Coup plotter or victim of power struggles?

On Thursday, March 19, 1981, Kenyans woke up to the news that a Nairobi businessman, Andrew Mungai Muthemba, had been charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

Mr Muthemba, a bespectacled camera-shy engineer, was accused that between December 15 and February 23, he had "compassed, imagined or intended to depose by unlawful means" President Moi from his position as President of Kenya.

The Muthemba case came at a time when Moi was getting paranoid about schemes to remove him from power.

In April 1980, President Moi had warned would-be dissidents and those "scrambling for power" that he would lock them up if they did not toe the government line.

It was in that political jumble that Attorney-General James Karugu and Chief Public Prosecutor Sharad Rao sought an urgent appointment with the president.

The two, it is now known, had disagreed on what to do with Muthemba's flirtation with some military personnel.

What was known at that time was that between December 15, 1980 and February 23, 1981, Muthemba had tried to get Corporal Joseph Njiru Shimba to steal 10 hand grenades, 10 remote control devices, and an unspecified number of aircraft bombs.

He had also tried to get Captain Ricky Waithaka Gitucha to steal 100 grenades, mortars, machine guns and ammunition, rifles, plastic explosives, bomb timers, and remote control devices.

But why would a civilian try to get all these weapons?

"As far as I am concerned," Muthemba would tell the Chief Magistrate, Fidahussein Abdullah, as the case opened, "I was performing my duty. I was not doing it for my own ends."

For the police, this explanation did not add up.

Muthemba had told them that he was investigating - with the "knowledge" of Charles Njonjo, then powerful Minister for Constitutional Affairs - the illegal acquisition of citizenship, work permits, illegal foreign exchange transactions, and smuggling of arms and ammunition.

On March 31, 1980, when Njonjo was still the Attorney General, Muthemba had gone to see him regarding currency smuggling.

Whether they discussed any other matter is still in contention. "When Muthemba came to my office, the then deputy public prosecutor, Mr Karugu, was around.

Muthemba said there was talk about smuggling of foreign exchange," Njonjo would admit in court. "I never asked Muthemba to carry out investigations."

Njonjo also marked
If Muthemba decided to expand his investigations, he must have thought that Njonjo would save him. He did not know that Njonjo was also a marked man.

That day, Njonjo recalled, he picked up the phone and called a Mr Shapi, an assistant commissioner at the Central Bank's exchange control branch, and asked him to investigate Muthemba's claims.

"Muthemba at that time did not talk of anything else.

He did not visit me again when I was Attorney-General. He has never visited me in my residence and he has never discussed with me anything about smuggling of arms…"

When Muthemba decided to carry out "investigations" on the arms smuggling, he recruited Dickson Kamau Muiruri to source the military hardware for him, arousing the interest of the Special Branch - led by James Kanyotu - which got wind of the request.

As Muiruri, through a Mr Kamau Georges, approached Cpl Joseph Njiru Shimba, a supplies officer at the Kenya Airforce, to steal the arsenal for him, he again triggered the interest of Special Branch officers.

Cpl. Shimba had never dealt with military hardware before. He was only involved in the supply of bedding, uniforms, liquid oxygen, and motor vehicle spare parts.

"I had never dealt with armaments before," he would later say.

Nail Smugglers
On the day Njonjo appeared in court during the Muthemba trial, he admitted to have authorised Muthemba to liaise with Shapi to nail the currency smugglers.

"At that time, it was interesting because the majority of people at the time were interested in smuggling.

This appeared to be a genuine desire with a sense of commitment on the part of Muthemba," said Njonjo.

Muiruri had also approached Captain Ricky Waithaka Gitucha with similar requests on behalf of Muthemba.

Gitucha, alarmed by the range of weapons requested, sought to meet with Muthemba. They met on February 4, 1980 at 11.29 am.