Written by Nandemu Barasa Omutolometi
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Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli Odera Obedi was on Wednesday 9th February 1983 sentenced to death by a Court Martial sitting at Langata Barracks Nairobi for committing treason during the 1st August 1982 coup attempt in Kenya.
Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli was as the Nation Newspaper then reported,
“Ninth rebel to die
Another Kenya Air Force (KAF) rebel was yesterday sentenced to death for treason”
He was an aircraft technician. In the Book by Babatemi A. Badejo “Raila Odinga, An Enigma in Kenya Politics” it is revealed that Cpl Fenwicks Chesoli was considered a member of the “Peoples Redemption Council” that comprised of (1) S/pte Hezekiah Ochuka, as chairman, (2) S/sgt Pancras Okumu Oteyo, (3) Sgt Jospeh Ogidi Obuon, (4) Sgt Samuel Opiyo, (5) Sgt Richard Obuon, (6) Cpl Fenwicks Chesoli, (7) Cpl Ombok, (8) Capt. Agola.
He was represented at the Court Martial by a state appointed lawyer the Late Nicholas Rabala who hailed from Busia as the defence lawyer.
After the sentence to death on 9th February 1983, Cpl Fenwicks Chesoli was incarcerated at Kamiti Maximum Prison and with frequent movements to among other prisons Naivasha Prison before he was hanged in 1986 between July to September at Kamiti Maximum Prison and buried there. A family member who attended the Court Martial and kept in contact and on the trail of Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli says that he was clandestinely in October 1986 through informal contacts he had at the prison shown Cpl Chesoli’s unmarked grave at the Kamiti Maximum Prison among other nine unmarked graves of the Kenya Air Force 1982 coup architects and central actors.
The official records of who of the 1982 coup leaders and central actors who had been sentenced to hang were hanged and when and where the bodies were buried remains classified but the unofficial accounts point to those hanged as Hezekiah Ochuka, Pancras Oteyo Okumu, Charles Oriwa Hongo, Robert Odhiambo Ndege, Bramwel Injeni Njeremani, Fenwicks Chesoli, Joseph Ogidi Obuon, Charles Mirasi Odawa, Walter Odira Ojode, Edward Adel Omollo, James Odemba Otieno and George Akoth Otila.
Hezekiah Ochuka being escorted to a court of Martial over his participation in the August 1, 1982 attempted coup.
It is reported that during his Defence hearing that Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli addressed the court martial for one hour or so off the cuff. That he was eloquent, articulate and indeed Colonel Ombewa who was prosecuting him argued in his closing submissions that Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli had demonstrated in his defence how influential he was and a key participant in the coup with his charisma and eloquence.
Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli’s cousin who attended the Court Martial and kept in contact with him after the sentence through visits as and when he would be allowed by prison authorities stated that at the trial Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli did not show any regrets, that he said the presiding Judge knew the issues that precipitated the coup.
That after the sentence Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli remained convinced that they were fighting for what was right. That he did tell his father (uncle Otella) at the start of the Court Martial that they had weighed the risks involved in the enterprise of change of Government and the consequences and that indeed they would also have tried those who had committed crimes against the people of Kenya if they had succeeded. That the Court Martial was a Kangaroo process, that he did not expect justice, that his fate was sealed and he was prepared for it.
The cousin who was just a young man then says Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli was highly intelligent. That in primary school, he hovered at position one or two throughout. That he scored a division two and was admitted for form five but due to school fees challenges his uncle who was educating him and had his own school fees burdens for his children asked a relative to secure him a place at the Air Force and that is how he ended up there.
The cousin recounts how the witnesses who testified alleged said that Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli was Airforce Commander for the short lived period of the coup before it was crushed.
The cousin says Corporal Fenwicks Chesoli was a very smart man who regularly kept the (parting of) hair line like the youthful Mandela. That he was a replica of his maternal grandfather who was smart and was reputed to, whenever he was walking on the road and a vehicle passed and raised dust he will go off the road and clean any dust and apply Vaseline to restore his smartness.
Fenwicks Chesoli's mother mama Tunai Nekesa gazes outside the door of her house as though expecting his son to re-appear after years of pain, of losing her beloved son.
Fenwicks Chesoli’s mother when interviewed by Westfm in late July 2011 remembered exactly the date, day and time she gave birth to the bouncing baby son and that was evident in the way she described it
“I gave birth to Fenwicks on Monday 10th August 1953 at exactly 1pm.”
