Saturday, February 27, 2010

On the Mob Justice Mentality of Progressive Kenyans

Some Reflections on Witch- Hunting by Onyango Oloo in Nairobi

There are several things I want to ponder in this posting, but let me kick things off with a real story from the mid-1990s.

It is early December 1994 and a young man- actually he is thirty years old-is loitering around the Bus Stand in the western Kenyan town of Kisumu.

He is having a furious conversation-with himself.

Amidst the usual hustle and bustle of this crowded milieu, a commotion breaks out behind him.

Oblivious to all this cacophony, he continues chattering away in his very voluble, somewhat internal monologue.

"Mwizi huyo! Mwizo huyo!" are the strident shouts of a baying crowd closing in on a suspected pick pocket frantically dashing for dear life, knowing full well what will befall him should his pursuers overtake him and overwhelm him.

In a split second he makes a decision that diverts the crowd and spares him his life at least for today.

Spying the disturbed individual talking to himself ahead of him, the suspect catches a brain wave, switching from hunted to hunter.

He now jabs an accusing finger at the person in front of him:

"Ndio huyu! Ndio huyu! Ua! Maliza yeye!"

He then deftly melts into the nearby market stalls.

Meanwhile the frothing, baying mob catch up with who they are convinced is the suspect- the disturbed young man jabbering and yammering to himself.

They accost the man who is quite bewildered by the sudden hostility from a crowd he had not noticed before.

Blows rain down on him accompanied by kicks.

Somebody picks up a rock and tries to smash it over his head.

Blood is oozing from all over.

He is crying for mercy but the vengful crowd must mete out their crude street justice.

Suddenly, luckily, a trio of policemen on patrol happen on the bloody lynching ceremony.

They have to struggle to wrestle the bloodied and maimed man from the screeching wild eyed mob executioners before bundling him onto a Land Rover packed not too far away.


That thirty year old man was called Joseph Ochieng'.

He had grown up in Mombasa before relocating to Kisumu with his siblings- his younger brothers Washington and Otieno and his three sisters Beatrice, Sarah and Ruth.

After his arrest, the police took him to the station and charged him with committing violent robbery, known in prison argot as "Stroke Two" after section 296 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code with a mandatory sentence of death by hanging.

By the time his siblings found him, after scouring the hospitals, morgues and other macabre places, the cops had broken his jaw and several of his ribs, leaving him confined in a wheel chair.

The outraged siblings produced a hefty sheaf of his medical records to attest to his history of mental health problems. They found that he had been deliberately starved and denied urgent medical attention.

They made frantic efforts to release him from custody and get a doctor to treat him.

It was too late.

On Friday December 9, 1994, he breathed his last- ironically exactly fourteen years after his mother had died of breast cancer in Mombasa.

That young man was also my brother, the third oldest in our family of eight after me and my younger sister Janet who is currently domiciled in Durban, South Africa.

From the above tale of woe, some of my readers can perhaps guess why I have a deep aversion for lynch mobs and their version of "street justice".

Incidentally, my brother's mental health difficulties started almost immediately after my incarceration in November 1982.

Given the paranoid conditions at the time, the Moi-KANU dictatorship fostered a climate of fear, silence and suspicion among the citizenry.

Anybody who sported a beard was a potential Marxist on his way to destablize the Nyayo regime in a clandestine nocturnal meeting stacked with dissidents in the pay of foreign masters.

It was illegal to own a copy of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book or any of the publications from Beijing.

Special Branch operatives and two bit informers infested every bar and street corner on the look out for Pambana distributors and Mwakenya recruits.

KANU louts like the late unlamented Shariff Nassir, Ezekiel Bargentuny, Mulu Mutisya, Okiki Amayo, JJ Kamotho and others had a field day parrotting their loyalty to Mtukufu Rais and singing KANU Tawala Tawala!

Then here was my brother, only four years younger than I, with a striking resemblance to his older brother and quite influenced by his radical ideas.

Something snapped after I was sent to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison for five years.

My brother started hearing voices in his head telling him that they were the Special Branch and that, he , Joseph Ochieng' Oloo MUST REPORT any "suscpicious activities" to the nearest police station.

And that is what he did, or rather, attempted to do.

