Recently, one of the Assignment Editors at the Nation Media Group requested me to do a story on who were retired President Daniel arap Moi’s most trusted aides.
Leafing through my yellowing notebooks and scratching a greying head to recall memories of conversations unrecorded, I concluded Moi had none. I share some recollections that made me arrive at this conclusion.
Sometimes in the year 2002 I happened to be at the home of a former Cabinet minister, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, when a former permanent secretary in President Moi’s government, Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, came over. The two were friends and had a lot in common.
At the time the duo, who were long into retirement, had been recalled to serve in a parliamentary salaries review committee.
That was before a greedy breed of parliamentarians arrived and decided to henceforth determine what they would be paid mpende msipende (like it or not)!
Dr Waiyaki and Ambassador Kiplagat had a lot in shared memories, having served in the Foreign Affairs ministry, one as minister and the other as PS, though at different times.
THE TINY PPROBLEM
In the course of the conversation that day, Dr Waiyaki commented that Ambassador Kiplagat was lucky to have been one of the few in whom President Moi had full trust.
The latter laughed and said: “As a matter of fact, I closely worked for and with Moi. But I can tell you he never had full trust in anybody. Believe me, nobody at all!”
He went on to elaborate: “You were only Moi’s trusted confidant when seated with him. The moment you stepped out, your worst adversary would be seated exactly where you were and undoing whatever it is you had discussed and agreed with the President.”
As for whose counsel Moi acted on, Ambassador Kiplagat told us, it all depended on who spoke to him last.
He gave us his own example. When he was PS, Foreign Affairs, Moi appointed him special envoy to mediate between warring factions in Mozambique — Frelimo and Renamo.
In the course of his work, the Kenyan diplomat discovered one of the biggest obstacles to peace in Mozambique was interference by rogue British billionaire Tiny Rowland, who was funding one of the factions to secure protection for his crooked business interests in the southern African country.
The tricky thing for Ambassador Kiplagat was that Tiny Rowland was also a great friend of Moi.
He had substantial investments in Kenya, whose caretaker was another of Moi’s confidants, Mark arap Too.
DROPPED AS PS
Realising he couldn’t get very far with the Mozambique assignment as long as Tiny Rowland had leverage with Moi, Ambassador Kiplagat gathered courage and told the President he wished to be relieved of the job in Maputo as he wasn’t making much headway.
Moi would hear none of it: “How can you quit when all the reports I have been getting are that you are doing a fantastic job down there? I won’t allow that.”
Believing the President to mean what he said, Ambassador Kiplagat poured out his heart and told Moi how Tiny Rowland and Mark Too were frustrating his efforts to broker peace in Mozambique.
He recalled Moi looking at him in the eye and saying: “Forget about that crook called Tiny Rowland. Also Mark Too. What do they know about diplomacy? Just ignore them and do the work I gave you to do!”
Ambassador Kiplagat left Moi’s office satisfied he had full trust of the boss.
But he immediately smelt a rat when on his way out he met with Mark Too who greeted him with a mischievous smile.
“I there and then suspected foul play and went back to my office expecting the worst”, Ambassador Kiplagat recalled.
Sure enough, three days later he learnt on radio that he had been dropped as PS and appointed chairman of some obscure State corporation.
Moi-era Cabinet minister Joseph Kamotho also told me of his experience.
When he and former Vice President George Saitoti were about to quit Kanu in 2002, Moi invited him for dinner at his private city residence to persuade him not to go.
“Why follow that man Saitoti?” Moi had asked Kamotho. “You are my trusted man, but he isn’t!”
Kamotho replied in surprise: “But Saitoti has been your long serving and loyal deputy?” To which Moi replied: “Yes, he has been my VP but that isn’t to say I trust him! Look, how can I trust a person who has never allowed us to know his origins?
Again, I hear he has so much money which nobody knows where it came from? How can you trust such a person?”
Kamotho told me he left Moi’s residence puzzled that he had retained a deputy he didn’t trust for 12 years yet the Constitution those days allowed the President to fire his VP on a whim!
Kamotho had another recollection. When he was elected Kanu secretary-general, Moi allowed him to retain his position as Murang’a Kanu branch chairman as well, which wasn’t allowed by the party constitution.
Then, out of the blues, Kanu national chairman Peter Oloo Aringo demanded that Kamotho relinquish one of the party positions he held.
Suspecting that his colleague couldn’t do so without clearance from high up, Kamotho sought audience with Moi on the matter.
The President dismissed Aringo as a loud mouth acting on his own. “That man talks too much. I will tell him to do his work and leave you alone to do yours,” Moi assured Kamotho.
But Aringo didn’t stop. A confused Kamotho sought to know what was going on from then-powerful PS in the office of the President, Hezekiah Oyugi.
The latter was frank with him: “Mr Kamotho, if I were you, I would go to the President and tell him I voluntarily want to resign as Murang’a Kanu branch chairman. That is the President’s wish but he won’t tell you. He is using Aringo to pass the message across.” Kamotho did as advised and Moi was a happy man.
