In the last years to the death of First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta on August 22, 1978, formerly bitter rivals to former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had secretly mended fences with him, first to block then Vice President Daniel arap Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency, but also to neutralise the radical political wing fronted by Jaramogi.
Just before Kenyatta’s death, the US government too had secretly requested the ageing President to find a way of accommodating Jaramogi, who Washington feared could destabilise the country if left loose in the absence of Kenyatta.
The American interest was personally communicated to the Kenyan president in an April 1976 conversation at State House, Nakuru, with US Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger.
The new disclosures are gleaned from unpublished recorded interviews with Foreign Affairs minister in the Jomo Kenyatta administration, Dr Munyua Waiyaki.
In the years before his death in April last year aged 91, Dr Waiyaki and I had worked on a project to establish parallel national archives where individuals would put their collection of papers and artefacts in a depository managed by a private trusteeship.
In the process, I recorded recollections of momentous events in his career, and which were to form the basis of a memoir he intended to publish.
Both projects fell through when ill health and old age took toll on him.
Though an insider in the Jomo Kenyatta government, Dr Waiyaki remained a family friend and political ally to the Odingas.
When Jaramogi formed the first opposition party — the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) — in 1966, Dr Waiyaki, then parliamentary secretary (the name of assistant ministers those days) and his younger brother, Kimani Waiyaki, who was Clerk to Mombasa Municipal Council, signed off to go with Jaramogi.
However, President Kenyatta managed to pull back Dr Waiyaki who at one time had been his personal doctor.
But he never had much luck with the younger brother who stuck with Jaramogi, costing him brief detention by the Kenyatta government.
When multiparty political system returned in 1992, Dr Waiyaki and his sister, Wambui Otieno, were the very few politicians from Mount Kenya region — others were Kiraitu Murungi and Paul Muite — who stuck with Jaramogi’s Ford-Kenya party despite the stampede in the region to join Kenneth Matiba’s Ford Asili or Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP).
Dr Waiyaki told me that even after the disastrous Jomo/Jaramogi spat in Kisumu on October 26, 1969, when presidential guards drew guns after a mob heckled and threw stones in the direction of the President, the latter retained a soft spot for his former deputy.
In a recorded speech that day, angry President Kenyata is quoted saying: “Were it not for my friendship with you, Odinga, who I loved more than my own brother, I would have ordered that you be placed in detention right away!”
The day after the showdown at the grounds of the New Nyanza General Hospital (popularly known as the Russian Hospital), Jaramogi’s KPU party was banned and its key leaders placed in detention without trial.
Dr Waiyaki told me that Jaramogi’s detention papers had been prepared but the President instead ordered that he be put under house arrest where all his interactions would be monitored.
Dr Waiyaki disclosed that after the Kisumu fallout, President Kenyatta established a back channel of communication with Jaramogi through him (Dr Waiyaki), and through the President’s daughter, then Mayor of Nairobi, Ms Margaret Kenyatta.
President Kenyatta would often ask Dr Waiyaki: “How is your in-law?” in reference to Jaramogi.
Dr Waiyaki’s sister, Wambui, was married to lawyer S.M. Otieno, the man whose protracted burial court saga gave Kenyans the name Nyalgunga, the name of his home village in Nyanza.
It is through the back channel between President Kenyatta and Jaramogi that house restriction on the latter was lifted in 1971, two years after the showdown at the Russian Hospital.
Through the same channel, President Kenyatta was informed that the Odinga family planned to go into gas-cylinder manufacturing business, for which they needed government approvals and funding from the state-owned corporation, the Kenya Industrial Estates.
When Jaramogi’s request was presented to the President, Dr Waiyaki recalled, the president’s aides were opposed to it but the President told them off by saying:
“You people are foolish. Jaramogi is a businessman. You can’t stop him from doing business and at the same time keep him away from politics. Let him do business as you people do your politics.”
It’s also through secret communication with President Kenyatta that Jaramogi secured release from detention of his closest ally, Ramogi Achieng Oneko.
The latter was detained in the aftermath of the Kisumu fracas and remained in until 1975.
Dr Waiyaki recalled to me the meeting at Nakuru State House the week Oneko was freed. “You could see it was a meeting of genuine friends. The two (Kenyatta and Oneko) spoke about a long history they shared from 1940s.”
At that time it had become clear the ageing and ailing President Kenyatta would soon be exiting, leaving a vacuum.
