By Alexander Opicho
I read with unflagging pleasure the feature story published in the June issue of this magazine about Wafula Buke. I salute the depth of research into facts, style and texture of journalism that the author, David Onjili, employed. I also salute the writer for his timely and brave work that.
My remarks are in tune with a new and provocative social philosophy that it is better logic to celebrate heroes when they are alive, rather than eulogising their lives when they are dead. I too, want to share in celebrating Buke’s contribution to democracy, human rights and defence of the dignity of Kenya’s poor against brutality of the powers of the state.
Buke is a Marxist revolutionary, a socialist realist, qualified guerrilla, a politician of Kenya’s second liberation and active revolutionary politician and strategist who recently posted – lightly – that he is his wife’s ‘husband’.
Let me digress.
I met Buke in 1994 while he was involved in active revolutionary activities in Bungoma, where he was a chief strategist for Ford Kenya’s Saul Busolo during a by-election in what was then Webuye Constituency. President Daniel Moi had nullified Musikari Kombo’s parliamentary position on the claims that he had used voodoo to win the elections. This dictatorial decision by Moi had provoked a bit of progressive consciousness in Bungoma. The Webuye by election thus brought together the outstanding revolutionary minds of the likes of Leonard Kunikina, Saul Busolo, Raila Odinga, Wafula Buke, Patrick Wangamati, Brigadier Augustine Odongo, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi and Dr Namajanja, as well as the elitists in Kijana Wamalwa, George Kapten, Barasa Munyasia, Bifwoli Wakoli, Wafula Wamunyinyi and Wekesa Sambu, who were in it for – for all intents – money.
The social back-drop to this experience was that the gestapo nature of Moi’s dictatorship had destroyed sugar, coffee and maize farming and livestock rearing (especially for milk) in Bungoma District, driving locals further into poverty and desperation. Police brutality reigned; it was, in fact, whispered that there were more Special Branch policemen in Bungoma at the time than there were in Nairobi. Some of these officers masqueraded as high school teachers of history, conversant in only one topic: the Nandi resistance and animal agriculture. Moi armed tribal militia in Mt Elgon into an outfit that vandalised and terrorised homes of the Bungoma residents with the aim of herding people into his political philosophy. As a result, economic institutions were destroyed as he visited systemic terror on the people in the conviction he would make them to worship him. Ironically, rebellion thrived!
The biggest problem with Kenyan politics at that time was an engulfing lack of self-confidence amongst political leaders and administrators in Moi’s government. This is how it began. In 1978, Jomo Kenyatta was weak and almost senile, but was unwilling to relinquish his office. When he died suddenly in State House Mombasa, his cronies, for days, while they struggled to hatch a plan to replace the dead man with one of their own, failed to inform his deputy, Moi, of the president’s death. But, by some miracle worked by Kenyatta’s powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo, Moi succeeded Kenyatta without going through competitive electoral process. This is the brief history of the enduring paranoia that characterised Moi’s tenure.
Moi resorted to using tribal ideology, police brutality, mudslinging, propagation of fear, propaganda, electoral fraud, the philosophy of an infallible life presidency, detention without trial, deliberate impoverishment of the masses, distortion of education, favouritism, oppression of the media and other tactics to entrench his grip on power. It was in this realm of political uncertainty that Robert Ouko, Masinde Muliro, Stephen Adungosi and Father John Kaiser, among many others, were murdered, and others like Wafula Buke, Miguna Miguna, Raila Odinga, Maina wa Kinyatti, Koigi wa Wamwere, John Kiriamiti, Kenneth Matiba and Andrew Ngumba were detained without trial. Some were forced into exile – Mwandawiro Mghanga, Kabando wa Kabando, Mukhisa Kituyi, Saul Busolo and Anyang Nyong’o.
Back to the Webuye by-election, it became one of the inevitable outlets of the pressures of the regime. We used to meet at the home of Saul Busolo, the opposition’s main candidate, to plan. I was a campaign committee member in charge of intelligence among the youth, which is how I developed a friendship with Buke, who was in charge of the youth movement for change. By then, he had just completed a five-year sentence at Kamiti Maximum Prison.
Ever silent, his gaze oozed intelligence. He spoke only when prompted, managing to keep this side of him hidden when interacting with the masses. Preferring bland, worn out clothes, he got on easily with people – but perhaps also because he was generous with his money and cigarettes. His tall, slender physique and bushy hair gave him an un-attractive hirsute, which is, I think, how he preferred it. At the time, he ran Mzalendo Transporters, a business which consisted of two box body commuter vehicles.
When the election concluded, Busolo had beaten Moi’s candidate. But my relationship with Buke continued, with a focus on literature. I borrowed a copy of Christ the Man by Berber Thiering from Buke. When I gave him Churchill’s Gathering Storm, he declined to touch it, his body shrinking back and issuing the sole whimper, “This is a bourgeoise book.” He later organised for me to get a dozen of African Red Family Magazines which I presume was a publication of communist international. He also gave me Amilcar Cabral’s Unity and Struggle, Mao’s selected works, Nkurumah’s Consciencism and the Communist Manifesto. I savoured the literature.
One day, Buke told me to meet him in the afternoon at the veranda of the Bungoma Post Office building. He asked me to come with any young man who WASN’T FAT; instead I went alone. I found Buke waiting for me. We talked about some literature by Leonid Brezhnev for a while before he excused himself ‘briefly’. He never returned.
Buke is a Marxist revolutionary, a socialist realist, qualified guerrilla and a politician of Kenya’s second liberation.
Two weeks later, Moi was travelling to Uganda by road. He did a stop-over at Bungoma town to address the people who had gathered at the home compound of one Wapang’ana, a KANU loyalist, Moi point man and nominated councillor. Wapang’ana also had chain of butcheries in Bungoma town. Moi arrived in a convoy at Wapang’ana’s home at lunch time where a crown received him with the usual ‘Jogoo! Kanu juu!…’ chants. After his address, he gave his host Sh100,000 in full view of the crowd, in between praises of his patriotism and exemplary citizenship. Fifteen minutes later, as Moi made his way to Uganda, Wapang’ana was shot twice in the head dying instantly.
Moi flew back to Nairobi the following day but did not comment about Wapang’ana’s shooting until some months later, when he also alleged that Uganda was sponsoring February Eighteenth Resistance Army (FERA) guerrillas to topple his government. He fingered Patrick Wangamati and Brigadier Augustine Odongo as its leaders. Bungoma District was declared by government as home of the FERA guerrillas and what followed was a prolonged season of mass arrests and detention of its young people. Wangamati fled to Uganda.
History has it that Brigadier Odongo had been imprisoned for nine months for being found driving the farm tractor of Oginga Odinga while having The Selected Works, a book by Mao Tse Tung, in his pocket. When Moi was fretting about FERA, Odongo was in Congo, fighting alongside Che Guevara and Laurent Kabila to remove Mobutu Sese Seko from power, and couldn’t have thus been creating or heading FERA.
At this time, things were not looking up for Buke, especially after an Administration Police Camp in Sirisia was attacked and some sten guns stolen. For the next several months, Buke was on the run between Nairobi and Bungoma, during which time he was regularly arrested and detained.
I met him one time in Bungoma where I offered him a hideout at my village cottage in Bokoli. He declined on grounds that he could not engage in any money-making activities there, and also that he had married from Bokoli and it would be a shame for him to stay there.
When I asked him why he was on the run, he told me, “The police think that maybe I shot Wapang’ana.” (