Leonard Mambo Mbotela’s close shave with death: The day he was kidnapped to broadcast the 1982 Coup!

Dante Mwandawiro
Written by Dante Mwandawiro

Hard tapping at his bedroom window woke up Leonard Mambo Mbotela. Still with his pajamas, he dashed to open the door of his house at Government Quarters, Ngara. A VOK staff was at the door. He pointed to an armed soldier standing next to him. ‘Are you Leonard Mambo?” A harsh toned voice reverberated through the cool morning air from the soldier. “Yes, I am”. He Replied. It was around 4:30 am. Leonard Mambo was then, the Head of Swahili and Vernacular Station of the Voice of Kenya(VOK). “We’re giving you three minutes to dress up and come with us”. Ordered the soldier.

About ten minutes earlier, gunshots had been heard from the city. As was the characteristic of the Capital, Mambo had thought that probably, the policemen were engaging armed robbers. He did not anticipate that it was the beginning of his horrific ordeal in the hands of coup plotters.

Hezekiah Ochuka after he was extradited from Tanzania where he had fled.

He dressed up quickly and informed his wife that he was being picked by some soldiers but he did not know whether he would return home. He urged her to pray for him. He came out of the house and was immediately surrounded by several solders with their guns pointed at him. “Now we are going to the Broadcasting House and make announcement that Moi’s government has been overthrown”. One of them shouted. Frightened and trembling, he got into a waiting Land Rover vehicle with the soldiers, and they headed towards the city center. Along the way, the excited soldiers broke glass windows of one of the shops and looted shoes on display. Unfortunately, they later realized that all were left-sided as they were just meant for display.

They arrived at Broadcasting House at 5.20am and went upstairs to the National Service live studio. Students from the University of Nairobi, led by their SONU chairman, Titus Adungosi were also in the building and shouting, “Power! Power! “.

Inside the studio, there were more than 20 other rebel soldiers including coup leader, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka. Ochuka quickly scribbled something on a piece of paper, which he handed over to Leonard Mambo. “Read this immediately!” He ordered, with a gun pointed  at Mambo’s head.

Mambo cleared his throat and read the script with his characteristic baritone voice, “Kuanzia leo, serikali ya Daniel Arap Moi, imepinduliwa. Kila mtu sasa ni raia. Polisi wote ni raia. Wafungwa wote wameachiliwa huru. Munaombwa mtulie nyumbani na msirandarande” (From today, the government of Daniel Moi, has been overthrown. Everyone is a civilian. Police are now civilians. All prisoners have been freed. Stay at home and don’t loiter around).

Inside Eastleigh Airbase, the rebels forced a group of Air Force fighter pilots to bomb the State House at gunpoint. Fighter jets loaded with bombs took off to the sky, but once in the air, the pilots dropped the bombs over Mount Kenya forests.

Aftermath of the coup. There was crackdown of possible associates of rebels.

President Moi later announced that loyal army and GSU units had crushed the attempted coup on his government. The putsch had quickly been suppressed by forces commanded by former Chief of General Staff Mahamoud Mohamed. Mahamoud Mohamed was then the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Kenya Rifles (1KR), an infantry battalion formed a year after independence in February 1964. It was with the best crack shots in the 1st Battalion, Kenya Rifles that he used when he led Major Wanambisi, Major Kithinji, Major Kiritu, Major Cheboi and Major Humphrey Njoroge to the Broadcasting House, VOK, headquarters where the rebelling soldiers operated from, and restored order.