Mahihu did not tell me the President had died,” recalls Mr Wambugu, now 58. “He just asked me to connect him to Hinga.” Mr Bernard Hinga was then the Commissioner of Police. Wambugu connected Eliud Mahihu and Hinga by way of radio telephone.
“As soon as they finished talking,” says Wambugu, “Hinga called me and ordered me to make a police plane available for him to travel to Mombasa immediately.” There was no problem with that, the inspector told his Commissioner, except that “Sir, Wilson Airport does not operate at night.”
“You do what it takes,” the boss thundered. “I am on my way and I will be at Wilson Airport at exactly 4am.”
Even before he could call the duty pilot, Wambugu got another call from Mahihu. This time he wanted to speak to Mr James Kanyotu, the Special Branch chief. He connected them.
And as soon as Kanyotu finished speaking to Mahihu, he called Wambugu and ordered him to arrange for him to fly to Mombasa immediately.
“In fact, Sir,” he informed Kanyotu, “you’re lucky. I am looking for the duty pilot and the Commissioner of Police is also going to Mombasa.
You can fly in the same plane.” Wambugu, not being privy to the telephone conversations he was facilitating, had precisely no clue about the purpose of these urgent pre-dawn travel arrangements to the coastal city.
Before Wambugu could raise the duty pilot, State House Mombasa was on the line again. Now they wanted to speak to Mr Geoffrey Kariithi, the Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet. Wambugu has fond recollections of Kariithi.
“We used to talk almost every day because as Head of the Civil Service, there were very many things to do between his office and ours. As soon as Kariithi finished talking to Mahihu, he called me and asked me ‘what is going on in Mombasa?’
“I told him, Sir, I don’t know. But you can fly in the same plane with the Director of Special Branch and the Commissioner of Police because they are also flying to Mombasa. Do you have a car or can I send you one?” Kariithi said he had one.
At about this time, Wambugu was able to raise SSP Osiemo, the police duty pilot. He was the senior-most pilot after Mr Mathenge, the Police Flying Wing Commandant. He was also Wambugu’s old schoolmate at Kenya Air Force Flying School. As duty pilot, he was allocated living quarters at Wilson Airport so that he could fly at short notice.
Control tower closed
Mahihu was on the line again. He wished to speak to Margaret Kenyatta, eldest daughter of the President and former Mayor of Nairobi. She was not in the security sector and the conversation with Mombasa was via an ordinary telephone, not the radio. Next Mombasa spoke to Udi Gecaga, husband of Jane Kenyatta who would travel with his wife. Wambugu realised his plane was full.
“It was a Cessna 210,” he recalls. “With one pilot, it could carry five passengers but with two, it could carry only four.” That means he needed another plane. “I immediately started looking for the standby pilot,” he recalls.
This turned out to be Superintendent Orata. He lived at Kariokor flats. As Superintendent, he was Wambugu’s boss but the inspector literally ordered him to rush to Wilson Airport using the shortest route possible.
“Sorry Sir, I am unable to answer any question. I am sending a Land Rover to pick you up and you have to go and arrange for another plane to fly to Mombasa.” He did just that and the next he heard was Orata calling him from Wilson Airport telling him that the control tower was not operational.
“Sir,” Wambugu told his boss, “you are better placed there at the airport than I am here. But I am sending a controller to come to the airport on duty. However, if you must leave before he arrives, you can line some vehicles to light up the runway.”
As a matter of fact, that is what happened. With Osiemo first and then closely followed by Orata, the pilots used the headlights of the Land Rovers for take off and the tower of Jomo Kenyatta Airport to guide them out of Nairobi.
The first take-off was around 4.15am. This was approximately one hour since Mahihu called asking for Hinga.
It makes Wambugu guess that the President may have died earlier than the official time eventually given.
But so much for the police flights and their heavyweight passengers; Mahihu was not through with the harassed inspector yet. Vigilance House Operations Room, no stranger to high tension activities, had become a theatre of ringing telephones, many to do with routine police work which had to be dropped the moment the red telephone accompanied by the lone red light above the door rang.
That light indicated that the call could be coming from only one place – State House. And not everybody in State House used it; it had to be the President himself, the State House Comptroller or, in those days, Mr Mbiyu Koinange, Kenyatta’s all-powerful minister for State. Today, this light flashed with a frequency never before seen at Vigilance.
“As I was confirming the Wilson Airport departures,” Wambugu says, “Mahihu called again and ordered me to send a Kenya Air Force Caribou transport plane to Mombasa and that it should be flown by none other than the Air Force Commander himself.”
The Air Force Commander at that time was Col Dedan Gichuru. It obviously did not occur to Mahihu that he was making an exorbitant demand – air force commanders are not in the business of flying regularly, meaning Gichuru’s certificate of airworthiness may not have been current. By air navigation rules, he could not fly a plane alone. He had to be accompanied by another pilot who was current.
Wambugu had been an air force pilot for two years before leaving for the police and Gichuru could vaguely remember him.
Now Wambugu phoned the Air Force Commander at his Tigoni residence and transmitted Mombasa’s orders. “You told me you are what rank?” Gichuru asked him.
“Since when did inspectors give orders to colonels?” Gichuru demanded.
“Sir, I am not ordering you,” a hapless and frantic Wambugu pleaded with the air force boss, his voice rising above the cacophony of ringing telephones. “I am only conveying the instructions from State House Mombasa.” Operations Room now resembled a mad house and protocol wasn’t exactly of essence.
Fly flags at half-mast
Gichuru told him to call the duty officer at Eastleigh Air Base and tell him to get a pilot who was of the rank of Captain or above ready. The plane was also to be prepared for flight. He wanted its engines running by the time he arrived there.
