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MATHIU: Walking in Uhuru's struggles

Saturday May 30 2020
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President Uhuru Kenyatta is interviewed by Nation Media Group Editorial Director Mutuma Mathiu at State House, Nairobi, on May 26, 2020. PHOTO | JOAN PERERUAN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MUTUMA MATHIU

There is no smell of ugali at State House. Martin Shikuku and his generation would have struggled.

There is, however, some fruit juice and water in the waiting rooms. This week I rocked up with my colleagues — photo editor Joan Pereruan and broadcaster Joseph Warungu — for our 2pm appointment with President Uhuru Kenyatta. State House appointments, like adverbial clauses, are positionally mobile. They change all the time.

This was my second ever visit to State House in two decades of working in the media: I am not exactly a regular visitor, which is how I, and I suspect the occupants of the place, like it. 

I must say that folks in there are pleasant enough. Ms Kanze Dena, the Head of the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU), was particularly nice; she showed us around the place and the various possible venues for our interview. We couldn’t do it in the garden because of the sun.

In the conference room — I forget what they call it — I found a well-known consultant. He was looking over the set and pacing the room in a manner that we describe in my village as “measuring the mabuti”, the process of establishing the measurements of a piece of land using your feet.

He could not remember me, bless his heart, even though I hired him for the Sunday Nation 15 years ago.

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POWERFUL MANDARINS

The charming thing about State House is that things never go as planned. Diaries are perhaps a lot more fluid than in the private sector, and if you are visiting, please be prepared to wait. Waiting is normal in government offices.

I am incurably nosy and for a second I thought of walking around and poking my fat nose into conference rooms and offices, just to see what happens there. 

Then I remembered a certain powerful figure and I thought better of it. The Sunday Nation recently published a story which the presidential aide may not have enjoyed reading, and I don’t know whether he is the kind of guy to have me locked up in the basement or just hazard a swing.

I also saw a nice man I am generally friendly with and he appeared to be keeping a safe distance from me, and I can’t say I blame him, given the career I have chosen.

He looked very nice in a blue blazer with brass buttons worn with grey pants and a shirt which, with my failing eyesight, looked striped.

The look reminded me of a country club manager en route to address his masonic lodge in the shires - very respectable.

In my mind I had a list of powerful mandarins that I had been given, some faceless career civil servants who run everything.

DRAMATIC TWIST

I had heard many stories of their Humphrey Appleby (remember Yes Prime Minister?) cunning and influence and I just wanted to stop by, shake their hands and ask for tips.

But it was too much trouble, so I instead chose to sit in the sofa and chat with the nice young man whose job appeared to be to wait with us.

I was telling you that at State House, things always take a dramatic twist. On my first visit, I had come with a crew which was left in the waiting room and I took the interview alone in a room with the President.

This time I had brought along Mr Warungu, a wonderful, experienced and calm interviewer and good a journalist.

I had barely prepared; I have never taken a TV interview in my life and I couldn’t tell an autocue from my left armpit. My plan was quite simple, I was going to let Joseph take the interview.

I would fly in his slipstream, breaking cover only occasionally to fire a bunch of carefully selected provocative questions at the President then slide back.

When I was informed at the last minute that only one of us would conduct the interview and it wasn’t Joseph, I nearly passed out.

GAME PLAN

My jacket, which I save for special occasions, felt like a steam room, my armpits smelt like bacon in curdled milk. 

I rarely experience panic, so I leaned back to enjoy the moment. I hydrated, walked the length of the waiting room and mapped out an alternative game plan.

I stole some of Joseph’s questions and threw away most of mine. It wasn’t going to be a perfect interview, but we were going to get a story.

The PSCU guys had done a very professional job with the set — the lights were indirect and not hot, and I was sitting far away from the Head of State. 

The setting reminded me of a mung’etho, the practice in the countryside where people while away the afternoon at the shopping centre just enjoying the peace of looking at nothing. 

With so many witnesses, the President wasn’t going to go off the record and as an interviewee he would be closed tight.

When you are interviewing clever, controlling personalities such as spies, talk to them in pairs or more, never reveal that you are organised.

FLAWLESS SKILL

Carry more than two notebooks and spend time fumbling between them in confusion, make sure your shoelaces are undone and avoid eye contact.

Ultimately, when you ask a question, they will half-ignore you and talk among themselves.

For powerful people, it pays to be subtle and nice, which is why I was counting on Joseph, the uber diplomat. A display of strength or courage is generally self-indulgent, such people never back down.

President Kenyatta is a nice guy, but you have to treat him like hot porridge — to be enjoyed with care. He manages people and crowds with flawless skill. 

You don’t listen to him with your ears — that’s why you brought a recorder — you listen to him with your eyes: watch for restlessness, irritation. I quickly learnt that when he goes “Uh? Uh? Ok? Alright?” it’s generally a good time to say something nice and change the topic.

In my book, you never interrupt the President and you never push him. Let him finish; his time is more valuable than yours.

I feel President Kenyatta had the better of me in this encounter, but only because he brought all his friends and neighbours to the fight.

Had he shown up alone — or only with a few friends — I’d have nailed his hide to the State House walls and he wouldn’t even have felt my knife. 

Watch the interview on NTV @7.30pm tomorrow.

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