How I saved Raila’s life

The young men, most of them fishermen, were looking forward to an evening of fun – nay, debauchery – as Benga maestro Okatch Biggy was to perform in the Lake Victoria island of Ndeda that warm night of October 1991.

For Robert Njura, then 19, those plans were quickly abandoned after his boss, Hezron Orori, a boat owner on the island, called him and his colleague, Sylvester Wademi, and informed them of an urgent trip to Uganda that evening.

“Some of the young men in our company refused to go. Okatch Biggy was in town and at the time he was the biggest name in Benga music. But I told Sylvester that I had come here to look for money for my school fees,” Mr Njura told the Sunday Nation this week.

This sudden trip to Uganda would have major political and historical implications for the country in the future because, although they only came to learn later, the trip was to smuggle opposition leader Raila Odinga to Uganda as he fled the country to Norway amid fears that President Daniel arap Moi’s brutal Kanu regime was planning to assassinate him.

Major political player

Had that happened, it would have completely changed the trajectory of the country’s politics forever, as Mr Odinga, referred to variously as “The Enigma” or “Baba”, has been a major player in the country’s political discourse for decades.

As the country prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Constitution, this story is an important addition to the untold history of the republic as it reveals the extents to which rogue regimes, rulers or administrators can go to stay in power — or display it.

At the time, Mr Njura was a Form Four student and, having been raised close to the lake, it was a common for boys his age to engage in fishing during their free time and when schools closed for holidays. He was born in Mukunda village of Budalang’i, Busia County, and attended Mukunda Secondary School.

Though his usual fishing place was in Sio, close to his current home, his friend Wademi, who was already working in Ndeda Island, invited him over because the prospects of hitting it big were better there.

Two authoritative biographies, Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics and Raila Odinga: The Flame of Freedom, briefly describe Mr Odinga’s dramatic escape from Kenya to Norway through Uganda — but never before has the role of the young man who was the coxswain of the rickety wooden boat that ferried him over been told in detail.

It all started with a series of cat-and-mouse games with the police, who were looking for Mr Odinga in Nairobi. In the weeks preceding his dramatic escape from under the noses of President Moi’s ruthless police and Special Branch as the clamour for multiparty democracy intensified, he kept moving between the residences of his pro-democracy friends.

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Raila Odinga was smuggled to Uganda all the while disguised as a Catholic priest and a Legio Maria adherent.

A political attaché at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Alan Eastham, had warned him that they had intelligence that the Moi regime had concluded that Mr Odinga no longer feared detention and security agencies could therefore be looking to physically harm or assassinate him.

As the police were looking for him ahead of a mega rally the pro-democracy groups had called, he took refuge in Dr Mukhisa Kituyi’s family home in Mountain View estate, among other places.

Religious disguise

Eventually, he was smuggled out of Nairobi onto Kisumu, Rang’ala in Ugenya and eventually to Uganda, all the while disguised variously as a Catholic priest and a Legio Maria adherent.

Having set aside their plans to spend the evening dancing to Okatch Biggy, Mr Njura says they climbed into their single outboard engine boat and set off. Coming along with them was the boat owner, Mr Orori, and his wife.

“This did not look like a normal assignment because instead of just setting off straight for our destination we headed towards the mainland and eventually docked at a lonely part of the island,” he said.

According to Mr Njura, since he could not question their boss, he concluded they were going to pick some goods to smuggle to Uganda.

“We were fishermen, yes, but a lot happened in the lake, including facilitating illegal trade, and that was not unusual,” he said.

In Babafemi Badejo’s Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics, Mr Odinga is said to have boarded the boat that took him across to Uganda at Olago Beach, and that the logistical nightmare, including fuelling the boat, was managed by a local businessman in Bondo, Simon Chiambe Oloo.

As they waited to be ordered to retrieve the goods they thought their boss had hidden among the rocks on the beach, a man emerged.

“He was dressed like a Legio Maria adherent. All alone. You know, at the lake fishermen believe in so many things. What crossed my mind when I saw this stranger was that perhaps the boss had invited him to pray for us before we embarked on our journey,” Mr Njura told the Sunday Nation.

The stranger boarded the boat, greeted them then went to sit with Mr Orori at the front. Mr Njura and his friend Mr Wademi sat at the back. They were to steer the wooden boat. By the time they were setting off for Uganda, it was almost 5pm.

For the duration of the journey, the coxswains focused on steering the boat, with occasional instructions from Mr Orori on the direction to take and the obstacles to avoid.

According to Mr Njura, for the duration of the journey Mr Orori and his stranger-friend conversed in Dholuo, which he and Mr Wademi did not understand.

Along the way they passed by several islands, including Mageta, and when they arrived at Sigulu Island near the Ugandan side of the lake — some 12 hours after they set off from Olago Beach — they stopped for some time because the lake was quite rough, they were tired and it was getting bitterly cold.

