Who killed Ouko: 23 years since murder of foreign minister, lawyer warns Kenya is again in a rut

Who killed Ouko: 23 years since murder of foreign minister, lawyer warns Kenya is again in a rut


Rising uncertainty and fears that Kenya is sliding back to the dark days of dictatorship, humans rights activists and sticklers for rule of law and constitutionalism have raised the flag that ordinary citizens should be ready to defend freedom of expression and opinion. Human Rights Lawyer and Advocate of the High Court of Kenya walks us back memory lane to February 1990, a time when he took part in the first of many peaceful demonstrations when he joined other university students in condemning the gruesome assassination of Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko

When news broke in mid-February 1990 of the murder of Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Robert Ouko, I was at the tail end of my studies at the University of Nairobi’s School of Law at Parklands Campus.

Although the death of the minister left the whole country reeling in anger, it affected me in a more personal way. Dr Ouko had been a regular visitor to the Alliance High School where he was a favourite speaker on economic and current affairs. His son, Ken, was a year ahead of me at Alliance and his daughter, Lillian, was two years behind me at Alliance Girls.

I admired his eloquence and sharp wit and the mastery with which he handled his subject. He was a politician with a difference; one who was also a gentleman and who had not been associated with any corruption scandal or abuse of power.

All through the week following the announcement of the minister’s gruesome murder, angry demonstrations broke out in the various campuses comprising the University of Nairobi as well as other universities and colleges around the country. At Parklands, we waited for the student leadership to convene us and announce our date to demonstrate, but this did not happen.

When it seemed that we would miss out on our chance to record our rage at this injustice, my friend and classmate Ken Nyaundi and I, confronted the Chair of the Kenya Law Students Society, Moitalel ole Kenta, and gave him a 24-hour ultimatum to call a demonstration failing which we would do so.

Tall and elegant with a prominent gap in his lower teeth, Ole Kenta was a typical Maasai gentleman who straddled a middle world between the modern and the traditional. He was also a personal friend of Cabinet Minister William ole Ntimama and, as such, he had links with the Moi State, which seemed implicated in Ouko’s death and so his reluctance to antagonise the government was understandable, although not excusable.

In the end, Nyaundi and I prepared a notice calling the students to gather at the parking lot in front of the swimming pool after lunch on the day appointed for the demonstration, prepared to march to the CBD.

On the appointed date, students turned up in large numbers many with appropriate placards. On the placard I prepared for the march I wrote, “CAIN, WHERE IS ABEL?” on one side and on the opposite side, “SCOTLAND YARD: TOO LATE!!”

This was in reference to an announcement earlier that morning that President Moi had invited detectives from UK’s Scotland Yard to help investigate Ouko’s murder.

We left Parklands Campus singing and chanting angry slogans as we went down Parklands Road, just past St Xavier Catholic Church and turned right onto Limuru Road heading to the City Centre. The chant took the form of a solo question by myself or one of the other students, followed by a repeat of the same question by the crowd.

It would start rather softly, increasing in volume and tempo with each question, and end in an angry crescendo….

“Who killed Ouko?? Who killed Ouko?”

“Why kill Ouko?? Why kill Ouko?”

“Who killed the Minister?? Who killed the Minister?”

“Who killed the Diplomat?? Why kill the Diplomat?”

“And where was Security??? And where was Security!”

Being young lawyers, we had to sneak in some of the Latin words we had learnt in class:  

“Who killed Bob?? Res ipsa loquitor (the thing speaks for itself)”

We would then slow down to catch our breath while singing the famous Osibisa song: “Why, Oh why, Oooh why you shot him down?”

As we marched, I noticed a strange man who was very involved in the march, acting as a self-appointed marshal. He would go ahead of us at every junction and stop the cars to enable us to safely get onto the next road.

Once in a while, he would come to me and tell me to turn my placard to enable the media to take a shot of the words on the opposite side. I wondered who he was and where he had come from but in the heat of the moment, I thanked God for the crucial role he was playing to make our demonstration safe and successful.

Only later did I learn from one of our classmates who had contacts in the dreaded Special Branch of the police that the stranger was an undercover policeman.

On entering the city, our first stop was at Nation House, the offices of the Nation Newspapers opposite the Nairobi Fire Station (The Nation Centre where the Nation Group of Newspapers is currently housed hadn’t been built).

