Fourteen years ago, Bernard Omondi captured the national psyche after eight guns were found inside a university room presumed to have been his.
Plucked from the unbridled and adventurous life of a university student, Omondi would go on to serve six years in Kamiti Maximum prison, go back to the University of Nairobi and finish his agricultural engineering degree.
A decade and a half later, we caught up with him as he struggled to fit back in the society and he opened up on the circumstances that nailed him to the national hall of infamy.
“So many things were said about me at the time, in the media and by the police and my colleagues at the university. Some had elements of truth but most of them were either exaggerations or pure fiction,” Omondi says.
And so under the glittery neon lights hanging outside an electronic shop along Banda Street and with the iconic Jamia Mosque spying on us, Omondi settled down to separate the wheat from the chaff in his story.
“The truth is that I was sucked into all this this by an ex-colleague whom I met along Koinange Street while I was coming from a rave. He gave me the brief and it seemed so easy to execute,” he says, a hustle rag on his shoulders.
In those days, he says, the University of Nairobi’s security system was rather ineffective. Getting to the students hall of residence was a simple walk-in affair devoid of searches or production of identity cards.
At dusk, his “guests” would simply drive inside Mamlaka in a taxi, walk up to his Room number 9, collect their “stuff”, leave for their nightly “duties” and return them at dawn until the next plan was hatched.
The practice went on for some time until a student informer who was friends with Omondi tipped the police and an ambush was planned. Despite the “guests” using a different car from the one the police had been tipped on, they fell into the trap and the entire conspiracy bust up in a flash of seconds.
“The police came up to my room looking for me. I met them at the door and when they asked me about Ben the occupant of the room and I directed them to my neighbour who quickly connected the dots and told them the owner had gone out to rave,” he says.
Omondi paced downstairs where a crowd of students was engaging the cops waiting on “Ben” to stagger back from the rave. Afraid that un-comradely colleagues could single him out, he borrowed a lighter from one of the cops, stepped aside to smoke and ducked from the scene. His next biggest assignment after that was how to move the assortment of guns from his room despite the heavy security cordon thrown about the whole place. From the city centre and with a phone, he attempted several moves using colleagues but they faltered.
Late into the night after the heavy cordon had worn out, he sneaked back, moved the cache to an abandoned room and sneaked out moments before the police pounced on the new hideout for the guns.
The next day, on May 18, 2003, as the then Police Commission Edwin Nyaseda paraded the unbelievable cache before bewildered press, Omondi and one his accomplice were hurtling towards Lokichogio in an escape mission suggested by the latter.
In Lokichogio, the pair suppressed their student credentials and changed names. They lived off their savings in a mid-level hotel as they tried to get some menial jobs to supplement the savings.
A few weeks later and running out of cash, Omondi and his colleague walked into the highly guarded Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) branch to withdraw some cash. He says he withdrew Sh20,000 and split it between himself and his colleague.
“On our way back through the gate and after collecting our ID, I saw the cop reading a newspaper story with the headline of university students on the run. My antennae rose up in a flash. In those days, any mention of university freaked me to the bone. The world looked so tiny to me and everybody was after me.”
The world was beginning to crumble for the runaway duo. On arrival at the hotel, what had flashed like a dreamy episode proved true when the landlady hushed them aside while shoving the day’s newspaper up them.
Cornered, the pair hatched a plot to sneak out of town back to Kitale or wherever. They rebuffed every offer by the landlady to help them and boarded a bus out of town. They didn’t go far for in Kakuma, police commandeered the bus to a police station demanding identification of all passengers.
“I tapped my colleague and told him, end of the road,” Omondi says.
Without much ado, the police isolated Omondi and his colleague from the rest and arrested them.
For the first time, the two students were separated, locked in different cells. The following day they were airlifted back to Nairobi commando style aboard Russian-made police chopper.
“That is true. It was like a movie,” Omondi says when reminded of his dramatic arrival in Nairobi. Omondi was charged with several cases relating to the firearms found in the hostels.
Three of the cases, each comprising of two counts of robbery with violence were thrown out by the courts on July 2004, October 2004 and April 2005.
However on the last charge of robbery with violence the magistrate convicted him to six years on a “lesser charge” of illegal possession of firearms. He appealed the decision and won the appeal in 2009 after serving six years behind the bars. In releasing him, High Court judges Jackton Ojwang and George Ndulu said convicting him was an error.
“First there is no admissible evidence on record that the arms and ammunition were from his room 9. The items were clearly found in room 19. The evidence of the informer that the items were transferred from room 9 to 19 was hearsay evidence as he did not testify in court,” the judges said.
The other reason it was an error, the judges said, is that the magistrate purported to convict for lesser offence of possession of firearms when such a crime is not a lesser offence of the greater robbery with violence offence.
Armed with a recommendation letter from the prison, Omondi came back to face the world he was isolated from only to find that it affords little room for ex-convicts.