In a very short while he was quite well known at Makupa and Central Police Stations in Mombasa with his "regular reports"of spying on suspicious Mwakenya characters who sold out his brother, Onyango Oloo (never mind the fact that I was jailed in 1982 a full three or four years BEFORE the emergence of Mwakenya).

What did the police do to him?

After ascertaining that he was mentally ill, they beat him mercilessly every time he ventured near the police station. Sometimes he was locked up.

There was a time when he was flung into the overcrowded Industrial Area Remand home where he was brutalized by the hardcore felons behind bars.

What happened to my brother?

All I know is that when I finally reached Mombasa on May 12, 1987 having been released from prison I could hardly recognize my own brother who was hyper, hardly sleeping, chain smoking and jabbering away at the speed of light over some incoherent things which were clear only to him.

Suddenly, a few days after I came home, he stopped smoking, started sleeping and became the old Ochieng that I had known.

The only thing was, he could not let me out of his sight,following me everywhere, asking me to tell him in detail what I had gone through all those years away from home.

He was quite lucid and was able to analyze political currents as if he had a post graduate degree in political science (he never ventured beyond high school).

To my born again sisters, this was a miracle from God.

I did not know what to make of this transformation.

When I was forced into exile four months later, I heard that he relapsed into his mental illness.

Earlier I had consulted the psychiatrist he was seeing, who told me that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and he was on a heavy dose of psychotropic prescription drugs.

My brother could rattle off to his doctor all the side effects of each pill he was on. Like me, Joseph read widely and did his own extensive research about anything that he was interested in.

Yes, this is the same Joseph Ochieng Oloo who died on December 9, 1994 a victim of mob justice, police brutality and official state neglect.

I was thinking about my brother a lot when I was reflecting on the vicious mob justice campaign to drive Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat out of his job as Chair of the TJRC.

I thought about those former students of the "Other Airlift" , not the Mboya one which was to lead to the birth of the 44th US President but to the East bound airlift organized by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga taking Kenyan students to study medicine, engineering and other science oriented degrees in the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary and other socialist countries.

Do you know what happened to them after they came back armed with their degrees ready to serve their young nation?

Because of the Cold War hysteria and association with Odinga and the KPU, these young Kenyan professionals were BLACKLISTED.

Everywhere they went, they were turned away.

Dozens of them wasted away in Nairobi before being forced back to their rural homes, unemployed and unemployable. Some became lumpenized and drowned their considerable sorrows in kegs, drums and vats of changaa, busaa and other illicit brews.

Others committed suicide.

Some still linger on even today in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Ten, bitter, cynical raconteurs in the seedy bars of River Road in Nairobi reminiscing about the lives they could have led were it not for the vindictiveness of the Kenyatta dictatorship.

Fast forward a couple decades later and you accost remnants of the former Kenya Air Force.

Because of the 1982 attempted coup, hundreds were rounded up, herded to Naivaisha and Kamiti prison, horribly tortured before being sentenced to long prison terms.

The ones who were not convicted were nevertheless dismissed from their jobs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of these ex Kenya Air Force personnel- whether they had been to prison or not- found that they could not get a job anywhere despite the fact that the majority of them, in sharp contrast to their Kenya Army counterparts, were highly skilled in a number of highly competitive technical fields.

Again, their only crime was to have once belonged to an outfit that tried to threaten the Moi-KANU dictatorship.

Even some ex Kenyatta and Nairobi university lecturers found out after leaving detention and prison that they could not be absorbed back into ANY academic institution.

On the other side of the state repression were the dozens of Kenyans who organized quietely in underground and semi-clandestine conditions for a new dispensation in the country.

These are the ancestors of the contemporary civil society actors.

I remember when we were still locked up behind those massive penitentiary walls in the 1980s we-and here I mean specifically people like Maina wa Kinyatti,Oginga Ogego ( now Kenya's envoy to Washington), Mwandawiro Mghanga, Omondi K'abir and Opondo Kakendo (the latter two ex military)- we debated furiously on what we would do on Day Three of the Revolution, after we had taken over state power in Kenya (it is still a dream waiting to unfold dear readers) .

What would we do with the Mois, Njonjos, Oyugis, Mulu Mutisyas, Oloitiptips and Angaines?