“The duty officer at Eastleigh was a guy called Wanyoike with whom I had attended ground school,” says Wambugu. “We knew each other very well. I told him what the commander had told me and he got cracking doing the needful.” After a while, Mombasa called again and ordered Wambugu to send them another Caribou.
He called Wanyoike back and told him the same. Wanyoike protested, saying he had sent the only Caribou he had. “I was a former air force man and I knew there were five of them,” Wambugu says. “So I told Wanyoike, ‘Captain Wanyoike, I am not requesting you. You don’t want to send a plane to Mombasa? Then tell that to State House Mombasa!’ I then disconnected the phone. I was working under extreme pressure.”
Whatever Wanyoike did Wambugu didn’t care but he later learnt that the second Caribou did go to Mombasa as ordered.
At around daybreak, telephone activity at Operations Room reached fever pitch. The duty man, who still had no clue that he was frenetically shifting VIP traffic to attend to the issue of a dead President, started getting calls from all sorts of heavyweights.
“I started receiving calls from my Director of Operations, from the Director of CID and from several ministers such that by the time it was 7am. and I should have been leaving for home, I still had not recorded anything in the Occurrence Book.
“Everything was in pieces of rough paper in note form. The rules required that you record in the OB the instructions you received, from whom you received them and the action you took. One of the senior police officers who called me at that time was ZH Litt, who at that time held the position of the equivalent of Deputy Director of Operations. Litt was the best of bosses, and was well liked by all of us because he was very helpful to subordinates. When he called, I told him the crises I was in and he came. He got down to helping me fill up the OB so that by the time the officer who was to relieve me showed up, we were so engrossed in the task that that guy could only sit down and read the newspaper.”
Then Commissioner Hinga called from Mombasa. He ordered Wambugu to have the flags at Police Headquarters lowered to half mast.
Wambugu promptly sent out the order. Next Hinga said not just Police Headquarters but at all police premises countrywide.
The next big shot to call Wambugu was Mr Charles Njonjo, Attorney General. “He was with Kariithi in State House, Nairobi. This was at about 9 o’clock.
“There will be a Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi, at 11 o’clock,” Njonjo informed Wambugu. “Can you convene it!” Strange as this may sound, there was a precedent. (See story elsewhere). On receiving Njonjo’s order, the first thing that crossed his mind was that the President was in Mombasa.
He told Njonjo as much. “But Sir, the President is in Mombasa.”
“Do as you are told,” Njonjo replied, “questions later.”
“Thank you, Sir!” Wambugu said.
It was fairly easy to track the ministers and convene the Cabinet. But three people proved especially difficult to mobilise. One was Dr Zachary Onyonka, minister for Housing and Social Services. He was, says Wambugu, “very drunk and very rude.”
The other one was Mr Stanley Oloitipitip, minister for Natural Resources. “He had many wives and therefore many homes. “I booked his number with the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. It was one of those numbers which read something like 3y2. You booked and KPTC called you later when they got through.”
Oloitipitip was finally tracked somewhere very remote near the Tanzanian border. “I wanted to send him a plane but there wasn’t an airstrip nearby. ‘Sir,’ I told him, ‘Come from where you are and join the meeting at whatever stage you find it.’”
But the difficulties surrounding getting these two ministers were exactly nothing compared to the gruelling task of getting Vice President Daniel arap Moi whom millions of Kenyans, including Wambugu, did not know was constitutionally already the President.
The Cabinet meeting took place towards noon, Wambugu was to learn later. As it did, the inspector and his boss, ZH Litt, worked feverishly to fill everything that had transpired for the last almost 15 hours into the Occurence Book.
Then the exhausted bleary-eyed inspector staggered out of the office after handing over to the incoming duty officer. Upon seeing the police flags flying at half mast, he asked the sentries outside who ordered that to happen?
“It is you, Sir,” the bemused sentries told him. Oh, yes, he now remembered having issued those orders.
The President is dead
He lived in Buru Buru with his cousin, an assistant city engineer with City Hall. Wambugu linked up with him and together they decided to drive home. As his mind started settling, he was seized with a strong suspicion that the President was dead.
He said to his cousin. “Let’s pass through Juja Road because there are Caribous coming from Mombasa and I don’t know how this country will be if this man is dead.’” Along Juja Road, they passed each other with the President’s hearse. It was unmistakeable, and yet, unobtrusive. Motorists passed it without suspecting anything. For the inspector, it was a spectacular coincidence. Yet that just remained a very educated guess.
The vehicle carrying the President’s body was escorted by his Mercedes escorts which had their “President’s Escort” plates covered. The cousins raced home and switched on VoK radio, the country’s only radio station then. VoK television, again the country’s monopoly, only opened at 5pm and closed down at 11pm.
VoK radio was playing martial music, heightening Wambugu’s suspicions. 1pm came and went without the regular news, only martial music. And then the national anthem was played. After this came the voice of Leonard Mambo Mbotela “who must be a man for all seasons,” Wambugu now says recalling the watershed announcements the veteran has broadcast on Kenya’s airwaves.
Mambo announced: “His Excellency the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Armed Forces, died peacefully in his sleep at 3.30am at State House, Mombasa. The Government requests all Kenyans to remain calm at this moment of national shock. All flags are to fly at half mast.”
The national anthem was played again.
There it was. The President was dead. It was official. Police Inspector Simmone Wambugu now knew the reason for all the work he had done since Mahihu’s phone call that morning.
(Roy Gachuhi is Director, East Africa School of Journalism. [email protected])
TOMORROW: How Moi was tracked down and flown to Nairobi to swear oath as Kenya’s second President