Many in my generation who became journalists in the early 1990s had the balls of a brass monkey. We had got into the profession out of passion unlike some in the present crop of media people who ended up in the newsroom just because journalism was one of those many other courses offered in college. Raila Odinga perhaps would call them vifaranga vya computer.
In our days we wanted to be first to break the news and first to tell the story behind the story. For that we’d take any risk. It was while on such adventurism that my colleague, David Maina, and I almost got fed to the dogs for trespassing into the compound of one time Rift Valley police boss, James Mungai.
First I tell you who Mungai was: Growing up in Nakuru County in the 1970s, we used to hear stories of a tough, rough askari who strode the streets of Nakuru town riding a horse and stopped to whip anybody who didn’t give him way or committed a traffic offence.
At his farm near Nakuru town, uniformed policemen were not just deployed to guard the compound but also to milk his cows, feed his dogs, and clean his horses.
The climax of his notoriety was assembling a 200-plus police squad only answerable to himself and which went by the name Rift Valley Operation Team.
One night, while the head of the official presidential guard was away in Nairobi, Mungai had ordered his squad to take charge of security at Nakuru State House where the President was staying.
On return, a highly infuriated head of the presidential guard had given explicit instructions that Mungai’s men be shot on sight next time they gate-crashed into State House as such an act was tantamount to a coup-detat.
But it was Vice-President Daniel Moi who tasted the worst of Mungai’s reign of terror. Once the top cop instructed his men to flag down the Vice-President’s motorcade and conduct a search.
The worse came when the search extended to Moi’s private home in Nakuru. On the night it happened, a shaken Moi drove to Nyeri to confide in his friend, then Central Provincial Commissioner Simeon Nyachae, that he’d had enough and would be resigning from government.
“At this rate, these people will go ahead and kill me.” While empathising with him, Nyachae advised against resigning, arguing that as long as the boss, President Jomo Kenyatta, had no problem with his deputy, Moi should stay put.
“Look my friend”, Nyachae reportedly cautioned Moi: “You’re in the middle of a bridge. Going forward is as risky as going backwards. So why not go forward since the risk is the same as going the other way!” Moi heeded the advice and lived to be Kenya’s longest serving Head of State.
Neither did Mungai have regard for anybody else above nor below him. One time he had the vehicle carrying the wife of then Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner (his immediate boss in the provincial hierarchy) impounded and the driver detained.
Another time Mungai had senior army officers from Nakuru’s Lanet Barracks locked in a local police station. He only set them free when he got a signal that fellow army officers were on the way to forcibly set free their colleagues and raze down the police station.
Another blatant case of impunity was when Mungai was summoned to testify at the parliamentary inquiry into the murder of legislator JM Kariuki. When he appeared before the House committee, he declined to remove his official cap or salute as he took his seat. A brief conversation with the committee chair went on like this before Mungai was dismissed for contempt:
Chair: “Mr Mungai, this is a statutory committee. When coming here in uniform, you either remove your cap or salute before you take your seat. Can you please do that?”
Mungai: “Where is that written?”
Chair: “It’s the standard practice implicit in our Standing Orders.”
Mungai: “Well, those are your Standing Orders not ours in the police force!”
Chair: “But when you appear before us, you go by our Standing Orders not yours. Even your boss, the Police Commissioner, was here yesterday and he saluted before taking his seat.”
Mungai: “That’s him. I am James Mungai and I am not going to salute, and I am not going to remove my cap!”
Chair: “Then you can as well go. If you have no respect for the committee, we have no business engaging you.”
The police officer walked away without giving a damn.
Mungai would also order police officers below the rank of inspector to be caned by their seniors in the case of indiscipline.
A couple of years after Mungai was unceremoniously fired from the police force on Moi’s ascendancy to the Presidency – he first fled the country while on compulsory leave – my colleague and I decided to visit him at his Nakuru farm without appointment.
We wanted to ask him to tell us about his days in the police force and what he was doing in retirement.
Our boss, the Nakuru Kenya Times newspaper bureau chief, cautioned us that Mungai wasn’t a very pleasant man and that we should think twice before going to his private residence uninvited. Then, as now, the retired cop had never given a press interview. Moreover, he lives a reserved, no-nonsense life with an allergy for visitors of any kind.
But in those days, we never took no for an answer. My colleague and I insisted on visiting Mungai against the wise counsel of our boss. At the gate, the sentry told us we couldn’t be let in without appointment. Somehow, we managed to sweet-talk our way in.
Unknown to us, the old cop had long seen us coming up the long drive-way. We found him waiting at the parking, hands akimbo and two Alsatian hounds next to him. Just from his posture, we could tell he was in a mood to commit murder. His German shepherds, too, looked very much ready to do what they were trained to — kill.
“Who’re you and what brings you to my compound uninvited?” the retired cop howled at us from about 10 metres away. Telling him we were journalists made him all the mad: “You have one minute to leave this place or I let my dogs help you to get out!” We left the compound at the speed of lightning.
When writing this column, I made inquiries on the whereabouts of the old cop. I have gathered that, now in his late 70s, Mungai is still keeping well and shuffles between his farm in Nakuru and a residence at the coast. He still rears horses and keeps even tougher dogs than the ones he wanted to unleash on us. But now that I am a retired old man like him, I think we can strike some rapport. I will try and pay him a visit.