Early in 1997, my friend and colleague, Mwangi Chege, asked me to accompany him to a fund-raiser in his ancestral home in Nyeri County which was presided over by Vice President George Saitoti.
My friend had a special invitation from Mathira District Officer which entitled us to sit at the VIP dais as the rest of journalists, as usual, scorched in the hot sun. Being one of those rare occasions when a journalist sits on the opposite side, I found myself engrossed more in whatever was happening at the high table, and not the fund-raiser itself.
I noted that while the VIPs at the high table were sipping water from the bottles at the table, Saitoti didn’t touch his bottle but would sip from a bottle carried by his aide and immediately give it back to him.
It is as if the VP feared that one of the VIPs seated next to him would throw something into his bottle if it was left to stay at the table.
I also noted that the VP kept throwing scared gazes all over the place as if fearing somebody he didn’t like was present.
That amazed me because I thought as the country’s No. 2 big man he would be happy that people from as many walks of life attended his function.
But the real amazing one was at the burial of Dr Jason Likimani, a resident of Kajiado, and the first indigenous Kenyan medic having obtained a diploma in medicine in 1939.
Saitoti, as the VP and most senior resident of Kajiado County graced the occasion. As the ceremony proceeded, leading opposition leader and family friend of the Likimanis, Mr Kenneth Matiba, walked in. All of a sudden, Saitoti made a signal to his aides and hurriedly left. Years later I asked Kajiado politician John Keen, who was master of ceremony, why Saitoti abruptly left. He replied: “Saitoti wasn’t a man!” I never asked him what he meant by that.
My next encounter with the mystery of Saitoti was when my boss at the Nation Media Group, Dr Evans Kidero, asked me to do a story about his old school, Mangu High, a school that gave us a President, Mwai Kibaki, and two Vice Presidents, Saitoti and Moody Awori, among other notables.
The school principal allowed me access to all the school files but I never saw the name George Saitoti anywhere. True he was at the school but never used any of the names associated with him – George Saitoti, Kiarie wa Kinuthia, Kinuthia wa Muthengi, George Musengi – and perhaps any other name you know.
The other occasion I remember was at a restaurant in Karen where I bumped on then Kenya Football Federation chairman Sam Nyamweya. Sam is a good, interesting man. When you meet him, he always has a story to tell. And if there is no story to tell, he creates one. And as he narrates the one he has created, he invents yet another one. It was in the process of telling me his many stories when the person he was waiting for, Vice President Saitoti, walked in. On seeing me seated with Sam, the VP made a quick about-turn and called Sam on his hand-set to change the venue of their meeting. As he hurriedly left, Sam whispered: “You know that man can’t sit here now that he has seen me with someone he doesn’t know.”
Another similar one was at a friend’s office at Posta-Sacco Plaza on University Way. As I chatted away with my friend, the door flung open and Saitoti walked in. On seeing me, he stopped in the middle with an offended look. My friend quickly asked me to relocate to the boardroom. My friend would later tell me that Saitoti had taken considerable time inquiring who I was, what had taken me there, and whether I could have been tape-recording their conversation while seated in the boardroom.
Yet another occasion was at a high-end hotel in Mombasa in 2006. I had been assigned to do a story on how hotels at the coast had improved on their security as a result of terrorist threats. I was walking into the hotel lobby on a Sunday morning when some mean-looking man pushed me aside. Before I knew what was happening, Saitoti whizzed by escorted by even meaner-looking fellows than the one who had pushed me aside.
It was a very sunny morning and Saitoti was the only person I saw that day dressed in a suit and a tie. I would learn that he was always in a suit because he wouldn’t leave the house without a bullet-proof vest. Later as I talked to the manager, I mentioned that I had met Saitoti at the entrance. He looked surprised that Saitoti had spent the night there. He told me: “I know he comes here but he never makes his booking through us. We only get to know we have a VIP guest but can’t even tell exactly which room he occupies. We book him at least three rooms in different floors and never get to know which one he uses!”
It is in the same hotel where Saitoti spent the last weekend before his death while attending a top-level government function with President Kibaki. Officially, Saitoti was booked at another hotel where the rest of the Cabinet ministers were staying but he had asked one of his aides to stay in the room to give the impression that he was staying there. It is like the minister didn’t feel safe staying with fellow cabinet ministers.
Once I had a conversation with retired politician Kimani wa Nyoike, who was in college in the United States together with Saitoti in early 1960s. He told me that Saitoti was a mystery even in their college days. “I was leader of Kenyan students in our time and we lived us a community. But Saitoti was always a stranger to us,” Nyoike told me.
The retired politician also told me that Saitoti never liked anybody who knew his past near him. “It is like he had something he didn’t want known about him”, he told me.
In all his public functions, nobody remembers Saitoti uttering a single word in any of the 40-something dialects spoken in Kenya. On his death, word spread that members of the family had to ask top government officials to take away safes at his home which only the late minister had access to. Just before his death, he had just constructed a house in Kiserian, Kajiado County, which only select aides were allowed entry.
It is at the requiem of the late Saitoti in June 2012 when the public saw for the first time the man who spoke as family friend of the Saitotis. His name is Jimmy Wanjigi. Yet another riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.