Inside Prof Saitoti’s bag of personal, political drama

Sunday June 16 2019

Prof George Saitoti.

Prof George Saitoti. When he was Finance minister, he found himself at the heart of intricate transactions; a web that he could never leave voluntarily. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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Seven years ago today, George Saitoti – Kenya’s most mysterious and excessively paranoid politician – was buried at his Enkasiti Farm in Kitengela after dying in an air crash six days earlier.

Nobody knows what happened and why a brand new police helicopter fell from the sky over Ngong Forest – and those who know have kept their code of silence to date.

In life, and by paranoia standards, Prof Saitoti’s only equivalent was his erstwhile political mentor Nicholas Biwott, who saw life in apocalyptic terms, too.

Both were embodiments of the McCarthyism mentality, and lived in either pseudo or innate fear, real or imagined.

They were not only masters of conspiratorial politics, but lived in cocoons of distrust and suspiciousness with their own networks of dystopic characters in both business and politics.

Prof Saitoti always watched his back – or so he thought. Even as he announced his intention to run for the presidency on Mwai Kibaki’s PNU ticket, his circle of confidants never widened beyond an arm swing.

ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

There was a history to that. Ever since he was poisoned at a Muthaiga restaurant that he frequented — and on the day in 1990 when Foreign minister Robert Ouko went missing before his body was found — Prof Saitoti had become an edgy politician, always fearing that someone was out to kill him.

Those who hobnobbed with him say that Prof Saitoti had only three trusted security confidantes: Inspector Joshua Tonkei, his personal assistant, Michael ole Tanju, and a bodyguard named Sultan.

The only other confidant was businessman Jimi Wanjigi, who was to play a pivotal role in Prof Saitoti’s campaign.

Apart from a single restaurant in Nairobi, Prof Saitoti would hardly take any food or drinks outside his home.

The only other place was Mr Wanjigi’s private restaurant at Kwacha House.

My sources say that after the attempt on his life, Prof Saitoti was wheeled out of Nairobi Hospital to his home where one room was turned into a ward, and it is only when he required blood transfusion to clean-up the poison in his system that he would be taken back, under the watch of a trusted nurse and doctor.

PUBLIC DENIAL

That the near-death of a vice-president through poisoning was never reported – although it was the subject of bar pep talk — is the hallmark of state control of information during the Nyayo era.

Those who saw Prof Saitoti say he was in a bad state, at times unconscious, and that his skin was literally peeling off.

But when he returned after a few months, Prof Saitoti denied “rumours” that he had been poisoned.

It was only after President Daniel Moi had told a public meeting that the people who killed Dr Ouko were the same who “poisoned my Vice President” that the mathematics professor admitted that, indeed, he had been poisoned.

He would later say that he did not know those who killed Dr Ouko because he was “was unconscious when Ouko was being killed”.

There was a reason for that. One of his friends, Mohammed Aslam, had apparently been poisoned after giving crucial evidence to the commission inquiring into the February 1990 murder of Dr Ouko – a death still unresolved 29 years later.

GOLDENBERG

Prof Saitoti had known that his poisoning, like that of Aslam, was a plot to finish him off.

Before he died, Aslam was the chairman of Pan African Bank and a frequent visitor to Prof Saitoti’s Treasury office.

Here, like many other wheeler-dealers, he would queue to seek favours as he laid the foundation of the then-Grand Regency Hotel (now Laico Regency); and he became one of the beneficiaries of the Goldenberg scandal fortunes where the government paid billions of shillings as compensation for fictitious exports of gold and diamond.

Unknown to many, and after Aslam’s death, his family would later sell the hotel project to Uhuru Highway Development Company, whose chairman was Kamlesh Pattni – the face of the Goldenberg scheme.

Records indicate the project was started in 1985, and the fully paid-up capital of 2,000 shares was divided between President Moi (800 shares), Aslam (1,020 shares), Chris Kirubi (80 shares), W. Murungi (60 shares) and G. Lindi (40 shares).

FINANCE MINISTER

By approving the Goldenberg scheme – and playing Ping-Pong with barons of vice — Prof Saitoti had been initiated into a murky and frightening world; an underworld that was full of sleaze, skulduggery, and where only death would extricate him.

As the minister for Finance, Prof Saitoti found himself at the heart of these intricate transactions; a web that he could never leave voluntarily.

We now know that four months after he was poisoned – Prof Saitoti had returned to his Treasury office to prepare his June 1990 budget speech.

He found that, during his absence, one of the most powerful schemers of the Nyayo era, Hezekiah Oyugi – by then a permanent secretary in the Office of the President – had pushed for a gold export compensation scheme for approval by the Treasury.

Prof Saitoti had apparently been poisoned at a time when some “gold exporters” were pushing him to allow Arum Limited to receive a subsidy – or gold and diamond export compensation – in order to compete with smugglers.

What we don’t know is whether Prof Saitoti had initially agreed to this scheme, which was first floated to him by his Kajiado South counterpart John Keen.

