In a sojourn in journalism nearly as long as Prof George Saitoti’s career in politics, I interacted only intermittently with the fallen Internal Security Minister even as I kept a close eye on his activities.
The last time I met Prof Saitoti was last December when we shared the stage during the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Conference hosted by Mr Kofi Annan at Nairobi’s Crowne Plaza.
As we exchanged pleasantries, I was struck at how at ease he was, a stark contrast to the Moi years when he often seemed afraid of his own shadow.
It was like Prof Saitoti had spent a great deal of time and energy as Moi’s Vice-President fighting the forces of reform, and ironically had been freed by the very same forces he so vigorously countered.
In Kenya, where ethnic affiliation, loyalty, obedience, trust and deep personal links matter so much, no President entrusts a powerful docket to just any minister.
From President Kenyatta on to President Moi and then President Kibaki, the Provincial Administration and Internal Security docket has only been given the minister one can trust with his life.
It is the police, the intelligence services and the entire national security machinery. It is the Provincial Administration with its tentacles stretching from Nairobi to every nook and cranny in the country.
It is a vast officialdom of the colonial era system of command and control that Kenyatta and Moi described as their eyes and ears.
When President Kibaki appointed Prof Saitoti to the all-powerful docket, it was a sign that the man had grown to command a central role in the government.
That triggers in my mind a rather bizarre encounter in 1992. I was working with The Weekly Review, and I drove deep inside Kajiado North Constituency to cover Prof Saitoti at a campaign rally.
His address deep in rural Kajiado, where he needed the help of a Maa language interpreter, was dominated by an angry denunciation of opposition leader Mwai Kibaki. I sensed that there was something personal.
When Prof Saitoti realised that there were journalists witnessing events, he went apoplectic.
He angrily summoned his aides demanding to know who had called the Press.
His harried personal assistant Samson ole Surtan, who has since died, tried to plead with us not to write anything on the rally.
The plea was to no avail, but I saw at first hand the insecurity and paranoia that ruled Prof Saitoti’s life even as he wielded great power and authority in the regime of President Moi.
Another interesting encounter was shortly after the 1997 election when President Moi inexplicably dropped Prof Saitoti as VP, but left the post vacant.
I was with The Economic Review at the time, and had gone out for lunch with some colleagues at the Minar, an Indian restaurant at The Mall, in Westlands.
Seated in a curtained-off alcove was Prof Saitoti with close allies, including businessman Jared Kangwana and former MP Kipng’eno arap Ng’eny.
We were sated and making our way out when Mr Kangwana spotted me.
He waved me over, and as I walked across to the niche, Prof Saitoti seemed to freeze in shock. I went over, shook hands all round and engaged in a little chit-chat.
Mr Ng’eny was awed when I recounted an old story of a Saab he owned many years ago, in the mid 1960s and a mischievous young imp who had contrived to lock himself in the boot.
The young imp was me, and in the absence of the owner, somebody had resorted to a panga to free Yours Truly from the dark prison, no doubt to considerable damage to Mr Ng’eny’s bank balance.
While everybody else was uproarious, Prof Saitoti sat frozen as if shell-shocked. I suspect Mr Kangwana later had to assure him that I was not the type of hack to go concocting stories about ‘secret meetings’ out of innocent lunch dates.
Prof Saitoti, it seems, was created by President Moi and his powerman Nicholas Biwott, and then became a terrified prisoner of the very Frankenstein’s who moulded the putty.
Reborn under the multi-party system, he found liberation.