Intelligence, top secrets and the hidden story of NIS

Noordin Haji

Director of Public Prosecution Noordin Haji. If cleared to take over as NIS boss, Haji will become the presidential whisperer and interpreter of dreams.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A story is told of a dream that President Daniel Moi had and couldn’t shake off.

In the heat of the 2002 transition, President Moi had a dream that disturbed him enough to share with his inner circle. In this recurring dream, water was a source of life, but water also meant death.

And as a man who attached spiritual significance to moments, he couldn’t shake the idea that this meant something. Perhaps something significant.

His choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor had sparked an intense power jostling that pitted him against his own Vice President (VP) George Saitoti and his powerful backers in his own administration.

Many around the President would have wanted prof Saitoti fired to smoothen the path of a transition where a sitting VP would be in office and deputise Uhuru Kenyatta. However, firing a VP was such a huge undertaking for Mr Moi, given a succession that was already going very badly.

With months to the election, National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), which later rebranded to the National Intelligence Service (NIS), had warned that the Kenya African National Union party was about to lose the election to Mwai Kibaki, giving impetus that something had to be done. In the melee, the presidential whisperers, NSIS, came up with an interpretation of the dream to resolve the standoff that was derailing the transition.

Mr Moi, in one of his briefings, was told that intelligence had picked up that his VP, Prof Saitoti, had recently acquired shareholding in a water company that was also supplying bottled water to State House. The implication was clear, the President’s life was in danger and he needed to act.

The same morning, Prof Saitoti was fired and replaced by Musalia Mudavadi, who was also Uhuru Kenyatta’s running mate.

For Noordin Haji, the soft-spoken Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), his nomination to head the NIS as director general could return him to the building off Thika Road where the country’s spies are stationed, and which had been his home before.

Started as the Special Branch, a department of the national police in 1952 under the British administration, the NIS has moved to become a powerful institution that feels the pulse of the nation, carries its most hidden secrets, and is often tasked with knowing plans before they are executed. In1963, Special Branch was made independent from the police.

It earned a new charter in 1969.In 1986, it was transformed into the Directorate of Security Intelligence (DSI), before a change of law in 1998 created the NSIS.

DSI and Special Branch were synonymous with James Kanyotu, Kenya’s most elusive and dreaded spy chief. Brigadier (rtd) Wilson Boinett, who served until 2006, was named NSIS first DG, before being replaced by Major General (rtd) Michael Gichangi, who served until 2014 when he exited two years shy of his second five-year term citing “personal reasons.” He was replaced by Maj Gen (rtd) Philip Kameru who left office early this month.

If he becomes NIS boss, Mr Haji will break the trend of ex-military men leading the spy agency. He will become the presidential whisperer and interpreter of dreams, if needed to, the one man who will spend so much time with the President, shaping his thoughts and ideas with information gathered everywhere.

The 48-year-old is a quiet public servant, who only came to the limelight when President Uhuru Kenyatta tapped him for the position of DPP five years ago, inherits an agency that does its job in the shadows, and will be trusted with resources to bring in actionable information.

Mr Haji, if cleared by MPs, will take over the reins of NIS from Uhuru Kenyatta’s spy, a military man who steared the agency since 2014. Maj-Gen (Rd) Kameru’s stint came at a time when the country witnessed the highest number of terror attacks on its soil and slaying of military personnel taking part in the peace keeping mission in Somalia, in what was described as the lowest moment for the country’s out -of -border-security -operation.

Unknown to millions of Kenyans, Mr Haji was part of the team that was tasked to stem the senseless terror attacks on the Kenyan soil. As the Deputy Director of the Counter Organised Crime Unit, Haji was in and out of Somalia, at times in the warfront as Kenya battled the rag-tag terror organisation, Al-Shabab.

 By the time Haji was exiting NIS headquarters in 2018, the country was collecting and dusting itself from the terror attacks, successfully bringing a near end to terror attacks in Nairobi and other areas across the country.

His younger brother was to receive national recognition after he was photographed saving a child and directing shoppers to safety during the Westgate terror attack.

As NIS boss, the director will be among a select few ranking government officials with direct access to the President, a security tradition practiced around the world and one Kenya has observed for decades now.

Unlike Cabinet Secretaries and police chiefs who seek clearance from State House before securing an audience with the Commander-in-Chief, NIS boss has unfettered access on a 24 -hour basis.

Traditionally, the head of NIS gives the President what is commonly referred to as a situational analysis of the country in a morning call up. Those in the know say the calls normally come in on a secure line every early morning, kick off with one from the Director General of NIS, the director of Military Intelligence and at times the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI).

The calls are mostly about how the “the country slept”, giving a brief breakdown of the security situation in the country and those that need the President’s nod will have to wait for a face-to-face sit-down by members of the National Security Council where the Director General of NIS is a member.

Things might have changed at the NIS headquarters, but the spy agency mode of collecting intelligence remains standard: field agents stationed in churches, mosques, hospitals, universities, and layered in the security structure to those out on special missions outside Kenyan borders are the life blood of the agency.

Field agents listen in to conversations, work for years in new organisation and pen with a pencil raw intelligence that is then transported to the provincial intelligence heads, who in turn inform Nairobi. Armed with information, those stationed at the desk at NIS headquarters would then, as one would divide a piece of loaf to children, transmit only actionable intelligence data to specific institutions.

As the final man of the chain Haji, if cleared, will distribute secrets while working hard to ensure his agents stay out of sight to be effective.

Intelligence reports are non - standardised pieces of information, President Uhuru Kenyatta is said to have refused, on the basis of intelligence, to hire six judges, creating a political backlash. The six were only hired by Dr Ruto after Mr Kenyatta retired.

Some of intelligence reports would be typically about a plan to employ a judge, and the State needing background information on the potential candidate’s temper, associations, business interests, financial dealings and even extra-marital affairs.

Operations of intelligence officers varies. At times, spy agencies would let drug smugglers get into a country with their contraband and monitor such movements for months with drug mules imagining they had beaten the drugnet, only to be apprehended when they smuggle in sizeable amount of drugs.

With the complex nature and threat of terror attacks, money laundering, human trafficking and arms smuggling, the community of nations where Kenya is a member benefits from intelligence reports that touch on trans- national crimes such as terrorism, covert and overt foreign attacks on its democracies, national security and stability. In the spy world, a country is as good as its intelligence system. Many countries have been built or destroyed by failing to act on intelligence reports.

James Smart is the Managing Editor, Newsroom Production at Nation Media Group