Under Mr James Kanyotu, the State security intelligence apparatus largely operated through intrusion, torture and mysterious murders.
In the minds of ordinary citizens, the mention of what was popularly known as the Special Branch brought up images of shifty-eyed characters in smoky cellars extracting information by duress when not peeping through keyholes or staging mafia-style killings.
Barely two months after Kanyotu was appointed the Director of Intelligence in February 1965, a radical politician of Asian origin, Pio Gama Pinto, was gunned down outside his house in the city’s Westlands suburb.
He was reversing outside his gate one early morning when a lone gunman appeared from nowhere and shot him at point-blank range.
Four years later, an assassin’s bullet cut short the life of Tom Mboya — a dashing politician and Cabinet minister.
He was walking out of a chemist in a crowded city street on Saturday afternoon, July 5, 1969 when he met his death.
Then in March 1975, a herdsman stumbled on a decomposing body at the foot of the scenic Ngong Hills on the outskirts of Nairobi.
It turned out to be the body of the charismatic MP for Nyandarua North, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, popularly known as ‘JM’, who had been reported missing nine days earlier after he left a Nairobi hotel in the company of the then GSU commandant Ben Gethi.
Fifteen years down the line in February 1990, another body — this time burnt almost beyond recognition — was found by a herdsboy at the foot of Got Alila near Kisumu.
It was that of then Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko. He had gone missing for four days after being picked by a white car from his rural home in the wee hours of the morning.
And in the period between 1986 and 1989, several Kenyans were reported to have “disappeared” after they were arrested by the Special Branch and taken to the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers for interrogation in connection with a shadowy outfit called Mwakenya.
Inevitably, in all the “black operations”, fingers were pointed at the institution Mr Kanyotu headed.
In two of the cases — the Ouko and JM murders — he was personally summoned to assist the investigating teams.
He ignored the summons in the case of Ouko, but helpfully cooperated in the JM matter.
In the Mboya and Pinto assassinations, there was no direct mention of the intelligence team or Mr Kanyotu, for that matter.
However, there were powerful pointers that his boys loomed large in the shadows.
In the Mwakenya affair, blood was all over Mr Kanyotu’s hands as the interrogations were conducted by his officers at Nyayo House, the then Nairobi Area Intelligence offices.
Mr Kanyotu’s baptism by fire came on February 25, 1965, hardly two months after he assumed office.
It came with the murder of leftist politician Pio Gama Pinto, a close ally and strategist for then Vice-President and later opposition doyen Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
A self-confessed socialist, Mr Pinto had sharpened his teeth as a radical during Kenya’s fight for independence when he served as the editor of a string of nationalist newspapers and a radio station.
For his troubles, the colonialists detained him without trial for a long period.
Come independence, he identified himself with a radical camp opposed to policies pursued by the Government of the day. The group gravitated around Mr Oginga Odinga. Then somebody decided that he must die.
Early in the morning of February 25, Mr Pinto reversed his car at the gate to his residence in the city’s Westlands suburb. With him was his five-year-old daughter, who he was taking to school.
Before he could engage the forward gear, a man appeared from the corner of the fence and shouted: “Hallo, Sir!”
As he looked up to answer, three bullets hit him in the neck and chest. He slumped dead on the steering wheel.
Three weeks later, a 19-year-old unemployed youth, Kisilu Mutua, was hauled to the courts and accused of killing Mr Pinto. He denied the charge, but admitted having been within the vicinity when the radical politician was shot dead.
Kisilu’s evidence at the trial court had all the elements of a James Bond thriller.
He said he had been a pick-pocket operating at downtown Nairobi.
Police had caught and pardoned him once, but on the second instance, they offered to help him quit the world of crime by getting him a job with a man they simply called Sammy.
Sammy turned up with an interesting kind of job. He would only need him once in a while and for a specific assignment, which would change from time to time.
He helped Kisilu start a business of selling tyre rubber sandals, popularly known as akala, at Ngara Market, from where he would pick him whenever there was a job to be done.
Kisilu’s first assignment was to scare off a certain trade-unionist who Sammy said was “joking around with the Government.”
He would drive Kisilu to the unionist’s gate in the evening and wait for the latter to arrive.
Once he showed up, Kisilu would run towards him a knife in hand, hurl a few insults at him and tell him to watch his tongue in future lest the knife ends in his chest.
The first assignment had gone off well and Sammy handsomely rewarded him, Kisilu told the court.
The next assignment would be in Westlands. He was to do the same to a certain muhindi (Indian) who too, as Sammy put it, was giving the Government some trouble.
As with the first assignment, Sammy did not tell him the name of the person and he did not bother to ask as he thought that was none of his business.
On the fateful day, Mr Kisilu told the court, he met Sammy in the company of another man he introduced as Mr Chege Thuo.
The three then got into a taxi, a blue Fiat car, and headed to the gate of their target in Westlands.
Before Kisilu could make his move as instructed, he heard a sudden burst of gun-fire and saw the Indian slump forward as blood gushed from his neck.
A few days later, Sammy got in touch with him and they agreed to meet at a secret rendezvous.
It turned out to be a trap when Kisilu found waiting policemen and Sammy nowhere in sight.
The court found Kisilu guilty and sentenced him to hang. He escaped death for life imprisonment upon appeal.
The court was doubtful that Kisilu was the man who pulled the trigger, but said he must be taken as an accomplice having knowingly gone to Westlands to “scare” his target, whatever the scare entailed.
However, the appeal judge, Chief Justice John Ainley, punched enough holes in the prosecution case to suggest Kisilu may just have been a scapegoat.
“The case for the Republic is that three men were present and that three men ran away from the scene of Mr Pinto’s murder,” said the Appeal judge.
“Yet it has been asked, why has the police not demonstrated the truth of their findings through further investigations?”
Kisilu was set free in 2001 after serving 35 years in jail. He still insists he was punished for a crime he never committed.