Strange presidencyWhat is the difference between a novel and a movie? Well, a novel tells or narrates and a movie shows. That is why a boring movie is the one where there is too much narrative (telling) and a fascinating one is where you know the characters by what you see them doing. Basically you understand the story from seeing. This is why making silent movies (without sound) is an ideal way to train a budding film maker.
The following eye witness account of an incident involving President Daniel arap Moi somewhere in Machakos in 1979 is worth recounting here because it “shows: a lot and is a fabulous way to commence this weekend’s posts.
Moi had take over the reigns of power on August 22nd 1978 and had been confirmed as president of Kenya before the end of the stipulated 3 months period on October 10th 1978. Early in his presidency Moi had launched a massive campaign for reforestation and soil conservation in the country. He had even gone as far as forming a special permanent presidential commission on soil conservation and had appointed Kisii politician and former Nyaribari Chache legislator Zephania Anyieni to chair it.
On this particular morning the president was somewhere in Machakos helping build gabion reinforcements to protect the already badly eroded hill side. The exercise involved a long line of people passing along heavy stones which ended up in the president’s hands and he would toss them into the wire mesh. There were a couple of other people at the end of the line throwing the stones in. A large crowd had gathered to witness this curious site. Until then Kenyans were used to a laid back president who was greatly feared and rarely seen in public. Now they had a president who worked in the hot sun with ordinary folk. The exercise continued for at least 2 hours from 11 until almost 1 pm. By this time the hot Ukambani sun was beating down ferociously on the president and his large and extremely dark frame was drenched in sweat. Yet he showed no signs of quitting.
Kenyans at that time knew very little about Moi apart from the fact that he was the Vice president who spoke with a strong Kalenjin accent. We shall discuss later the implication of this accent and the image it portrayed in the minds of Kenyans. For now the point I wanted to make is that very few would have known about Moi’s extremely harsh upbringing meant that he would walk for many kilometers going to school with a heavy suitcase (really just a metal box suitcase) on his head. The walk would take him over 5 hours. Just try and picture that.
And so standing under the extremely hot Ukambani sun tossing big stones around was no big deal. And he would have continued for many more hours except that something happened that hot afternoon.
Some of the stones being passed had sharp edges jutting out of them and while lifting one, Moi cut his fingers and blood started flowing out. What followed was pandemonium. The president’s security detail quickly surrounded him and somebody started barking instructions as policemen rapidly spoke into their two way radio. It seemed that the president’s entire motorcade did not have a first aid kit (at least in those days). Within minutes an ambulance arrived on the scene at high speed with sirens blaring. The president received some first aid and was quickly ushered into his limousine and whisked away.
The president’s security detail is supposed to protect his Excellency at all times but they do like to dramatize things a little sometimes, mainly for effect and that day they succeeded big time.
But the main point here is that Kenya had a very different kind of president and he would not have been more of a contrast to his predecessor. Kenyatta was commanding authoritative and a big bully sometimes. Moi was reserved humble and almost ashamed to be president.
I can hear you asking me how Kenyatta was a bully sometimes. I will give you an example. The old man was fond of calling security meetings involving police bosses from all over the country. He would usually call them for a serious dressing down whenever crime seemed to escalate. On one such meeting he started the proceedings by saying: “I called you all here on very short notice deliberately to see who would fail to come.” After the old man had finished his dressing down of the top cops, a sumptuous lunch would be served and then he would take a photograph with them and bid them goodbye. Those were some of the things that made him very endearing to people despite his ruthlessness and that of his close lieutenants.
But back to Moi. The new president still rode in his limousine with his “3 wives” namely Charles Njonjo, GG Kariuki and Nicholas Biwott. Some analysts believe that these were the real presidents of Kenya in those days and no executive decisions were made without this council of elders. Moi was still terrified of the Kikuyu and in particular the Kiambu mafia and insiders say that he spent many months thinking of ways of neutralizing them or at least keeping them in check. At that time there were no political detainees in the country because Moi had released all of them and it was clear that he greatly detested Kenyatta’s strong arm tactics of ruling and was looking for a different way to rule, if he survived that is.
One of the early ingenious schemes that the new president was advised to follow (it is not clear by whom) was to appoint his people (meaning people he could trust) to be deputies in major institutions he wanted to keep a close eye on, especially in the security forces. It was a very quite way f spreading his influence. The deputy head of any institution is bound to be very much aware of what is going on within the institution. Later this tactic was modified and the deputies were always members of the president’s Kalenjin community. But this was after the failed coup of 1982 when as I have said before a new and very different Moi emerged. But in those early days Moi still kept Kenyatta’s appointees more or less in place, changing only the Police commissioner amongst a few others. You can read about the fascinating way in which Bernard Hinga was removed from police commissioner by Moi HERE in an earlier Kumekucha post.
For this reason Moi relied a lot on the AG whom he inherited from Kenyatta and the man most responsible for his ascension to the presidency, one Charles Mugane Njonjo. But already there was pressure from his Kalenjin community and the elders within the community to the effect that he was too trusting of Njonjo. After all Njonjo was a Kikuyu and it was known that they could not be trusted. There is evidence that some of the pressure was coming from one of his “3 wives” who also hailed from the president’s Kalenjin community. Namely a man called Nicholas Kipyator Biwott. Biwott had worked for Kenya’s first agriculture minister Bruce Mackenzie as a personal assistant and had as a result gained numerous useful contacts. Mackenzie was actually a spy and operative for at least two different foreign powers. The Israelis dreaded Mossad and the British Mi6. The connection with the Israeli’s seemed to have rubbed off on Biwott and not only did he end up getting married to an Israeli woman but Biwott’s personal security detail is and has always been mostly Israeli. Interestingly there is plenty of clear evidence to suggest that Biwott also used personnel from that country for his dirty jobs locally like getting people killed. Many different sources concur that the killings of people involved with the Ouko assassination was fulfilled mainly with help from his Israeli security personnel.
It is instructive that Bruce Mackenzie did not die a natural death but was actually assassinated during the Kenyatta presidency and when he was no longer in the cabinet. He went to visit Uganda’s president then, Idi Amin Dada in Entebbe on a trip in which the two were supposed to mend fences. Mackenzie was well received and Idi Amin gave him a gift of some sculpture which he carried back to the plane with him. The gift actually contained explosives which went off when the small plane was in the air coming back to Nairobi, killing Mackenzie. It was clear that the man greatly underestimated Idi Amin and paid for it with his life.
Despite the pressure Moi did not act at all. He remained a quiet humble president who still had no political detainees.
As the year 1982 reached the midway mark, Moi started receiving a lot of reports from the intelligence community about heightened political activity in the country. But his closest advisor on security matters, one Charles Mugane Njonjo reassured him that all was well. After all what could people do apart from make noise and harmless political plots? The presidency was powerful enough to easily deal with any such threats as Njonjo had already displayed many times before. And so Moi ignored his Kalenjin kin and some people say, even his own instincts.
Indeed it is not too difficult to believe that Moi’s instincts had helped him survive the 12 horrendous years as Vice president. If there is something about Moi’s character that few can argue about, then it is his ability to survive. His instinct appear to have been key in this. And so it is safe to assume that his instincts must have been screaming at him that a storm was brewing in the horizon. A storm that would seek to take his life and in any event one that would cause a lot of Kenyan blood to be spill.
To be continued: In the next post I discuss untold secrets of the 1982 coup