What you need to know:
- Had Moi resigned, or had Nyachae not intervened that day, Kenya’s history would have been drastically different.
- Taking Nyachae’s advice, Moi met with Kenyatta and shared his tribulations.
- As chief secretary and Head of Public Service, Nyachae was Moi’s best bet to neutralise the opposition.
The story of President Daniel arap Moi and his Cabinets cannot possibly be told in one book, let alone one chapter.
He was President for 24 straight years after taking over from the country’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who died in office on August 22, 1978.
Many politicians served in Moi’s Cabinets over these years. Some performed well and delivered on their mandates; others were loyal, and yet others were consummate party men and women.
To understand Moi’s tenure as President, one would have to go back to the lessons he gleaned from the Kenyatta administration where he served as vice-president for nine years before taking over the reins despite concerted efforts from a group of senior officials that was determined to change the country’s constitution to ensure that Moi did not become President.
This group included Mbiyu Koinange, Kihika Kimani, Isaiah Mathenge and James Mungai (the Rift Valley Police Commander). Moi had dutifully served as VP despite apparent tensions with these and other leaders in Kenyatta’s inner circle.
When I got there, I found Moi with the letter of resignation. He was in his office at the Nakuru Oil Milling Company. The only person with him was his remarkable tall, black and bald security aide, Yator Chomber. I took the letter, read it to the end and then tore it to pieces while asking him if he thought Mzee Kenyatta was aware of the humiliating search. He answered no, and I told him that was why it would offend Mzee"
His friend, Simeon Nyachae, the central Provincial Commissioner (PC), recalled how at one point, as the increasingly condescending attitude towards Moi turned to harassment, the VP drafted a letter of resignation. Moi’s private offices in the Rift Valley had been ransacked by the police, at the orders of Mungai. Before submitting the letter, Moi had called Nyachae, who dropped everything and immediately travelled to Nakuru Town to see the VP.
“When I got there, I found Moi with the letter of resignation. He was in his office at the Nakuru Oil Milling Company. The only person with him was his remarkable tall, black and bald security aide, Yator Chomber. I took the letter, read it to the end and then tore it to pieces while asking him if he thought Mzee Kenyatta was aware of the humiliating search. He answered no, and I told him that was why it would offend Mzee,” said Nyachae of the 1975 incident during an interview some years ago.
Taking Nyachae’s advice, Moi met with Kenyatta and shared his tribulations. According to Andrew Morton, the author of Moi’s biography Moi: The Making of an African Statesman, Mzee asked him, “Who is in charge of the police?”
At the time, Moi also served as Minister for Home Affairs, so the police force fell under his docket. In essence, Mzee was instructing him to deal decisively with the matter.
Had Moi resigned, or had Nyachae not intervened that day, Kenya’s history would have been drastically different.
But that aside, there are several issues we can discern from those whom Moi inherited from Kenyatta’s Cabinet.
The first is the set of leaders who were ultraloyal to him. Top among them was Charles Njonjo, who crushed the dreams of the ‘Change the Constitution’ lobby fronted by leaders from the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema) in their bid to control resources and bar Moi from succeeding Kenyatta.
Others included a few conservative but widely respected leaders: Joseph Kamotho, Godfrey Gitahi (“GG”) Kariuki and Jeremiah Nyagah.
Nyachae was also among these leaders. His father had been a respected and tactful colonial chief who gave Kenyatta refuge when he was being hunted by the colonial army on suspicion that he was the power and spiritual force behind the Mau Mau freedom fighters.
As chief secretary and Head of Public Service, Nyachae was Moi’s best bet to neutralise the opposition fuelled by the perception of a disgruntled few that he was a “passing cloud”.
Moi promised continuity in the footsteps of Kenyatta under the new clarion call, “Fuata Nyayo”. The new focus was a blend of the three things that anchored political relationships with Kenyatta: sound ethnic footing and clout, unquestionable loyalty to the ruling party, Kanu, and well-defined old ties either in government service or shared religious and political values.
As we seek to understand Moi and how he picked, related with and managed his Cabinet, we occasionally use real-life anecdotes, some of which have not been told before.
Take the case, in the late 1990s, of Kipkalya Kones, a minister in the Office of the President. Kones was convinced that Moi was about to fire him based on rumours that the President was holding regular meetings with his main rival in Kipsigis politics, John Koech, who he had replaced in the Cabinet.
The goal of the meetings was ostensible to initiate a rapprochement. To avoid the humiliation of being fired, Kones surrendered his ministerial flag and official limousine at the Mau Summit General Service Unit (GSU) post located on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.
At that time, mobile phones were the preserve of a few privileged individuals. Although it is not clear exactly what transpired, Kones left neither the flag nor the official car at the station.
