Sunday, May 19, 2024

Secret deals that took Moi to State House against all odds

Eight months to President Jomo Kenyatta’s death in 1978, he hosted a delegation of senior clergymen at his Gatundu home, at their request.

With the President at 89 and failing in health, the issue of his succession had got to a fever-pitch point. The Rev John Gatu, who died last year, would tell me years later: “We had requested to have an audience with the President when he was all alone.”

Seated with the old man, they went straight to the point. They told him the country was rightly concerned and confused about the succession.

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Without hesitation, Rev Gatu recalled, Old Jomo replied: “We long decided it’d be (Daniel) Moi. I would have told you that earlier had you asked.”

Cold fire

Rev Gatu told me that although Mr Moi had been Vice-President for 11 years, the seers’ star was still dark on whether he’d be the next president. PLOTTING

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Hardly two years earlier, people close to Mzee Kenyatta had unsuccessfully conspired to have deleted the constitutional clause that stated the vice-president would take over for 90 days in the event of death or incapacitation of the sitting president. The move failed but anti-Moi forces continued plotting.

The most intriguing thing was that Mr Moi himself had never openly shown ambition, less so displayed capacity to take battle to anybody’s door step.

He was deceptively a doormat for anybody to step on, politician John Keen once told me. Mr Moi was “hardly impressive, less so forceful” when Mr Keen first met him in 1955.

But in a conversation I had with Sir Michael Blundell, a prominent white settler, the description of Mr Moi was that of a quietly lethal politician — a “cold fire that burned”.

When the British were laying exit plans and granting of independence to Kenya, Mr Moi was the man their spy networks identified as the trusted pair of hands to have in a key position after independence.


One, he came from the Rift Valley where the British settlers had the most entrenched interests. Secondly, he believed in the “empire” as the Brits used to brag those days. So anglicised was Mr Moi that he named his twin third born children, Elizabeth Doris and Philip, the names of the British Queen and her husband.

Sir Blundell was the man picked by the British intelligence to spearhead machinations that created good working relations between Mr Moi and Mzee Kenyatta. The first move was to have Mr Moi initiate dissolution of the opposition party Kadu to join Mzee Kenyatta’s Kanu.

Mr Moi’s reward was appointment to the key ministerial docket of Home Affairs. It was there where the US intelligence would “discover” Mr Moi. As the man in charge of the immigration docket, the minister came in handy in humiliating Kenyan-based Eastern bloc diplomats and journalists who he often expelled from the country at the slightest provocation, real and imagined.

In September 1966, Vice- President Joseph Murumbi suddenly resigned after only four months in the job. He’d taken over from the first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Mr Murumbi’s resignation was officially attributed to ill-health but the truth of the matter is that he had found the heat too much for his continued stay in the kitchen of power.

For four months, Kenya had no vice-president as Mzee Kenyatta agonised on who to give the job — and, by extension, be the strongest possible successor to the President.


Just before Christmas, Mzee Kenyatta went for a “working holiday” in central Rift, spending a night with close aides at the Kericho Tea Hotel. On his way back to Nairobi, he told Attorney- General Charles Njonjo who rode with him in the presidential limousine: “I have decided we give the job to Moi.”

On arrival at Nairobi State House, the President asked that Mr Moi be put on the line: “You’re now Mr Vice-President. Come to State House tomorrow morning to be sworn in.” And it was done. The untold story is the darkroom lobbying that attended Mr Moi’s appointment.

Secret meetings had been taking place at the Muthaiga home of a British Kenyan, Sir Marlin Sorsbie, who was the chairman of the East African Association.

The meetings were chaired by a British member of Mzee Kenyatta’s cabinet, Bruce Mckenzie, who, years later, would be uncovered to have been an agent of the British and Israeli spy agencies.

The Muthaiga meetings had agreed that all the stops be pulled out to ensure Mr Moi was appointed Vice-President, which automatically placed him at the pole position to take over after Kenyatta.


In the meantime, Americans, too, had acquired a keen interest in Mr Moi. At independence, their pointman in the Kenya government had been Cabinet Minister Tom Mboya.

However, Mr Mboya’s shine in the White House had paled upon the 1963 assassination of his friend, US President John Kennedy. The new President, Lyndon Johnson, had never been a fan of the Kennedys and was eager to replace their allies. In Kenya, the axe fell on Mr Mboya. Mr Moi was their new darling. In any case, Mr Moi was useful as Home Affairs minister.

But one man led a group that was determined that Mr Moi should never be President. He was Dr Njoroge Mungai, a powerful Cabinet Minister. He wasn’t just another member of the cabinet. He held the powerful docket of Minister for Defence and later Foreign Affairs. Besides, he was Mzee Kenyatta’s first cousin and his personal medical doctor.

His ambition to one day be president was so consuming that he had constructed a palatial home and a jukwaa ya rais (presidential dais) at his private home along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway.

Whenever his dreams overwhelmed his reasoning faculties, he would take a bottle of champagne to Parliament members’ bar and ask bewildered MPs to toast to his coming presidency.


To cut his ties with Mzee Kenyatta, the intelligence prepared an explosive dossier on his dark life. The President’s senior bodyguard, one Wanyoike Thungu, would years later tell me that on reading the secret file on Dr Mungai, the President was so mad, he told him: “Make sure that man will only come here (State House) on appointment.”

With his direct pass to State House cut, Moi’s allies punched hard. In one of the most surprising upsets of the 1974 General Election, Dr Mungai lost his parliamentary seat, effectively losing his slot in the Cabinet. But he continued with his anti-Moi plot. He was the key mover of the 1976 change-the-constitution movement that sought to bar the vice-president from automatic ascension to power in Kenyatta’s absence.

An untold story is that Dr Mungai went out of his way to enlist the support of the most unlikely person in his anti-Moi campaign — Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had been in political Siberia after his fallout with his friend, President Kenyatta.

The odd thing in the new alliance Dr Mungai sought is that he had played a great role in having Jaramogi put on political ice. Mzee Kenyatta’s bodyguard told me that it is Dr Mungai who ordered presidential guards to use live bullets on charged mobs during the Kenyatta-Odinga confrontation in Kisumu in 1969.


Then Coast provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu told me, too, that Dr Mungai had secretly arranged that Jaramogi show up at a public rally addressed by the change-the-constitution lobby in Mombasa, but the intelligence moved fast to inform the President and Dr Mungai’s plans were scuttled.

Next, Dr Mungai arranged a secret meeting between the President’s top aide and Jaramogi, but intelligence too got wind of it. Fed up with Dr Mungai’s antics, Mzee Kenyatta banned any further activities by the change-the-constitution lobby.

But Dr Mungai never gave up until the very last day. A Kenyatta Cabinet minister, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, told me that on the day Mzee Kenyatta died, Dr Mungai tried to lobby a section of the Cabinet to decline to sign a resolution requisite for the vice- president to be sworn in as acting president.

Though the Constitution stated that the vice-president takes over for 90 days, there was a rider that if for any reason, which included lack of endorsement from the Cabinet, the vice-president couldn’t take over, the ministers would pick another member of the Cabinet in the interim period. But Dr Mungai’s efforts failed, yet again.

The jukwaa ya rais he had constructed at his home was finally buried by shrubbery. The champagne to his presidency was never toasted.

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