In August 2003, then director of the Kenya National Archives Musila Musembi invited me to join a government delegation to Abuja, Nigeria, for a conference sponsored by the World Bank.
The continental meeting was to discuss the role of records management in good governance.
I was invited in appreciation of my use of the national archives as a research source when I was an active journalist.
(Oops, I am told today journalists have only WhatsApp and Google as their primary sources of information!)
As we walked out of the VIP lounge at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport — named after the Nigerian President assassinated in 1976 in Lagos while being driven to his office — I saw a man who resembled Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda.
“That looks like Kaunda”, I whispered to Mr Musembi.”
In his characteristic humour he replied: “Of course, that’s Kaunda unless someone has stolen his face.”
In my journalistic kimbelembele, I walked right to where Mr Kaunda was and introduced myself. Our conversation went on like this:
“How are you Mr President?”
“I am fine my son. Travelling from Zambia?”
“Not really, sir, I am a journalist from Kenya”
WORLD BANK SEMINAR
“So what brings you to Nigeria?”
“I will be attending a World Bank seminar in Abuja.”
“I am also headed there for a seminar on HIV/Aids.”
“Mr President, will it be possible that you find some time to talk to me while in Abuja?”
“Well, you know I am now retired and don’t give interviews to the media. But we can have a cup of tea in Abuja. Where are you staying?”
“The Hilton Hotel.”
“Then you’re lucky. That’s where I also booked. Just look up for me.”
On my second day in Abuja, I asked the receptionist to hook me up with Mr Kaunda. “Yes, my son”, Mr Kaunda said when he came on the line. “Meet me at the terraces for coffee at 10.”
I found him there, his trademark white hand-kerchief on the table.
He started off by telling me about the trouble he had in mediating a ceasefire during the Biafra civil war in Nigeria.
The civil war had come about when states in south-eastern Nigeria declared independence and formed a separate state called Biafra.
As the late William ole Ntimama would put it, they were cut down to size by the federal government, after a bloody three-year conflict between July 1967 and January 1970 where about two million lives were lost.
“Nigerians can get wild when they want,” Mr Kaunda told me.
“When I was mediating a ceasefire in the Biafra war, separate delegates would come to the meeting room with loaded guns and we had to disarm them at the entrance.
Then we would have them seated as far away from each other because they were all intent on getting physical.
We kept wondering which ceasefire to negotiate first — one in the boardroom or the main one out there!”
“So tell me about your friend Mzee Kenyatta,” I steered the conversation away from Nigeria.
“Of course yes, he was my great personal friend. He is the one who made me like soup and meat.”
Mr Kaunda told me of the day Mzee Kenyatta’s chef brought a tray full of meat, prompting the Kenyan President’s personal doctor to admonish him for feeding the grand old man with lots of meat against his (the doctor’s) advice.
The doctor ordered the chef to leave only a few pieces for Mzee Kenyatta and his guest, and take back the rest.
But as soon as the doctor had stepped out, Mzee Kenyatta ordered the chef to bring back all the meat he had taken away as he told President Kaunda: “These doctors are a funny people. When did they hear of a lion taken to hospital for eating too much meat?”
As with soup, Mr Kaunda told me, Mzee Kenyatta would take a bowl after another and urge his Zambian counterpart to do the same. And to make sure his guest had enough supply back home, he ordered that twenty goats be flown from Kenya to President Kaunda’s farm in Zambia.
Mzee Kenyatta was also a great lover of his family, Mr Kaunda told me: “He would never interrupt Mama Ngina when she was talking.
He attentively listened and nodded to assure her he was getting every word of whatever she was saying.”
Equally, the former Zambian leader said, his Kenyan counterpart dedicated a lot of time to his three youngest children – Uhuru, Muhoho, and Nyokabi — whom he always talked to in vernacular.
DECLINED TO SHAKE HANDS
Mr Kaunda also talked of a bizarre moment during Mzee Kenyatta’s State burial in 1978 when Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere demanded that the seat reserved for Uganda’s President Idi Amin be relocated as far away from where he and President Kaunda were seated.
When the Ugandan dictator arrived, Mr Nyerere and Mr Kaunda declined to shake hands with him.
As for President Daniel arap Moi, Mr Kaunda told me of his loathing, almost paranoia, for Mr Milton Obote, a deposed Ugandan President who was once exiled in Zambia.
Every time President Moi met his Zambian counterpart, he would insist to be told what Mr Obote was doing in Zambia and whether he had any plans to sabotage the Kenyan government.
KEEP MOI HAPPY
Mr Kaunda told me he even had to order his country’s intelligence to give regular briefings to their Kenyan counterparts, just to keep President Moi happy.
Mr Moi’s loathing for the Ugandan leader was so deep that on the day the Obote government was overthrown for the first time by Mr Amin in 1971 while he was flying back to Uganda, the plane made an emergency landing in Kenya and Mr Moi, then Vice-President, went to the airport and told the pilot to leave as soon as possible.
According to Mr Kaunda, this was the conversation between Vice-President Moi and the pilot of the plane carrying Mr Obote:
“You will fly them to Dar es Salaam.”
“And if Dar es Salaam doesn’t want them, do I bring them back here?”
BRING THEM BACK
“No! Take them anywhere but don’t bring them back here.”
“And if we run out of fuel?
“That’s your problem. Just don’t come back here with them!”
I was told Mr Moi’s loathing for Obote, who died in October 2005, was because Uganda had supposedly been for years instigating the Kenyan military to revolt — culminating in a 1971 failed coup plot.
Again, in those days, the Kenyan leadership believed the socialist-leaning Mr Obote and Mr Nyerere did not mean well for capitalist Kenya.
Postscript: President Kaunda’s fall from power in October 1990 was believed to have triggered what became the biggest theft of public funds in Kenya’s history — the Goldenberg scandal.
A senior official at the Treasury when Goldenberg happened would tell me years later that when President Kaunda made history as the first sitting African President to lose an election, President Moi, then under pressure for Kenya to have a multi-party system of government, and his allies panicked.
They apparently decided to come up with a campaign slush fund to ensure they won the elections.
Within days, then director of the Security Intelligence James Kanyotu incorporated a company called Goldenberg International, with a 26-year-old Kenyan Asian “boy” known as Kamlesh Pattni as a co-director.
In a nutshell, the company purported to export gold from Kenya and for which it was demanding 35 per cent compensation from the Central Bank.
When senior officials at the Treasury started asking questions, influential individuals in government apparently summoned them and asked if the money belonged to their mothers. End of story.