It was a great day to see my long-time friend and comrade, Oduor Ong’wen launch his book “Stronger than Faith” in Nairobi on Friday, October 7, 2022, this week.
I have known Oduor Ong’wen or “OO” as we knew him at the University of Nairobi when we worked together as elected student representatives at the Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU).
We first met during the harsh and cruel times of Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi as the supreme dictator of our country. The students at the only two universities in Kenya at that time, Nairobi and Kenyatta universities, made it clear to Moi that they will not put up with his authoritarian rule dragging our country into the dustbin.
Moi heard us loud and clear and he told us he was ready to fight us and we told him we are even more ready for him and his thugs running and ruining our country.
At one time when Moi took the students to prison so many times back to back, Moi would tell the country and our parents, that we students and other Kenyans who opposed his dictatorship were like pigs.
“I have washed them all the time and when they are clean I bring them out” Moi would yell.
That is when he locks you up and damn gets you near killed in those terrible places.
Moi goes on: “As soon as they get out they run right back into the mud.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Moi would ask.
So Kenyans come out of jail for demanding a free country and they continue demanding that their country must be free from one-party and one-man rule and have multiparty elections. For Moi, we are in mud and jail again.
That is why it was a complete war between a fascist dictator with all weapons of repression and humble students who made it clear to him that we were going to fight with our minds, our hearts, and our hands to free our country.
That was enough for us and if you were to ask Moi and his cohorts like William Ruto who is in power today they will tell you it was way more than what they bargained for.
So why were the students opposed to and mad with Moi in the 1980’s when SONU was launched?
At that time from 1982 through all the years up to 1992, Kenya was a one-man dictatorship. University students through their famous kamkunjis (public rallies) and demonstrations all over the campuses and the city of Nairobi told Moi, Kenya needs and deserves multi-party democracy and we were ready to fight for it even if that led to some of us being jailed, tortured or killed.
In many respects, the student movement at that time was the only opposition party in Kenya and we were prepared to pay the price for that.
At that time Moi had a certified fascist police force known as the Special Branch police. These were thugs paid by the government to work as police officers and they never had any police uniforms. They were given the powers by Moi to arrest anybody they thought was against Nyayo, torture them, kill them or throw them in jail.
The courts did not exist to protect the rights of citizens at the time. The courts were given orders directly from State House and the Special Branch Police to send people to jail.
I remember one very nasty incident with my friend the late Njuguna Mutonya who passed away two years ago when he was a lecturer in Literature and Journalism at the Pwani University in Mombasa.
Njuguna and I were at the Nyayo Torture chambers at Nyayo House. They had knocked me out completely. I was a lecturer in accounting at the Mombasa Polytechnic and Njuguna was a journalist in Mombasa working with all media houses in Kenya at that time.
The grand Nyayo House Torture building was named after President Moi who built and operated it.
Young Kenyans visiting the Nyayo Torture Chambers: Many have demanded that it should be open to the public to see the horrors Kenyans faced in there.
At the torture chambers, they put us in the death bed called swimming pools where we are kept naked for days or weeks without food until you faint and fall down in the frozen lake of water in your cell. At that time you have no idea where you are. When they took me out they gave me food but I had completely forgotten how to eat food.
I was looking at it and I knew I am supposed to eat it but I had no clue how to do that. I didn’t know that you are supposed to use your hands to take food to your mouth and at that time my hands were dead. So I just put my mouth on the plate and ate the food the way dogs eat .
I could hear the Special Branch police laughing. Maybe they thought this was funny but I was pretty close to just passing out dead. And they killed Kenyans in those torture chambers as we learnt later. If they take you out too late then you are just gone. You just can’t move.
I visited the torture place sometime back with my son and told him at one time when I was there I had no idea how people eat food. He felt bad about it and refused to go with me to a restaurant after that. He was taking his time to absorb the sheer sadness of it all. I was fine with that.
After I was able to walk and move I was taken to the Police Headquarters in Nairobi and that is where I met my friend Njuguna Mutonya who had also been crashed at the Torture Chambers. The CID officers took over the case.
The way it worked was that the Special Branch had to crash you to near death and when you were knocking at the door, they hand you over to the CID on one condition. You must confess to your alleged crimes and be taken to court. The Judge’s job was only to read your sentence and you are on your way to Kamiti.
The Special Branch police never appeared in court because they were secret police and the CID takes over to protect the SB officers’ identity. Nobody was supposed to know or see them except those they were arresting and torturing or killing. That was Moi’s grand plan.
When they read the charges to me I told them it was completely false and refused to confess to anything. At that point, I was bundled into the infamous Special Branch Vans to be taken back to the Torture House and next to me was Njuguna Mutonya also being taken back to the same place.
It took a couple of rounds of torture before both of us finally gave up and were taken to court for sentencing.
In jail, it was another nightmare altogether. That is where I meet Oduor Ong’wen in Block E at the Industrial Area Remand Prison in Nairobi. We used to call it INDA. It is a deadly place.
Block E was for hardcore criminals including those sentenced to death and waiting to be taken to Kimiti maximum to be hanged. There were a bunch of us in the first cell. That was David Murathe, Kibisu Kabatesi, Cornelius Onyango Akelo, Joseph Omotto, Adongo Ogony, and other students.
Then we were told Oduor Ong’wen had been brought to Block E but he was not brought to our cell where the students were.
He was taken to cell number six which is near the end of the block where those on death row were kept. We got a little worried about him because we did not know what sentence he had been given and we were asking why was he not brought to the cell where the other students were.
The way you communicate in the cells is you shout at night.
So we had to go loud.
“Hey Oduor where are you”
Then he shouted back:
” I am in cell number six: where are you”
At that time the whole block is locked so the prison guards are out and we just talk by shouting.
The only time we were allowed out at Block E was to throw tins full of poo into some latrine. That took five minutes. That is the only time we saw Oduor doing the same thing we were doing.
This was the kind of schooling we had to go through in the fight for freedom and democracy in our country. In jail, every prisoner told us it is one day at a time.
They told us the biggest job of every prisoner is to be alive the next day and that is not guaranteed. The rest, like getting any food to eat, any water to drink, and not being too sick were luxuries as long as you stayed alive.
Some of the prisoners looked at us and said we don’t know anything and had to learn how to live there. It was tough but we lived through it.
Oduor had a longer jail term than many of us. Out of jail, it was a nightmare for everybody. Many of us went right back to the fight to free the country from Moi and his thugs. It was always costly. Your life, your hopes for a job, your freedom and dignity as a human being was always on the line as long as you rejected the Moi dictatorship.
Oduor Ong’wen has hung in there fighting for everything most of us enjoy in Kenya today like having a multi-party system, freedom of conscience, a free press, and a system of governance that provides for the basic rights of our citizens and their hopes to prosper as individuals and communities.
That struggle is still in its infancy as we all know after the 2022 elections. We are all there for the battle each day going forward and Oduor Ong’wen knows that more than anybody else. Thanks, comrade for sharing your experiences and thoughts with your people and your country.
The nation is in this fight for the long haul as always.
Adongo Ogony is a Human Rights Activist and a Writer who lives in Toronto, Canada