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Lessons for Ruto: Three men and how they played their cards

Sunday February 2 2020


Combined photos from left: Mwai Kibaki, Charles Njonjo and Jaramogi Oginga. While Njonjo instantly gave up and Kibaki played cool and bade his time, Oginga took the bull by the horns. PHOTOS | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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In the aftermath of the 1982 abortive attempt by the military to overthrow President Daniel arap Moi’s government, Cabinet minister Charles Njonjo was a hunted and haunted man.

His direct telephone link to the President was abruptly disconnected and he was told that he would henceforth only go to State House on appointment.

In the few times he met the President, the latter deliberately created situations for interruptions so that Njonjo would have as minimal time as possible to discuss anything meaningful with him.

It was a strange experience for Njonjo. He had strongly persuaded President Jomo Kenyatta to appoint Moi his deputy, and gone out of his way to pull down any barrier to Moi’s ascendancy to the top office.

Feeling indebted, Moi initially let Njonjo behave like and believe that he was co-president.



He would go to State House whenever he felt like, ride in the presidential limousine, and issue directives in the name of the President even without consultation.

Such was Njonjo’s power that he could direct that two former MPs serving prison terms – Muhuri Muchiri and Jesse Gachago – be taken to his home where he told them he had “forgiven” them and set them free.

Suddenly, all that changed and Moi didn’t want anything to do with the man who played king-maker in his path to the top.

Years later I met the man who was Njonjo’s official driver at the time, police inspector Kabucho Wakori.

He graphically described to me how thick things got for his boss when Moi pulled the rag from under his feet.

“All of a sudden my boss began to lose weight and his old suits now seemed ill-fitting. He had to change the entire wardrobe, as his head quickly turned grey and the hairline receded as fast,” recalled the former driver.


Njonjo, who thrived on keeping secret files of potential rivals and using the information to keep them on a short leash, suddenly found the shoe on the other foot.

His telephones were tapped, his letters opened, and his movements tracked. His ex-driver told me that at one point he deliberately stopped Njonjo’s car in the middle of the road just to let the two cars trailing them know he was aware they were there.

Then in April 1983 Moi decided it was time to kick Njonjo in that part of the human anatomy we won’t mention.

The latter was away in London to see his doctor on stress-related health complications, when Moi travelled to Kisii and told a public rally that a highly placed person was “a traitor” being groomed by foreign powers to take over power in Kenya through the backdoor.

The same evening, Kenyan High Commissioner in London, Bethuel Kiplagat, telephoned Njonjo in his hotel and told him Moi had instructed that he should immediately return home.

Njonjo’s lawyer, Paul Muite, would tell me years later that knowing how “the system” worked, on arrival home Njonjo asked him to help draft a resignation letter, which Njonjo delivered to State House the next morning.


According to Muite, Moi took the letter and put it in his drawer but told Njonjo the resignation had been declined and instructed him to go to his office and continue working.

Allowing Njonjo to resign of his own volition would have messed up the laid-down strategy, which was to take him through the wringer step by step – first through sacking, then a judicial inquiry, and a snap general election to eliminate his allies.

Njonjo chose not to fight. He took it all in his stride and quit the political arena, never to return.

His driver would tell me that for avoidance of doubt, Njonjo quietly sent two emissaries, David Silverstein, who has for many years been his and Moi’s personal physician, and their mutual friend and conservationist Richard Leakey, to assure Moi that he had quit politics for good.

In central Kenya, there is a saying that the clever boy, on realising he would be beaten, ran to his mother but lived to fight and win on another day.

That is what Vice President Mwai Kibaki did in April 1988 when he saw the tide coming fast and furious.


From the word go, President Moi had never wanted Kibaki as his deputy but political expediency called for it.

Moi’s favourite was a Cabinet minister from Murang’a where he had more sympathisers, unlike in Kiambu where not many thought much of him, and Nyeri which cared no more, but had a grudge with Kiambu, which Nyeri people thought had enjoyed more than a fair share of the “fruits” of independence.

In picking Kibaki, a Kikuyu from Nyeri, Moi would win Nyeri and still keep Murang’a, so the political arithmetic worked at the time.

Otherwise, the chemistry between Moi and Kibaki never synced based on background and world outlook.

