The OUKO Remains
Updated: Mar 4
The hill resembled a military zone. It was teeming with officers armed with different types guns
“If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know that the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins, not in my dying.”-Indira Gandhi
I moved slowly and cautiously towards the smouldering pile. My heart beat fast and my knees wobbled when I eventually came to it. It was a small mountain of burning human flesh.
The skull was black and dry from the effects of the fire. The neck, shoulders and torso had been eaten by the flames and all that remained were thick lumps of black ash. However, the hands, burnt into skeletal frames, curled above the ash in a pugilistic position as if guarding the space where the chest once stood. Whoever lay here must have met a frightful and dreadful death.
Close to the smouldering remains lay; a white jerrican, some clothes, a torch and walking stick. They had been placed neatly and meticulously above the head.
The putrid smell of death and burnt flesh punched through my lungs. For some moments I could barely breathe. I staggered on my feet looking for something to lean on. I felt dizzy. My throat constricted. I was running out of breath. I uttered a short prayer and eventually steadied.
I stood still. Waves of cold shivers thrust through my body yet my entire anatomy was drenched in sweat. I could barely hold my notebook and pen. My hands trembled and my fingers weakened.
“Afande mwili ndio hii hapa (Afande the body is here) came a shout that jolted me out of my nightmarish stupor. There was a sudden and urgent commotion. Scores of armed policemen and paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) officers surrounded me.
“Wewe toka hapa” came a shrill order as I was roughly shoved, kicked and punched from the scene. The Kisumu Officer Commanding Police Division (OCPD), Emmanuel Mwachiti had shouted the orders, hitting me with a truncheon. I soon found myself dazed and stupefied squatting on the shores of River Nyando.
I collapsed into a heap. I was trying to understand what was happening and what I had just seen. I was certain that the remains I had chanced upon were those of Dr. Robert Ouko. I had interacted with him so many times, I could not fail to identify his balding forehead.
I looked into the silently flowing river. The waters calmly flowed on as if telling me that despite what happened, the journey of life must go on. I wondered if the river had witnessed whatever demonic events had taken place on this tiny hillside that the locals called Got Alila. If only the river could speak.
My photographer called out my name. I struggled to raise to my feet. It is only then that I realised I was bleeding. The OCPD’s blow had landed above my left eye. I knelt down and washed my bloodied face in the river. I was lucky the wound was not deep.
The hill now resembled a military zone. It was teeming with men and women in uniform armed with different types of guns. Soon we formed our own small army of journalists from different media houses and channels. No journalist or civilian was allowed anywhere near the scene.
I started talking to a few locals. Gathering information on the location, the name of the hill and its symbolic meaning. I gathered quotes and anecdotes from security personnel. However, I could not write my story yet. In those days of single party dictatorship, such a story was dead without the affirmative voice of the police and the government.
For hours we waited. Pain, pangs of hunger and thirst became my companion and greatest tormentors. I nostalgically recalled the tea that I took with Ambrose Adongo earlier in the day. I smiled when I remembered a scene in Elechi Amadi’s book Sunset in Biafra. The author was arrested in the night during the Nigerian Biafra Civil War. The soldiers burst into his house moments after he had finished eating his super.
For the weeks and months that he spent in prison, staring at the dark ceiling and enduring physical and psychological torture which included starvation, he was kept alive by the memories of his last meal. Each time pangs of hunger visited him, he would close his eyes and visualise the last meal he had before his arrest.
As the sun began its final journey towards the west and darkness started to envelope Got Alila, the sound of approaching helicopters hit the sky. Two military choppers landed at some clearing near the body. Out came senior government officials.
The Head of Civil Service Hezekiah Oyugi, Chief Government Pathologist Dr. Jason Ndaka Kaviti and Commissioner of Police Philip Kilonzo alighted from one of the choppers. They walked towards the journalists and after greetings, asked us to follow them towards the remains. It was almost 6.30pm and the scene was not as clear, visually, as it was when I stumbled upon it.
