Charles Rubia:The day Kanu police came for me and turned my life upside down for good

rubiaWhile perhaps not on the list of Kenya’s wealthiest people, Charles Rubia once played in that premier league. At independence, he was one of the highest ranking diplomats in the sense that he hosted civic receptions at City Hall for every ambassador who presented his credentials to the new President, Jomo Kenyatta, at State House.

The script was always the same – credentials at State House, followed by a reception by the Mayor of Nairobi.

He served both President Kenyatta and Moi as a minister and privately, his businesses, especially a tour company called Kenya Mystery Tours, boomed. He sat on the boards of about two dozen companies and parastatals and was a committee member of Muthaiga Country Club, the country’s most elite.

All that changed in 1990 when he and Mr Kenneth Matiba teamed up to demand a referendum on the country’s political future.

Mr Rubia said in an interview last week that they decided to make the agitation for a return to multi-party democracy structured and that’s how they took the bold decision to hold a series of rallies around the country to put pressure on the Kanu Government.

The first rally was slated for July 7, 1990 and Rubia, as a city politician, was to be its convenor. The second was to be held in Mombasa with Matiba as the host, being a large-scale investor at the Coast. Others would follow. But that was not to be. These plans were nipped ruthlessly in the bud by the Moi government on July 4, 1990.

Mr Rubia had just attended a reception at the US Embassy to celebrate American Independence Day and then sat in a committee meeting at the nearby Muthaiga Country Club.

That’s where Kanu’s political police came for him. The result was a family and personal catastrophe. He recollects the events and their cost.

“The detention greatly affected my family. Fox example, Hannah, my late wife, broke down and never really recovered. She died in 2000. I always reflect on this cost. My travails became too much for her. She developed high blood pressure. Emotionally, she was profoundly affected by my detention. The cause of her death was directly linked to my many problems in politics.

Michael, my first son, came back from the US with two Masters degrees  – one in Business Administration and the other in Public Administration; a double MBA. The unfortunate thing was that he could not secure a job because no employer could risk hiring him. My other children also suffered seriously.

I had another son called Njonjo who also had an MBA. He got a job but very late. He passed away four years ago. My graduate daughter also remained unemployed for a very long time. My family was being punished because of my political inclination. They suffered a lot.

In business, I was removed from directorships of various parastatals I sat on upon the express instructions of President Moi.

My tour company did some business with CFC Bank but one day, the bank chairman, my friend PK Jani told me, ‘I am not supposed to be telling you this, but President Moi has said we withdraw our support for you.’ Moi was a shareholder of CFC Bank.

Jani felt a personal obligation to let me in on this because we had a long history. He and I were councillors of the Nairobi City Council in the 1960s.

Saba Saba was the climax of our tribulations with Matiba and we never got to be there; we were in detention. It happened on the evening of July 4, 1990. We were at a board meeting of Muthaiga Country Club within the club premises. The meeting was being chaired by a gentleman called Sir Charles Markham.

A gang of about eight people burst into the room. They were led by a fellow in a Kaunda suit and the type of cap that goes with those West African outfits. Sir Charles, startled at the utter uncouthness of the intruders, asked ‘who are you?’ But they paid him no attention. The leader, after briefly looking around, pointed at me saying, ‘Ni yule! Shika yule!’ (It’s that one! Grab him!)

They didn’t even allow me to reach for my jacket which was hanging on a coat hanger not far from me. They hustled me out of the room. There was a big commotion in the club. You know, it was about 6pm and that was when people were having drinks. It was unspeakably uncouth. It was intended for maximum humiliation.

They put me in a Land Rover. And there were at least two other cars behind it. None of the policemen were in uniform. Now, let me remind you, that was in July 1990. In February, Dr Robert Ouko, the Foreign minister, had been murdered.

So I had real fear that the same could happen to me. Once in the Land Rover and with the other cars following us, we drove round and round in the darkness. They maintained a stony silence throughout.