When he served as Finance Minister under President Jomo Kenyatta, Kibaki had leeway to run his show without interference, latitude that the less self-assured Moi never gave anybody in his government.

Besides, President Kenyatta allowed some room for independent thinking such that Kibaki could associate with radicals like Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose book, Petals of Blood, Kibaki launched despite its unflattering appraisal of the Kenyatta government.


Kibaki was also the only Cabinet minister who attended the burial of murdered fiery MP JM Kariuki when the rest of the Cabinet members stayed away for fear of reprisals from the government.

Moi would never tolerate such conduct. He never took it kindly that his vice-president wouldn’t pin the Kanu badge on the lapel of his coat, and would be invited to address gatherings by the likes of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) and the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), entities Moi equated to opposition political parties.

Moi had Kibaki under surveillance. Veteran journalist Salim Lone recalls once visiting the VP in his office and the latter pulling him to talk at the far corner of the office because he suspected his desk had hidden listening devices.

Finally, Moi demoted Kibaki from VP to an ordinary Cabinet minister. Several of Kibaki advisers wanted him to resign and mount opposition from the back benches.

One of Kibaki’s strongest allies at the time, Cabinet minister Kenneth Matiba, actually went ahead and resigned.

Kibaki chose not to rebel. He not only remained in government but avoided the slightest confrontation with the boss.

In social places, he avoided any political talk. And during holidays in Mombasa, he would only be in the company of his immediate family.


Indeed, even in the few days after Moi caved in to pressure and allowed the formation of opposition political parties, Kibaki would make the famous statement that the ruling party was impossible to uproot and attempts to do so were akin to using a razor blade to cut down a fig tree!

So loyal was Kibaki, or so he made it appear, that Moi was taken by surprise to hear he had resigned from the Cabinet on Boxing Day in 1991.

But even in opposition Kibaki was always restrained. I remember attending his first rally as member of the opposition at Uhuru Park in February 1992.

While every speaker foamed at the mouth attacking Moi and his government, Kibaki never mentioned the president by name.

And for the 10 years Kibaki was in the opposition, he avoided direct confrontation with Moi, leaving his lieutenants to do the frontal attacks.

He remained so until the circumstances worked in his favour and he took over upon Moi’s exit in 2002.

While Njonjo instantly gave up and Kibaki played cool and bade his time, Jaramogi Odinga took the bull by the horns.


Even on the very day he was dragged to the political guillotine at the Limuru Conference Centre, Jaramogi had gone prepared for a fight.

Three Russians posing as journalists were smoked out from the bushes on the way to Limuru, where they had been hiding with the intention to waylay delegates headed for the conference and bribe them to disrupt the gathering and save Jaramogi.

After humiliation at Limuru, he resigned as VP and quit Kanu so that he could take on President Kenyatta from the opposite side of the aisle.

Only a week after his Limuru waterloo, he sneaked to the Tanzania border to receive funding channelled through the Chinese embassy in Dar es Salaam to help him form an opposition party.

When security sources leaked the information to the media and Jaramogi denied it, Home Affairs minister Moi released names of individuals he met and registration numbers of the vehicles they used.

Two months later the opposition leader was again intercepted, having sneaked to Uganda using a different name to receive funding from his Russian friends.

It was clear Jaramogi had no intention to slow down and would take on President Kenyatta whenever an opportunity presented itself.


The confrontation took on a tragic note when Jaramogi supporters threw stones at the Head of State in Kisumu, leading to a shootout by the presidential guard that left 19 people dead.

Jaramogi’s opposition party was banned and he was placed under house arrest as dozens of his supporters were locked in.

There isn’t the slightest sign that DP Ruto may opt to go the Njonjo way and return to his Sugoi home to concentrate on his favourite poultry business – and perhaps live to be 100.

The next option would be, like Kibaki, to go slow and bid his time. At 54, time is on his side. He can wait until year 2032 when he will be 66.

President Jomo Kenyatta became President at 73 and Kibaki at 71, while Raila Odinga will be 77 in 2022 when he makes his fifth attempt to enter “Canaan”.

But all indications are that the DP wants it here and now, and will go to any length to achieve what he wants, at whatever price, and darn the consequences.