TRIBUTE

Leshan: General who survived Air Force purge after '82 failed coup

Plotters Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu ordered him to fly them to Tanzania.

In Summary
  • Leshan had to put a spirited fight to protect the force from being from being scrapped as Moi intended.
  • He died last Friday night at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi where he had been hospitalised for some time.
Former Vice Chief of Defense forces Nick Leshan. /COURTESY

As the attempted military coup against President Daniel arap Moi unfolded on Sunday, August 1, 1982, one of the many soldiers caught up in it lived to tell the tale.

Nick Leshan was an air transport Major based in Nanyuki. When their short-lived putsch crumbled, plotters Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu ordered Leshan to fly them to Tanzania. 

After the dust settled, the Air Force was treated like a pariah as it was blamed for the attempted power grab. Besides defending himself against claims of voluntary involvement, Leshan had to put a spirited fight to protect the force from being scrapped as Moi intended.

Leshan stayed on and retired in 2011 at the rank of lieutenant general and the number two officer in the military. He died last Friday night at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi where he had been for some time.

In the book The Kenya Air Force Story 1964-2014, released by the military to celebrate its 50 years of existence, Leshan details how the mistake of a few in 1982 bred an elaborate scheme to dismember the wing completely.

He says as part of his self-defence and that of the force, he had to convince the team to hold their head high.

"It took many hours of talking and drilling the officers for them to feel confident again," he writes.

“I wanted them to understand that the country depended on them to make the right decisions and nobody could do that if they were feeling as if they were last..."

According to the book, 20 days after the failed coup, President Moi ordered that the Air Force be disbanded and 82 Air Force created to replace it. Its motto changed from “Twatumika Tukiwa Angani” to “Tuko Imara Angani.”

Kenya Air Force Eastleigh was renamed Moi Air Base, while Nanyuki Base became Laikipia Air Base, the only two bases for the force at the time. MAB focused on air transport and training, while Laikipia had fighter jets, air surveillance and assault squadrons. It also had F-5 fighters.

But Leshan says in the book that the name changes were pejorative and appeared to condemn an entire wing because of the mistakes of a few elements.

“To me, the term ’82 Air Force was an insult. Yes, some people in the service had made a big mess and plunged the country into chaos. But not everybody was involved in that matter,” Leshan writes.

A policy was introduced to have all the servicemen in the wing made of equal rank and trade.

“…and you don’t destroy an institution because a few people have done the wrong thing. You don’t turn it into a pariah within the family of the defence forces, which is what happened then…” Leshan says.

The Department of Defence issued a circular on September 9, 1982, declaring that the Kenya Navy would take precedence over the 82 Air Force.

But in 1993, the service reverted from 82 Air Force to its old name Kenya Air Force and regained its blue colors. 

Coup plotters and some 74 servicemen found guilty were either hanged, jailed, or dismissed in dishonour. 

KDF spokesperson Bogita Ongeri confirmed Leshan’s passing, telling the press that the “astute military officer who served his country with dedication” was no more.

Leshan survived the tumultuous times and rose through the ranks to be appointed by former President Mwai Kibaki as Vice Chief of Defence Forces in 2005. He commanded the force from 1994 to 2000 as a major general.