This week in History

Hezekiah Ochuka: The untold story of ‘Kenya’s President for six hours’

 The mastermind of the 1982 coup attempt hailed from a village of coup plotters in Luo Nyanza

Daredevil: Hezekiah Ochuka (centre), the mastermind of the 1982 abortive coup was hanged on July 9, 1987 for treason, but his family got conflicting information on exact execution date. His hanging was followed by a chain of family calamities: Ochuka’s father, Nyambogo Ochuka,  collapsed and died of shock. Ochuka’s three brothers and two sisters-also died mysteriously. Ochuka left no family as he did not marry Margaret, the Form Six student at Nyabisawa Girls, whom he had engaged before the coup.

By GW Ngari

Editor-at-Large

@UndercoverKe

He was just 26 when Kenyan men are clueless about life. But at that age, Hezekiah Ochuka, a Senior Private in the Kenya Air Force, the second lowest rank, knew he wanted to marry and had engaged Margaret, his sweet heart who was clearing Form Six. He also thought overthrowing the ignoble regime of the late President Daniel arap Moi ‘to restore liberty, dignity and social justice for our people’ would be a very good idea. That was not to be.

The 1982 coup was planned by the swimming pool at the Moi Air Base, Eastleigh and fearing Kikuyu elements had similar ideas, Ochuka thought it wise to pull the trigger first. His fears were real as earlier, businessman Andrew Muthemba and Dickson Kamau Muiruri had been charged with forming a military assassination squad to kill Moi. Both were later acquitted in 1981.

But come 1982, events took a different turn. Raila and his father offered Ochuka cash and ‘civilian logistics’ including setting up a communication centre and command post in the home of Prof Edward Oyugi along Ngong Road, Nairobi, as Raila admitted in his biography.

Coup plotters were Luo but certainly not the first coup plotters from the Luo Nation

War dogs: Former Opposition leader Raila Odinga being arrested for his role in the August 1, 1982 coup and for which he was later detained after the coup was foiled. The plan was for Ochuka to seize the presidency and later hand it over to Raila Odinga’s Old Guy, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. At the time, Kenya had been turned into a single party state. Jaramogi was in the Opposition meaning he and the Luo Nation were going to cool their heels in political Siberia until Lake Victoria dried up. There were also very few Luos in top government positions. The charismatic Ochuka planned to change all that.

Other civilians helping Ochuka included Jaramogi’s bodyguard, John Odongo Langi. He had military training from what is today the Czech Republic, but was overlooked during army recruitment. Langi was bitter as was Kazakhstan trained Opwapo Ogai, former army man who provided backup. University of Nairobi student leader, paddy Onyango provided vital info on how to take over the adjacent broadcasting house where students went to swill subsidized alcohol. It was from this involvement of campus students that the term ‘Comrade Power’ was born from the coup’s slogan: ‘Power!

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And so it was that on the morning of Sunday, August 1, 1982 Kenyans woke up to the reggae music of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley on radio and the announcement that Ochuka was the new Sheriff in town… 39 years ago, this week. The poorly planned coup included plunder, with tipsy soldiers commandeering or stealing civilian cars to transport their loot.

There was the hilarious case of the soldier who removed his uniform outside a fashion store along Kimathi street to try out the suits inside only to find his uniform and gun gone, as The Weekly Review reported at the time.

Ochuka hailed from Koguta, the ‘village of coup plotters’ in Nyakach, Kisumu County

Darkness at noon: The coup had President Moi hiding under a eucalyptus tree in Solai Ranch, Nakuru County. His Vice President, Mwai Kibaki was crumpled into a dirty store in Nyeri while Lang’ata MP Philip Leakey packed a suitcase with essentials, took a rifle and headed for the bush! All Ministers and MPs knew they would be the first to be shot dead but forces loyal to President Moi quashed the coup after Army Commander John Sawe disrupted all communication between Ochuka and his boys by blowing up communication equipment at the Moi Air Base.

As you might have noticed, the coup plotters were Luo, but certainly they were not the first coup plotters from the Luo Nation. Before them were Frederick Collins Omondi who was implicated in the 1971 coup attempt against founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. But the coup failed after a tipsy Kenyan soldier in London began telling his mzungu pub mates of the coup plot, not knowing they were British intelligence officers! Omondi, like Ochuka, was 26.

Then there was James Waore Diang’a, a soldier who was jailed for a coup plan against Moi in 1981. Diang’a had recruited Ochuka before he was smoked out and jailed for 10 years at Kamiti but later released after his co-conspirators could not be traced and “there was no way one man could plan a coup.”

Of interest was that Omondi and Ochuka hailed from Koguta village in Nyakach, the ‘village of coup plotters.’ Was Ochuka finishing what Omondi and Diang’a had started?

Some soldiers Ochuka had recruited chickened out and sold the coup plan including exact hour, date and venues of execution

From the outside looking in: The late spy chief James Kanyotu, who had planted spies in all barracks, requested President Moi for permission to arrest Ochuka and his henchmen that Friday, July 31. Moi refused. Kanyotu, he argued, was a policeman and thus could not arrest soldiers-who had military police for that purpose. And couldn’t the arrests wait for Monday, August 2, Moi wondered?  Bad call.
After the coup, President Moi ensured his presence was felt from the currency to mandatory portraits in every business premise. Streets, schools, a stadium, university, airport, and monuments were named after him. He gobbled half the news bulletin where he was always the first item.

