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REPORTER’S DIARY: Undercover journalist’s 200km treck in Moyale

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have always liked the military from my childhood. In fact, outside journalism and law, a military career was one of my first hand choices.

While in school, i was fascinated with the wits, exploits, tales and feats of accomplished soldiers like Shaka Zulu, Napoleon Bonaparte, King Kazembe, General Eissenhower, Dedan Kimathi, Charles de Gaulle, King Moshoeshoe, Che Guevara, Alexander the Great, General Franco, Fidel Castro, Genghis Khan, Julius Ceasar, Garibaldi, John the Bruce and even the fictitious Robin Hood, among others.

There is one more – in fact personal – reason why I admire and respect the military, the Kenyan military for that matter. But first things first. It was never a good thing at that time to be visited by ‘Men of The Night.’ My calculation was smart most of the times.  I had not calculated well on that evening of May 28, 1991.

So because I was not prepared for the rough and rumble times ahead as I sipped the sweet cocktail of Russian Borzoi vodka, the popular 100 Pipers, Martel and coke soda while listening to the crazing renditions of the “You Must Calculate’ hit song – so powerfully assembled by Cameroonian crooner and provocatively unrivalled sensual dancer of those days by the name Prince Ndedi Eyango (he is still alive, kicking and singing) – on my newly acquired double-speaker National cassette player, when the ‘Men of The Night’ struck.

We called them ‘Men of The Night’ because even though they were bona fide employees of the Kenya government as salaried law-enforcers, first they were all men and also they surely conducted most of their devious activities at night in a manner not dissimilar to the brutal Securitet agents of slain Romanian despot Nicolai Caussescu or the ruthless State Research Bureau (SRB) during dictator Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda

To the rest of Kenyans they were commonly referred to as ‘Special Branch’ (nowadays known as Intelligence Officers operating under the National Intelligence Service, NIS). However, we in the parentheses of the Fourth Estate had given them the befitting sobriquet ‘Men of The Night.”

I had arrived in Moyale town in early April as a reporter with the Kenya News Agency to be welcomed by the District Information Officer Martin Mbugua (until recently a senior editor at Mediamax’s K24 TV). It took me a very short time to know and be known by the high and mighty of the frontier town of Moyale.

Mbugua, with whom we had been friends since our earlier days and nocturnal escapes in the capital city, introduced me to the local district wannabes in all departments. It was easier for the district chiefs to relate or gel with me owing to the fact my family name was not entirely new to them as they had known or heard of one my older siblings who too had been a news purveyor.

It so happened that only three weeks after my arrival at Moyale, the government of authoritarian President Mengistu Haille Mariam was overthrown in neighbouring Ethiopia and replaced by the revolutionary Ethiopian People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) of Meles Zenawi. In northern Ethiopia the province of Eritrea was fighting for cessation (which it eventually got) while in the south the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was also (and still is) agitating for autonomy.

Mengistu’s overthrow was big news around the world. Following his ouster, thousands of fearful Ethiopians flee the country heading southwards to Kenya with Moyale town being the entry point. On a daily basis, hundreds of refugees would pour into Kenya through Moyale (written as ‘Moiale’ on the Ethiopian side) border town. The Kenya government and UNHRC erected a huge refugee camp at a place known as Oda, close to a Kenya military camp in the area.

Also from this author

Given the hostile climate in Moyale and its semi-arid environs, there was no reporter for any of the mainstream national or international news organs. By the time I went to Moyale I had established sufficient networks within the Kenyan media fraternity. The then Editor-in-Chief of the Nation Newspapers, the late Anthony George Mbuggus and News Editor Laston Mutegi Njau (now with Citizen TV) reached out to me and requested that I ‘moonlight’ for them by way of filing copy for them on the refugee crisis in Moyale. In media parlance of those days, ‘moonlighting’ referred to clandestinely writing for another media house other than your formal employer.

I obliged and took the pseudonym Issa Segasseye. Through Mbuguss and Mutegi, most of the international news outlets also made contacts with me and I became a roving correspondent. However, the moonlighting did not last long.

It turned out that after one month of daily dissemination of information relating to the crisis, the stories by Issa Segasseye were rubbing the Kenya government the wrong way owing to the reports attributed to UNHCR, ICRC and other relief organisations to the effect that the refugee crisis in Moyale had become and eyesore and too huge for the administration of then President Daniel arap Moi to handle.

