Of Raila Odinga and 82 Air Force coup bid that should never have been attempted
By Patrick M. Musibi
Just after midnight on 1st August 1982, I was woken up by the receptionist on the instructions of the Commanding Officer (CO), Kenya Air Force (KAF) Eastleigh, Nairobi. When I arrived at the foyer of the Officers’ Mess, I met other brother officers (there were no sister officers then). We were briefed by the CO that the airmen had broken into the armoury and armed themselves with unknown intentions.
Shortly afterwards, we saw a convoy of military vehicles exiting the base via the Moi Forces Academy gate. My sole comment was: If these guys are planning to stage a coup, they have failed even before they have even started. Why did I make that comment?
This brings me to my strong opposition to a Raila Odinga presidency. In 1982, I was a young Lieutenant in the KAF. The events as narrated above, I witnessed firsthand. From his biography by Nigerian author Babafemi Badejo, titled, Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics, he admits that he provided a house for the lead putschists to use as a command post and a car (Peugeot 504) for their movement. This places him in the thick of things around the planning and execution of the coup attempt.
I still believe that anyone who was associated with the planning and execution of that coup attempt was either clueless, reckless, or both, hence my strong opposition to Raila’s leadership.
Two weeks before the coup bid, the three services of the then Kenya Armed Forces had been engaged in simulated war in a scenario whereby our neighbours had simultaneously attacked us. Our personnel were thus dispersed across the length and breadth of the country in various theatres of operation. If the coup makers had any command-and-control systems within the military, it had been disrupted.
Secondly, during those two weeks of simulated war, not a drop of alcohol was available in all the military bars. We were essentially on “dry duties”. Fast forward to midday, 31st July, the simulated war was called off, and all military bars opened. Those soldiers who had remained in the barracks, except those on duty and the teetotalers, took to alcohol like fish to water. They were thus not in any condition to execute any meaningful military operation.
Anyone involved in planning a coup should have started asking themselves why the war games had been called just two weeks to D-Day and with a simulated war scenario that involved the widest dispersion of troops and, why call them off on the eve of the putsch? Had they used just a little of their brain, they would have come to the conclusion that something was amiss and called the thing off to go back to the drawing board. But blinded by an unquenchable thirst for power, they went ahead to execute their plan.
The truth of the matter was that the plan of the amateurish coup attempt was known very early on at the highest echelons of government and military, but had been left to continue and was doomed to fail. This came out clearly during the courts martial as well as the 1983 Njonjo Inquiry (former long-serving Attorney-General and Cabinet minister Charles Njonjo). Why? The Air Force, then Kikuyu-dominated, needed to be restructured. What a better excuse than to let it get involved in an abortive coup, disband it and then build it afresh. And that is exactly what happened.
Most of the airmen involved were innocent. They heard the siren, assumed the base was under attack and according to standard operating procedures, ran to the armoury and armed themselves. The coup plotters took advantage of the situation and ferried the armed airmen in vehicles and deployed them at strategic places around the city.
When most of these airmen realised that they had been duped, they presented themselves to the nearest police stations and handed in their weapons and ammunition. Unfortunately, these acts were to be used against them in courts martial and earned them long stints in prison. This was the end of their military careers.
Unfortunately, this incarceration would negatively impact their lives after prison. A majority were unable to successfully transition to civilian careers. Their imprisonment tainted their records and their dishonourable discharge from the military also ensured that they will not benefit from the newly enacted Veterans’ Act, unless this matter is revisited by the new government.
I would like to specifically highlight the plight of the Commander of the KAF at the time of the coup attempt, Major-General Peter Mwagiru Kariuki. After getting a briefing on the coup plot in its initial stages, he immediately went to brief the then Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Jackson Kimeu Mulinge. He was advised to keep on monitoring and reporting on the plans as they unfolded, but not to interfere. This, he dutifully did. It, therefore, came as a surprise when he was taken before a court martial, charged with failing to suppress a mutiny!
During his trial, he called Gen Mulinge as his defence witness. The good General declined, as he would either have perjured himself or exposed the reality that the government had prior knowledge of the coup plot but allowed it to continue to serve other purposes. Maj-General Kariuki was thus convicted and jailed. Upon his release, he sued the government and won.
I repeat, the planners of this amateurish coup were either clueless, reckless or both. Nowhere in the world had a bunch of junior soldiers successfully overthrown a government. Maybe the planners were trying to borrow a leaf from Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe, who, in 1980, had overthrown the government of President William Tolbert of Liberia.
Master-Sergeant Doe, as the President of Liberia, came to Kenya in 1981 to attend the OAU Heads of State Summit. But the attempted borrowing of his example was inappropriate. The officer corps of the Liberian Armed Forces were staffed by Americo-Liberian descendants of the freed slaves who were settled in Liberia. The highest rank that an indigene could attain was Master- Sergeant. It was thus very easy for Master-Sergeant Doe to mobilise the indigenes, who formed the bulk of the enlisted corps, to overthrow the government. Anyone equating this to the Kenyan situation was not a critical thinker.
Of course, the coup flopped, the Air Force was disbanded, many innocent lives were lost, many careers were destroyed, and property worth millions of shillings destroyed. Thank God that some of us survived and helped to rebuild the air force. This was a coup attempt that should never have been attempted.
Major (Rtd) Musibi, OGW, MA (US), BA (Eire), is a veteran of the Kenya Air Force, currently working with the Unicef Cameroon Country Office as a child protection specialist. He is also a researcher at the intersection of veterans and cooperatives.