Kimunya: Oxford rendezvous

Monday February 16 2009

Former Ethics and Governance Permanent Secretary John Githongo with author Michela Wrong in London. Photos/FILE

Former Ethics and Governance Permanent Secretary John Githongo with author Michela Wrong in London. Photos/FILE 

In mid-September, Kenya’s electoral commission named 21 November 2005 as the date for a long-promised referendum on a new constitution.

What President Mwai Kibaki had pledged to deliver in the first 100 days of his presidency had taken nearly three years, and the final version was a world away from what the Kenyan people had once envisaged.

It was true that on issues such as land ownership, women’s inheritance and the role of religious courts, the proposed constitution offered radical change. But in the eyes of its critics — who happened to include six members of the Narc Cabinet — it failed to deliver on the critical issue that had blighted politics in Kenya since independence.

Whereas the first Bomas draft had proposed dividing executive powers between a president and an executive prime minister, the final version included a non-executive prime minister, subservient to a still-supreme president.

For Raila Odinga, this was the ultimate betrayal. The Memorandum of Understanding signed on the eve of the 2002 election had been violated, the faultline at the heart of a hastily assembled coalition exposed. And if part of the country felt distinctly nervous about the idea of Raila as prime minister, they were far from happy at Narc’s sleight of hand.

A historic opportunity to place the country’s system of government on a more equitable footing had been missed.

Both the Cabinet and the country divided along ethnic lines, with the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu rallying behind a ‘Yes’ vote, symbolised by a banana, while every other community called for a ‘No’, represented by an orange.

These were violent times in Kenya, as the Orange and Banana camps clashed on the campaign trail. Bombarded with information from his sources, John Githongo felt pulled this way and that. This, he finally decided, would be the worst possible time to come out with a corruption dossier. If he went public before the referendum, it would be seen as a blatant political move, aimed at boosting the Orange campaign.

It was frustrating, but he did not want his dossier reduced to campaign fodder. He stowed it in a safe deposit box and prepared to wait the referendum out.

Unaware of this decision, the Mount Kenya Mafia extended an agitated feeler. Lands and settlement minister Amos Kimunya and Dr Dan Gikonyo, Kibaki’s personal physician, turned up in Oxford to negotiate a quiet understanding.

Smooth-talking, Kimunya was regarded by diplomats as a representative of a promising breed of young statesmen rising through the ranks in Kenya. A US-trained cardiologist, Gikonyo was a doctor with a political profile.

He had always been close to the Democratic Party, patching up opposition activists beaten by security forces during the Moi years, and had been constantly at Kibaki’s side since his near-fatal campaign car crash.

His practice had thrived, and he was about to open a 102-bed, four-storey private hospital in Karen, boasting state-of-the-art scanners and TVs in every room. Coincidentally, Gikonyo was also physician to Joe Githongo and, via that association, to John himself.

That no doubt explained why he had been sent with Kimunya to woo John — who but a priest can rival a doctor for leverage over a trusting patient?

They booked a table at Brown’s, one of Oxford’s most popular restaurants, a few minutes’ walk from St Antony’s. The evening started cordially, with broad smiles all round, but deteriorated when the emissaries began delivering their message. As voices rose, the waiters exchanged glances and lifted eyebrows, wondering whether the evening might end in blows.

Kimunya and Gikonyo were there to make sure John did nothing to blow the referendum campaign off course. They kept saying, “SWEAR to us, SWEAR that you won’t spill the beans before the referendum. You must swear, John.”
Sensing resistance, Kimunya made the mistake of appealing to John’s supposed ethnic loyalties.

Stark reminder

Kimunya followed up the crude tribal rallying cry with a stark reminder of the reality of Kenyan politics. Break your silence, said the minister, and ‘Your grandchildren will regret.’

The encounter left a sour taste in John’s mouth. With the referendum less than a month away, it was too late now to spring into action.

But he hated the sense that, through his inaction, he had played into these men’s hands. ‘I felt very angry. I said to myself, “What have I done? I’ve quit the stage and left it to these buggers.”’

The delegation to Oxford might have got what it wanted, but it made no difference to the referendum result. Nor did the vast sums of stolen Anglo Leasing money spent attempting to secure the vote. Referendum day became a poll on the very principle of Kikuyu rule. John stayed up to monitor the various Kenyan newspaper websites updating their results throughout the night.
To his delighted amazement, Kenyans showed that while they were willing to be paid, they could not be bought. In the privacy of the polling booth, they cheerfully voted against those who had bribed them. Over 58 per cent rejected the new constitution consolidating the presidency’s supremacy.

Out of eight provinces, only one — Central Province, Gema’s heartland — voted ‘Yes’.

The country had delivered a stinging slap to an ethnic group whose leaders believed themselves born to rule. The text messages from excited friends back in Kenya came so thick and fast, John’s mobile gave up the ghost. ‘I think it just melted. It couldn’t take any more,’ he chuckled.

A devastating rebuke of ethnic conceit, it was an appalling result for the Mount Kenya Mafia, and one that caught them unprepared. Kibaki immediately dissolved his fractured Cabinet and suspended parliament.

John gave one of his barrel laughs when he began receiving text messages from desperate government officials begging him — him of all people — for advice. A siren call came from one adviser in Nairobi, a seasoned political observer. Punished by the electorate, surely Kibaki would recognise he had fallen into bad company, ditch the Mount Kenya Mafia and open his arms to true reformers?’

Desperate officials

The day after the referendum, John distilled his ninety-one-page dossier down to a thirty-six-page summary.
Tailor-made for a man with a packed diary and a short attention span, it was a document that could be digested in less than an hour and a half.

Having dispatched the dossier, John used his informers’ network to reach into the entrails of State House, monitoring each stage of its progress.

The whispers kept him abreast.

The dossier had been placed on the president’s desk. The president had spent an entire afternoon reading it. The dossier had been replaced on the desk without comment. Silence.

On 7 December 2005, Kibaki named his new government. With the sole exception of Chris Murungaru, all the key ministers associated with Anglo Leasing were reappointed to Cabinet.

There had been no attempt to heal the wounds opened by the referendum or to distance himself from his administration’s biggest scandal.

Instead, those who had led the Orange campaign, including Raila Odinga, were summarily ejected.