At roughly 8pm, we arrived at the Nairobi Area Police headquarters. It was very humiliating because once we arrived there, they handed me to another set of policemen and they disappeared. All this time, nobody was talking to me per se – only curt orders, ‘wait there! Sit there! Don’t move!’ That sort of thing.

Finally, they took me to their boss, the Nairobi Provincial Police Officer, Mr Geoffrey Kinoti. He would become close to my family in a sort of way, later on.

Kinoti told me ‘Look, Mheshimiwa, we have been asked to arrest you, but right now we are waiting for instructions. Can I offer you something to drink?’ I said ‘no But what is the problem? I want to talk to my lawyer.’

He asked me who my lawyer was. I told him John Khaminwa. I didn’t give him Paul Muite’s name because Muite was known to be with us. But John Khaminwa was also not only my lawyer but my adviser in these matters. He was intensely involved in the multi-party campaign, by the way.

Kinoti said; ‘Alright, we shall call your lawyer. Then the waiting began.

It reached 11pm and nothing was happening. They didn’t put me in a cell. They put me in a room with a wooden bench. I made quite a bit of noise about how they were treating me. But Kinoti, whom I can call a polished policeman, did not lose his head. He came and talked politely to me and begged me to take tea. I accepted.

By midnight, I was utterly tired. They told me to lie on the bench and rest. They told me they were waiting for instructions which they said were taking too long. They also claimed they couldn’t get my lawyer, which was manifestly untrue.

Shortly after midnight, Kinoti came and told me: ‘Mheshimiwa, we’ve got some message for you. Just come to my office. He told me, ‘I’ve got here a document and I want you to sign it.’ I asked him, ‘What document? I want my lawyer.’

He told me, ‘Your lawyer hasn’t come. But I’ve been given this document and these are your detention orders. You are detained.’

I said, ‘What! Me detained? What for?’

Kinoti said his only instructions were that I sign the detention order. I refused. Then he told me, ‘You read it.’ I read a little bit of it and told him, ‘this is bullshit, terrible!’ I refused to sign it. Kinoti wrote on the detention order: “He refused to sign but I showed him the document.” It was after midnight, so the detention order was dated July 5, 1990.

Shortly after that, they told me, ‘We are taking you to where you are going to stay.’ After leaving Kinoti, I was handed over to another team of policemen. This was around 1am now and you know July is a very cold month. I was put in a Land Rover – the same one, or another one, I couldn’t tell – and off we went followed by another car.

I was sandwiched between two policemen. We drove and drove and drove and I was convinced they were going to kill me. I noticed we were in the Limuru area because there was a lot of fog around us. After about two hours, we got somewhere and they took me into an office. And that’s when I discovered that I was in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. It was around 3am.

They left, and once more, I was in the hands of other people. Altogether, I was held in three prisons for about 10 months – Naivasha, Kamiti, where I stayed longest, and Shimo la Tewa. I was released when word went to Moi that I was so sick that I could die in jail. It started in Naivasha. I had told the prison doctors that I found the place too cold. I told them, ‘why don’t you just kill me? Of what use is torture to you?’

Getting Moi’s attention

I became so sick that twice I was taken to Nairobi Hospital for tests. I was suffering from a thyroid problem. There was a growth inside my neck, around the windpipe. Progressively, I became unable to sleep. When they took me to hospital and did the x-rays, they could see the mass of flesh that had partially blocked the windpipe.

The doctors wrote to the Commissioner of Police – because I was a client of the police – that I needed quick urgent medical attention. They said I could die if I was not attended to quickly. This is what I was told by Dr Gikonyo when I came out. The letter was given to Mr Philip Kilonzo, the Police Commissioner.

By some coincidence, Ketumile Masire, the President of Botswana, was visiting Kenya at that time. There was a reception for him at State House. Kilonzo took that letter with him and somewhere during that function, he got Moi’s attention and told him that I was very sick and he showed him the letter from the government doctors. I was told Moi said, ‘take him out, toa yeye.’

The following day I was out of prison.

Dr Gikonyo knew the seriousness of my illness. When I came out, he wanted me to go to hospital immediately. But I wanted to see my parents. My mother and father were alive at that time. I went to see them as Gikonyo booked me at the Nairobi Hospital.

