Torture, starvation, rape: Moi’s Kenya and the dark legacy of Nyayo House

<span>The Nyayo House torture chambers, where hundreds of opponents of Daniel arap Moi were taken. Survivors want the building to become a museum.</span><span>Photograph: @thekhrc</span>
The Nyayo House torture chambers, where hundreds of opponents of Daniel arap Moi were taken. Survivors want the building to become a museum.Photograph: @thekhrc

The 56 days that Patrick Onyango spent in Kenya’s dark, damp Nyayo House torture chambers remain clear in his mind. It was three deacdes ago that Onyango, now 66, knew that his opposition to the autocratic rule of Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, was to be punished when uniformed policemen seized him in the middle of a class he was teaching in Kisumu, the port city in western Kenya, bundling him on to a helicopter and whisking him to the capital, Nairobi.

There he was shuttled from one prison cell to another for nearly a week, he says, before being blindfolded and taken through a narrow tunnel to the cells of the infamous Nyayo torture chambers.

Onyango was made to undress, and then beaten and stabbed. Denied food and water in his cell for nearly two weeks, he drank his own urine to survive.

It should be a reminder of what can happen when despotism takes centre stage in a country

Patrick Onyango

“I was subjected to all kinds of torture – it was very cruel, very inhumane,” says Onyango, who angered the Moi regime for his student activism against one-party rule in the early 1980s.

Moi, Kenya’s longest-serving president, had seen off a coup attempt by a section of the armed forces in 1982. Afterwards he cracked down hard, introducing excessive policing and human rights abuses and passing laws to suppress political freedom.

During the height of the crackdown between 1986 and 1992, more than 150 pro-democracy activists were detained and tortured in the Nyayo cells.

Every February since, Onyango and other survivors have returned to visit the cells in an act of remembrance with members of the public who want to know more about the atrocities.

This dark chapter of Kenya’s history is barely taught in schools and the old interrogation cells in the basement of a multi-storey immigration centre are classified as a “protected area” that can only be accessed with permission from the security services and Nairobi officials.

Last month, victims of torture at Nyayo launched a lawsuit against the government challenging these restrictions. The case, filed before Nairobi courts by four survivors of torture, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), seeks to overturn laws that limit access to the chambers.

The survivors are demanding that the area be converted into a national monument open to the Kenyan public, as recommended in 2011 by the country’s truth, justice and reconciliation commission, a body formed after Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence to help resolve historical injustices.

“There is no political goodwill from past and current governments to address historical state violations,” says Martin Mavenjina, a senior adviser for transitional justice at the KHRC.

There is no political goodwill from past and current governments to address historical state violations

Martin Mavenjina, Kenya Human Rights Commission

The rights group has recorded more than 100 torture lawsuits against the state over the years, filed by survivors and victims’ families. Its lawyers say that while many cases were successful on their merits, a number of victims have not received compensation to date.

Government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Survivors, who chronicled their experiences in the book We Lived to Tell, have recounted how chamber interrogators would drive needles into their nails, and kick, squeeze or burn their genitals with cigarette butts. Some were killed during the interrogation, and those who survived were released after coerced confessions or imprisoned on charges of sedition and treason.

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Onyango was detained at the chambers for nearly two months and then imprisoned for three years in a maximum-security prison. The long and gruelling weeks he spent under interrogation are now a trauma he can talk about after years of psychological support from a survivors’ network.

He recalls how guards brought his fiancee to the cell, forcing her to watch as they tortured and humiliated him. Afterwards she was gang-raped in the next room. He found out after his release from prison that she had become pregnant from the abuse and had taken her own life.

“She was not part of [the activism for democracy] but paid the ultimate price,” says Onyango. “The chiefs also sent word to my parents that I was dead; [they] were traumatised. My mum got hypertension after I was taken, and while I was fortunate enough to find her after my release, that’s what killed her.

“That is the reason why we want that place to be made a museum. It should be a reminder of what can happen when despotism takes centre stage in a country. We need to pass this story from one generation to another, to the point where we talk of ‘never again’.”

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