Wafula Buke: the man, his convictions and the price he paid

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Activist Wafula Buke

By David Onjili

The late Nelson Mandela, for all his glory as a freedom icon, was a stranger to his children. He lost his son Makgatho Lewanika Mandela to AIDS and separated with his wife, Winnie, two years after leaving prison in 1992 before finally divorcing in 1996. Mandela later married Graca Machel, the wife to Mozambique’s founding President Samora Machel in 1998. 

Wafula Buke shares some of Mandela’s burdens. But unlike Madiba and others who chose to bear their pain privately, Buke is quite open about what it cost him to fight a despotic regime. 

On his Facebook timeline in April, he openly chose to celebrate Wafula, a man he calls “my wife’s husband”. His post is the reason I sought him out. In the half-hour I sat with him, I met a man whose name is firmly etched in the history books of Kenya’s battle against the Moi state, whose brutality against dissidents is extensively recorded.

First born son to Timothy Wafula, at one time a councillor in Chiptuba, Buke hails from the Mt Elgon region of Rift Valley. He was named after American President Robert Kennedy, something he detests because “I do not subscribe to the imperialist ideals of Kennedy… I would have preferred to be named Steve Biko or given a name from among the Frelimo Brothers.”

The Ambira High School alumnus joined the University of Nairobi in 1985 to pursue a degree course in Political Science and Philosophy. In his first year, he organised a successful demonstration in solidarity with Libyans following deadly air strikes by the United States in retaliation for the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing. He made national news.

“Back in the day, the choice was distinct. You were either with the establishment, KANU, or you fought for democracy. The university also offered the only place where people could meet. Outside campus, any meeting of more than nine people was proscribed. Even at the university, you needed a license from the chancellor – who also obtained it from the authorities – to hold a meeting,” he explains. He also explains that he never sought any from the then chancellor Professor Philip Mbithi.

As chair of the students’ union, he, in 1987, sat down his lieutenants, who included Dr Miguna Miguna, the secretary-general, Dr Samuel Kabereria, Munoru Nderi and Ngala Mwomu, and painted to them a picture of what they were getting themselves into as activists – the fact that they may never finish their studies, and that they could be imprisoned, exiled or even killed. They understood, they said, and were determined to march forward in their pursuit for democracy. It was a formidable alliance. 

Buke and his comrades were arrested in 1987 and taken to Central Police Station before being transferred to Kasarani and finally the dreaded torture chambers at Nyayo House. 

“Nyayo House is a place of great beatings,” he recalls simply. “ But we were determined that the physical pain, though immense, could be borne in their determination to see KANU uprooted.”

The routine was simple: they were stripped naked and blasted with water from a high pressure hose pipe. It was extremely painful, akin to being pelted with stones. For several days, they spent time in the dark rooms at Nyayo House, standing in ankle-high water. Despite the darkness in the room, Buke suspects that he was in there alongside Kabereria and Nderi. There was the usual transfer to the 24th floor for beatings and back to the dark chambers. They endured the humiliation of being stripped and being forced to admit to mistakes that were never theirs.

Buke in court

The reason for their arrest was “engaging in acts that were pre-judicial to the interest of the Republic of Kenya”, a charge bordering on treason. After his time at Nyayo House he appeared before Chief Magistrate Joseph Mango who sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. As luck would have it, he served only about two years – in Kamiti and Naivasha Maximum Security Prisons and later Bungoma before being set free.

At Kamiti, he met Dr Oduor Ongwen, Dr Odhiambo Olel, Professor Maina wa Kinyatta and Odindo Opiata, all political prisoners of the struggle. Prison and the isolation and confinement emboldened him ideologically. They spent their time composing and singing songs. He also learned Kikuyu and reflected on the studies he had had at the UoN. 

“I was roommates with John Kiriamiti, who at the time was writing his novel Son of Fate. The novel was first written on a milk packet papers, using pens smuggled into their cells with aid of warders.

Prison life, he says, was life-changing; it allowed him to reflect and focus but it also made him see injustice. The KANU era was so bad that it was almost treasonable to be seen meeting Jaramogi Oginga. Anyone who entered and left the Libyan Embassy – Moi had accused Libya of working with Uganda to destabilise his government – in Nairobi would be taken behind bars. Aduol Ogonda was imprisoned for simply being Jaramogi’s cook; he was an illiterate man whom the state forced to admit to having read a document that suggested that he was a willing member of Mwakenya movement. And so did Jaramogi’s personal doctor, Dr Odhiambo Olel.

So, what kept them going? 

“The promise/oath we had taken as comrades at the UON, and that the option of giving in meant that we had agreed to be co-opted into the oppressive regime. We were never going to do that, even if it offered the comforts of government positions and wealth.”

By the time he was being imprisoned, he had sired a son he named Brian Biko in 1985. The uncertainty of his life and commitment to the cause of guerrilla warfare meant that, at family level, Buke was a broken man. Close family members died and suffered because of their association with him. A number of them had their dreams cut short as the government isolated them in various sectors as they could not find jobs simply because they thought this was the best way to punish Buke for his ideals.

When he was finally released, he found out that the woman who bore him a son had moved on with another man. “My ‘wife’ was right to act as she did. Both families had sat down and sanctioned it since nobody knew if Buke would come back home alive. Our families made attempts to reunite us but I couldn’t stand for it. I reasoned, I could remarry any time I wanted and not have to put her through the same – for the struggle was going to continue.”

Soon after, he fled to Uganda. 

“You cannot be married to two things. Even a polygamous man loves one wife more than the other(s)… My marriage was to the struggle for liberation.”

By his admission, many of his comrades have suffered broken homes and families – children who grew up not knowing their fathers and wives who grew up lonely and exploited or “married to others”. 

“Some of those we see now as happily married are just broken couples, pieced together for the benefit of the public.”

So when Barasa, the man who had “taken over” his wife while he was in prison died sometime this year was to be buried, Buke chose to keep away from the burial as a sign of his respect to the man who took care of his wife and son while he languished in prison and exile.

“Wafula is a walking history book of the Moi Gestapo state and second liberation struggle. He’s lived it all. He needs to write a book,” tweeted economist and public intellectual David Ndii when I shared about my meeting with Buke online. That is high praise especially from a man who too suffered at the hands of KANU. 

Parting shot

“It pains me now when I see the nation sliding back to what we fought so hard to heal. Even as I lament that the current generation lacks the intellectual software to engage the ruling authoritarian Jubilee government, I am proud of our efforts… we demonstrated that it is possible to change things, and I hope some of our young intellectuals can stand for what we stood for.”

I asked him if he ever got around to finishing his degree. His response astounded me: “Did the country need another graduate of philosophy or one with the wherewithal to take on the KANU dictatorship? I am a qualified guerrilla warfare man, who got his training in Uganda under the Museveni administration. In fact, back then I had the rank of Intelligence Officer attached to the president.” 

Before we parted, he requested to pose one question to his tormentor, former President Daniel Moi – for whom, he says, he harbours no hard feelings: Why didn’t he just kill them instead of subjecting them to torture?

We hope Moi reads this. ( 

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