Leonard Mambo: My scary clash with coup plotters
About 40 years have gone by since the attempted coup on President Daniel Moi’s leadership that took place on August 1, 1982.
That Sunday morning, the country was thrown into mourning. Very many innocent people were killed or injured. Property was destroyed. Traders experienced massive losses. Tension and uncertainty was all over.
The memories of that day still linger fresh in the minds of veteran broadcaster Leonard Mambo Mbotela, who experienced this blood chilling event, firsthand. He was in the middle of the attempted coup, not as participant or a target, but as a ‘conduit’ that was misused by the rebel soldiers to send their message home. “I had two options; to announce that Moi had been deposed, or to be shot. I obeyed the rebel’s orders,” he says.
Mbotela was then serving as a broadcaster at the Voice of Kenya (VoK) that later became Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). He remembers vividly how the coup leader, Hezekiah Ochuka, captured him from his house in Ngara estate on that fateful Sunday morning, and drove him to VoK to make the announcement that Moi had been toppled.
Mbotela was (and still is) a household name in the broadcasting industry and that was the reason Ochuka purposely went for him to make the announcement.
That morning, Mbotela recalls that he went through a harrowing and near-death experience which he has finally decided to put down in his autobiography titled Je, Huu ni Uungwana?
He intends to launch the book before the end of this year. He had planned to launch it this week, but he attributes the delay to sickness that has held him back for a while.
The 81-year-old, who traces his origin to Malawi, started working for VoK in 1964 when it was then known as African Broadcasting Services (ABS). He is so far the longest serving Kenyan broadcaster who has been rocking the airwaves for the last 58 years.
He writes about the attempted coup thus: “Early Sunday morning, at 4am, I was rudely woken up by a loud bang on my door in Ngara estate. Mbotela.. ! Leonard Mbotela! … where are you!.. toka nje! … come out!…” a cacophony of loud voices called out. I fearfully tiptoed and opened the door. I then saw two military vehicles and several soldiers pacing around our compound.
“Standing next to my door was a familiar face; Peter Wainaina, our VoK driver. He mumbled words to the effect that those soldiers were looking for me. I later learnt that he had been captured at the VoK parking lot at gun-point by the rebel soldiers, as he prepared to go round and pick the staff who were on duty early that morning, and ordered to show them where I stayed. They specifically told him that they wanted me. Frightened, Wainaina brought them to my house in Ngara estate.
Coup plotters’ announcement
“Thus, when I stepped out, Ochuka approached me quickly and asked, ‘Are you Leonard Mambo Mbotela?’ His voice was loud and commanding. His face was mean. I stammered, ‘Yes… yes, I am Leonard.’
“’I have given you one minute! Dress up immediately we leave!’ he ordered. ‘Or we shall shoot you!’ one of the men shouted from the background. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers fired into the air. Then another one shot directly on the wall of my house. The bullet did not penetrate through but the ricocheting sound was too loud.”
Mbotela goes on to narrate: “I was quickly bundled into a military Land Rover, sandwiched between armed soldiers. We took off. The car was driven very fast and carelessly, often taking the wrong lane. I held tight on my seat. Outside, I saw unusual occurrences. The streets were full of soldiers. They were noisy and ready for combat. Most of them were visibly drunk; they were holding beer bottles. In a few minutes, we arrived at the VoK.
“The team leader, Ochuka, handed me a piece of paper where he had scribbled a statement. ‘Announce this! Tell the nation that Ochuka is the new President of Kenya, and not (Daniel) Moi anymore,’ he ordered. That’s when it dawned on me that these army men had overthrown Moi’s government. Without hesitation, lest I got shot, I went live on air announcing that Moi had been toppled.”
Drunken rebel soldiers
Mbotela, in this book, narrates how drunken rebel soldiers celebrated violently, danced on the tables and threw things all over the VoK studio when it was announced that Ochuka was Kenya’s new President. Ochuka then took over and explained how his leadership will be. All this time, Mbotela was watching them fearfully.
And then hell broke loose. The book explains that about two hours later, some rebel soldiers came running into the studio shouting ‘we are being attacked by the loyal soldiers!’
“I then heard deafening gunshots outside the studio. This further compounded my fears. I crawled and hid under a table and prayed intensely. At that moment, the rebel and loyal soldiers were exchanging fierce gunfire around VoK offices and its vicinity that resulted in dozens of fatalities. I was literally in a cross-fire; it was just a matter of when, and not if, I could be shot.
“After a while, the gunshots went silent. It was followed by an awkward moment of eerie silence. Then, a tall military man came into the studio; heavily armed with what I considered to be a very lethal gun. He was ready to shoot. ‘Who is here?’ I heard him shout. ‘Come out! Surrender!’ he kept shouting while advancing. I knelt down, raised my hands and surrendered to him. I told him ‘my name is Leonard Mambo Mbotela, I work here at VoK. I’m a broadcaster… um… I’m not a soldier.’
He looked quite friendlier and sober than the drunken and blood-thirsty soldiers I had interacted with earlier in the morning. ‘Where are these people,’ he asked casually, his sharp eyes darting all over the studio, his gun held ready for combat. I was alone in the studio. ‘They ran away,’ I answered him.