In those days, Oyugi was the most trusted Moi confidant — to the extent he was allowed to set up an Intelligence gathering network to work parallel to the official spy agency.
When he went to consult with Moi, Oyugi would keep everybody else, including his immediate boss, the Head of the Civil Service, waiting at the reception for hours on end.
But the very moment Moi was done with him, Oyugi never knew what hit him.
He was arrested and locked up for two weeks in connection with the mysterious murder of Cabinet minister Robert Ouko.
When set free, he caught a mysterious disease and died in a London hospital.
Moi somehow forgot to send a message of condolence, let alone attend Oyugi’s funeral!
Long-serving Controller of State House in Moi’s government, Abraham Kiptanui, was another one to know you were only useful to the President when seated with him, but immediately out of sight, you were out of mind, and bure kabisa! - as Mwai Kibaki would crudely put it.
When he served him, Moi deliberately let Kiptanui believe he was his most trusted person and used him to spy on other assumed confidants.
Then one day Kiptanui arrived at his office in Nairobi State House to be told the President had left for Nakuru, of which he had no prior knowledge, yet he was a trusted keeper of the President’s diary!
A few minutes later, he got a call that he should see the Head of the Civil Service at Harambee House.
There, he was handed a letter that stated: “ … It has been decided that you take an early retirement in the public interest …”
Nobody bothered to tell Kiptanui “where” it was decided, by “whom” and to serve which “public interest”!
Years later after the former State House official had moved on, he made a joke to a former colleague: “You know my friend, my biggest mistake when Controller of State House was to assume I worked for an institution called State House and the government. When fired, I discovered I had been working for a company called Moi Incorporated!”
BIWOTT TURNED AWAY
Total trust? Never! Not even self-declared “Total man” Nicholas Biwott had total trust of his boss Moi.
I came to know it during the burial of Mama Lena Moi at Kabarak, which I attended as a journalist.
At the end of the service at Kabarak University grounds, an announcement was made that only President Kibaki, Moi family, and invited guests should proceed to the Moi family compound for interment of the body.
A Nation photographer and I strategically positioned ourselves at the side gate to see who would or wouldn’t be allowed to enter the family compound.
We witnessed Biwott and a Moi-era nominated MP from the Coast, Rashid Sajjad, turned away.
Back in Nairobi, I sought appointment with a retired highly-placed official and great friend of Biwott to ask him why, of all people, “Total Man” couldn’t be allowed to enter Moi’s family compound.
He laughed and told me that Moi and Biwott had long parted ways but decided to play it cool. As you expect, I asked how that came about.
The retired official gave me a long story. In the “leaner days” when Moi’s and Biwott’s bank accounts were often in the red, he told me, Biwott tirelessly worked hard to make sure it would never be the same again for the two, and for their generations, born and unborn.
But as money rained in torrents, and their children matured to demand a piece of the action, the two old buddies developed mistrust for each other, with accusations and counter-accusations on who had “stolen” from the other.
My contact gave me credible details, but, in the absence of documented evidence, I can’t mention them here without getting my employer into unwarranted legal problems.
Not even Moi’s heads of Intelligence were beyond suspicion by the boss.
When Mwai Kibaki abruptly resigned from government to join the opposition in December 1991, the President hit the roof that Intelligence didn’t know of Kibaki’s plans in advance.
He couldn’t believe it and thought Intelligence head James Kanyotu was working with Kibaki.
He quietly fired the latter despite having trusted him on many delicate assignments for 14 years.
The same fate nearly fell on Moi’s third and last Intelligence head, Wilson Boinnet.
When President Moi bulldozed Uhuru Kenyatta as Kanu presidential candidate in 2002 election, the Intelligence head frankly told him indications on the ground were that Kanu would lose the election.
Moi chose to be in denial, instead suspecting the Intelligence head was working with Vice President Saitoti who, until Uhuru Kenyatta came on the scene, was the presumed Kanu presidential candidate.
To escape Moi’s wrath, Boinnet turned to showing Moi raw Intelligence reports received from the field.
I personally got to know Moi didn’t fully trust anybody during an encounter with him at State House, a story I have previously told in this column.
What I left out in the story is that as the President saw us off, he pulled aside politician Stanley Githunguri and spoke to him in whispers.
On our way back to town, the latter told me what the whisper from the President was about.
The President wanted to know whether the rival politician to Githunguri, Njenga Karume, was able to deliver the Kiambu vote to Kanu as promised.
It happened that Karume, on persuasion by Moi, had defected from the opposition to join Kanu and had promised to deliver the Kiambu vote if supported with resources, which Moi gave him in plenty.
But here was Moi doubting Karume and cross-checking with his arch-political rival whether he was cheating on him.
That was Moi’s political universe. Nobody was beyond suspicion, not even Caesar’s wife!