When he finally exits in the coming days, General Samsom Mwathethe will likely be remembered for a chequered tenure whose lowest points were perhaps the attacks on Somalia-based Kenyan soldiers in Kolbiyow and El Adde, in which more than 250 are thought to have lost their lives.
When the history books are written, the quiet, reserved but firm general who kept off politics and oversaw the modernisation of the KDF will probably feature as a footnote.
As a military general, one or two major events can be used to define your legacy — building or destroying a reputation nurtured over the years.
For General Mwathethe, talk about his legacy will revolve around the Kolbiyow and El-Adde attacks.
Gen Mwathethe is the ninth man to head the Kenyan forces after Major General Benard Penfold (1966-1969), Maj-Gen Joseph Ndolo (1969-1971) and Gen Jackson Mulinge (1971-1986), Gen Mahamoud Mohamed (1986-1996), Gen Daudi Tonje (1996-2000), Gen Joseph Kibwana (2000-2005), Gen Jeremiah Kianga (2005-2011) and Gen Julius Karangi ( 2011-2015).
Penfold, Africanised military (1966-1969)
British commander Maj-Gen Benard Penfold was the first Chief of General Staff for the Kenyan military after his appointment by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1966. After independence in 1963, the dominance of the British colonial system continued. Maj-Gen Penfold is remembered for Africanising the military. “While at independence only 50 per cent of the KR’s (Kenya Rifles) officers were Kenyan, the last seconded British officer in the KR left Kenya by 1969,” journalist Charles Hornsby writes in the book Kenya: A History. His devotion to Africanise the military was so great that Edward Peck, then British High Commissioner, complained that Penfold was “proving a harder bargainer on behalf of Kenya than the Kenyans themselves”. He died in 2015 aged 98.
Ndolo, the disgraced general (1969-1971)
Maj-Gen Joseph Ndolo, the first African to head the military, lasted only two years as Chief of General Staff. His reign was abruptly brought to an end after he was fired over the 1971 coup attempt.
In the book, The 1964 Army Mutinies, Timothy Parsons writes that Maj-Gen Ndolo, who was reported to have expressed dissatisfaction with the Kenyatta regime, was only loosely related to the coup attempt or conspiracy of 1971.
Although he was not among those in the dock, Maj-Gen Ndolo was said to have been the man behind the plot. He died in 1984.
Mulinge, hero who turned to politics (1971-1986)
Gen Jackson Mulinge served as the military chief for 15 years. The general, whose military education was entirely British, was the first Kenyan to receive the Queen’s commission in 1961.
Gen Mulinge was the first to hold the post of Chief of General Staff (today called Chief of Defence Forces) in 1978 and was the first to become a four-star general in 1980.
As Chief of General Staff, he helped quash the 1982 coup attempt to overthrow President Daniel arap Moi.
On leaving the military, he got elected Kathiani MP and later joined the Cabinet, variously as Land and Health minister.
He died in 2014 aged 91.
Mohammed, the coup crusher (1986-1996)
As deputy army commander, Mahmoud Mohammed led the operation that crushed the 1982 coup attempt, changing the course of Kenya’s history. Recapturing Voice of Kenya, the national broadcaster, from rebel soldiers was a major step in suffocating the coup plotters. A soldier with modest education, he started his career as an infantryman private, the army’s lowest rank, and rose through the ranks to head the military. No other man has achieved such a feat in the history of Kenya’s military. His academic credentials are the lowest compared to other generals, but his contribution as the head of the military was significant. Today, he runs businesses in Garissa and Nairobi.
Tonje, the reformist (1996-2000)
Gen (Rtd) Daudi Tonje, one of the celebrated KDF officers, carried out a revolution in the military. During his tenure, there was the highest number of reforms that included the disbandment of the Women Service Corps, leading to the inclusion of women in the mainstream military ranks, establishment of the Defence Staff College and the Defence Forces Medical Insurance Scheme. General Tonje also introduced term limits for military officers. His predecessors, General Mohamud and General Mulinge served for 10 years and a record 15 years respectively. The story goes that President Moi intended to use all means to extend the term of Gen Tonje but the distinguished officer blatantly refused the offer. The Tonje Rules require a non-renewable term of four years or retirement at the age of 62, whichever comes first. However, the age seemed to have been quietly adjusted to 64 years during Gen Joseph Karangi’s term. There is also the rotation of the top KDF position between the Army, Navy and Airforce. And it is Gen Tonje who ended the pay parades in which soldiers had to line up when receiving salaries. Instead, he introduced the payment of salaries through bank accounts.
In 1962, he was enlisted to the army and trained as a cadet at Hifford Barracks, Lanet, then as the first direct-entry African cadet.
After his training, he was posted to the 11th KAR battalion, which was disbanded in 1964 after some soldiers staged a mutiny over poor pay for African soldiers.
Gen Tonje is a goat farmer at his countryside home in Baringo County.
Kibwana, the political transition general (2000-2005)
Gen (Rtd) Joseph Kibwana oversaw the smooth transition of power from President Moi’s Kanu regime to triumphant opposition Narc candidate Mwai Kibaki after the 2002 General Election. Kanu’s Uhuru Kenyatta had lost to the Opposition and there were fears incumbent President Moi would refuse to hand over power after 24 years — which proved unfounded.
He was in the first batch of 10 African officers and servicemen recruited to the Navy in 1964. The officers were sent to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, UK, for studies.
In 2000, he became the first Navy officer to occupy the office of the Chief of General Staff.
Gen (Rtd) Kibwana is the Kenya Ports Authority board chairman.
Kianga, introduced degrees for soldiers (2005-2011)
Gen (Rtd) Jeremiah Kianga, who was considered a strict disciplinarian and a general who easily fired subordinates, introduced the bachelor’s degree in military science for all officers.
The degree, which started in collaboration with Egerton University for all military officers, was part of the Defence Forces Continuous Education Programme. It was later taken over by Kenyatta University. During his tenure, soldiers would find themselves in trouble for appearing overweight or for failing body mass index tests. In a controversial move, President Kibaki extended his term for two-and-a half years. Gen (Rtd) Kianga was the Chief of Staff during the 2007/2008 post-election violence and the crackdown against the Sabaot Land Defence Forces. In both cases, security agents were accused of using excessive force. He is the chairman of Kenya Railways Corporation.
Karangi, took Kenya troops to Somalia (2011-2015)
Gen (Rtd) Julius Waweru Karangi will be remembered as the Chief of Defence Forces who led Kenyan troops to war, the first time in the country’s history. Under his command, the KDF was deployed in October 2011 to fight Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia who had been making cross-border attacks. “Gen Karangi is probably the most extraordinary man I have ever met. A general who led Kenya successfully into battle,” Defence Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo praised the retired General during his handing-over ceremony.Gen Karangi was perhaps the most powerful and politically connected general in Kenya’s history. The general, who engaged in politics, is said to have had an influence on Cabinet and key government appointments made by Presidents Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Gen (Rtd) Karangi is the chairman of the National Social Security Fund board of trustees