BY JACOB OKETCH
This book by Prof Ngotho Kariuki illuminates one of what used to be the best-kept secrets during the Moi regime – what went on in the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers.
The extent to which the Government of President Moi went to preserve the regime against the onslaught of reform crusaders is beyond words.
This book was written when the author was in prison but the original manuscript was destroyed by the authorities and he had to rewrite it when he came out of detention. It is one of the most horrendous accounts of atrocities committed by the Moi regime. After the 1982 aborted military coup, the Government descended on scholars who were perceived to be sympathetic to the coup plotters in particular, and the liberation agenda in general. Among those who were detained were the former chief justice Dr Willy Mutunga, Wachira Kamoji, Prof Alamin Mazrui among others.
At the same time, there had sprung up a movement called Mwakenya that was operating underground and whose membership included the intelligentsia. And this is how the author found himself in the thick of things. Moi had originally set a good example by releasing Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo immediately he assumed power – but this was reversed when his government refused to reinstate Ngugi at the university of Nairobi as a lecturer and then the regime started hunting down scholars and subjecting them to torture and detention without trial.
Though the author was detained for a number of years, his story in this book is exclusively about his arrest and the two weeks he spent at the Nyayo torture chambers. The indignity, of the intrusion of the authorities into his residence, and the ruthless search of his house is a reminder to Kenyans of how precious the freedom we enjoy today is. Prof Ngotho was in the country to attend a seminar. He was working in Tanzania at East and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI) and was in Kenya with a group of colleagues. He was arrested just after the end of the seminar as he was preparing to travel back to his workstation.
I have read several books of prominent figures that spent time in prison. The most notable one was Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. But I must confess that this book by the good professor is the most chilling and riveting at the same time. In fact, Mandela’s book is an account of an ordinary prisoner who has access to the basic needs. In that sense, restriction is not as torturous as that of someone subjected to dehumanization regardless of the time frame. The author gives us the gory details of what happens in a torture chamber. In fact, the reader gets to a point where empathy towards the author becomes tearful.
Can you imagine a situation where you are dumped in a pool of cold water in a small dark room-and you are not permitted to go for a call of nature – so you are forced to defecate in that water-and then you may also be forced to drink the same water when you become too thirsty to care about what you are drinking? That is what the author underwent in those torture chambers. Then there is the beatings – hot end of a cigarette stuck on one’s private parts, coldness or hotness induced in the detainee’s room to make them uncomfortable, the beatings, blindfolding. In the face of all these, the author did not crack, and was able to deny all the accusations to the end.
Family is a very important aspect of a society. We learn how tight-knit the author’s family unit was. We see how they closely interact during the festivities. But what is more remarkable is how they come together when faced by a crisis. It is gratifying to see how the author’s family members mobilized themselves to visit him during his ordeal, and how they religiously used to attend his court sessions. This is the kind of solidarity that is witnessed in most liberation struggles. Indeed, during the oppressive years of the Moi regime, solidarity, especially of the family, saved lives.
Prof Ngotho’s resilience in the face of intense torture and humiliation is a mark of greatness. He never allowed the authorities to subdue his soul even though they almost broke his body. To date, he has a severe back problem, which was occasioned by his torture – they repeatedly stepped on his back during the torture sessions. He was vindicated when the regime was vanquished in 2002 when President Moi went into retirement and the KANU candidate, the current President; Uhuru Kenyatta, was defeated by Opposition leader Mwai Kibaki. Eventually, the Nyayo House torture chambers was opened to the world to see and then abolished.
It is ironical that the author is now among the adjudicators of justice as a member of the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board yet it is the same justice that he was denied and immensely suffered for. Justifiably, he has eventually had the opportunity to shape the justice system in the country. Since Prof Ngotho was detained at Kamiti Maximum Prison, it would be interesting to know his experiences there. I am hopeful that he will write a sequel to this masterpiece that every patriotic Kenyan ought to read. It would complete a riveting story of struggle for democracy in Kenya. I look forward to that account.
Reviewer is author of Aphorisms and Poems of Light