In Summary
  • Nyati House’s infamy sprouts from its purpose as Special Branch headquarters.
  • Surveillance by Special Branch of university students when Josephat Karanja was vice-chancellor became a norm.

The little that is known about this five-storey building along Loita Street in Nairobi is telling enough.

Stories told by those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves behind its walls give a horrifying history about Nyati House, a building that is as inconspicuous as it was feared by those who dared oppose former President Daniel arap Moi’s rule.

Tales are often told of how deserted the street was during this period, with some remarking that it had an ‘aura of death’, as its torture chambers preceded those of the infamous Nyayo House.

Political science students going to the Libyan Embassy across the street seeking Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Green Book would often be accosted by officers and dragged to the building for ‘questioning’.

GOOD LUCK

The building had a Nyati (buffalo) emblem facing Loita Street — the upper floors seemed unoccupied — for years and had no curtains. There was a café downstairs in the mid-80s but nobody seemed to go past the gate.

The legwork done while researching for this article is a story of its own. Each time I would mention that I was looking for information about it, people would either give me worried stares, shake their heads or giggle and wish me good luck.

Curiosity led me to Nyati House, where security agents were just as reluctant to give me any information, even about its architectural structure, remarking that they would “let me know” when an “officer” authorised to speak to me was available. It was clear that they had no intention of calling me back.

Nyati House’s infamy sprouts from its purpose as Special Branch headquarters. James Kanyotu, who died in 2008, was Kenya’s longest serving spy chief.

The agency collected intelligence on persons and groups that threatened national security and would then pass it on to Mr Moi. They also served State by providing vetting services and collecting information from foreign sources on matters of national importance.

SPECIAL BRANCH

Special Branch was a department of the Kenya Police headed by the director of intelligence, who also held the rank of deputy commissioner of police.
However, the agency’s mandate fell outside that of the police. That is why President Jomo Kenyatta signed a Presidential Charter to legalise its operations in 1969, an executive order that Mr Moi reviewed in 1978.

Moi’s order remained in force until December 1998, when the National Security Intelligence Service Act was enacted to create the National Security Intelligence Service in January 1999.

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