Some like Ogego (yes the very same Peter who is today such an ardent sycophant of Kibaki) were too impatient with such cumbersome niceties like trials and courts:

" We will just take them outside and shoot them at City Stadium, kwani what are we waiting for?"

Some of us, reflecting on how the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutionaries had treated their prisoners of war and other reactionary elements insisted that


For those readers who have been perplexed as to why a former political prisoner like Onyango Oloo is "defending" a senior former official of the Moi-KANU regime like Ambassador Kiplagat, the above paragraph in UPPER CASE provides a clue as to my motivation.

Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters in the civil society sector, especially those of you at the forefront of baying for Ambassador Kiplagat blood and possibly neck here are my questions to you:

1.Do you believe in due process?

2.Do you believe in natural justice?

3.Do you believe in presumption of innocence?

4.Do you believe in the right of an accused person to a free and fair trial?

5. Are you aware, or more properly,have you forgotten the long history of mob justice perpetrated against us?

6. Why are we using essentially the same tactics that were used against the Mau Mau, KPU, DTM, Mwakenya and everyone the state considered dangerous from the 1950s to the 1990s?

7. Ten years from now, how MANY OF YOU will look yourselves in the mirror and confidently say, we did the right thing over the Kiplagat Affair?

Do you remember the Njonjo Traitor Affair?

How different are you from those who orchestrated that elite conflict over who controls the neocolonial Kenyan state of the 1980s?

8. Where did you get the license to speak ON MY BEHALF without CONSULTING ME?

Who gave you the permission to speak on behalf of all Kenyans when we have not had that conversation?

9.Finally, after you have hanged, drawn and quartered Ambassador Kiplagat, will you then turn your NGO vengeance to alleged "quislings" "traitors" and "sell outs" like one ONYANGO OLOO?

Well in anticipation of your answer to Question Nine, I say:


Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya


Daniel Waweru said...

There are some relevant differences. Asking Amb. Kiplagat to step down and clear his name is perfectly compatible with due process; those asking him to do so can't reasonably be accused of denying him its protection.

The Chair of the TJRC isn't a position to which Amb. Kiplagat is entitled; rather, it's a privilege contingent on his suitability for the task. One element of that suitability is the absence of a conflict of interest. Amb. Kiplagat has multiple obvious and pertinent conflicts of interest: he was named in reports which will form part of the deliberations of the commission which he chairs. His ability to handle the commission's affairs in impartially is reasonably called into question. He's therefore unsuitable for the job until he can show that these conflicts of interest are only apparent.

Anonymous said...

Fairly well argued but continuing with Kiplagat as the head makes the process appear a needless charade. It's important that people buy into it and perception in instances like this is more important than anything else. And yes, as Waweru points out, Keeping Kiplagat is a heads up to impunity.

What i am interested in however is this zooming in on him as public enemy of the moment. A year back he was much loved. Your piece makes me wonder if are we wasting our energies on the wrong guy,the truth is that there's bigger enemies out there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. People have bought into the witch-hunt - it is easier to do that isn't it? Perhaps the problem might be not enough information as regards Amb Kiplagat himself? Or maybe any percieved witch is fair game to hunt.

Of course few within civil soc will allow themselves to question their motives. So yes, it makes them no different to others who have chosen the easier path of bullying and sanctimony.

Your story about your brother says much, if not all about the tragedy that is Kenya

Anonymous said...

Good People, Amb. Kiplagat has not refused to step down. He as mere stted he will not step down unless found guilty in a court of law as opposed to a media lynch mob.

Those saying he has no public support should comment on the results last friday on KTN and NTV News. Both indicated 50% for resignation and 50% for him to stay.

So do his accusers speak for Kenyans of mere puport to?

I beleive we should not fall for a clearly orchestrated plan to gain control over the resources, influence and a funding that TJRC has been allocated. To me there is clearly a bigger game being played here and some Kenyan's are falling for it.

The TJRC civic education trip to the coast is not a good example of biased reporting. They have meetings in Voi, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. There was a staged walk out of 30% of participants in Mombasa but 70% (the majority) remained and were grateful to be heard.

In Malindi, Lamu and Voi there were no similar incidents. Did the Press report this? NO!

Why ? Because there is clearly an agenda to control TJRC.