Anyway, the coup lasted 12 hours in which Ochuka was Kenya’s President for six hours. That was enough time to turn all cops into civilians besides releasing all prisoners-including Diang’a who surprisingly never left Kamiti even after prison wardens fled, leaving gates open!

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But while the coup lasted, over 100 soldiers’ most of them drunk and 200 civilians lay dead, including a Japanese tourist and his son. Two Asian women committed suicide after they were raped. Over 500 civilians were injured. Economic damage reached Sh500 million. Yet, the coup could have been averted.

Some soldiers Ochuka had recruited, specifically Lt Leslie Kombo Mwamburi from the Nanyuki Air Base, had chickened out and sold the coup plan including exact hour, date and venues of execution. But big shots at the Air Force did not take action.

The air force pilot on the mission to bomb State House Nairobi later changed his mind and dropped the bombs on Mt Kenya

Boot camp diaries: Ochuka and the August 1, 1982 coup plotters had planned to bomb State House Nairobi, JKIA, and President Daniel arap Moi’s home in Kabarak, Nakuru County but the air force pilot on the mission later changed his mind and dropped the bombs in Mt Kenya forest. The soldiers also planned to seize control of the Voice of Kenya (now KBC and which they did), the Kenyatta International Airport’s control tower, the Wilson Airport, the General Post Office, and the Central Bank of Kenya “to protect people’s money.” Reasons for the coup included among others; political stagnation of the Luo Nation, corruption and nepotism in government and the armed forces-where Kenya Air Force soldiers were at the bottom of the food chain despite being the brightest.

 But spy chief James Kanyotu had suspected the coup would happen that Sunday-a day chosen as most Kenyans would be at home, going to church: minimal casualties. Also, the Kenya Army was in Lodwar for army games resulting in minimal resistance. Alas! that was not to be.

Ochuka’s drunk soldiers were no match for the General Service Unit nicknamed Guza Serikali Uone and the Kenya Army crack shots led by Deputy Army Commander General Mahmoud Mohammed. Over powered, Ochuka and comrade-in-arms, Pancras Oteyo Okumu, commandeered army pilot Nick Leshan to Tanzania where they sought asylum, but President Julius Nyerere did not play ball. Both were later spirited to Kenya, charged with treason and sentenced to hang.

The abortive coup later triggered a chain of events that irrevocably changed the history of Kenya for the next two decades. So, just who was Hezekiah Ochuka?

People’s Redemption Council, the nerve centre of the coup enjoyed external support of Jaramogi and son Raila

Collateral damage: The aftermath of the abortive coup was a ruined economy but worse was to come as it provided President Daniel arap Moi with an arsenal to settle old scores,  neutralize disloyal elements, real and imagined besides consolidating his dictatorial regime. Kikuyu and Luo military officers were replaced with Kalenjins and other non-ethnic challengers like General Mahmoud Mohammed — an ethnic Somali — who was named Chief of General Staff.
The freedoms of the press, expression, association, and movement were curtailed as Kenya became a police state which cracked down on lawyers, authors, activists, scientists and hot headed university lecturers.

 Ochuka was born in Koguta village, Kisumu County where he was heavily influenced to join the Kenya Air Force by Omondi- who graduated top of his class among the first six jet fighter pilots trained at the Royal Air Force Training College after independence in 1963.

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Ochuka was so mesmerized by Omondi’s antics of often flying the Buffalo transport aircraft low, when approaching Koguta village, he decided to join the Air Force-which requires academically bright recruits who are good in sciences, unlike the Kenya Army and Navy.

 Brainy Ochuka was recruited as an instruments technician. That was in 1976 when Omondi was still cooling porridge while serving a 10 year jail term.  Omondi later served as a Councilor in Kisumu before his death in 2013 at 68.

Ochuka was hanged alongside his conspirators, but Raila and his father were not!

The remnants: Former soldier and coup plotter James Waore Diang’a (above) was released from prison and later joined politics, contesting the Kisumu Central seat during the 2017 elections. Diang’a notes in his memoirs, Kenya 1982: The Attempted Coup published in 2001 that Ochuka had the ability to articulate issues, was fearlessness and had rapport with fellow soldiers which increased his popularity, considering he was also the spokesman on welfare matters as an official of the junior soldiers’ welfare association.

One of Ochuka’s later beefs with the Moi regime was that Air Force soldiers were underpaid and overlooked in promotions, yet they were the brightest!

This was how he managed to mobilize fellow disgruntled airmen into his People’s Redemption Council, the nerve centre of the coup -which enjoyed the external support of Jaramogi and his son Raila, according to the 2006 memoirs, Raila Odinga: An enigma in Kenya’s Politics by Babafemi Badejo.

After a lengthy court martial, Ochuka was hanged alongside his conspirators; Senior Privates Okumu, Sergeant Joseph Ogidi, Corporals Charles Oriwa, Walter Ojode and Bramwel Injeni Njereman. But Raila and his father were not!

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