Fenwicks Chesoli’s father Joseph Munjaru Nyaranga was the youngest brother of Mzee Thomas Nyaranga Otella. Mzee Thomas Nyaranga Otella took up the responsibility of educating Chesoli at an early age as his father did not have the means. Chesoli then took up his uncle’s name Otella which during the registration of persons was taken for Odera and the name stuck from Otella to Odera. That the name “Obedi” was Fenwicks Chesoli’s adaptation of his maternal grandfather’s nickname of “Obaddiah” that the old man did not like as it referred to his being bow-legged.
Mzee Joseph Munjaru Nyaranga, the late father of Chesoli who passed on in 2007 is from the Basamo Clan while Mama Tunai Nekesa is from the Bakhwami clan of the Bukusu tribe. Fenwicks Chesoli was circumcised on 8th August 1966 and belonged to the circumcision age set of the Bukusu called “Ba-Maina namba nne, sia Kerre”. The age set was named “sia Kerre” after Mzee Kerre who in 1963 represented Mt. Elgon Central (now Bumula/Kanduyi Constituency) and on his death it was found out that he had not been circumcised and as decreed by Bukusu Customs that every male member must be circumcised, the late Kerre was circumcised after his death and before he was buried.
According to Chesoli’s mother, his son was hardworking, humble and very obedient. That he started his primary education in 1961 at Kitayi RC Primary School where he attended classes to class two and then transferred to Kimilili FYM at the time commonly called ‘Wa Daniel.’
He sat for his standard seven exams in 1971 and then joined Kimilili Boys Secondary until 1975 when he sat for his O level examination and passed.
Chesoli was to join Friends school Kamusinga for his A level education but due to the financial constraints his father could not afford his fees bearing in mind that he had other children to take to school and look after.
Kimilili Boys High schools administration block.
Chesoli later successfully joined the Kenya Air Force after sitting for an interview in Nairobi between 31st August and September 14, 1976. After being successful, together with others, they were taken to Lanet, Nakuru where they trained for a month before they were taken back to Nairobi where they were trained for a whole year.
Fenwicks Chesoli joined the Electronics and instruments section where he worked very hard in hangars and bays according to some of his colleagues whom we managed to talk to but who insisted on anonymity.
Chesoli attended a course in the United Kingdom in 1981 for four months and continued with his normal duties as before.
In February 1982, he returned home on leave which according to information from the family, ended well and he went back to work.
During the 1982 coup, Chesoli was by that time based at Eastleigh in Nairobi. At the time, Chesoli was a close friend of Hezekiah Ochuka and the friendship is said to have been very strong. Ochuka was the Chairman of the Airmen Welfare while Chesoli was his Vice. Ex soldiers who were with them by then recall how powerful and influential the two were especially in championing for the rights of the Kenya Air force and even common citizens mostly on economic and political imbalances among other vices. Besides that Chesoli and Ochuka were age mates having been born the same year.
With Ochuka being born in Nyakach, Kisumu District in August 1953, then Chesoli in Kitayi Bungoma District in August 1953. They joined the Kenya Air force the same year and were placed in the same section.
Some ex-soldiers have since admitted that indeed Chesoli and Ochuka fought for equality only that may be the route that was taken later in August did not please some people. They described Chesoli as a gentleman, humble, obedient, pragmatic, courageous and very firm. At one time one of the senior officers is said to have threatened to demote him from a Corporal an act that made Chesoli remove everything he had and give it to him and said he was ready for anything as long as he was doing the right thing.
Back to the Coup, Chesoli like any soldiers is said to have had information concerning the planned Coup but did not know the exact date when the plan would be executed. However, some of his colleagues say he was in charge of Eastleigh base when the plan was executed.
After the planned Coup failed, it is said Chesoli was supposed to flee together with Ochuka but because he was a bit far Ochuka managed to fly off just with one shoe and they even went the opposite direction of how the flights path to Tanzania. But before Ochuka left, he had to convince his colleagues where he was heading to because he had been trusted so much by his fellow soldiers.
“He told us that he was going to look for reinforcements from other quarters before he left but afterwards we suspected something was amiss,” said one of the ex-officers who was among our sources of information.
After all was clear that Ochuka had fled the country, Air force solders decided to surrender by hanging a surrender flag with a solder called Ndambuki leading in raising hands as a sign of surrender. However, the Kenya Army soldiers who had invaded the base began butchering those who had surrendered.
It is said over two hundred soldiers who has surrendered were told to remove all the clothes and sit down several lines. They were later forced to kneel down on murram and raise their hands up. Chesoli who was still at the base after he failed to accompany Ochuka to Tanzania had sneaked and ran up to a family friend at Buruburu. Army soldiers started shooting aimlessly and killed some Air force soldiers whom up to now their exact number has never been known.