In Nairobi, Moi was livid. A directive (I was later to learn) was given to arrest ‘hiyo kinyangarika’ called Issa Segasseye with immediate effect. However, it took the detectives two weeks, and single miscalculation on my part one day, for me to be smoked out by the spooks.

There were no mobile phones, internet, e-mails or any of the technological gadgets we boast of nowadays. Thus, to file a story one had to place a reverse call through the Kenya Posts and Telecommucations – KPTC- (the precursor to Kenya Postal Corporation and Telkom Kenya).

By all practical practices, KPTC was just an extended branch of the Special Branch. One evening, after placing a reverse call to Nation House and now reading my notes to reporter Muthui Mwai, three slim guys clad in Maasai shukas and munching miraa came to the telephone booth I was in, wrote down its KPTC number and left. It was around 6:30 pm. Though I smelt a rat, I finished reading my story to Muthui and went to the house to start mixing my cocktail.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was around 7:45pm when I heard a loud knock on the door. It was normal to have some female guests in the evenings. But the knocks were not that loud. Owing to the trouble in Ethiopia, hundreds of beautiful ladies from the neighbouring country had flooded Moyale town.

In the evenings, the girls (commonly known as Anchi) would flock to the few pubs available in the largely Muslim town while many others would go knocking politely on the doors of houses whose occupants were ‘nywele ngumu (black-haired, dark-skinned)’ civil servants from other parts of the country like myself, in search of work or food in exchange for sex.

But that’s day knock was obviously not from an Anchi. It was too loud and hostile. I went to the door and pulled it open. Six heavily built masked men entered without speaking a word – two of them pointing G3 rifles at me. These were the real ‘Men of The Night.’ The glass of my cocktail dropped from my left hand, as did my sportsman cigarette from my lips while I slumped on the bed.

“Toka nje,” one of them shouted as he motioned me out with his pointed rifle. I walked out with my eyes fixed on the cassette player where Prince Eyango’s popular number, ‘You Must Calculate’ had just reached the climax. I liked dancing. I still do. I felt sad that I could not dance to the tune.

You must calculate….calculate

Once outside the house, I was speedily frog-matched through darkness to a GK Land Rover parked some 50 metres away where I could still hear the finesse of Price Eyango’s music. Inside the Land Rover I found the three Shuka-decked fellows I had seen in the booth two hours earlier. That is when I realised that indeed I had miscalculated on that day.

While in the vehicle, I was driven to the District Commissioner’s office where District Officer I (One) Nicholas Hongo was pacing from one corner to the other with a baton in his right hand. On seeing me, he slumped his massive body on the posh velvet seat and then thundered: “Bwana Kwayera, you think you are very clever? You are not. We know that you are the Issa Segasseye who has been disturbing us. You have betrayed us. I do not want to see you in Moyale again. If you ever come back, basi hiyo itakuwa ni Shauri yako.”

With that warning, he turned to the ‘Men of The Night’ and ordered them: “‘Toa yeye. You know what to do. Popote ni sawa.” As I was whisked back into the Land Rover, I realised that my fate had already been discussed and sealed. Inside the vehicle, I was sandwiched by the masked men as the guys in Shukas remained behind, grinning sheepishly.

My journey back to Moyale was torturous. With no food, water or vegetation along the way I hungered to the brim.

I was driven some 200 kilometres away and dropped at a place called Bubisa. It was around 1:30am. For the first time since we left Moyale, one of the ‘Men of The Night’ spoke, saying: “Tembea ukienda mbele. Usijaribu kuridi nyuma.” I first thought they were going to shoot me from behind. Until I heard him speak again: “Ukijaribu kurudi utakufa. Vile uliambiwa hiyo itakua ni shauri yako.”

The Land Rover roared back towards Moyale. It was not until its sound faded completely that I dared to look back. I was in the middle of nowhere; on a sandy, dry and extremely hot land without any vestige of flora or fauna. Luckily, there was some blurred moonlight. I sat on a nearby stone till dawn.

