Amateurish: How 1982's attempted coup flopped

My friends and I enthused at the prospect of change but sat deflated when it failed

In Summary

• It was a terribly half-hearted, amateurish, poorly planned and executed attempt

A Kenya Air Force chopper
A Kenya Air Force chopper
Image: FILE

On the morning of August 1, 38 years ago, I was an excitable, politically aware teenager who fully supported what until midmorning was the coup against the government of President Daniel arap Moi.

The coup was led by junior members of the Kenya Air Force, who it seems were just as volatile. In fact, when I think about it, I was just over a decade younger than Hezekiah Ochuka, one of the leaders of the coup attempt. 

By 10am, the rebellion had been crushed by the Army, who were still loyal to their Commander-in-Chief. My friends and I who had been running around the streets of Nairobi West and South C in our enthusiasm at the prospect of change, sat deflated.

I realise now, of course, what a terribly half-hearted, amateurish, poorly planned and executed attempt the 1982 coup was.

Nairobi being the rumour factory it has always been, there was soon talk of how it was botched. Claims said while a coup had been planned for that week, and the planning involved plotters from the whole of the armed forces, the flyboys had gotten drunk and for whatever reason, jumped the gun. 

If the rumours were to be believed, the coup was to have been carried out a few days later, when the President would have been in Libya for the OAU summit, where he was meant to hand over the chairmanship after having had it for a year.

In the end, the Tripoli summit failed, not just because of Kenya’s troubles, but as a result of US lobbying of African countries against Muammar Gadafi’s taking over the OAU. There was no quorum at the meeting.

However, back to the incompetence of the coup attempt. 

One only has to recall that as well as only having a couple of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff tracks to play, as one journalist put it some years later, “the putschists only took the radio studios and neglected to take over the transmitting facilities, so the plug was soon pulled”.

Another sign the flyboys were winging it was the fact that because they lacked the support of the army, they had no way of taking hold of key installations. This made it all the easier for the army and the GSU to crush it as fast as they did.

As far as Kenya’s relationship with Tanzania goes, the 1982 coup attempt had echoes of the April 8, 1971 coup attempt that was suppressed before it could even get going.

In both 1971 and 1982, there was the expectation that Julius Nyerere, who was not a particularly great admirer of the Kenyan ruling elite’s rabid capitalism, would happily jump in and lend support.

In June 1971, Deputy Public Prosecutor (and later Attorney General) James Karugu was reported as having told the court that prosecuted the plotters that President Nyerere had been aghast at the suggestion of a coup against Kenyatta and had said, “Not against Mzee's government.” 

In 1982, Nyerere was a little more sympathetic to the plotters who were allowed to escape to Tanzania. The Nyerere government made it difficult for Kenya to extradite them for months, reportedly enjoying making the Kenyan government beg. 

I often try to imagine what might have been had the coup attempt been properly executed, backed by the army and successful.

Supposedly one of the triggers for the coup was the June 1982 amendment of the constitution, making Kenya officially a one-party state. So had the coup succeeded, one assumes that eventually the military would have returned power to civilians with one of the conditions being the setting up of a multi-party democracy.

One thing's for certain, the political equation would have been very different. Would it have been better? We will never know for sure.