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Murder most foul: Did the press abandon search for Ouko killers?

This year marks the 34th anniversary of the gruesome killing of then Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Robert Ouko. According to numerous accounts, he was abducted by people known to him in the wee hours of February 12 or 13, 1990, in a white car, tortured and humiliated and then shot and his body set on fire.

His killing was so shocking to the nation that President Daniel arap Moi ordered Britain’s New Scotland Yard, led by John Troon, to help hunt down the minister’s killers.

Since that murder, the media have been at the forefront of helping search for clues that could lead to the prosecution of the culprits by publishing and broadcasting powerful investigative stories. It’s through piecing together the clues that the names of key suspects such as the then-powerful Moi confidant, Nicholas Biwott, Jonah Anguka (Nakuru District Commissioner) and Hezekiah Oyugi (Internal Security Permanent Secretary) started to emerge and make sense to a public eager to know the truth.

Ouko’s murder, like previous political assassinations, has often been the subject of wild rumours and other fabricated narratives. The coming to power of President Mwai Kibaki in 2002 renewed efforts to close the dark and haunting chapter of unresolved murders that continue to remain a national wound, particularly among affected communities that felt they deserved justice. In April 2003, in an unprecedented step that signalled a different style of governance, Kibaki formed a commission to revisit the investigations into the minister’s killing.

The turn of the millennium coincided with Kenya’s dalliance with television as a medium for telling the truth to power. The remnants of the old political establishment were often the target of the roiling rage. Kenyans old enough to remember, cherish memories of citizens arresting police officers caught receiving bribes live on television. TV essentially became the mirror through which the nation could see itself and come to terms with its fears, hopes, aspirations and anxieties. In other words, the early 2000s were the highlight of a vibrant and bold media industry that was not afraid to draw blood.

The proceedings of Gor Sungu Commission on Ouko’s murder were broadcast live to attentive audiences around the country. Day after day, Kenyans were treated to chilling witness testimonies by the powerful and ordinary people alike who had crossed paths with the Foreign Minister. While nobody was charged or jailed for taking part in the killing, the proceedings of the commission left lasting memories for a majority of Kenyans, courtesy of the media.

In the subsequent years and decades, television and newspapers have continued to doggedly revisit the political assassination, at times boldly deviating from old ‘truths’, such as when Citizen TV, relying on what they described as “previously unpublished ‘secret’ and ‘confidential’ diplomatic telexes, and 100 interviews with many of the people involved”, disputed several theories linked to the motive for the Ouko killing.

The exposé by Waweru Njoroge trashed the Washington trip theory that has often claimed that the Foreign Minister had a bitter clash with Biwott in the US, an incident that could have stoked deep animosity between them, leading to Ouko’s execution. The theory further claims that the minister embarrassed Moi by telling their American hosts that there was high-level corruption in the Nyayo regime. According to the TV investigations, the allegations, which later formed a part of Troon’s explosive report, were spread by the minister’s brother, Barack Mbajah, and sister, Dorothy Randiak, both of whom were never on the trip.

In February last year, NTV made a half-hearted attempt to revisit the murder but hardly revealed any new information. The documentary once again singled out the usual suspects. The question is: Is it that investigative agencies have refused to probe the numerous leads aired and published in the media, or it is the press that is not pushing hard enough to help bring Ouko’s killers to book? And whose credibility is most at stake if the assassins are allowed to roam free despite committing a heinous crime that remains a dark and haunting chapter in Kenya’s political history?

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