A few weeks to the December 2007 General Election, my friend Munyori Buku and I travelled to Eldoret to visit his relatives.
After they were done with family matters, the discussion veered off to politics.
His uncle gave us a grim picture of heightened tensions and concluded in an ominous tone: “It is very sad what politicians are doing.
Different communities have lived here in peace all these years until we all forgot where we came from.
Our children have inter-married and our grandchildren speak all languages spoken here.
Now, how do we start telling them your spouse, mother, father, or grandparents are from ‘enemy’ community!”
At a rumba joint where we retreated for the night, Mr Buku — a fellow journalist who is now a Director at the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit — and I dissected all his uncle had told us and concluded the country was headed down the precipice.
Back in Nairobi where I was News Editor of a weekly publication, I asked our Eldoret correspondent to put his ear to the ground and do a story.
That weekend, a charged rally took place at Turbo near Eldoret town where politicians made highly inflammatory speeches in vernacular.
We wrote a lead story and editorial comment to rebuke the merchants of violence.
On reading our story, a senior intelligence officer known to me — he has since been redeployed to diplomatic service — called to compare notes. He told me all we had written was correct but added: “It’s not only in Eldoret. From where I sit, we have identified all the hotspots; profiled the trouble-makers and made our report.”
“So why are you not stopping them?” I asked.
“You know our job is to get the information and recommend action. It isn’t for us to act,” he replied.
His response unsettled me all the more, remembering that after the November 2002 terrorist attack on Mombasa’s Paradise Hotel, the same officer had told me that they had given authorities what they call “digestible intelligence” which, had it been acted on, would have stopped the attack from happening.
Two days to the election, I hit the road again, this time to take my friend Ms Margaret Angwenyi to vote in Kisii where her father was defending his parliamentary seat.
I spent the night at Mash Hotel in Kisii town where journalists were camping.
The place was also packed with politicians from rival parties.
The poisoned atmosphere was so palpable that we slept with one eye wide open.
The following day violence erupted in nearby Suba District where three Administration Police officers were killed and a public transport bus torched.
Since I was not on official duty, my first instinct was to flee from the area but my journalistic self told me to hang around.
I left Kisii for Kisumu. Just before the Sondu-Miriu power plant, my car developed a minor electric fault and I stopped to have it repaired.
When I made to discuss politics with the mechanic working on my car, he gave a classic reply in Kiswahili: “Mimi sishuguliki na wanasiasa. Hakuna yule ananilisha! (I don’t care about politicians. None of them puts food on my table!)
In Kisumu, agitated mobs had poured into the streets looking for “suspicious” persons or vehicles.
I drove straight to a hotel where I monitored events from the bar counter.
Nairobi was already on fire with violence reported in Mathare and Kibera slums.
Trouble had also erupted in Eldoret. I quickly made friends with the hotel manager who was getting briefs on the phone about what was happening outside.
It was the eve of the voting day and I asked the manager whether it would be advisable to travel in the morning.
He said I could travel but came up with a plan. “To avoid trouble on the way,” he advised, “I will organise to have posters of the presidential candidate popular here (Mr Raila Odinga of ODM) pasted all over your vehicle.
When travelling, you must also ensure there are other vehicles in front and behind you and at no time should you be the only motorist on the road.
Also make sure your first stop is Nakuru if not further ahead.”
Just like the hotel manager had predicted, youths had set road blocks at Awasi and Ahero townships. But nobody stopped me.
To the contrary, they wildly cheered on seeing the posters on my vehicle.
Though advised not to stop until I got to Nakuru, the journalistic instinct told me to stop at the Kericho Tea Hotel where I called my friend, Nation Correspondent Sollo Kiragu (God rest his soul in eternal peace).
Kiragu told me that there was likely to be violence and advised that, since I was not travelling with other journalists and was in a private car, I should immediately leave before trouble began.
He further advised that I avoid the Nakuru-Eldoret highway and use the Molo-Elburgon route.
I drove to Elburgon without any incident. Though I was now in a zone supporting a different presidential candidate (Mr Mwai Kibaki of PNU), I deliberately let my car remain with the posters put in Kisumu and see what would happen.
Hardly had I taken two sips of my drink when the barman and a waitress started back-biting me in vernacular.
Obviously they didn’t think I spoke their language. To their utter surprise, I ordered my second drink in vernacular.
“You mean you’re one of us? But how come you have those posters on your car?”
“What’s wrong with that? Are people from where you come from not allowed to support a political party of their choice?” I asked.
From his body language, I could tell the barman wasn’t amused in the least. After some pause, he said: “Look here my friend, I don’t want you to get into trouble while in our premises.
Neither do I want you to bring trouble for us. Please finish your drink and go.”
Sensing danger, I asked that he get me someone to remove the posters. “I will do it myself,” he offered.
Within no time the posters had been removed and shred to pieces. I was amazed how people can get personal about politics.
Having interacted with politicians from across the divide over the years, I concluded a long time ago that they are all cut from the same cloth and I can never get emotional about any of them.
From Elburgon, there was no incident until Kimende Shopping Centre near Limuru where youths had set a road block and were harassing private motorists.
When they stopped me, I quickly spoke to them in vernacular thinking that would help.
However, they still went ahead to demand I give them something “small”.
It occurred to me that beyond politics, there was a “class” thing in the unfolding melee.
Merely because I was driving, these youths concluded I was well off and must part with “something”!
Two days later, I went to the Kenyatta International Convention Centre KICC presidential tallying centre in Nairobi. Everybody – including journalists – was running berserk.
The only calm person was Commissioner of Police Major-General (rtd) Hussein Ali. When he came where we were, a KTN news anchor asked him why there was such a huge presence of security personnel.
Maj-Gen Ali calmly replied: “Gentleman, why should you be worried about presence of security personnel unless you have committed a crime!”
Postscript: Months after the violence stopped, I asked my friend in the intelligence services how come it all came to happen.
He replied: “Statistically, the economy had been doing well and some people thought that is all that mattered and forgot to fix the gathering ominous political clouds.”
Years later, Maj-Gen Ali dropped by for lunch at the home of the politician John Keen where I was.
I reminded him about the chaos at KICC and asked how come he was the only person who remained calm and collected throughout the mayhem.
After some pause, he replied: “You know I am a paratrooper.
After dropping from the skies so many times, you learn to calm your nerves even when confronted with the most difficult of circumstances!”