He looked at me closely with his gun held close to me. He then continued sniffing in virtually every corner looking for a sign of any rebel soldier. Having seen no enemy, he smiled and turned to me with the words, ‘You are a very lucky man. I wanted to open fire at you but something held me back. I thought you were one of those rebels.”
He then continued, “So you are the famous Mambo Mbotela! I always listen to you over the radio. I would easily have killed the person I always admired to meet! It’s good I have met you today,” he spoke calmly. He seemed to know me very well. He referred to me as ‘mtu wa je huu ni uungwana.’ He then walked out quickly. Unfortunately, I never got to meet this army man again.
Moi still the President
Mbotela goes on to narrate how General Mahmoud Mohamed came to VoK and ordered that he retracts the earlier announcement and inform the public that Moi was still the President of Kenya and that coup plotters had been trounced.
And so Mbotela announced: “Dear listeners, dear Kenyans, good morning, this is Mambo Mbotela again… I want to make it clear that the earlier announcement that President Daniel arap Moi had been overthrown was all lies. Yes, it was all lies. I repeat… it was all lies. The truth is that Moi is still the President of Kenya… You are advised to remain where you are but just know that Moi is still the President of Kenya… Everything is under control… And everything remains as it was. Those who attempted to overthrow him have been defeated…”
Mbotela goes on to say: “Moments later, I stepped outside the studio briefly, albeit fearfully, and saw a number of bodies littered in the VoK compound. It was a horrible sight. Blood was all over VoK corridors. These graphic images troubled me for many months. Many times, I often found myself shivering whenever I entered through the gates of VoK. But time is a healer; those hair-raising feelings dissipated over the months.”
During the attempted coup, Nairobi witnessed scenes of widespread violence and massive looting. More than 100 soldiers and 200 civilians were said to have died in the process. Some were caught up in the cross-fire while others were simply attacked and executed by the rebels. Ultimately, the loyal soldiers won the battle. Property estimated at over Sh500million was destroyed. Hundreds of rebel soldiers were rounded up, arrested and eventually jailed.
Following the attempted coup, Ochuka escaped to Tanzania and left behind a team of vanquished mutineers who were arrested in large numbers.
However, Ochuka was also captured and detained by the Tanzanian authorities. Several months later, he was extradited to Kenya and charged for treason.
During Ochuka’s lengthy trial, Mbotela writes that he was summoned to appear before the martial court sitting in Lang’ata barracks. He had been listed as a suspect, but was not arrested.
“I just received a written summon that I appear before this court to ostensibly ‘explain my involvement in the attempted coup.’ This was a surprising and chilling moment for me. This was not a small accusation. And this was not an ordinary court; it was a martial court whose laws approved outright execution of a person found guilty of wrong-doing, especially on matters as grave as attempting to overthrow a President.
On the eve of appearing before this court, I was a very worried man; extremely worried. I could easily have been grouped among other suspects and detained or even executed. Anything was possible with military, and, specifically, a rattled government. I was walking a very tight rope.
“I presented myself for interrogation early in the morning. I was put in the dock. Ochuka, the main suspect, was there. I saw him. Our eyes met. This time he was subdued and miserable. He looked frail and a pale shadow of the confident and tough-talking man whom I had once announced to be Kenya’s President. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Moses Wetang’ula.
“I was tasked to explain the role I played in the events of the early morning of Sunday 1st August 1982. The judge was a white man called Peter Sidney Grey. He looked at me straight in the eyes and asked very difficult and probing questions.
“What is your relationship with Ochuka? Do you know him personally?” he asked. I told him I had never seen Ochuka before, until the day he came to my house to pick me. “Why did he just pick on you to make the coup announcement and not any other VoK reporter?” That was a tough question that I never expected. It threw me off-guard. I remember fumbling to explain something like “Ochuka may have chosen me because I always run morning programs.” And another very tough question followed, “How did he know where you stay?” “And were you aware of his plans prior?”
Mbotela recounts some of the tough questions that judge Grey asked him in quick succession.
“The judge wanted to know if I had any personal links with Ochuka, and if I had earlier met him, or his people, to lay a plan. I explained to him how I was captured that morning and driven to the station at gun-point; and that Ochuka and his team had captured a VoK driver who showed them my house. I narrated the events that I saw that morning, and what I heard the rebel soldiers speak. I told this jury that I had no prior knowledge of the planned coup. I was also cross-examined by Wetang’ula.”
He adds, “There was awkward silence as the judge consulted silently with other members of the jury. I tried to put on a calm face but I was trembling inside. By that time Gray, reputed for being a no-nonsense advocate and judge, had already sentenced a number of people to jail in relation to this matter. I was extremely relieved when he turned to me with a rare smile (or call it a mere movement of the lips) and declared, ‘You are innocent. This court finds you not guilty. You are free to go.’ I hurriedly exited Lang’ata Barracks hoping they don’t change their mind and call me back.”
This will no doubt be a very informative book.