When the New Year began and closed at Nakuru State House

President Daniel Moi takes the floor accompanied by other dignitaries during a New Year Eve dance at State House, Nakuru. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • In the reign of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, and in the colonial era before them, Nakuru was the mercury in Kenya’s political thermometer.

  • If the town sneezed, the rest of the country caught flu.

  • Inevitably the New Year began with a ball dance at State House where politicians, businesspeople, rent seekers and assorted crooks flocked for a jig with the president.

Travelling late afternoon from Kitale on a New Year eve in the last years of Moi presidency, my companion and I decided to sleep over in Nakuru and drive to Nairobi the following day. It is the safe thing to do to avoid disaster that is night drivers on the route where ninety per cent who are insane.

OPEN DOORS

We popped in at a hotel where I had always slept when in the town and asked for a room. The manager who knew me well laughed and apologised: “Sorry, this once I have to let you down”, he told me. “I should have told you that in the last week of December, we get fully booked two weeks in advance!” He gave us three places to try our luck, with an option that if we miss a place we drive to Naivasha or come back for a rhumba night. We weren’t lucky and came back for an all night dance – not a bad idea in those days of our youth.

During a conversation that night, the hotel manager told me how the town was like on a New Year eve when the President would host a dance at Nakuru State House. “The whole country drops here for the end year festivities”, he disclosed. Nobody who is somebody in the country - from Lokitaung to Loitoktok, Lamu to Malaba - wanted to miss. In those days, to be just seen in a photo toasting with the Head of State was password to open many a door.

POWER BROKERS

As a result every bed space in the town would be bought and reserved a week or two in advance, and anybody asking for a room on the eve of the day like we were doing would either be pitied or laughed at.

And it wasn’t just during New Year bash, but all weekends throughout the year since during reigns of old Kenyatta and Moi, it was almost guarantee the president would be in town.

The manager told me story of one Kuria Kanyingi, once powerful Moi point-man in Kiambu who suddenly fell out of favour. When the carpet was pulled from under his feet, rivals conspired to ensure he’d not get appointment with the President in Nairobi. However, some brokers offered to arrange for a chance meeting with Moi in the quiet of Nakuru when the President would be in a relaxed mood and away from power mandarins in Nairobi who didn’t want to see Kanyingi’s face.

CON ARTISTS

The trick lay in that since it would be a chance encounter, it wasn’t possible to say exactly when the opportunity would come. To maximize on probability, Kanyingi made a full month reservation at a hotel in Nakuru such that if asked by his contact to be available at short notice, he’d not have to bother about accommodation. The chance to meet Moi finally came in the last week of waiting, just when the Kiambu politician was about to pay for another month reservation!

Kanyingi was lucky to have a broker who kept his word. Others weren’t as lucky and ended up conned. One was was a wealthy Kakamega businessman with a fleet of buses. As long as he had access to State House, his businesses thrived. Then he lost favour and the doors to the house on the hill were abruptly slammed on him. Suddenly the Transport Licensing Board (TLB) found excuse not to renew his operating licenses and the banks started to demand loan repayment with menaces. Some con artists with links at State House saw an opportunity to pounce. They offered to arrange a meeting with the President at Kabarak, of course at a handsome fee paid up front.

TOTAL MAN

The businessman checked in at a Nakuru hotel on a Monday to wait until Sunday afternoon for the supposed appointment. Come Sunday and the telephone number given by his contact was ringing out of service, and nobody came to pick him from the hotel as promised. Few minutes later he fainted when he watched on television the President board the presidential jet in Nairobi for a ten day visit to Asia and Australia!

Even those not seeking favours from the head of state inadvertently also found themselves caught up in the hullaballoo of president weekend excursions in Nakuru and the intrigues that came with it.

When he was MP for then larger Nakuru North constituency – it covered present day three constituencies of Rongai, Bahati and Subukia – politician Koigi wa Wamwere found himself in trouble with hatchet men in Moi court. They considered it unpalatable that the President’s Kabarak home was represented in parliament by the radical MP.

Koigi remembers power-man Nicholas Biwott confronting him and asking him whether it was comprehensible in President Jomo Kenyatta days to have his Gatundu home represented in parliament by a Kalenjin! He didn’t mince words: “Just let’s know how you want to be compensated but you must vacate that seat!’ the self-declared “Total man” implored. The later refused to budge insisting that Nakuru North was his “Gatundu” just like it was to Moi.

CAMP DAVID

To catch Koigi off guard, the president’s handlers turned to organising presidential functions in his constituency without his knowledge so that they could use it as propaganda that the MP was “disloyal and anti-development”. To counter them the MP would sit late in a hotel frequented by presidential escorts waiting for friendly guards to come and leak to him the president’s itinerary. Eventually the routine of sitting out late in the cold took a toll on his health and he gave up. In any case, shortly after he was detained without trial and his parliamentary seat taken up by the “owners” as Biwott had wanted!

In President Jomo Kenyatta days, Nakuru wasn’t just nerve centre for local politics, but also something equivalent to Camp David presidential retreat in the United States.

When the precursor to African Union, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tasked President Kenyatta to mediate between Angolan warlords in countdown to the country’s independence, it is at Nakuru where a deal was struck between combatants Agostinho Neto, Jonas Savimbi, and Holden Roberto. Nakuru is also where Mzee Kenyatta prevailed upon Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo to forge a united front in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle.

FEED MONKEYS

Even top US diplomat, the legendary Foreign Secretary Dr. Henry Kissinger had no choice but travel to Nakuru for a meeting with President Kenyatta when he came calling. At Nakuru the US diplomat had lunch of goat-head, mutura, and soup, and did a jig with traditional dancers armed with a spear and shield. How else was he to know he’d been to Africa!

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was another of Mzee Kenyatta guests who fell in love with Nakuru. He was at his best sitting with his host on the shores of Lake Nakuru National Park, not to watch flamingos, but to feed Colobus monkeys with biscuits which tickled him to the high heaven.

President Mwai Kibaki was no fan of Nakuru – or any other place away from Nairobi with exception of Mombasa. Though he owns a large farm a few kilometers from the town, Kibaki spent less than a dozen nights in Nakuru in his ten year presidency, and mostly not by choice but because he found himself late in the Rift Valley and his handlers advised against return to Nairobi in the late hour.

EXPLODE

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have fond memories of Nakuru which is where they began the famous “Hague prayers” and used them as launching pad to their presidential bid in 2013 against all odds. It is also at Nakuru where they first announced a joint ticket under the banner of UhuRuto and “Tuko Pamoja”. Gracefully, they remembered to return to the same venue for thanksgiving when finally let off the hook at The Hague.

Postscript:

Some wag – or is it a doomsayer? – well wired to State House recently told me that Nakuru – specifically Afraha Stadium – is where UhuRuto political romance will explode with a thunder just like it began at same venue ten years ago. Watch this space.

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