My Tribulations under the Kanu Regime: A Reporters’ Notebook

By Odhiambo Orlale

Mr. Odhiambo Orlale at work

One of the occupational hazards for reporters and photo-journalists in Kenya during the Moi era was police harassment, breaking of and confiscating of cameras and even spending a day or more as ‘a State Guest.’

I was a victim of State excesses on August 9, 1994, a few months after I was promoted and transferred to Kisumu Bureau to take over from Caleb Atemi, as the Bureau Chief.

It did not take long before I was accused of being an opposition sympathizer because my father, Enos Seth Orlale, was the then Homa Bay County Council Chairman on a Ford Kenya ticket.

Kanu was struggling to regain a foothold in Nyanza after Ford-K took almost all the parliamentary and civic seats at the 1992 General Elections. At the time, there was a spirited attempt by the government and Kanu leaders to get a number of MPs to defect to Kanu.

The then powerful Nyanza Provincial Commissioner, Joseph Kaguthi, was unhappy with me for failing to pay him a courtesy call in his office, on my arrival “in his territory’’ as had apparently been like a tradition for any newly posted bureau chiefs before me.  He also accused me of focusing on ‘negative’ news in favour of the opposition.

The PC’s narrative was supported by two powerful Cabinet Ministers and leading Kanu point men in the region at that time, Simeon Nyachae, the then Nyaribari Chache MP in Kisii District, and Dalmas’s Otieno, from Rongo Constituency in neighbouring Migori district, also in Nyanza province.

Otieno’s beef was over a headline of a splash story I had written saying: “Dalmas Leads Kanu Youths in Pelting Ford Kenya.” That was during the Ndhiwa by-elections, in Homa Bay district, where Kanu’s Tom Obondo, had been replaced by Ford Kenya’s Joshua Orwa Ojode. 

Mr. Obondo had been elected on Ford-K ticket during the 1992 General elections but defected to Kanu early in 1994, occasioning the by- election. The minister had led the Kanu team against the Ford-Kenya side in what was a fairly violent campaign in which pro- Kanu youths clashed with their Ford- K counterparts leaving many people injured.

I had heard of the reports that the two ministers and the PC were unhappy with me but I did not take them seriously until one morning I walked into my Kisumu office and was arrested by five Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officers with strict instructions to block me from proceeding to cover a presidential rally in neighboring Kisii District.

That morning after my arrest, on August 9, 1994, I asked my deputy, Pamela Makotsi, to take charge of our Nation Team and proceed to Kisii and cover the opening of the annual Agricultural of Kenya Society (ASK) Show by the president.

The major bone of contention was a headline story I had penned during the president’s tour of Kisii district that week stating: “Opposition MP, Henry Obwocha, tells Moi Off!”

That was in reference to a public rally where Nyachae had paraded Kisii Kanu MPs before the President but had been rebuffed by the Ford-Kenya West Mugirango MP, Obwocha, who declined to defect, as was expected.

During the rally, the former PC and Chief secretary did not mince his words and told the President that he knew who was fomenting trouble in his backyard: “The media is being used by the opposition, there is this Orare working with them, he is an opposition sympathizer, and, in fact, his father is the Ford Kenya Homa Bay County Council chairman!”

Apparently, the police in Kisumu took the cue and swung into action, arrested and frog-matched me into their waiting white Peugeot 504 station wagon, sandwiched me on the back seat, and drove me to their headquarters where they demanded that I record a statement on why I had incited the doctors to join the then on-going nurses’ strike.

The story about the nurses strike, which was actually a brief in the inside pages of Daily Nation, had been written by one of our correspondents, George Kiaye, and published a month earlier. But for them, this was reason enough, or an excuse to arrest me.

After their unsuccessful attempts to intimidate me the whole day saying that I must confess, they then ordered me into their car, with civilian number plates, and drove me to Kisumu Railway police station where I was booked for the night as a State Guest, in a cold cell.

The officer in charge ordered me to removed my tie, coat, belt, socks and shoes and then enter the cell.

