Shortly after he took power in 1978, Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi was concerned about the critics he had inherited from the Jomo Kenyatta government.
While he had ordered the release of all political detainees and offered a lifeline to all those ostracised by the Kenyatta government, he was increasingly jittery about the academics and “Marxists” stationed at the University of Nairobi.
It was the Cold War era and those who offered alternative leadership thoughts were portrayed as followers of a “foreign ideology” and as anti-Nyayo.
The dilemma Moi faced at that time was how to deal with former detainees whom he had released and how they were to be accommodated in national politics.
By limiting their freedom of association, Moi would appear to be no better than Kenyatta before him.
The first test came from George Moseti Anyona, a former MP who called for the amendment of the Kanu constitution, which specifically barred Oginga Odinga-led Kenya People’s Union (KPU) members from vying for elections.
SEARCH FOR 'YES' MEN
His argument then was that “any proviso in the party’s constitution, or rules, which has the effect of denying any citizen the fundamental right and duty of participating freely in the management of national affairs is both a philosophical anachronism and a contradiction to the party’s basic creed of democratic African socialism.”
From then on, Moi knew that the ex-detainees were going to be a new thorn.
Another rumbling was coming from novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was being denied a chance to resume his teaching position at the University of Nairobi.
In March 1979, Ngugi had been arrested and charged with “drinking after hours” and “behaving in a disorderly manner” at a police station by banging doors and demanding to be told why he and his co-author, Ngugi wa Mirii, had been arrested.
It was all part of a systematic attempt to push the two into oblivion. But the two were set free by Justice Emmanuel Okubasu, who accused the police of failing to tell the two why they had been arrested.
Moi started to court a new team of "yes" men. That team did not include the ex-KPU members and the dirty work was left to Kanu Secretary-General Robert Matano.
BARRED FROM ELECTIONS
In an interview with the Sunday Nation then, Matano said that all ex-detainees who had not left Kanu like the former deputy speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, Kitutu East MP George Anyona and Butere’s Martin Shikuku were free to seek parliamentary seats.
But ex-KPU members had to get clearance from Kanu, which was the only party.
Eventually, Kanu barred ex-KPU members from running for the 1979 elections, and Moi quickly asserted that “the ruling party is supreme and no one can take it to court”.
He actually got support from The Standard newspaper which, in an editorial on January 26, 1980, said that the detainees had been held “for plausible reasons”.
Anyona -- the most vocal of the former detainees -- shot back: “There can never by any plausible reason in a free Kenya for detention without trial, either moral or ethical grounds.”
To protest the ban, students from the University of Nairobi took to the streets demanding justice for the KPU members.
“What do they mean when they say they are demanding justice … are they suggesting that there is injustice in Kenya,” Moi asked during a public rally and warned: “Irresponsible behaviour of this sort and flagrant disregard of the law will not be tolerated.”
It was shortly after this that some leaflets appeared at the University of Nairobi’s main campus and its constituent, Kenyatta University College.
The Special Branch moved in to investigate those who were behind the leaflets critical of the Nyayo government.
The emergence of this underground protest voice was then seen as the work of “communists”, according to Vice-President Mwai Kibaki, who asked them to “migrate to countries which practise it”.
It was in mid-April 1980 that Moi gave his first warning to the would-be dissidents that he would act tough on them.
He also warned those who were “scrambling for power” that he would lock them up if they did not toe the government line.
All this was happening at a time when the political landscape was changing significantly.
Charles Njonjo, the man who engineered Moi’s rise to the presidency, was gearing up to enter competitive politics after the resignation of the Kikuyu MP.
Moi did not immediately react to Njonjo’s entry into politics. What was bothering him then was what to do with the Luo community, which had remained as the only organised opposition during the Kenyatta presidency.
In a bid to pacify the Luo, Moi appointed Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the former KPU leader, the chairman of Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board, while Achieng Oneko was appointed the Kenya Film Corporation chairman.
Having done that, Moi ordered the media in May 1980 to stop making any further reference to KPU as a party. But radical lecturers remained at the University of Nairobi.
It was the Weekly Review that finally identified the lecturers ''behind'' the university strikes – which Moi associated with criticism against him.
Those named were Dr George Katama Mkangi, Mr Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Dr E. Atieno-Odhiambo and Prof Kihumbu Thairu.
They were also accused of fuelling university boycotts to commemorate the assassination of Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki – which had become an annual event.
That the Moi government did not want symposiums organised around thematic issues to commemorate JM’s death was not in dispute after the Minister for Local Government, Stanley Oloitiptip, told the protesters: “My father is dead, and everybody will die. I do not see why intellectuals should waste their time on the streets shouting about JM while he is dead.”
Afraid that a symposium titled “What is a Struggle?” was going to be a platform to criticise the government, the Moi regime ordered the closure of the university “for an early vacation”.
PROF MBITHI'S RISE
The lecturers, in turn, sued the Weekly Review and asked the High Court to bar the magazine from publishing further stories about them.
