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The Christmas Moi didn’t celebrate, Kibaki quit and Kanyotu lost his job

Publication Date: 5/27/2008

In this instalment of our five part series on the secrets spymaster James Kanyotu took to his grave, we sample former President Moi’s trying times during the clamour for multiparty politics in the early 1990s. Writer KAMAU NGOTHO revisits the dramatic developments.

The end of 1991 provided for some of the most dramatic developments in President Moi’s regime.

From left: Philip Gachoka, Paul Muite, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Munyua Waiyaki and Gitobu Imanyara. Photo/FILE

That was the period he dramatically climbed down on his strident opposition to the multiparty campaign; and also had arrested two of his most powerful confidants — Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott and Internal Security permanent secretary Hezekiah Oyugi — after they were mentioned adversely during the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the 1990 murder of Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko.

It was also the period long-serving Cabinet minister and former Vice-President Mwai Kibaki quit Kanu for the newly-minted opposition, and when veteran security intelligence chief James Kanyotu lost his job.

On December 3, 1991, the President summoned a Kanu delegates conference at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. To the shock and consternation of everybody present, he used the occasion to push the ruling party into accepting the need for a multiparty system.

Party hawks

Before he stood up to provide direction, the President had sat quietly listening to party hawks fulminating against the multiparty campaigners, and thus the shock when he suddenly changed direction.

It was Mr Moi who in 1982 had forced through the legislation that made Kenya officially a one-party state. Prior to that it had been only an unofficial one-party state since 1969 when the only opposition, former Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Kenya Peoples’ Union,  KPU, was proscribed by the Kenyatta Government.

Mr Moi’s surprise move to allow multi-partyism in December 1991 came just three months after he had vowed at the same venue that Kenya would only “go multiparty over my dead body”. But as British war-time premier, Winston Churchill, once said, swallowing words has never caused indigestion for a politician!

The immediate weekend after Mr Moi allowed a return to a multiparty democracy, he summoned his kitchen Cabinet to Nakuru State House to scheme on how to humble the emerging opposition.

At the time, the pro-reform forces had found a common umbrella in the lobby group, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford), soon to convert into a political party.

The de facto leaders of the anti-Kanu forces were the opposition doyen Oginga Odinga and former Cabinet minister Kenneth Matiba, who had fronted the multi-party campaign.

The previous year, Mr Matiba and his co-conspirators, including Mr Charles Rubia and Mr Raila Odinga, Mr Jaramogi’s son and now Prime Minister, had been rounded up by Mr Kanyotu’s men and detained without trial.

At the time of the historic announcement at Kasarani, Mr Matiba had been set free, but was still recuperating in a London hospital after suffering a massive stroke while in prison.

Now on this afternoon at Nakuru’s State House, Mr Moi wanted to pick the brains of his top strategists on how to beat the strongly threatening, but loosely-knit opposition.

Seated next to the President was intelligence boss James Kanyotu, Vice-President George Saitoti and the newly appointed head of the civil service, Prof Philip Mbithi.

Others at the horse-shoe shaped table were an assortment of about a dozen selected Cabinet ministers, Kanu officials and senior civil servants.

The meeting was supposed to come up with plans on how to scuttle the opposition before it gained any momentum and also determine the most advantageous timing for the General Election, due the following year, under a multiparty system.

Also to be discussed was how to raise campaign funds for Kanu, a party more accustomed to securing power without opposition and openly using public funds and other resources to drive its politics.

A source recalls that President Moi was his usual self, allowing the meeting to drag on and on without making much contribution until he felt it was time to strike.

Clearing his throat and sitting upright after what appeared to be a drowsy moment, he declared: “All those things you are talking about are not important for now. The date of the election is my secret weapon. Where to get money for Kanu’s campaign should not worry you either. What I want to hear is how Kanu can remain united and take the war to the opposition.”

And without any breather, Mr Moi turned to Mr Kanyotu: “Do you see Mr Kibaki resigning to join the opposition? Who else do you think will follow him?”

At the time Mr Kibaki was serving as Health minister after being demoted from the VP’s perch in 1988. He had served as President Moi’s principal deputy for 10 years.

After a moment of silence, Mr Kanyotu said he had no information that Mr Kibaki or his close associates would be resigning from the Government.

Political suicide

But after another prolonged moment of reflection, Mr Kanyotu offered a line that startled the President and all the others in attendance.

The intelligence chief’s reading of the situation was that a Kibaki resignation would not necessarily be a disaster, it would in fact be a bonus for Kanu insofar as it served to divide the budding opposition.

Mr Kanyotu argued that Mr Kibaki’s bastion, central Kenya, was already fiercely pro-opposition, so his remaining in Kanu would not earn the ruling party any vote, it would only be political suicide.

The President was unimpressed by the analysis and immediately threw a tantrum. He went on into a lengthy lecture of how his long experience in politics made him acquire insights, which even the intelligence team under Mr Kanyotu can never have.

