Decades’ wait for payment to victims of dreaded Kanu-era torture

Former Nyayo House torture chamber victims Chitechi Osundwa (second left), Kamonje Manje (right) and Paul Amina (second right) celebrate with lawyers Tom Kagwe (left), Rumba Kinuthia (centre in tie) and Ms Sarah Ranji outside a Nairobi in Nairobi. PHOTO | PAUL WAWERU | NATION MEDIA GROU

After a group of the Kenya Air Force soldiers attempted to wrest power from then-President Daniel arap Moi on August 1, 1982, the head of state went into a state of paranoia, which, in turn, revealed his ruthless side that was hitherto unknown.

The president immediately ordered a crackdown on individuals involved in the coup as he embarked on plans to consolidate his rule.

Moi was intent on staying in power for as long as possible while laying the foundation for his ruling party, Kanu, to sire future presidents.

But what started as an attempt to weed out the 1982 mutineers turned into a brutal but normalised tactic that helped keep Moi in office for 24 years, while silencing any individual that dared dream of opposing his reign.

Moi ordered the Special Branch — a dreaded elite police force that reported directly to the president — to arrest, detain and interrogate anyone who opposed him.

The Special Branch had unconditional authority to extract information from any of its suspects, something that the elite force did to near perfection.


Operations by the Special Branch led to the arrest of hundreds of individuals, many of who were left with permanent disability and psychological disorders.

Some paid the ultimate price for defying Moi.

Hundreds of the Special Branch victims who have since sued for illegal arrest, detention and torture have been awarded millions for the horrors they underwent in police stations, prisons and the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers.

Every year in the last decade, a couple of the numerous pending cases relating to torture under Moi’s regime is determined and millions of shillings awarded to victims and their families.

Some prominent individuals who successfully sued, like former MP Koigi wa Wamwere, have been paid. But for many, it has been a cat-and-mouse game.

The failure to honour court awards could pile more pressure on the already overburdened taxpayer, as the amounts continue to attract interest.

Matiba’s total award crossed to Sh1.5 billion before President Uhuru Kenyatta intervened last year and ordered that the debt be paid.


The family is, however, locked in a battle with its lawyer over payment for the services.

From 32 court cases determined in the last 10 years and which the Nation has perused, victims of the Special Branch have been awarded more than Sh2 billion.

Some of the unpaid awards include those of lawyer and human rights activist Gitobu Imanyara and former journalists Njehu Gatabaki and Bedan Mbugua. Mr Imanyara’s case is at the Supreme Court.

In the Special Branch days, anyone suspected of opposing Moi’s rule would be arrested by police officers and bundled into a navy blue Land Rover.

Most victims said in court that they were first blindfolded then driven around town and finally dumped at either a police station or at Nyayo House.

Countless victims have told the courts how they were slapped, kicked, subjected to electric shocks, stripped naked and denied food or access to medical treatment while at the hands of James Opiyo.


Opiyo is remembered as a tall, dark-skinned man who performed atrocious acts on victims while trying to get them to accept whatever charges that would be laid on them in court.

Once described as the “torturer-in-chief”, Opiyo sat on the 21st floor of Nyayo House and was often the first stop for any new batch of anti-Moi detainees.

Court documents show that at Nyayo House, one would first be interrogated by between 10 to 20 Special Branch officers led by Opiyo before being handed over for torture sessions.

Those who collapsed or fell ill as a result of the torture were taken to hospital but only given enough treatment to ensure they can be taken back into custody for a fresh session.

Former Kitutu East (now Kitutu Masaba) MP Abuya Abuya had his date with Opiyo at Nyayo House on January 22, 1987.

The lawmaker already knew Opiyo, a schoolmate at Kisii High between 1962 and 1966.


Mr Abuya spoke to Opiyo for about an hour at Nyayo House, but the MP had no idea that he was already under arrest for allegedly supporting the outlawed Mwakenya Movement.

For the next week he was beaten, given half-cooked food, had his fingertips pricked severally until he collapsed; he was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital.

When doctors recommended that he be admitted, the police declined and took him back into custody until January 28, 1987, when he was released without any charges.

The Attorney-General’s Office, while opposing Mr Abuya’s compensation claim, argued that the police neither had nor recognised the Special Branch.

The former MP was eventually awarded Sh1 million compensation. Abuya’s is just one in hundreds of testimonies that the courts are still grappling with across the country.


Multiparty crusader Kenneth Matiba suffered a stroke in 1991 as a result of being tortured. The politician’s business empire also took.

Matiba died eight months after a court ordered his compensation and before the government could comply.

His bodyguard, Boniface Wanjohi, was also arrested and tortured in 1990 for his association with Matiba.

Mr Wanjohi was tortured for 14 days. He was denied a sleeping mat or blanket, stripped naked and sprayed with a hosepipe for hours on end and beaten.

Opiyo presided over the torture. Human rights activist and lawyer Rumba Kinuthia also had his share of torture and sued the State in 2010.

Mr Bernard Matama, a man Mr Kinuthia had employed in his home, was also arrested and tortured. His only crime, according to court papers, was working for Mr Kinuthia. Mr Matama was awarded Sh400,000 in 2015.

Some of the cases, such as the one filed by the family of late activist Mukaru Ng’ang’a started while Moi was still in power.


But successive governments have adopted the Kanu reluctance to honour court awards.

The Special Branch morphed into the Directorate of Security Intelligence in 1986.

When the National Security Intelligence Service was formed in 1998, 170 Special Branch officers were transferred to the new outfit. This marked the end of the road for the dreaded Special Branch, which had killed and maimed hundreds to protect the Moi era.

Some of the defunct unit’s victims like musician Hajulas Nyapanji Kabaselleh, self-exiled serviceman Brigadier John Odongo, ex-Jaramogi Odinga aide Daniel Tom Odero Ojijo and lecturer Mukaru Nganga died, but their families are still fighting for compensation.


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