Journalists later learnt that the station commander declined to receive the two symbols of office, arguing that he was neither the appointing authority nor the caretaker of State House property.
There was also speculation that Kones, in the course of consultations, received a call from his close friend, Franklin Bett, a State House official, who cautioned him that this was an act in bad faith because the flag belonged to the President at whose pleasure he served.
Handing it over to junior police officers on the roadside, he reportedly informed Kones, would be seen as bad manners and disrespect. The President would reclaim it at his own time.
That was a lesson Kones learnt the hard way. He was fired without warning less than a year later.
Koech did indeed replace him in the Cabinet; he was the Chepalungu MP. The next episode of the flag and the ethos that you served Moi at his will and not your own (unless you were Mwai Kibaki, who surprised him with a Christmas Day resignation announced via a piece of television news broadcast in 1991) involved Koech himself.
As soon as Kones was dismissed, Koech began to fear that Moi was about to fire him, too.
The drama peaked at an Egerton University graduation ceremony. There had been talk of reconciliation between Moi and Kones. Moi appeared to have pitted the two leaders against each other, a tactic he was known to use in every region.
Usually, after such events, the President would invite leaders to lunch. That day, Koech was not invited for the lunch at Moi’s house in Kabarak.
However, he was convinced that Kones had received an invitation and decided that he, as a member of the Cabinet, also deserved to be in the President’s entourage. Unfortunately, his attempts to gain access to the function were unsuccessful, since his name was not on the guest list. Neither had Kones been invited.
Displeased, Koech drove to the Nation’s office in Nakuru, where he told the bureau chief, Michael Njuguna, that he had quit the Cabinet.
Njuguna consulted with his superiors at the Nairobi News Desk, who quite likely instructed him to get tangible proof of the resignation before the newspaper carried the story. He provided the minister with pen and paper to write his resignation letter to Moi.
The letter was the Daily Nation’s headline the next day. Then silence; neither Moi nor the Cabinet office commented on the story.
That was not how one quit Moi’s team; one needed to follow certain protocols. Koech then called a press conference.
The bravado of the previous day gone, Koech took back his words. He regretted being driven by emotions, disrespecting the President and acting blindly. He then pleaded for forgiveness. Moi remained silent and Koech remained in the Cabinet.
But months later, Moi replaced him with Chepalungu MP Isaac Ruto, who would also have his taste of the no-nonsense Moi when, as part of the President’s entourage, he was left on an airport runway in a southern African nation because he had spoken out of turn within the earshot of Moi.
Moi demonstrated his values and attributes through the way he related with members of his Cabinet.
For instance, those who arrived at his meetings late were shocked to be turned away with the warning that the meeting room was not a classroom. Ministers were also expected to have information about their ministries at their fingertips.
There was no room for guesswork, especially since the President always had the information beforehand. Moi would be in the office from 5am, and could not understand why anyone would arrive for a Cabinet meeting at 7:30am.
Musalia Mudavadi, the shortest-lived vice-president to date, recalled a time when he was with his friend, Attorney-General Amos Wako, late into the night. He received a call alerting them that there would be a Cabinet meeting at 7am the following day.
Before the meeting began the next morning, Moi marvelled at the fact that they had made it on time despite the short notice and their late night. It was clear from this incident that Moi discreetly kept tabs on his ministers.
Moi was meticulous in his approach to issues within his Cabinet. One of his ministers disclosed that presidential speeches would be written a day before the event. Moi would take them home, rehearse them, and then call to suggest amendments, corrections, and deletions, regardless of the time.
Then, despite the prepared speech, he always made off-the-cuff remarks, mainly delivered informally in Kiswahili.
He also maintained a personal touch with his ministers and their relatives. A Cabinet appointment was a big deal to him and he did not take it lightly.
If he trusted you, you were in. If the trust waned, you were on your way out unless you did something spectacular to save yourself. Francis Nyenze, the Minister for Environment, privately took pride in the fact that despite his low-key entry into politics and his surprise appointment, President Moi would sleep at Nyenze’s rural home while on a tour of Ukambani.
Despite the heavy security surrounding his home and the orderlies and equipment ferried from Nairobi, the minister was honoured that the President had elected to spend the night under his roof and not elsewhere.
That was no mean achievement if you were in Moi’s Cabinet, since many deified and feared to defy the President.
An interesting titbit came out of a personal interview with Kariuki many years ago, an incident he omitted from his book, Illusions of Power. Kariuki, Njonjo, and Kamotho regularly rode in Moi’s official and personalised Mercedes Benz.
They all served in his Cabinet and often travelled together. The last trip was to the Nyeri Agricultural Show on the eve of the attempted coup d’état on August 1, 1982.