COMPLICIT

Shortly after he was poisoned, and as he was recovering at home, a letter was written to Arum Limited by the Commissioner of Mines and Geology asking them to await an inter-ministerial decision.

By the time Prof Saitoti returned to read his budget speech of June 7, 1990, he found that the Export Compensation Scheme was now part of his projections.

He played ball, like everyone else – perhaps out of fear, or out of greed. There was little he could do. Later on, he received in his office Kenya’s most fear-provoking man: James Kanyotu.

Mr Kanyotu, known for his intimidating authority, was not only the head of Special Branch (now National Intelligence Service) but also a voracious politico and businessman.

He knew Prof Saitoti was not clean. With him was a young Indian, Kamlesh Pattni, who had incorporated a new company, Goldenberg International Limited, and wanted to be granted 35 per cent export compensation – in line with the budget proposals.

The two had been to State House to lobby for the same, according to the report of inquiry into the saga.

SOURCE OF WEALTH

Having become a millionaire by assisting the political and business networks, Prof Saitoti had also become one of the richest men in Moi’s Cabinet.

That way, he was a trapped man, unable to salvage his name as one of the architects of the Goldenberg scandal.

Finally, he used the Judiciary to clean him up – and with that, he thought he would eventually succeed President Moi, when the time came.

It was the merger of Raila Odinga’s National Development Party and Kanu on March 18, 2002 that signalled to Prof Saitoti that the road to State House was rough, tortuous and mean.

As he drove towards the Kasarani Gymnasium Stadium that morning from his Lavington home, Saitoti was confident that he would retain his seat as Kanu’s vice president.

What he didn’t know was that his fall was choreographed behind his back at State House by some key Rift Valley elite who he associated with in the past.

Another person who was to fall with him was Kanu Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho, whose position was to be taken by Mr Odinga.

The time to cut him to size had come. Why? Nobody knows.

GROOMING UHURU

What Prof Saitoti did not know was that President Moi was looking elsewhere and secretly he was campaigning for a newcomer, Uhuru Kenyatta, to take over from him.

He had already appointed Mr Kenyatta as chairman of Kenya Tourism Board shortly after he had lost the race for Gatundu South parliamentary seat and in October 2001.

President Moi had forced Mark Too to step down as nominated MP in favour of Mr Kenyatta. In November 2001, he had been appointed to the Cabinet.

That day, and as the merger of Mr Odinga’s NDP into Kanu started, Prof Saitoti was shocked to find that his name was nowhere in the list of candidates.

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

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

Embarrassed, Prof Saitoti returned to his seat, beaten, dishevelled and politically rained on. His friends still say he was pained.

Up until that morning, Prof Saitoti was campaigning hoping that he would retain his seat as Kanu’s vice president.

PLANE CRASH

It was then that he took the microphone and made his now most famous political speech. “I know there are many of you who wanted me to contest, is that not so?” he asked the delegates.

“There come (sic) a time when the nation is more important than an individual… but one day I will be proved right.”

His friends believe that the day was to be his presidential bid – but that ended as he took a flight to Nyanza.

A pathologist, Dr Dorothy Njeru, who examined Prof Saitoti’s body after the June 2012 crash, told a commission of inquiry led by Justice Kalpana Rawal that Prof Saitoti may have died from inhaling a poisonous gas before the helicopter crashed.

What shocked the pathologists was that the six bodies had “cherry pink” patches, an indicator that the victims inhaled high levels of carbon monoxide before the crash occurred.

Although Dr Njeru noticed these patches, which she said were tell-tale signs of poisoning, that was omitted in the final post-mortem report.

How the poisonous gas found its way into the cabin has never been known – and remains one of the questions that has never been answered to date.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

The pathologist told the inquiry that from her assessment, that may not have been “a normal aviation accident”.

Born of Kikuyu parents, Zacharia Kiarie and Zipporah Gathoni, he had grown up as George Kinuthia Kiarie in Olkeri, Lower Matasia, but went through the Maasai initiation rites.

Saitoti’s father had escaped to Maasailand from Dagoretti at the height of the State of Emergency in the 1950s with many other Kikuyus escaping the colonial crackdown of Embu, Meru and Kikuyu in Nairobi and Central Kenya.

Here, he hid among his Maasai relatives and adopted the name Musengi – taken from the Kikuyu word Muthengi, which means an “immigrant”.

His children, born in the post-emergency era, adopted Maasai names as they attended local primary schools and became integrated into the Maasai cultural world.

Disguised as a Maasai herdsboy, Prof Saitoti had entered Brandeis University in September 1963 through the Wien International Scholarships to study economics and mathematics after a brilliant performance at Mangu High School.

For years, this dual identity continued to bother him — like a child of two worlds.

It was also going to cost him in politics, where tribal foundation was the basis of political negotiation.

Seven years after his mysterious death, Prof Saitoti’s life is still shrouded in mystery.

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