On arrival at Nation House, we all knelt down and wailed hysterically as the journalists recorded our moment of angst and sorrow for their newspaper readers.

Our next destination was Harambee Avenue where we made several stops. At the Police Headquarters at Vigilance House, we poured scorn and abuse using every kind of nasty word we could recall at the police for failing to keep our Minister safe or, even worse, having been complicit in his murder.

After we had had our fill of abusing the police, we crossed the road to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offices where we were as sad, sombre and soulful as we had been unruly a few moments before. Here, we all knelt down and were led in prayer by one of the female students, Millie Odhiambo.

After this, we went to the nearby Parliament Buildings, still singing and chanting. There, Isaac Lenaola read from the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that everyone had a right to life and this right could not be arbitrarily taken away as Dr Ouko’s had been so gruesomely taken from him.

Our demonstration officially came to an end after our last stop in front of Parliament Buildings, or so we thought. People dispersed in their different directions with most going back to campus and the halls of residence.

At that time, my friend and classmate Francis Tuiyott and I shared a room at the Milimani Halls of Residence across Mamlaka Road opposite the Student Centre. During supper at one of the university’s dining halls popularly known as Kitchen 1, the same friend who had told me about the undercover police officer came to talk to us.

“You should know that after our demonstration ended, other unknown people came and took it over and marched to the Nyayo monument at Central Park and started stoning it while chanting, “Moi resign!!” he reported gravely.

In those days if there were ever a combination of two words that was completely sacrilegious, it was “Moi” and “resign!”

Our friend informed us that his police sources had told him that their investigations as to who the ringleaders of the demonstration were pointed a finger at us. “I would not spend the night in my room if I were you,” he said wistfully as he left.

After receiving this alarming news, we figured that there was no better place to hide than our favourite drinking joint, Greenview Lodge. GVL, as it was popularly known, was a hideaway opposite Serena Hotel just after the junction of Nyerere Road and the current Processional Way. There, the drinks were cheap enough and with unregulated hours, it was a safe space for us to be able to spend most of the evening until whoever might come looking for us at the halls of residence had given up.

We got back to our hall of residence after midnight and sure enough, the night watchman reported that there had been two strangers who had come looking for us. However, the rest of the night passed without incident.

The week Dr Ouko was to be buried was filled with tension and foreboding in the city and at the university. For two days before the memorial service at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church, Valley Road, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Philip Mbithi offered several buses to ferry students to the minister’s rural home in Koru to attend the burial. It was a clever move that ensured that by the time the memorial service took place, most of the most aggrieved students were not in the city to cause chaos.

Most of my friends, including Lenaola, joined those who travelled to Koru, but I remained behind to catch up with my reading to prepare for a forthcoming continuous assessment test.

The night before the service was to take place, the whole campus was eerily quiet. It was virtually emptied of those who had travelled to Koru and others who had gone home, fearing the outbreak of demonstrations by angry students. My roommate, Francis, had gone home the day before.

As the evening turned to night, I started to regret having chosen to remain. The memory of the warning we had received that the Special Branch was looking for us to answer for our role in the demonstration that had taken place a few days earlier was still fresh.

“What if they come for me now?” I asked myself, my heart beating so loud it felt as it had relocated to the back of my throat. “No one will ever know what happened to me.” It was not an idle thought, given what ‘they’ had done to a senior cabinet minister.

As if the eerie silence that had enveloped the campus wasn’t bad enough, way past midnight, as I opened the door of my room to visit the washroom, I saw a white goat standing right outside the door. It had a piece of paper taped to its side with the question that was still on everyone’s mind, “WHO KILLED OUKO?”

I was so freaked out that I almost fainted. How had the goat gotten onto the third floor of the building where my room was located? I don’t believe in witchcraft but on that particular occasion, I came very close to becoming a believer.

After the incident with the goat, I could not sleep. I tossed and turned for the rest of the night and no sooner had morning broken than I left campus and went home to watch the proceedings at the funeral service on television.

The Ouko demonstration was the first major one that I had taken part in but it certainly was not going to be the last. Rather it would prove to be merely a dress rehearsal for a life of regular confrontations with the police as we fought epic street battles against the autocratic Moi regime and as we demanded respect for our fundamental rights and the recognition of our God-given freedoms.

  • A Tell report / By Njonjo Mue, senior counsel
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