They all got out of the boat and Mr Orori, who was a well-connected man, led them to a nearby house, which Mr Njura later learned belonged to Mr Orori’s uncle.

At the house, they found an elderly man and, cold and hungry after hours on the lake, they were served hot porridge.

“Then they started introductions and that is when we learnt who this stranger in religious garb was. Hezron (Orori) introduced the stranger as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s son, Raila. The old man’s focus quickly shifted from us to Raila, who he asked about his father (Jaramogi)” he said.

Timber trader

The old man then asked if Mr Odinga also “works in the lake”. “Without hesitation, he (Mr Odinga) answered in the affirmative. He did not say anything that could give away his true mission. He was posing as a trader dealing in timber and he managed to convince the old man. It seemed like it was something they had discussed with Hezron because Hezron did not contradict him,” recalls Mr Njura.

“For Sylvester (Wademi) and I, because we had some little knowledge of what was going on in the country at the time, Raila was a name we were familiar with because of his association with the fight for multiparty politics, but at that time we could not say anything. In any case we had only heard of him but had not seen him before,” he added.

After the short rest, they set off their final destination, with the target being to get to the Ugandan side of the lake before sunrise. They did not go to their usual beaches but docked at a place “with a lot of shacks nearby” whose name he could not tell. Mr Njura said it seemed arrangements had been made for Mr Odinga to be picked.

“As soon as we docked, Hezron and his friend (Raila) got out of the boat, walked a short distance and joined some people. They then walked from our view and disappeared among the nearby shacks,” he said.

After spending some time in Uganda, Mr Njura later linked up with Mr Orori and set off for the journey back to Ndeda Island. But not before Mr Orori warned them not to say anything about what they had done, heard or seen. For that trip they were paid Sh2,000, quite some money in the early 1990s.

“When Hezron introduced him (Mr Odinga) at the old man’s home we could not believe it. It hit us that we could be on the police radar for being associated with him. But there was also excitement that was only dampened with the warning that we should not talk to anyone about it. I did not tell even my parents,” said Mr Njura.

Narrated story

He says that the first time he ever talked about that incident was after he relocated to Nairobi mid-1993. He told then Makadara MP John Mutere, to whom he was related. Mr Mutere went ahead and told Mr Odinga, at the time the Lang’ata MP, having returned from exile in April 1992 in time for the first election in the first multiparty era elections of December that year.

Mr Odinga invited him through Mr Mutere and they met at the canteen at Parliament Buildings. Also present at the meeting were current Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi and then Kangundo MP Joseph Mulusya.

“I did not talk much. After introductions, Raila took over and narrated the whole story to his colleagues. He gave me his phone number which I still have and told me to call him. He calls me ‘Msamia,” he said.

Mr Njura says they met a second time, although he does not remember the exact year.

This time, he was staying with the family of former minister Peter Okondo in Buru Buru Phase I. He is related to the Okondos through the wife, who is his aunt. Sharing the same compound with the Okondos was political activist Polycarp Mburu and his wife.

Rateng’ was there

One day, while visiting the Mburus, Mr Njura took their family photo album, and while flipping through it noticed a photo of Mr Odinga in the company of some other people. He then narrated the story of his encounter with Mr Odinga in 1991 as he was fleeing the country.

Mr Mburu, he says, was a friend with Lumumba Owade, who was then an aide to Mr Odinga. One Sunday, Mr Owade and Mr Mburu arrived and took him to Mr Odinga’s office in Upper Hill.

“Raila was in the office with Rateng’ Ogego (one-time Kenyan ambassador to the US and the current ambassador to Saudi Arabia). That is when Rateng’ disclosed to me that he was at the beach in Uganda when we docked that day, and that he saw us but there was no time for introductions,” said Mr Njura.

Dramatic encounter

Mr Owade, when the Sunday Nation contacted him, said he could remember they picked some “short, dark man” from Buru Buru and took him to Mr Odinga. “That was in the early 1990s,” said Mr Owade.

Mr Ogego, a former political prisoner, did not immediately respond to our enquiries.

Twenty-nine years after that dramatic encounter, Mr Njura, who resides in Nairobi and works in Industrial Area, says the incident is one he cannot forget.

“There is always a feeling of satisfaction that God used me to get him out of possible harm’s way and when I look at all his achievements since that time in an open boat in the middle of a rough, chilly lake, I feel happy for and pray for him,” he said.

Asked whether he would want to meet Mr Odinga again, Mr Njura readily agreed. “If it is to re-live the great and risky trip, why not? I would be happy and even buy him tea.”

Mr Wademi, his partner that evening, says he is now a businessman in Nambale and a church minister in the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness.

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