Kenyatta’s death caused by neglect, says ex press chief

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. Mr Lee Njiru says the president was too sick to govern at the time of his death in 1978. Photo/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • Njiru paints a disturbing picture of Mzee Kenyatta as too sick to govern in a close-typed five-page statement released to the press on Saturday.
  • He says there was no resident physician or cardiologist at his side at the time of Kenyatta's death.
  • his is probably the first time Mr Njiru is issuing a statement without Mr Moi’s authority.

Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died of neglect by corrupt aides, it was claimed on Saturday.

He was given poor medical attention in spite of his obviously failing health.

The sensational claims came from a man who has worked at the heart of the presidency for more than 30 years — Mr Lee Njiru, best known as former President Moi’s press secretary.

In a close-typed five-page statement released to the press on Saturday, Mr Njiru painted a disturbing picture of Mzee Kenyatta as too sick to govern.

He was unable to remember simple things or even sign his own name and on many occasions he collapsed at public functions.

Mr Njiru recounted how Mzee fainted in a toilet in Msambweni the day before he died and how his speech had become slurred and incoherent.

Mr Njiru was for two years the information officer assigned to Mzee and for 30 years has been press secretary to Mzee’s successor, Mr Moi.

His recollection of events is in sharp contrast to the information given to the public at the time of Mzee’s death on August 22, 1978.

Then, the public was informed that Mzee passed away peacefully in his sleep at State House, Mombasa. There was no mention of failing health and growing inability to govern.

Poor care

But in his book, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles, Mr Duncan Ndegwa, one-time Secretary to the Cabinet and later Governor of the Central Bank, revealed that Mzee had been ill for a time.

There was no suggestion of poor care for the ailing president in the book.

As Mzee’s official information officer, Lee Njiru was privy to the daily life of the founding president in his sunset years.

On Saturday, he said there was no resident physician or cardiologist at his side at the time of his death.


Asked why he was revealing this now, Mr Njiru said the Official Secrets Act binds civil servants to keep secrets for 30 years and the period had elapsed and he was now free to share what he knows.

After having been with Mzee every day for two years, Mr Njiru said: “Kenyatta did not have a classmate and no one knew when he was born. The people around him were moving around this country like rogue elephants let loose on a maize plantation.”

He added: “He was more in the company of wolves and hyenas than he was in the company of his loving family. Kenyatta would be in Nakuru or Mombasa for up to two months and it was up to the State to take care of him... I was there every day, everywhere as part of my job and it would be unfair for me not to release this information.”

The statement was issued on official note paper and when asked if the former president had approved it, Mr Njiru said he had not asked Mr Moi’s opinion of it.

If that is so, media observers said, this is probably the first time Mr Njiru is issuing a statement without Mr Moi’s authority.

Mr Simeon Nyachae, who is mentioned in the statement, could not be reached for comment.

Mzee’s nephew and one-time physician Dr Njoroge Mungai declined to comment, saying he needed to see Mr Njiru’s statement first. Efforts to get comment from Mzee’s family, which has traditionally been guarded with the press, were equally fruitless.

The following is an excerpt of Mr Njiru’s statement:

“Now that Kenyans have marked the 30th anniversary of President Jomo Kenyatta’s death, it is prudent for them to understand the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his passing on.

During this hour of need, Mzee Kenyatta was abandoned and neglected by his aides and top advisors whose unbridled greed for power, property and money was their propulsion force.

These fellows, consumed by rapacity greater than that of desert locusts let loose on green foliage, could not be objective about Kenyatta’s needs and separate those needs from their own.

To start with, Mzee should not have been allowed to travel to Msambweni on August 21, 1978 to be subjected to the indignity of collapsing in a washroom.

As a young information officer, I had been from 1977 assigned to cover all the official functions of Mzee.

This critical day, he had lunch will all the Kenyan envoys abroad. This was at State House, Mombasa. I could see the concern of the envoys as Mzee’s speech was a worrying incoherent stutter.

The then Minister of State in the Office of the President, Mr Peter Mbiyu Koinange, was at the high table. I cast a furtive glance at him to see his reaction and noticed he was not bothered.

This surprised me because Mbiyu was not only Mzee Kenyatta’s minister and confidant but also his brother-in law. But it was after lunch that things became terrifying.

Mzee missed his way out, and ended at the dingy caretaker’s office where he caused a commotion among the junior staff as the room was littered with dirty utensils and food leftovers.