That is when I felt the full impact of the mental torture and being dehumanized, like those accused of being “Mwakenya” (dissidents), one of whom was the award-winning journalist, Wahome Mutai, famously known as “Whispers”.

A single light bulb hanging from the roof was switched on the whole night. At 7pm, I was brought supper, which consisted of soup with vegetables and half- cooked ugali. I rejected it fearing that it was a bait to poison me!

The night was long and I never had a wink because of the mental torture, pin drop silence and squad of mosquitoes hovering over us the whole night.

The following morning at 6 am, we were ‘woken up’. By then I was feeling so hungry I could not reject the mug of milk-less tea and two slices of stale bread they brought for breakfast.

I offered one slice of bread to my fellow ‘State Guest,’ using him as my guinea pig, to test if it was laced with poison. He was among street children who had also been arrested the previous day.

Two hours later, the CID team came for me and ordered me to dress up and enter the Peugeot for a drive into the Kisumu Magistrate’s court, then presided over by Charles Kanyangi.

After three agonizing hours in the crowded and poorly ventilated court room in the dock with other suspects, my name was called and I pleaded not guilty to “publishing an inflammatory statement.”

My Managing Editor, Tom Mshindi, stood by me all the way and engaged Menezes & Menezes Advocates to represent me. Menezes applied and got me released on a Shs100,000 bond.

A dear friend and colleague, Jacob Otieno, of The Standard Newspapers, stood surety for me and presented his father’s title deed for a plot in Manyatta Estate, in Kisumu, to have me freed.

For the next year, the case dragged on in court with numerous adjournments and ended when the Magistrate acquitted me, on June 21, 1995, on grounds that the charge sheet was defective saying: “the accused, Odhiambo Orlale, is not the publisher of Nation, the publisher is Mr Albert Ekirapa, the Chairman of Nation Newspapers Ltd.”

The magistrate also rejected claims by the prosecution that the news source (the nurse) had denied having issued the press statement, saying that the nurse may have been intimidated to recant his statement.

I walked out of the court room with a sigh of relief, feeling like Nelson Mandela. “I was free at last!”

I later had another brush with the powers-that-be in Homa Bay town where, with photo-journalist, Carl Mandieka, we had gone to team up with John Oywa, our correspondent in that region, for a story.

This time we were arrested and ‘jailed’ for two hours at Homa Bay Prison by the warders for taking a photo of a sick prisoner who had been taken to the local hospital for treatment.

But after word went around about our arrest and detention, the authorities confiscated our photographer’s camera and removed the film which they destroyed before handing the camera back with a stern warning never to ‘trespass’ again.

On our release, we dashed to the nearest telephone booth to file the story about our ordeal to our news editor.  We then settled at the nearest pub for a drink,  nyama choma and ugali to celebrate our release.

Harassment has not always been confined to the state and the police, but also politicians unleashing terror using goons on journalists who they accuse of “always giving us bad coverage.”

On the eve of Kanu-NDP cooperation pact in October 2002, at Kasarani in Nairobi, I felt the full wrath of NDP youth who had been incited to deal with me for allegedly exposing the cracks in the opposition before the eventual merger.

On that day, I arrived with my photographer and driver and as we waited for the last press conference by the NDP leader, Raila Odinga, the party goons pounced on me with kicks and whips.  They evicted me out of the party headquarters in Upper Hill area of Nairobi, as local and foreign journalists documented the ugly incident.

Odinga, who was then Energy Cabinet Minister, later arrived and ordered the youths to be paraded before the Kilimani police investigators to arrest the suspects whom I had had identified. They were taken away and I proceeded to cover the press conference, went to Nation Centre and filed my report and took the afternoon off to recuperate.

Later, our security manager accompanied me to Kilimani police station where I recorded a statement before proceeding to Kenyatta National Hospital for treatment.

Back in the office, the then Nation Media Group, General Manager, Dr Evans Kidero, announced at an editorial meeting, that “no stone would be left unturned” to ensure that justice was not only seen, but was seen to be done.”

The case fizzled out and I was never called to testify in any court of law.

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