By 5.30 am, I had decided to walk back to Moyale. If death was to find me, then it would be proper for it to come while back in Moyale but not on the way forward as ordered. The nearest town was Marsabit, more than 200 kilometres further. Between Bubisa and Marsabit is such a rough terrain composed of rocky hills, dangerous reptiles and and ruthless bandits. It would be proper and heroic for me to be killed by the ‘Men of The Night’ in Moyale than by the other vagaries ensconcing the road to Marsabit, I concluded.

My journey back to Moyale was torturous. With no food, water or vegetation along the way I hungered to the brim. It took me one and half days to reach the Oda military camp in Moyale. There, I sought to see the Colonel in charge. Thankfully we had known each other during some sipping and Speak-Easy sessions both at the local civil servants club or when whiling away time across the border in Moiale.

Junior officers manning the camp’s gate also knew me. I totally agree with former Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza that as an individual, one ‘should know people’ always. For that is why the gate-keepers warmly took me to their boss who in turn welcomed me with both his hands.

He did not wait for me to open my mouth. He acted as if he had been expecting me. In a way, he did. For, he told me that he knew why I was in his camp and even thanked me for my bravado in daring to walk a whole 200 kilometres back through what is, by all practical purposes, a hostile desert.

It was on the evening of May 31st. After offering me food, a lot of it in fact, the Colonel asked me to join him at the Officers Mess. While there, he was accompanied by other senior colleagues, all of them hardened sippers and winding easy-speakers. It was a privilege. The Colonel sat on the district security committee. He was privy to the on-goings and the hunt for, capture of and consequent deportation of the Issa Segasseye he was now hosting in his camp.

In the hands of military

Sometimes past midnight, the Colonel pulled me a side and whispered into my ears: “I have made arrangements for you to leave for Nairobi this morning. Today is Madaraka Day. President Moi is coming here tomorrow (June 2nd) to assess the refugee crisis. I have information that your friends who deported you two days ago already know that you are back in Moyale.

They have their spies all over, including in this camp. I understand that Moi has asked them to re-arrest you and parade you at his public rally tomorrow after finishing his review of the refugee situation. I do not want to see that happen to you. Besides, I and my officers might lose our jobs if it is proved that indeed you are here. You have been a good man and friend to us. I am sure we shall meet a gain. I wish you all the best.”

With a glass of Borzoi vodka in his right hand, the Colonel took my right hand with his left and started walking me towards a twilight-beamed boulevard some 30 metres away. Here we found a revving military truck full of soldiers in military jungle. He shouted for a Captain to come down to where we stood, just behind the truck. The Colonel took out Ksh.800/= (Eight Hundred) in 200 notes – which was the highest denomination at that time and gave it to the Captain, saying: “Give this money to our friend when you reach Nanyuki for his bus fare to Nairobi. Make sure that he is safe and has everything he requires. Get him some Borzois and Martels to go with to Nairobi. Make some stop-overs at SOA (School of Artillery in Archer’s Post) and SOE (School of Engineering in Isiolo). Check out who is at the gate as you leave.”

The trip to Nanyuki 

The Colonel patted me on the right shoulder and said, for the very last time: “Good luck my friend. Have a nice time and keep in touch.” I and the Captain climbed to the back of the military truck, leaving the Colonel waving at us. The truck took off and as we passed the camp’s gate, the Captain pointed at some hooded men standing on both sides of the exit lane and told me: “Those are your friends (The Men of The Night). They are looking for you. Too bad for them.” Off we went, marking the end of Issa Segasseye’s sojourn in Moyale and Manyatta Burji.

We had a long but fun-filled trip to Nanyuki where we reached sometimes past midnight of June 3rd. The Captain booked me at a popular joint. He gave me the Ksh 800, the bag of Borzoi and Martels, bought me four Tusker Lagers and added me Shs. 300 and summoned a radiant Meru lady called Kawira to ensure that I was safe throughout.

Though my request for Prince Eyango’s ‘You Must Calculate’ song was not granted – for it was not there – Kawira did ensure that I was safe and had a good time in Nanyuki. I took an early morning Matatu to Nairobi to start a new life altogether. I have never been back to Moyale either to pick my belongings or even greet sensational Anchi Halima and Anchi Adebese. But you must understand why I like and respect the military and why you must, always, calculate.


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