After a few moments of consultations, Oyugi cleared his throat and said: “Members of the press, it is sad but I would like to confirm that the remains you see here are those of Dr. Robert Ouko.”
Philip Kilonzo told the media that the government would work tirelessly to ensure that the killers of one of Kenya’s most brilliant politicians were brought to book. He promised that “no stone would be left unturned.”
We literally flew back to Kisumu. I rapidly wrote down my story as the driver negotiated the curves and corners of the Kisumu Kericho highway. At last, at around 8.30pm, we arrived at the office.
I quickly called the newsroom to give my brief. Mutegi Njau listened to me then handed the phone to George Mbuggus. After briefing him on the day’s events, I was handed, not to a copy taker, but to a Managing Editor to receive my story. The story was too big to be entrusted to copytakers.
After filing the story, I had to hang around the office to respond to any queries and wait for clearance to go home.
At around 10.30pm, the phone rang. My Nairobi colleagues had gathered in the next room to imbibe some biting’s and sip sodas. I picked up the receiver. My friend Francis Makohka was on the line: “My brother Atemi, you can’t believe this. I am looking at your story in the system and it does not have your by-line. It reads someone else.” He whispered and quickly hang up. Francis was a senior sub-editor.
I was livid. I was mad. I was extremely angry. I quickly dialled George Mbuggus direct line:”Good evening Sir” I started, shocked by my own sudden composure and calmness. “I have suffered today to get you the Ouko story. I have not eaten the whole day. I am bloodied and sore. I know you do not like me Sir but please give me my well-deserved by-line or else I will resign by tomorrow.”
There was silence on the line. I think I had caught him off guard. He must have been consulting. He never responded to my statement. He quietly hang up.
I collected myself and found my way home. I arrived at the local hotel near my house and was blessed to find a hot meal. I gulped a few beers to wash down my day’s stress and frustrations before walking home to sleep.
Early morning I walked to the News Stands. My story was the splash. I was delighted to see my by-line.
All the previous days pain had been washed away by the by-line. When I reached the office, Mbuggus was on the line waiting to talk to me: “My son, I hope you have now rested. Forgive me for what transpired yesterday. I want you to sit down quietly and write for me a colour story based on what you saw and observed yesterday at Got Alila”
“The remains of the late Dr. Robert John Ouko, found at the foot of Got Alila hill, were grotesque, spine chilling and nauseatic sight to behold” I wrote. I described the lumps of thick black ash, the broken bones, the burnt ligaments...
I described the hill and the weather. It was during the dry season. The sun had scorched the hillside burning the grass into golden brown. Yet, I wrote, “The fire, which consumed the ebullient minister to the bone burnt only a small portion of grass below his trunk.”
In 1990, the ruling party Kanu had become a monster. An ogre that ate its children and terrified all. A clever writer had to use imagery and symbolism to tell his or her stories. I could not say that I believed the body was burned elsewhere and only brought to Got Alila to be discovered. But by giving deep and detailed description contrasting the weather, vegetation and the smouldering remains, I was able to infer that if the body had really been burnt there, then the powerful flames would have spread on the entire hill.
The Horror that was Ouko’s Body, read my story in the Sunday Nation. There was a sidebar with a government statement whose import was that the minister had committed suicide. It actually emerged later, during the hearings before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry in the Disappearance and Subsequent Death of Dr. Robert John Ouko, that upon arrival at God Alila, Dr. Kaviti had given the remains one look and declared that the minister had committed suicide.
“You are lucky you are not consulted by living patients” retorted Justice Richard Otieno Kwach, one of the Judges on the Commission during Kaviti’s testimony.
When the Sunday Nation hit the News Stands, university students quickly deciphered and decoded my message. Riots broke out at the University of Nairobi its embers rapidly spreading to other institutions of higher learning. Within hours, the Republic of Kenya was up in flames. The government of Daniel arap Moi was suddenly staring as a revolting nation. Kenya was tottering on the brink of abyss.
Watch out for Part 3/4 of my personal account and experiences surrounding the death of Dr. Robert Ouko next week.