Our sources reveal that one Army man whom he could not recall his name was the only one who sympathized with them and stopped his fellow soldiers from killing people who had surrendered had to kneel down until dusk.
In the evening they were thrown in lorries in different layers and were taken to Kamiti Maximum prison where on arriving they were put in a field which was already full of the victims of the attempted Coup with some over bleeding. “You could feel a very warm liquid running down your body and when you check you find it is human blood,” said one of the victims as he narrated his ordeal.
“we were again beaten mercilessly with some people being shot until the prison officers intervened and demanded that we are either left to be under their care or the Army men who had taken us there take us anywhere and kills us,” he added.
They obeyed the order and stopped beating them but later their faces were tied with a black cloth and taken into cells. Screening started followed by separation according to the how one was implicated.
In Buruburu where Chesoli who had hidden at his friend’s house, he was given civilian clothes and later buried the Kenya Airforce clothes. He went on the street but he was spotted by Kenya Army officers who wanted to kill him but he was saved by one officer who knew him. He put him in his vehicle and took him to the Central Police station where he surrendered and later taken to Kamiti prison where he was mixed with other soldiers who had been arrested.
A soldier who was near Chesoli in the cell, recalls how Chesoli told him how he had been betrayed by other soldiers. “Wase babandu bambulile , (my friend people have revealed me),” said Chesoli as quoted by his friend.
They were later taken to Naivasha where most of the ex soldiers we have talked to admit they underwent the worst torture.
In fact, as we were interacting and interviewing these ex officers, you could see tears roll down their cheeks when they talk about what happened in Naivasha.
They were beaten and put into very dark rooms half filled with ice cold water. One was to be put there naked and the reception was that they pour on themselves 20 litres of the ice cold water.
“At meal times no food was offered but instead at every meal time more water was brought so that you pour on yourself. Short calls and long calls were in the same room and was mixed with water which when one was thirsty, he could drink the same water,” recalled the ex soldiers.
Chesoli`s cousin Robert Nyaranga says they used to visit him while at Kamiti as the proceedings were going on but towards the end of 1984, they were stopped completely and told to seek permission from the President before they would be allowed to see him. To Mama Tunai, Chesoli`s mother, that one was an impossibility because she argues they would be killed if they approached the President seeking permission to see their son.
They went back home but luckily at Kamiti, there was a prison officer from Bungoma whom they knew and therefore used him so much to get information on the whereabouts of their son. He used to inform them occasionally how he was progressing together with other five ex officers whom he was sharing a cell with.
Later in 1986, the prison officer from Bungoma went on leave and on going back; he found Chesoli and the other five missing. Bearing on how sensitive their case was, that prison officer could not ask anything but just came back and went straight up to Chesoli`s place at Kitayi and informed his parents and family members that their son had been moved to a different place which he did not know.
Chesoli according to all of our sources was very good at English and he was a great orator a characteristic that resonated with Hezekiah Ochuka who was himself charismatic and that is why he was very close to him. Our sources say it was Ochuka and Chesoli who could boldly face the Chief of the General Staff during their occasional meetings and ask him to look into their problems and solve them.
Chesoli`s father died four years ago without knowing the fate of his son. The family has lived in fear and confusion with most in distress and others leaving school after their only helper went missing. Some children stopped going to school and even those who went to school fear applying for public jobs with the spirit that they might go the same way Chesoli went. Although one of Chesoli`s brother is a police officer, many parents in that clan discourage their children from joining forces claiming what happened to Chesoli might happen to them too.
As of now family members led by Chesoli`s mother Tunai Nekesa are urging the government to give a clear report of where their son went and if he was killed, they would like to be given his remains so that they bury him according to their culture. Tunai says the hanging of her son has traumatized her for long leaving her in great despair despite struggling earlier to educate his son so that she could lead a better life.
The family says at one time they got information that Chesoli and the other five had been jailed outside Kenya and plans were underway to bring them back but it did not happen. As a family they have not conducted any traditional ceremony to bury a banana stem as is the case among the Bukusu tribe when someone dies but his body is not found.
According to the family, they must be sure Chesoli died before they can bury the banana stem for they fear doing so only for him to re-appear later.
Chesoli in 1982 at age 29 had not married by then though some of his friends say he was dating a lady whom he was planning to marry. However it is not clear if Chesoli had any children because some of his friends claim he might have had children.
Mama Tunai Nekesa told us that she was not aware about the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission sittings at Bungoma and also not aware that she could have gone and presented her son’s case to them.