Nicholas Kipyator Biwott, who died on Tuesday, was a man whose impact on the fabric of Kenya’s political history is etched in controversy and fear.
The Nyayo-era Cabinet minister will be remembered for the air of mystery that he cultivated around himself and the sense of dread he instilled on an entire nation.
In this one final act, the larger-than-life persona exits the stage and we are none the wiser about the man whose very mention once instilled fear and paralysis in those who encountered it.
Biwott was not one of those names you bandied around.
He wore a cloak of deep mystery and dark dread easily, making him one of the most-feared—and, perhaps, most-misunderstood—public figures in Kenya.
Interestingly, none of the allegations lined up against him withstood the test of proof.
Instead, his reward was a double portion of hefty court awards when he sued for defamation and won.
In December 2000, Biwott sued British publishers and printers of the book Dr Ian West’s Case Book, authored by British journalist Chester Stern, and two Nairobi bookshops that distributed it.
Dr West was the Scotland Yard pathologist involved in investigations into the death of Foreign Affairs minister John Robert Ouko in 1990.
High Court judge Alnasir Visram awarded Biwott Sh30 million in damages—the highest-value ever award for a defamation case in Kenya—in the case against the publisher.
Biwott also won Sh10 million from Book Point.
The media crowned him the most powerful man in the President Daniel arap Moi regime.
His massive wealth and closeness to the Head of State served him well, stoking the fires of his perceived invincibility.
In the court of public opinion, the name “Biwott” elicited a mixture of awe, fear, hatred and anger as Kenyans grew increasingly restless of the authoritarian one-party rule of Kanu.
At one time, a leading cartoonist, Maddo, drew a rather humorous caricature that captured the fear that Biwott cast on the national psyche.
It depicted members of the public discussing the carcass of a cow lying by the roadside. In dreadful whispers, they said: “The Total Man must have killed it.”
I did not quite appreciate how much dread Biwott could elicit until our brief encounter during the early days of President Moi’s “cooperation” with the then-leader of opposition Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the Nasa presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s late father.
Moi had travelled to Odinga’s Bondo home to address a rally in a public display of their newfound political unity.
I was the Nation Media Group bureau chief for western Kenya region. I covered the function.
Before the speeches, Biwott walked from the dais to where I stood. Smiling, he greeted me cordially and he took my left hand then pulled me gently towards him and asked me to follow him.
We walked in silence to the back of the main tent. I could feel my heart pounding in my mouth! I had no idea what ‘Total Man’ had in store for me. In those few strides, my mind conjured up many disturbing images.
I was among the few journalists who covered the Commission of Inquiry into Dr Ouko’s assassination, where Biwott’s name featured prominently. In fact, Scotland Yard detective John H.B. Troon mentioned Biwott as a prime suspect in the murder.
The chasm of silence between us ended abruptly when he stopped and turned to look me right in the eye: “Bwana Atemi,” he asked in Kiswahili, “Am I a bad man?” I was baffled and rendered speechless.
Where did such a question come from? What was I supposed to say to this man, Moi’s confidant and Kenya’s most powerful?
I swallowed hard, trying to dislodge my leaden tongue from the roof of my mouth.
Amid his hypnotising stare and tight grip on my hand, he flashed me a brilliant white smile.
“Mheshimiwa, of course you are not a bad man. I think people are simply jealous of your success in politics,” I responded. His smile broadened.
“I knew it. They are just jealous,” he retorted as, without another word, he gently released his grip on my hand and walked away, back to the dais.
For months on end I was perplexed by that encounter. But it also brought me a new problem: I was the subject of discussion among friends, colleagues and politicians. “So you are a friend of the Total Man?” they prodded, wanting to know what we had discussed. I could only shake my head.
While covering the Ouko inquiry, various witnesses described Biwott as a powerful and feared man.
Mr Mathew Onyango K’Oyoo and Detective Troon painted the picture of a man whose name alone was enough to cause a political earthquake.
Mr K’Oyoo, now Muhoroni MP, insisted on ascribing an entire set of names to Biwott when it was his turn to testify: Nicholas Kipyator Biwott arap Cheserem.
On August 14, 1992, veteran politician Masinde Muliro collapsed and died at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport shortly after disembarking from a London flight.
He was Jaramogi’s vice-chairman at Ford-Kenya, then a powerful opposition political party that was expected to unseat Kanu in the first multiparty elections in December.
Speculation was rife that, while in London, Muliro had met a former police officer, Mr George Wajackoyah, who claimed to have had useful information regarding Dr Ouko’s death. Biwott was on the same British Airways flight with Muliro to and from London.
In 2000, then-Ugenya MP James Orengo (now Siaya senator) caused a major uproar in Parliament when he linked the Energy minister to Muliro’s “murder”.
Biwott made unsuccessful attempts at having the claim withdrawn. Speculation heightened when Muliro was buried without a postmortem.
In his autobiography, Against All Odds, Nasa running mate Kalonzo Musyoka tells of an encounter with Biwott at JKIA when Moi and a few of his ministers briefly met with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January 1998.
He accompanied Moi together with Biwott and then-Attorney-General Amos Wako, the Busia senator.
He says: “While in the presidential suite, Blair told Moi: ‘Mr President, although you did not come to Edinburgh you have nothing to worry about.
You were well represented by your Foreign minister.’
The looks I received from my colleagues told me that I had lost the Foreign Affairs portfolio.
When Moi named his Cabinet after the elections, I was moved to Education and Manpower Development.”
Such was the man Biwott, whose quiet demeanour and secretive nature morphed him into a near-mystic figure.
When he even glanced, smiled or pointed at you, it was believed—rightly or wrongly—your goose was cooked.
Mr Caleb Atemi is an author and biographer. [email protected]