A police officer cocked his AK47 rifle, aimed and was about to pull the trigger when a hawk-eyed cleric saw him. The venue was Thika Stadium and the target was Raila Odinga.
Amid the roars of gunfire, exploding tear gas canisters and cries from injured delegates, the Rev George Okoth Otura, a young evangelist who doubled as a civil right activist, jumped onto Raila and with the help of another youth, Martin Otieno alias Oti, forced him onto the ground in a desperate bid to shield him from the flying bullets.
Raila, who had just won a parliamentary seat in Lang’ata after being released from political detention, was then trying his hands at national politics.
The year was 1995 and Thika Stadium was under siege. Ford-Kenya was holding elections to replace its chairman, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had died a year earlier.
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The chaos that erupted nearly turned into a blood bath. The protagonists were Jaramogi’s then deputy, First Vice Chairman Wamalwa Kijana and Raila who were angling to grab the party’s top post. The stakes were high as whoever was elected chairman would automatically become the party’s presidential candidate in the 1997 presidential election.
It was a do-or-die battle for Raila and Wamalwa.
In a dramatic picture taken by an amateur, a shaken Raila is seen being pinned to the ground by his aides, including Otura, as he appeared to be staring at the gunmen.
It was as a result of the Thika chaos that Raila broke ranks with Wamalwa, resigned from Ford-Kenya and formed the National Development Party (NDP) which he used to retain the Lang’ata parliamentary seat in the subsequent by-election. He went ahead to contest the presidency in 1997.
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For the first time, since the Thika Stadium chaos that changed Raila’s political destiny, Sunday Standard has pieced together how the chaos unfolded, why Raila was the target and how it split former Jaramogi’s formidable Young Turks. It was a chaotic election that almost changed Kenya’s course of history.
We interviewed Otura who describes the incident as one of the most daring attempts on Raila’s life. We also spoke to the former leader of the dreaded Bagdad Boys, Audi Ogada, who was captured in press photographs wielding a huge axe as he protected Wamalwa. It was Mr Ogada, now a human rights activist and peace crusader, who led Wamalwa’s security team and helped rescue him from Thika Stadium.
An interview with Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda, who together with the then Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop the late Manases Kuria had been appointed to preside over the election, exposed the inside story of the Thika chaos, which denied the opposition the chance of uprooting Kanu from power.
Otura, who now lives in Canada but was in Kenya recently and met Raila, says he was yet to fully recover from what he witnessed in Thika.
“I knew they were going to kill Raila. I have never been scared like that in my life. I heard a senior police officer ordering one of his juniors to aim at Raila and we had to act fast by pushing him to the ground. We were ready to take the bullets on his behalf. He was initially resistant and wanted to look at the policemen but we eventually subdued him,” recalls Otura.
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“The officer who was aiming at Raila eventually unleashed a volley of bullets which caught one of the delegates on the leg. We were relieved when the gunfire finally died down. Raila sought to know if any of us had been hit.”
Otura told Sunday Standard they did not know who wanted Raila dead on that day. “I am convinced there were plans to kill him to disorganise the opposition, but it was like they didn’t plan well,” he says. Mr Ogada admits he whipped out an axe to save a university student who had been cornered by Raila’s supporters and was in the verge of being killed.
He also used the same axe to ward off pro-Raila youths he claimed wanted to assault Wamalwa and kidnap Archbishop Kuria.
He says the Ford-Kenya elections split the party. Then Ugenya MP and current Siaya Senator James Orengo broke ranks with Raila and was supporting Wamalwa, alongside 11 other MPs from Nyanza. Orengo wanted to be Wamalwa’s first vice-chairman.
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Ogada and Ochanda agree that chaos started after supporters from the two sides differed over the list of delegates.
“The pro-Raila delegates spent the night at the stadium and by 4 am, they had locked the gates. When we arrived in a large convoy that included the presiding officers, we could not get into the stadium,” says Ogada. He adds: “They said only Archbishop Kuria could get into the stadium but we could not allow this as we feared they could kidnap him and force him to declare Raila the winner under duress.”
With Wamalwa, Orengo and their team getting impatient, Ogada withdrew his axe and broke open the chain used to lock the gate. At the main dais, an immaculately dressed Raila sat waiting for the elections with his lieutenants who included MPs Orwa Ojode, Otieno Kajwang and Joab Omino – all now deceased. “Raila initially wanted to contest as Wamalwa’s first vice-chairman against Orengo bust changed his mind and went for the top seat after learning Wamalwa was supporting the Ugenya MP. Things got worse when it emerged that both sides had their own list of delegates,” recalls Ogada.
He says Raila was prepared for the elections while Wamalwa’s side took it lightly as he was sure it would be smooth sailing.
“Raila’s side ferried youths to Thika in 11 buses. There were also talks that Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili and Kanu were silently sabotaging the elections. While Raila’s delegates spent the night at the stadium, the Wamalwa strategists were holed up at his home in Kileleshwa,” says Ogada.
Among Wamalwa’s lieutenants was former Kisumu mayor, the late Lawrence Oile, who was then popularly known as “The warlord” because of his confrontational politics and hatred for Raila.
Its Oile who facilitated a faction of Baghdad Boys to travel to Thika. Also in the Wamalwa team then was firebrand politician and businesswoman Orie Rogo Manduli.
After the chaos, Wamalwa’s team regrouped and he was declared the party’s new chairman. Otura also says he later presided over another election in the precincts of the stadium where Raila was also endorsed as the party chairman. The former Langa’ta MP later decided to resign from Ford-Kenya.
Ochanda says it was through God’s grace that Thika did not turn into a blood bath. Hundreds would have died because police were using live and rubber bullets, the MP said.
“Chaos started because of the delegates lists. I was the one holding and verifying the lists which were disputed by both sides. Then hell broke loose. There was gunfire and everyone went down on their bellies. The police later rescued me and Archbishop Kuria,” remembers Ochanda.
He says there was confusion a day before the Thika event following reports that Raila had organised a parallel election at the City Stadium.
“Raila and his team were headed for City Stadium but shifted to Thika at the eleventh hour after realising it was the gazetted venue,” recalls Ochanda. He says the events at Thika that day shaped Raila’s political destiny.
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Raila OdingaWamalwa KijanaNDPOkoth Otura