When President Kenyatta died in his sleep at Mombasa State House, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi was at home up-country.
At what time did he know, and from whom, that his boss was dead and it was time to take on his constitutionally-mandated role of Acting President for 90 days before fresh elections were held? And how did he react to the news? How did he make it to Nairobi to take his oath of office?
The now retired President may not be expected to bestow the people of Kenya with his candid story. There isn’t anything in his six decades-long political career to suggest he will do that.
Nevertheless, the Sunday Nation has been able to get the first-hand account of one person who dealt with him quite often as vice-president and was critically instrumental in getting him to Nairobi to take his oath.
The story begins with a telephone call Attorney-General Charles Njonjo made to the Duty Officer at Police Headquarters’ Operations Room at about 9 a.m. on August 22, 1978. That officer was Police Inspector Simmone Wambugu. Mr Njonjo ordered him to convene a Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi, at 11 a.m. And there the wholly unexpected gruelling task of getting Mr Moi began.
Refused to talk
“I reached Moi in Baringo shortly after getting Njonjo’s orders,” recalls Wambugu. “But he refused to talk to me. I talked to the fellow who was commanding his bodyguards but he told me that the Vice-President didn’t wish to talk to me. I told him to tell him that there was a Cabinet meeting at 11 a.m. I told him that if he required any assistance I was ready to provide it. ‘In fact, I said, I have two helicopters on standby.’”
The bodyguards said nothing. Nothing unusual, though. Big people usually get the message quickly and know what to do, Wambugu knew. However, this case turned out differently. All the ministers were gathered at State House cabinet room by 10.45 a. m. – except Mr Moi. That is in fact what kept the inspector on duty many hours after he was supposed to have signed off.
“Of course, I wasn’t at State House,” Wambugu says. “But for a long time, there was hardly anything else my colleagues and I talked about except this episode. Some of my policemen colleagues were in the Presidential Escort and I had friends who worked at State House. We had a roaring good time comparing notes about what each of us did on the day Kenyatta died. Between us, there was no Government secret we didn’t know.
“Those colleagues who were working at State House at the time told me that when the ministers assembled for the cabinet meeting, the first thing that transpired was a discussion about procedure. Noting the absence of Vice-President Moi, Mr Geoffrey Kariithi, the Head of the Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, guided the assembled ministers thus: In the absence of the President, the Vice-President chairs the meeting and in the absence of the Vice-President, the Cabinet elects one among themselves to chair the meeting. Mr Kariithi proceeded to ask the meeting to exercise Option B (elect a chairman) since Option A (Vice-President) was unavailable.
“Mr Njonjo objected to that course of action immediately. He asked why they were applying Option B while they had not exhausted Option A. The meeting was held up. It is at that time that Mr Njonjo came back to me on the line and said: ‘Inspector, I told you to convene the whole Cabinet but the VP is not here!’”
“Sir,” Wambugu replied, “I talked to his bodyguard and I thought they had arrived.”
“Can you make sure that he comes to the meeting because it is not going to take place until he is here.”
“Thank you, Sir!” The inspector said.
Friend and political collaborator the Attorney-General doubtless was to Mr Moi, but he could only rely on the police communications network to try and reach the VP. There were no mobile phones then.
Inspector Wambugu then called ACP Mathenge, the Commandant of the Police Air Wing with this frantic request: “Please take off, Sir. Go to the Baringo area while I look for the Vice-President and direct you to where he is.”
Mathenge – who has since died — departed Wilson Airport in a Cessna aircraft. Shortly afterwards, a helicopter took off to join the effort. Wambugu remains unsure about who ordered the helicopter to follow but he guesses it was Mathenge himself. As Air Wing boss and grasping the weight of the task, he probably decided a helicopter would be needed. And it was.
Meanwhile, Wambugu had spoken to the OCPD Baringo, Mr Moi’s home area, and told him of State House’s demands. The OCPD had immediately gone to Mr Moi’s home accompanied by a team of police officers.
On arrival, they learnt that the Vice-President had just left in a convoy to an unknown destination. Here now lies the all important question that perhaps only Mr Moi himself can answer: Did he leave his house knowing that the President was dead?
