Five things I learnt from #FreeNgirachu

“You survived,” is what most people say when we meet nowadays. Others are shy to even mention it and will use all manner of veiled references. My cousins who sent messages of support reminded me when they came over last Christmas that they stood with me in those trying moments. We had a good laugh. An Administration Police officer who mans the police post at the shopping centre near my rural home asked to take photographs when we ran into each other at a bar over Christmas. Professional colleagues like to refer to me now as ‘jailbird’ and ‘convict’ in a good-natured way of course,  and I heard it whispered after we came back from a three-day trip to Kismayu with the Kenya Defence Forces that there had been some concern about my possibly accessing security material and officers given my recent history with the Interior ministry. I had planned to put down something in this private yet public space about the whole issue. It would have given me the opportunity to put something in this rarely-used blog and when the guys at WordPress sent me their annual email about how much I had posted here and who had read it (2,400 views by people from 43 countries), I hang my head in shame and promised to put this here.

  1. Politicians will almost always take advantage 

One of the posts on Facebook that caught my attention – there were quite a number- because I had just activated the feature that lets me approve to be tagged before the post appears on my page, was by someone called George Nyongesa. He announced: John Karobosta Ngirachu has been freed after the intervention of Cord lawyers James Orengo and Paul Mwangi. That was a lie, a blatant one at that, and I wrote: “He he he. That is a lie,” chuckled and moved on. Nyongesa later deleted my comment. But he was not alone. One senior politician, whose call was among the few I took, would later tell me the great lengths to which he personally went to get me freed. But that was polite and the conversation ended as he jokingly said I was nailed for my eagerness to go meet a potential source. A friend who works for another was however more demanding. We were talking about unrelated matters when he quipped, “Yaani hata hamuwezi sema asante kwa ile kazi tulifanya muachiliwe?” We were with Shiundu. I struggled to find measured words to tell him that freedom was attained mainly because of the refusal to make a statement without a lawyer present and partly due to the pressure the police came under to let me go and end the purported investigation because it was manifestly illegal and unnecessary.

Still on politicians. One MP who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee called me early November 11 and immediately launched into a denial of his very own Twitter account, which had since the story broke out been expressing dismay and shock and generally saying that the behaviour of the journalists who covered the meeting with the Interior Ministry bosses was a disgrace to the profession and that those who had covered the meeting would need to answer tough questions. To get on the right side of the wave, he had created another account. It was pitiable. Another one officiously told me: “That is not the official position of the Jubilee government.”

2. Police can work if they want
Fred, the officer who led the team that picked me up, cleverly preyed on my journalistic instincts. Well played, Fred. He was brought to me by my own cellphone signal, which they could have used to locate me at Parliament. It is also possible that they figured a Parliamentary reporter would be nowhere but Parliament when there are sittings. At the offices of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, one officer would ask, “Unajiita Karobo?” A sign that they had trawled the foolishness I usually perform on Facebook. The thought that occurred to me then was: these people can work if the need arises.

3. Michael Joseph wasn’t wrong 

As is usual for smartphones in the mid-afternoon, mine was on the blink and I had just hooked it into the laptop for charging when the call from Fred, the head of the abducting platoon, came in. When I told my bosses that I had been picked up, they authorised the sending of a breaking news text and the creation of #FreeNgirachu. That’s when the calls started coming in. Most I ignored because the officers got alarmed after I described to my boss the car we were in (a white Toyota Land Cruiser), the street it was speeding on and the possible destination plus the number of people in it (four plus me. They sent four officers for one unarmed man) but others because the callers would have received the breaking news text and would just be seeking to verify whether what they had read is true. The Daily Nation sends you a text saying its Parliamentary Editor has been arrested and you call the Parliamentary Editor? It might be a natural reflex action but it is not advisable. Why? You end up flooding the person with so many calls that their phone might crash. Mine didn’t. It ran out of power eventually, fortunately after the last crucial conversation allowing the lawyers to come in, and when I switched it back on, was choking with the ‘I tried calling you’ message as well as actual messages for close to two hours. In the end, it actually makes more sense to call the person in the news the following day, or after Michael Joseph when he said Kenyans have peculiar calling habits.

4. People in power will often surprise you 
Throughout the ordeal, from the moment the four officers surrounded me and the reality of what was going on and what would follow began to sink in (and up to this moment, I think) the question that was on loop in my mind was, “Don’t these guys research on their suspects? Don’t they know how accessible the media can be?” I was sat behind the Cabinet Secretary, right next to his Personal Assistant, during the meeting where the letters we wrote about were read out. I had spoken to a representative from the ministry the following day, after the initial call from the police came. Had someone senior sought a meeting, they would have been told the entire backstory, which is not long because it would have been like speaking about what happened at a midday rally at Uhuru Park. Instead, here is a dramatic abduction, a hashtag, Kenya’s name abroad for all the wrong reasons, numerous calls, expense of resources chasing an innocent Kenyan as criminals ranging from those who steal billions by the pen to those who rape and murder for a few thousands roam free and the old man from the military banging tables and pointing fingers. Are these the people who run the government and mind our security, a friend later wondered over a drink. They are.

5. Media is awake and watching
“Mambo ya press na politichians sitakangi. Wanasumbua sana. Sasa wewe najua utaenda kujaza jina langu kwa magazeti,” John Kariuki, the Deputy Director in charge of investigations, said soon after I was led into his office. Kariuki had been tasked with handling the issue and when we met, he was a man under siege. His phone was ringing off the hook as calls came in from his bosses, journalists and from politicians. Because everybody involved was constantly on the phone, he was unable to reach Mutuma Mathiu, my boss, and this was one more source of frustration as I was also not cooperating with the request to write a statement without lawyers present. Online, #FreeNgirachu was merrily trending. My colleagues who run the social media pages were on a roll and had in the process even reposted online the story I was in trouble for, saying, “This is the story Nkaissery doesn’t want you to read.” The Media Council, the Editor’s Guild and the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists Association had made statements. Parliamentary journalists had forced the police at Parliament Police Station to show them the cells. The pressure was so much on the police that one felt sorry for them.