Amb. Kiplagat promised to move ahead with the work at hand from friday. The hearings from victims is scheduled for 12 months from now in the work plan. The current recruitment of investigators, civic education workshops accross the country, training of rapporters and statement takers and research can and most likely will proceed without delay.

Good People, you are intelligent and should not be hood winked by the politics of the day.

Sadik said...

I doubt there is anyone on Kenya who has not been touched in one way or the other by past atrocities of bad governance, either as victims or perpetrators, which is essence will question their suitability to work for or work with the TJRC for reasons of conflict of interest.

The TJC is inquisitorial, not adversarial. In an inquisitorial procedure, the Commission has powers to call evidence and ‘interrogate’ that evidence without there being any ‘sides’ to the dispute in hand. The Chair and the Commissioners are not judges who have to ‘referee’ duel between two sides, hence cannot take side. What they will do is listen to everyone who wants to be heard, and then they will summon whomsoever they want to questions – in the process detailing better and further particulars which hopefully will help them reach some conclusion. If follows the Commissioners and their Chair will not act as judges in trial but officials whose main purpose will be to collate information from evidence adduced and thereafter make recommendation. They therefore have very little authority on whom they call and what is adduced before them as evidence. Indeed, the assisting counsels, who are yet to be announced, will play that significant role. Where it is found that someone committed a crime, which must be glaringly on the evidence before the Commission, mainly by admission, then the Commission will have powers to recommend prosecution, but cannot prosecute or judge them.

Now, turning to Kiplagat, many have posited the argument that he is unfit to hold office. The arguments against him are two-fold. One, that he is not impartial and will be ‘bias’ because of the allegations which surfaced to his involvement in Wagalla Massacre/Ouko murder and the presence of his name in Ndungu Report of illegal land allocations, which I assume will be issues to be investigated by the Commission, actually mean that he cannot be a judge on his case hence calling into question his impartiality. And that he is not independent – having been appointed by authority who will be part and parcel subject of investigation by the Commission.


Sadik said...


Independency calls for freedom of all interests – by interest here I mean anything which might lead the Commission to decide issues coming before them on anything other than the legal and factual merits of the case as, in the exercise of their own judgment, they consider them to be.

My response is that the Commissioners, including the Chair should approach the investigation they will undertake with an open mind, ready to respond to the legal and factual merit of the case. A decision maker who is truly independent of all influence extraneous to the case to be decided is likely to be impartial, but may nonetheless be subject to personal predilections or prejudices, which may pervert his judgment. Of course, since Commissioners are human beings, they are inevitably, to some extent, the product of their own upbringing, experience and background. The mind, which they bring to the deciding issues, cannot be a blank canvas. But they should seek to alert themselves to, and so neutralise, any extraneous considerations, which might bias their judgment, and if they are conscious of bias, or of matters, which might give rise to appearance of bias, they must decline to make the decision in question. Only after hearing the matters, can they make their minds if they think bias could crop up. If that were to happen, then I rely upon the Commissioners to step down (recuse them) themselves immediately. That is a judgment for the Commissioners to make, not anyone else.

On Wagalla massacre/Ouko murder/ Kiplagat name in Ndungu’s report, I think people are wrong to allude that the onus is on Kiplagat ‘ to dispel’ such allegation. The normal legal principle is the one who cast aspersion should be able to prove it. People who are against Kiplagat must seek a judicial review to block him from presiding and only then armed with judicial orders will their allegations be proven satisfactorily otherwise, I agree with Oloo, we are operating in the realms of with-hunts.

Granted, the allegations are serious, and if ever those allegations are found to be substantiated, then Kiplagat must be asked to throw in the towel. Otherwise, without a court order, or a court verdict of guilt, as long as he is willing to swear an oath that he will uphold the Law and follow the laid down procedures, and in his mind he is not bias nor conflicted in his interests, then he has not breached ‘the irreducible minimum standard of fairness, and must be allowed to continue.

The rule of law demands that where allegations are made, they must be corroborated and upheld legally – otherwise it suffices to argue such allegations are witch-hunts, or ciminal law - a mere hunch.

formerly of jukwaa.

LWeighton said...

Hi there,

I am a reporter with NTV and am working on a feature story on mob justice. I would love to meet with you and hear your story on how mob justice affected your life. Please e-mail me at: and let me know if you are interested.

Thank you,

Lisa Weighton
Reporter, Nation Media Group