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Trying times for George Saitoti under President Moi

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Wednesday March 18 2020

It was an afternoon on February 13, 1990. Vice-President George Saitoti was having his usual sumptuous Indian meal at an exclusive restaurant in Muthaiga, Nairobi.

In life, Prof Saitoti trusted very few people and naively thought that, because of this, he was politically safe. He wasn’t. On this day, somebody managed to poison his food. He ate it and the rest is history.

It was a day of high political drama. Elsewhere, the previous night, and unknown to Prof Saitoti, his Cabinet colleague, Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko, had been murdered and his body burnt and dumped in Koru’s Got Alila.

Whether these two events were related has never been clear although, at one point, President Moi said openly that those who murdered Dr Ouko also orchestrated Saitoti’s poisoning.

Over the years, and as Kenya’s Vice-President, Saitoti had learnt from those before him — Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Joe Murumbi, Moi, Mwai Kibaki, and Josephat Karanja — to never challenge his boss, the irascible Daniel arap Moi. Thus, of all Kanu hawks, and they swarmed like locusts, Saitoti ranked at the top in singing praises of the Nyayo regime, mostly as a survival tactic.


But he had three trusted individuals to watch his back: personal assistant Michael ole Tanju, police inspector Joshua Tonkei, and a man well-known in Kajiado as “Sultan” because of the immense powers he had around Saitoti.

In public, he wouldn’t take food without their approval.

Saitoti’s only other confidant was Nairobi businessman Jimi Wanjigi, who rose to become a filthy-rich political wheeler-dealer.

At Wanjigi’s Kwacha House is the only other restaurant that Saitoti frequented after the Muthaiga incident.

Close friends of the former VP say he almost died. At one point, the family had to transfer him from Nairobi Hospital and turned a room in his Lavington home into a ward where private doctors and nurses kept watch. They were worried that the killers might follow him into Nairobi Hospital.


Interestingly, the poisoning of the VP was never reported, not even by the foreign press which focused on Dr Ouko’s murder. But the mathematics professor was in bad shape. His skin was peeling off and he was sliding into a coma.

Life as Moi’s VP was hell for Saitoti. Although he managed to quietly build some solid networks within the system, and which he hoped to use post-Moi, he hid his ambitions. It was too dangerous.

Saitoti had learnt his lesson. One of his friends, Mohammed Aslam, the chairman of Pan African Bank, was later poisoned after he gave evidence during the Commission of Inquiry into the murder of Dr Ouko.

Mr Aslam was the brains behind the Grand Regency Hotel and an insider in the Goldenberg scam, just like Prof Saitoti.

While Mr Kamlesh Pattni was originally the mask behind the Goldenberg scandal where compensation was paid for fictitious exports of gold and diamond, he would later become its face while Saitoti was the policy-driver within the establishment.


By approving the Goldenberg scheme, which snowballed into a monumental scandalm Saitoti was now trapped in a murky and frightening world where sleaze and skulduggery ruled. He had become one of the hydra-heads of corruption in the Nyayo era.

For that, politically, he wore loyalty like an armour, singing Moi’s praises and silently hoping he would inherit the seat.

It was after the March 18, 2002 merger between Kanu and Mr Raila Odinga’s National Development Party that Saitoti realised that his quest for the presidency was going to be an uphill climb. And it wasn’t without reason that he was worried: Behind his back, Moi had organised a scheme to deflate Saitoti and Kanu secretary-general Joseph Kamotho.

What Saitoti and Mr Odinga had not realised was that Moi had his eye on Uhuru Kenyatta, the chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board, to become his successor. If they saw Uhuru coming, they hardly thought much of him.

Mr Kenyatta was lacklustre, and looked a bit dishevelled, having lost the race for the Gatundu South parliamentary seat in October 2001.

To save him, Moi forced Mark Too to step down as nominated MP in favour of Mr Kenyatta.

In November 2001, Mr Kenyatta was appointed to the Cabinet.

On the day of the merger, Saitoti was shocked to find that his name was nowhere in the list of candidates.


He walked over to the President and reportedly complained loudly about his missing name. It was the first time that many of his friends saw him complain bitterly.

But Moi dismissed him with: “Kimya (shut up!) Professor; if your name is not on the list, it is not there.”

It was the beginning of the end. Embarrassed, Saitoti returned to his seat, beaten. His friends would later admit that he was pained. It was the worst public humiliation.

It was then that he took the microphone and made his now most famous political speech: “There come (sic) a time when the nation is more important than an individual … but one day I will be proved right.”

Saitoti joined national politics thanks to then Kajiado politician Stanley Oloitiptip. The VP was one of the most learned in his adopted community.


For that, and in his 30s, he had been nominated to the East African legislature as an MP, an appointment that gave him both social and political mileage.

He had also been appointed executive chairman of Mumias Sugar Company and later of Kenya Commercial Bank.

After the 1997 General Election, Moi failed to name a vice-president for 14 months — a huge embarrassment to Saitoti.

Moi was described by religious leaders as “reckless and careless” by leaving the position open — a move that could trigger a constitutional crisis in case he died. He reappointed Saitoti via a roadside declaration in Limuru in 1999.


But that would not be the only time he would take a jibe at his VP. As his term came to a close and the search for a successor accelerated, Moi bluntly told Saitoti to his face: Huyu profesa ni rafiki yangu, lakini urafiki na uongozi ni tofauti (This professor is my friend, but friendship and leadership are not the same)”.

It was the last kick.

While Saitoti later quit to join Kanu rebels who walked into Mr Kibaki’s camp and won, his quest for presidency never materialised. He died in a police helicopter crash.