“From what I gathered through my impeccable sources,” Mr Wambugu offers, “he did. I have been told that Coast PC Eliud Mahihu called him with the news and asked him to proceed for a Cabinet meeting in Nairobi. But the Vice-President didn’t trust the oligarchs around Kenyatta and believed they would kill him. That is completely plausible given the extreme contempt with which they treated him. He was thus fleeing from them. Although he might refute this, the ravine from which Mathenge fished him, while he was on foot after abandoning his vehicles, clearly indicated a man in flight. I really regret Mathenge’s death because he could easily corroborate this.”
The OCPD’s party launched a major ground search for the Vice-President and picked up his trail when they came by tracks that had been freshly used by many vehicles.
“Vigilance! Vigilance!” they radioed Wambugu at Headquarters. “If you are sending a plane, send a helicopter. A fixed wing plane won’t do.” They were traversing hills and valleys.
Wambugu called Mathenge. “Sir, even though you are airborne, you can now start patrolling the Baringo area to identify the location of Victor Papa (VP).”
It was now about 11.15 a.m. and Mathenge had flown past Nakuru. He immediately went into search and rescue mode. He knew that Mr Moi was in a convoy of vehicles. It was not even necessary to make a low-flying reconnaissance flight when he sighted Mr Moi’s group somewhere in the Baringo bushes. He saw abandoned vehicles and a party of people going up a ravine.
Wambugu is unsure about the communication between Mathenge and his helicopter which at that time he didn’t even know existed. But Mathenge later told him that he and the helicopter pilot decided to land somewhere in Baringo so that Mathenge could take command of the helicopter.
That they did and Mathenge took off and headed straight to where Mr Moi and his group were. Only the VP was taken aboard the chopper. His security detail was left behind.
“I wish Mathenge were telling this story,” Wambugu remarks. “It would be intensely interesting for people to learn of his skill in convincing Mr Moi to get on board and assuring him that everything would be all right. How did he convince Mr Moi’s security to part with their boss? The whole country has for 30 years believed that Mr Moi was desperate to become president.
“The truth is that it was literally forced on him. When the moment to take it came, he was fleeing.
“I know this for a fact because I participated in the operation to bring him to Nairobi and the people who flew him in were my friends and colleagues. Mathenge, in particular, died with an extremely interesting story.”
Once airborne, Mathenge reported to Vigilance of his prized catch. Wambugu held on to that information. But after a while Mr Njonjo called again.
It was now about 11.30 a.m. and the AG asked about the expected time of arrival when informed that Mathenge had picked up Mr Moi and was on his way. Wambugu estimated Mathenge would make Wilson Airport by 11.45 a.m.
“No!” Mr Njonjo snapped. “Tell that pilot to land here, at State House.”
It was unheard of. State House, like Parliament, was a gazetted no-fly zone. Special clearance was needed to allow this to happen. Wambugu immediately informed the control towers at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Eastleigh Air Base and Wilson Airport that an aircraft would be landing at State House. It was legally mandatory to do this.
Told by Wambugu to head to State House and not Wilson, Mathenge yelled:
“You must be out of your mind!”
“State House grounds is your landing site!” Wambugu told his boss. But Mathenge was in a euphoric mood. He radioed Wambugu: “Vigilance, Vigilance, this is Papa. Victor Papa has cried and finished all his handkerchiefs.” He laughed uproariously after saying this.
Wambugu replied: “Supply him with yours!”
Those two pilots were laughing at a man who, for mysterious reasons, seemed inconsolable and completely out of his emotional depth. Did he believe he was being led to his death or did he believe he was actually going to be President?
He would later deliver a touching eulogy for President Kenyatta, describing him as “my father, my leader and my teacher.” Are these the thoughts that reduced him to such unabashed tears in Mathenge’s helicopter?
We cannot know. But in a few short minutes after this irreverent conversation between Mathenge and Wambugu, Moi was sworn in by Chief Justice Sir James Wicks as Acting President and presided over the Cabinet meeting. That was his first act of a reign that would last 24 years. He had the last laugh.
Roy Gachuhi is director, East Africa School of Journalism