Summing up his tirade, Mr Moi said Kanu’s best chance of remaining in power at the time lay in stopping central Kenya from joining the Nyanza bloc in the opposition. His reasoning was that Mr Matiba, who was in bad health, would not be as attractive to the Central Province voter as Mr Kibaki. He added that the Health minister was a respected leader among the Kikuyu and could easily dissuade his supporters from decamping if it was shown they had a stake in Kanu.

To demonstrate his seriousness, the President turned to Prof Saitoti and told him to his face that he would not hesitate to drop him as his number two if that is what it took to keep Central Province in Kanu.

Festive season

Having said his piece at the Nakuru meeting, Mr Moi, as was his habit, abruptly called off the session and invited his guests for lunch.

A few days before Christmas, Mr Kanyotu obtained permission from his boss to travel to Dubai over the festive season.

The intelligence chief was away on Boxing Day when Mr Kibaki dropped his bombshell. He called a news conference while on his annual holiday by the beach in Mombasa to announce that he had quit the Moi Government and had formed the Democratic Party of Kenya.

His resignation was soon followed by a number of Cabinet ministers and assistant ministers, and a livid Mr Moi feared a deluge.

Mr Franklin Bett, then the deputy Comptroller at State House and now MP for Buret, recalls  that to have been one of the worst Christmas holidays for the former president.

Mr Moi was seething and somebody had to pay for what to him was a wholly unexpected development.

He turned his wrath on Mr Kanyotu, who fatally happened to be away during such a critical moment.

“Rightly or wrongly,” Mr Bett says, “Mr Moi concluded that Mr Kanyotu had conspired with Mr Kibaki to pull a fast one on him, and right in the middle of Christmas festivities!” Without any ceremony, Mr Kanyotu was jobless.

However, Mr Kanyotu was vindicated when subsequent events confirmed his analysis to have been correct, after all.

Mr Kibaki’s debut into opposition politics only helped to hasten the splintering of the opposition and paved the way for Mr Moi’s return to power in the December 1992 election.

Two years later in February 1994, Mr Moi quietly rehabilitated Mr Kanyotu as he seriously began to craft his succession plan.

The dramatic political events leading to Mr Kibaki’s exit were the culmination of a dizzying series of happenings.

Freeze aid

On November 16, a consortium of foreign donors meeting in Paris had resolved to freeze aid to Kenya until more tangible steps were taken towards more political and economic reforms.

The previous month, the president had taken the painful step of not just sacking, but also having arrested two of his most trusted and powerful confidants of the time — Mr Biwott and Mr Oyugi — after they were mentioned adversely in the Scotland Yard report on the murder of Dr Ouko.

Mr Bett recalls the period as one of the most trying for his former boss. “You could read stress all over Mr Moi’s face in those days,” says Mr Bett, “He was visibly restless and I can say for sure that he wasn’t having sound sleep.”

He says the President would be on telephone way past midnight, only to call again just before three in the morning and be at his desk before six o’clock. “It gave me the impression that the President had no time to catch some sleep,” he adds.

To his face

Mr Bett recalls British Prime Minister John Major telling Mr Moi to his face in mid-October 1991 that he just had to change or risk international isolation. The two had met in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the Commonwealth Heads of State and Governments Summit.

During one of the breaks at Harare, recalls Mr Bett, Mr Moi and the British premier held a lengthy meeting at the request of both parties. Also in attendance was Foreign Affairs minister Wilson Ndolo Ayah and his British counterpart Douglas Hurd.

Mr Bett, who was in the meeting to take notes for Mr Moi, reckons that unlike on previous occasions, Mr Major was brutally frank with Mr Moi this time.

He told him that he just had to steer Kenya into a greater democratic path as well as cut down on official corruption. The alternative, he warned, was to risk international isolation.

Lest Mr Moi took it to be the usual diplomatic tough-talking, recalls Mr Bett, the British premier told him that the Americans were determined that he be forced out of power and that only Britain was holding them back.

The US had unleashed the abrasive ambassador Smith Hempstone with explicit instructions to harass Kenyan authorities until the country steered back to a multiparty system.

However, at the Harare meeting, Mr Major had offered a soft landing. Britain would be there for the Kanu Government, but there should be a more determined effort to accommodate the growing opposition.

Mr Bett, who worked in Moi’s State House for close to two decades, reckons that much as the president was known to be stubborn, he was also very flexible and pragmatic whenever he sensed real danger. That was such a period.

Returning home from Harare, Mr Moi sacked Mr Biwott and Mr Oyugi and ordered their arrest.

They were to remain in police custody for two weeks until they were released for lack of evidence.

Never again

Mr Oyugi mysteriously died a few weeks later. Mr Biwott informally remained close to the president, but would not be re-appointed to the Cabinet until five years later.

His relationship with Mr Moi would never be the same again.


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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