to my ears because I really wanted this ordeal to end. Indeed, the officers who had arrested me ten days ago picked me from my cell at Nyayo House and, without blindfolding me, drove me to Nairobi Area police station. I was under the impression that I was going to be processed for release, but I was shocked when I was received by then senior assistant commissioner of police Philip Kilonzo who served me with a detention letter.”
Philip Kilonzo, who would later be appointed Commissioner of Police, was by 1987 the one charge of detained persons across the country. He died while in retirement and his death is claimed to be connected with the 1990 murder of former Foreign Affairs minister Dr Robert Ouko. The late Kilonzo, who was Police Commissioner at the time of Dr Ouko’s death, collapsed and died after drinking a beer at a hotel he owned in Matuu in what was suspected to be death by poisoning.
After being served with a detention letter, Amina was taken to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison where he was to be detained for six months without trial.
“My release from Kamiti after six months was rather dramatic. One day Mr Philip Kilonzo came to Kamiti on his routine visits to monitor the wellbeing of detainees. When he asked for my file, it was discovered that by some sheer negligence, the file did not have my photograph on it because the officers who processed my detention did not take my picture,” Amina says.
Mr Kilonzo ordered for Amina immediate release citing the lack of his photograph on the file. But Amina believes that his release came after pressure from Reuters.
“Although Kilonzo cited the photograph issue, it appears there was pressure from elsewhere to have me released from detention. While at Kamiti, detainees were kept in solitary confinement and their cell block were usually next to that of condemned inmates or the insane. I believe this was a tactic to break the detainees completely by torturing them psychologically,” says Amina.
Amina and other detainees would later sue the Government of Kenya in 2008 demanding compensation for wrongful confinement and inhuman treatment.
Prof. Hassan Kulundu