Two bitterly opposed camps had emerged to square it out over his succession.
On the one hand was Attorney-General Charles Njonjo who was rooting for Vice-President Moi to succeed President Kenyatta.
It has been said, and there is no reason to doubt it, that the former AG saw a weakling in Moi who he’d eventually dislodge and place himself at the helm.
On the other hand was a camp led by influential former powerful Cabinet minister, Dr Njoroge Mungai, President Kenyatta’s cousin and one-time personal doctor.
As rival camps angled for Kenyatta succession, concern also grew in Washington about a Kenya without Kenyatta.
Dr Waiyaki recalled to me of a visit to Kenya by US Foreign Secretary Dr Henry Kissinger in April 1976.
Among the issues President Kenyatta discussed with the visiting envoy at State House, Nakuru, was how the Jaramogi factor was likely to influence politics in a post-Kenyatta era.
The concern in Washington was whether Vice President Moi would have political muscle to contain Jaramogi in the event he became president.
At the time, Moi was perceived to be a political wimp who Washington feared couldn’t march Jaramogi’s populism and mobilisation skills.
Dr Waiyaki recalled his US counterpart imploring on President Kenyatta that a way had to be found to bring Jaramogi back to the political fold and contain him from within.
Weeks after Dr Kissinger’s visit, there came the clamour to change the constitution to delete the clause that allowed a 90-day window for the sitting VP to be acting president in the event the incumbent was incapacitated or died in office.
The change-the-constitution movement was the brainchild of the anti-Moi camp fronted by Dr Mungai.
Then one of the many surprises of Kenyan politics happened. Dr Mungai secretly reached out to Jaramogi.
Now, Dr Mungai happened to be the most entrenched of the anti-Jaramogi forces.
He was the only Cabinet minister who accompanied President Kenyatta during the disastrous visit to Kisumu.
Many accounts have it that he is the one who gave the shoot-to-kill order when the crowd heckled the President. At the time he was the minister for defence and internal security.
Dr Waiyaki told me he was the first emissary Dr Mungai sent to sound off Jaramogi.
The two questions the former VP asked Dr Waiyaki when they secretly met at his Kisumu home was whether President Kenyatta was aware of Dr Mungai’s intentions, and whether he’d be protected should the Moi/Njonjo axis attempt to harm him once they knew he was working with their rivals.
Assured that President Kenyatta was neutral in the matter, and that nothing adverse would happen to him or his business investments, Jaramogi agreed to play ball on Dr Mungai’s side.
Jaramogi and Dr Mungai’s ‘handshake’ secretly took place at Nakuru’s Midlands Hotel on June 1, 1976.
They agreed to bury their political hatchet, sabotage Moi’s ascendancy to power, and ‘build bridges’ the best way they knew.
Odinga was to attend the first public rally by the change-the-constitution movement in Nakuru the following week but President Kenyatta vetoed it.
According to Dr Waiyaki, the President didn’t like the idea of taking the war to Moi’s doorstep, Nakuru, much so where the President’s allies would share a platform with Jaramogi.
However, a compromise was reached that Odinga send his number one trusted ally, Achieng Oneko, to the Nakuru rally.
The latter was wildly applauded when he rose to address the first change-the-constitution rally in Nakuru.
The next rally was in Mombasa where Jaramogi was to show up.
Again President Kenyatta objected to Jaramogi’s presence at the rally, arguing that if the latter wanted to help Dr Mungai, he should start it in Nyanza before moving to the rest of the country.
Eventually President Kenyatta put a stop to the change-the-constitution campaigns, annoyed by the rowdy manner in which the Mungai group went about the anti-Moi crusade.
But Mungai/Jaramogi anti-Moi manoeuvres didn’t end. The next line of battle was in the ruling party Kanu.
The party national elections had been postponed for years as President Kenyatta delayed in showing his hand to any of the camps angling for his succession.
But in 1977, a year before his death, a date was set for the much awaited elections.
In Dr Mungai’s line-up, he was to go for the position of party vice president held by Moi.
This would have automatically made Moi a sitting duck in the succession equation.
Jaramogi was to vie for Kanu national chairman. And in the larger picture for inclusivity, Dr Mungai camp had firebrand politician George Anyona to vie for assistant national organising secretary.
But, at the very last minute, the elections were called off. Then President Kenyatta died. So much for the first ‘handshake’.