Those who filed the suit included Shadrack O. Guto, Willy Mutunga, Oki Ooko Ombaka, George Katama Mkangi and Mukaru Ng’ang’a.
It was a double-edged sword since any ruling would have curtailed press freedom and the High Court Judge, Justice Alfred Simpson, said as much: “… an order restraining the defendant from publishing … would not only unnecessarily and unjustifiably restrict the freedom of the press and would not be in the public interest but would also be too indefinite for practical enforcement.”
One of the most radical voices at the university, Prof Kihumbu Thairu, a medical doctor, had in March 1981 been elected the new Deputy Vice-Chancellor by the University Senate.
He had defeated a moderate, Prof Philip Mbithi, during the voting, garnering 38 votes to Prof Mbithi’s 36.
But the University Council refused to ratify the election of Prof Thairu and instead recommended the appointment of Prof Mbithi. That was the beginning of Prof Mbithi’s rise.
During that period, too, Charles Njonjo’s first cousin, Andrew Mungai Muthemba, and Dickson Muiruri had been arrested and charged with treason.
Moi quickly saw Njonjo's hand but was not about to strike at that time. He feared that he could incense the Kikuyu.
That this was a political case was revealed by Justice Simpson, who said the case was ''ill-advised'' and ''was a transparent attempt by the Special Branch to involve'' Constitutional and Home Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo.
Muthemba had been accused of plotting a rebellion between December 15, 1980 and March 23, 1981.
By this time, the doyen of opposition politics, Oginga Odinga, was on the road to rehabilitation. Moi had, on assuming power, lifted Odinga’s house arrest and appointed him parastatal chief.
The resignation of Bondo MP Hezekiah Ougo was also a calculated scheme to have Odinga rejoin politics in the same way Njonjo had.
But Odinga made a fatal mistake by dismissing the late Jomo Kenyatta as a “land grabber” while addressing a public function in Mombasa.
That statement ended Jaramogi’s bid to resume politics. But whether he called Kenyatta a grabber was contested and he even threatened to sue a local publication for distorting his speech.
In a press statement released by his personal assistant Luke Obok, Odinga termed The Standard newspaper “unprofessional”:
“It is extremely unprofessional for any news medium to adopt as its policy a calculated hostile attitude towards individuals they feel they do not like. We need in this country a constructive, accurate and fair press which should serve the interests of the country as a whole,” said Odinga.
But that limitation of the freedom of expression was to come from another quarter.
On April 30, 1981, Nakuru North MP Koigi Wamwere had been elected the chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee and was also scheduled to deliver a lecture at the University of Nairobi titled "The Role of Parliament in Independent Kenya".
With the university becoming the only forum where criticism of the Nyayo regime was thriving, the government acted quickly to stop the trend of radical lectures.
That lecture was not only cancelled, but Koigi also lost his position as the chairman of the committee after one week of glory in a meeting purportedly held “to review the election”.
As violence erupted at the University of Nairobi – as students protested the cancellation of the Koigi lecture – the government blamed the riots on “Marxist” lecturers and started confiscating their passports to limit their freedom of movement.
This was to witness the start of trumped-up charges. One of the radical lecturers, historian Mukaru Ng’ang’a, was soon arrested and charged with “banging tables” and abusing the chairman of Murang’a County Council, Samuel Itongu, in a Thika town bar.
'NATION' PROVOKES MOI
Political tension was slowly building up as inflation ate the country inch by inch. At that time, doctors were also on strike and 8,000 bank workers were threatening to go on strike.
Moi was also planning to host the June 1981 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) meeting in Nairobi. His position as a leader was facing a mighty challenge. It was time to panic.
With doctors on strike, the ruling party issued a statement demanding that they return to work.
But the Nation editors made the mistake of referring to the “unsigned” Kanu statement as “anonymous”, which provoked Moi.
On orders of GG Kariuki, Minister of State, two senior police officers walked into Nation House and picked up Joe Rodrigues, the Editor-in-Chief, and whisked him to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters.
He went together with Nation Managing Editor Joe Kadhi and News Editor John Esibi. Later that night, two reporters, Pius Nyamora and Gideon Mulaki, and the chief sub-editor, Philip Ochieng, were picked up.
That this was political, and that it involved a powerful force, was noted by the line of questioning that Rodrigues went through.
He was asked to give his history and the politicians he liaised with. He was set free on Saturday at noon and told to report to the CID on Monday.
The rest remained in the cells until Monday. Joe Kadhi later said: “I was thrown into a cell among common criminals and drunks who urinated on the floor and walls. Urine was ankle deep. It was terrible; I have never known such torture all my life.”
The case drew instant reaction worldwide, with calls from human rights groups asking Moi to set the journalists free.
The Nation was forced to apologise to Moi and Kanu, saying the use of the word “anonymous” was “just an unfortunate mistake and all the paper meant was that the statement was unsigned”.
It was the start of long days -- and years -- of terror for those who dared oppose him.
- This article was first published in the Daily Nation