As they parted ways, with Moi going to Kabarak and the rest to Nairobi or their rural homes, they were unaware that the President had received an intelligence report from a top presidential aide that a military coup was in the offing.
Moi and the aide agreed to go to Kabarak immediately after the President opened the show. There would be no more sharing of presidential limousines with the three Cabinet ministers, who eventually fell out with Moi.
As it transpired that night, a detachment of Kenya Air Force soldiers attempted to overthrow the government. Through the night, looting and sporadic killings were reported in Nairobi.
However, despite taking over and forcing a radio announcer, Leonard Mambo Mbotela, to announce at gunpoint that Moi’s government had been overthrown, loyal forces led by the Chief of General Staff, General Jackson Mulinge, and Deputy Army Commander Major General Mohammoud Mohamed subdued the coup.
Much has been written about the planning of the coup, the role of the late doyen of opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and his son, Raila Odinga, and about those who crushed Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka’s “six-hour presidency”.
But what is widely acknowledged, though little researched, is how the attempted coup forever changed Moi, and indeed Kenya’s politics. Moi purged the Cabinet of those who he felt had failed the loyalty test; Kamotho and Kariuki were on that list. Njonjo’s turn followed in 1983.
Years later, Moi nominated Kariuki to Parliament and appointed him as an assistant minister after an official visit to Kariuki’s hometown. The President asked that Kariuki meet him after the function, which the PC had not allowed the former MP to attend.
The PC sent the provincial police officer to inform Kariuki that his presence was required at Moi’s nearby ranch after the official function. Kariuki was convinced that, since he had been treated as a pariah for years, he was about to be detained.
“I knelt and prayed, then changed into warmer clothes,” he would later disclose. When Moi arrived at the ranch, he shook Kariuki’s hand and asked after his son, who years back had left the country for further studies.
“I was surprised he still remembered my son’s name and where he had gone. He took my hand and in a gesture of friendship, walked me to the orchard in his compound. He told me we were friends and that he could not have me kicked out of a public function.
He then asked me what I was doing and as he plucked and offered me an orange, which we ate straight away, he gave me an appointment for the next week. In two weeks he had nominated me to Parliament.
I would later serve as an assistant minister,” Kariuki reminisced in an interview in 2000.
Kariuki’s story summed up the many ways in which Moi differed with, kicked out, and later reconciled with his ‘enemies’.
The same happened with Kamotho; he was dismissed, but later returned as the ultraloyal Kanu secretary-general. Njonjo, too, fell out with Moi, but he never returned to politics. However, as the saying goes, friends never stay apart for too long.
After I spoke, the rest followed but they all talked of the need for national unity. Moi said he did not like the politics of revenge and wanted a united Kenya. I was left feeling bad that I had been set up"
When Moi’s wife died in 2004, two eminent personalities stood on his left and right to console him and his children: Mama Ngina Kenyatta and Njonjo.
Kibaki arrived later and joined them at the graveside. Politics aside, that was the true mark of friendship that transcended political rivalry.
Moi was also a cunning politician and no one knows this better than Nyachae, who told the story of how Moi, depressed at the defeat of Kanu in the infamous Kipipiri by-elections decades ago (for which he had campaigned vigorously), listened to his ministers lament that the people of Central Province had let him down. The venue was a breakfast table in Kabarnet Hotel.
The local agricultural show was opening shortly. Members of Moi’s inner circle were all there: Nicholas Biwott, Hosea Kiplagat and mayor Philemon Chelagat, among others. Nyachae, the Minister for Agriculture, was the Master of Ceremonies, so he agreed to set the ball rolling in admonishing members of the Kikuyu community.
“After I spoke, the rest followed but they all talked of the need for national unity. Moi said he did not like the politics of revenge and wanted a united Kenya. I was left feeling bad that I had been set up,” said Nyachae in a subsequent interview.
Much has been written about how Moi admonished and praised or rewarded his ministers in equal measure. He also towered above them in the sense that he symbolised a higher vision for Kenya.
It is no wonder that even his harshest critic, Jaramogi, would early in his life write that the man’s vision was “ … like that of a giraffe, he sees far”. This statement captured the essence of a man who, in the 1960s and 1970s exemplified such a laid back and unambitious demeanour that he was dismissed as a “passing cloud”. This same “passing cloud” was to become Kenya’s longest-serving president who left an imprint on every facet of life: education, healthcare, the church and even infrastructure.
This article is an excerpt from the yet-to-be-released book ‘24 Years of the Nyayo Era: Moi Cabinets Volume I & 2’. The book is part of the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board’s Biographical Series. Copyright: Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board