I was there for almost a week. After so many tests and examinations, they decided that it was dangerous to carry out the operation there; I needed specialized treatment abroad.

But I was still haunted by Dr Ouko’s murder. So I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t be killed somehow in the course of being treated. So I asked Dr Gikonyo if he could come with me to London and be there when the operation was taking place. I feel very grateful to Gikonyo because he agreed to come at no charge. All we took care of was his ticket and accommodation.

I think the regime in Kenya was very unkind and cruel. The situation in prison was very bad. Ken Matiba and I were in isolated detention. We were separately held in solitary confinement. You see, the other prisoners were out together and they could chat.

In our case, we were alone. And very soon, you lost count of the days. You even forgot what day of the week it was. That alone is a terribly inhuman treatment.

To me that is different from other regimes where you are given newspapers and other reading materials. In our case, we couldn’t even read. They took away even watches. In my case, after three months, I said I wanted to do some studies.

And I wanted to write my reflections. The officer commanding the prison softened a little bit and provided me with a pen and I asked my family to bring me some writing pads.

And I would write what I called reflections. They had to be in English or Swahili because the authorities needed to read them.

But apart from that, the living conditions were horrible. The feeding itself is horrible. It was boiled cabbages and beans. Even when the doctor ordered that I get milk and fish for health reasons, that was disregarded. For meat you could say they were boiling leather; so tough. I would take a little soup but not meat.


Sleeping was another thing. You slept on the floor. Okay, they gave you a mattress. But because I had a problem of sinuses, I kept on coughing, and fighting flu.

If you asked the warders, ‘what is the time now?’ their reply was, ‘my watch is not working.’ You stayed in a block alone. For example, in Kamiti I stayed in three blocks. And in a block of say 16 cubicles, I was the only prisoner there. And I was guarded by as many as eight very strong boys.

I would sometimes tell them, ‘What a waste of everything! All of you guarding me! This wall is so, so high, I cannot scale it. What are all of you doing here?’ They spent their days playing cards or droughts just watching one lone, old prisoner. Sometimes they would say ‘come nearer and watch.’

That treatment is bad. First of all you don’t know when you’ll ever get out. You know, if you are sentenced to say, three years, you know that time will come. But in detention without trial, you don’t know when or if you’d ever come out.

They think that by doing that to you, they will break you down. But in my case and I am sure this is the same with so many other people, it just hardens you.

Finally, and as an act of great cruelty, they refused to give me back the reflections that I had spent so much time writing upon my release. They are still there. And I have been trying hard to retrieve them without success. Even the Narc Government proved of no use when it came to power.

Moody Awori was in charge of the prisons. I asked him if he could help me retrieve my writings when I was in Kamiti but nothing came of it. But I really want them back. I am extremely keen on them because they constitute an important part of my memoirs.

For lack of a better word, I am not bitter with Moi as a person. I am bitter with the government then. They should have taken me to hospital because I was their client. They should have footed the medical costs. I fell sick in their custody.

They should not have released me sick. They were hoping I was going to die; that feeling is very strong in me but I didn’t die.

As regards Moi himself, I can only say that he was very foolish. He had to be foolish to think that anybody’s opinion, expressed in public contrary to his own meant that that person was his enemy. He could only think of disagreeing with somebody by committing him to prison. I mean, that’s foolish.

I am not bitter with him as a person but I think that he is a small man. You can say that. Believing that every contrary opinion to his means enmity makes him, in my opinion, a small man. There was a time that he and I were good friends, politically also.

But ever since I was detained, I have seen him at close quarters only once and that was at the funeral of Mr Gerishon Kirima. This was last year. But we did not talk. I also think there are other people around him who were equally small people.

If you see the detention order, you will see what I mean.

You’ll even laugh. One of the things they said for detaining me was that I was a sponsor of Mwakenya.  They also said I was working with musicians to besmirch the government. I was also, they said, working towards overthrowing the government. Only very small people can come up with things like these.”




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