When he was redirected to his sleeping room, the old man could not make it upstairs. In between the flight of stairs, he ran out of breath and asked for a chair. After a brief rest, he went to his private quarters.

After witnessing all this agony, I was convinced that Mbiyu Koinange or the PC Eliud Mahihu or the State House Comptroller Alexander Gitau would cancel the Msambweni function.

They didn’t. I believe that Kenyatta’s life would have been saved if immediate medical attention was made available.

Forgotten flywhisk

When Mzee’s motorcade reached the Likoni Jetty, he refused to board the ferry. Reason? He had forgotten his flywhisk. A car was dispatched to bring it after which we proceeded to Msambweni.

After Mzee Kenyatta collapsed, a senior member of the administration had the callousness to ask him to say “Harambee”.

But it was the loudest I had heard during the last two years I had worked for him. Unfortunately, it was the last.

After Kenyatta was taken to State House and the customary night entertainment programme cancelled, Mbiyu boarded a plane and left for Nairobi.

The question I always ask myself is “what issues were more urgent and compelling on the part of Mbiyu than Mzee Kenyatta’s health?”

He had helped Kenyatta stand after collapsing. It was unbelievable that he would abandon him in such circumstances.

I expected Koinange, Mahihu and Gitau to attempt to go, even beyond the frontiers of their persuasive powers to prevail upon Mzee Kenyatta not to go to Msambweni.

The other option was deceit. They could have conspired and told Mzee that the Likoni Ferry was broken down.

Although I could discern that nobody was paying any attention to Kenyatta’s condition, I kept mum arising from operand condition imposed on us by the inner circle through blatant and subtle threats. Talk of Kenyatta’s health was a taboo.

Kenyatta handlers should not feign ignorance of his failing health. His incapacitation was not abrupt but a gradual process and anybody who cared ought to have noticed and done something about it.

The register of judges, which is always in custody of the Registrar of the High Court, bears testimony to Kenyatta’s rate of decline in terms of health and especially the coordination between his body and brain.

In this register, the judges append their signatures after taking oaths of office. The presidents as appointing authorities countersign.

Kenyatta’s signatures in this register, initially beautiful and executed with a flourish, continued to change pitiably. By 1977, the signatures were like ruffled flywhisks or a traditional broom.

Gradually, Mzee became incoherent, repetitive and forgetful.

Sometime, early 1978, Kassim Bakari Mwamzandi, then an assistant minister for Foreign Affairs brought a foreign envoy to present his credentials to Mzee Kenyatta in Nakuru.

After receiving the credentials, Mzee Kenyatta bellowed: “You are welcome to Kenya. If you have any problem do not hesitate to see me. If you don’t that’s your own business.”

And introducing Mbiyu and Mwamzandi, he said, pointing at the two, “This is my father and mother.”

I cringed and hoped the world would open up and swallow me.

I thought the relevant diplomatic procedures should be changed to allow the Foreign minister to receive such credentials to save Mzee Kenyatta from these embarrassments.

When a former Central PC Simeon Nyachae saw Mzee’s difficulty in speaking during a function, his concern was obvious.

I knew he loved Mzee Kenyatta because he called me aside and asked me to get him a beautiful portrait of Mzee.

Such instances in which Mzee spoke haltingly were numerous. Opening the last show in Mombasa before his death, Mzee ended his speech with “Amen” instead of “Thank You”.

Did Kenyatta, then, have to tell anybody that he was getting worse each passing day?

Instead of arranging for a resident doctor and reducing his public functions, his lieutenants took him to lunch to far off places such as Kipkelion, Makali Falls and the eastern bank of Lake Bogoria. I never saw a doctor in the entourage.

I have great respect for Mzee Kenyatta’s nurse, Isabella. But it should be appreciated that her training was limited in respect of Mzee Kenyatta’s condition, status and age.

The biggest blunder was that there was no official car for her to accompany Mzee wherever he went. But the handlers made available a Mercedes Benz limousine for the women police escorts whose role was purely decorative.

Selfish gains

The judges’ register which is still in use is a strong indictment of Kenyatta’s inner circle. Most of those around him were expected to be of use to him, but they instead used him for their selfish gains.

Outwardly, they pretended to love Mzee, while in fact they used him as an object of exploitation. They should have been prosecuted for criminal negligence.

In case the late president needed any assistance at night and especially in Nakuru, it could have been difficult to get it.

After the night entertainment, most of these aides trooped to Stag’s Head Hotel to drink themselves silly while their praises were sung by an accordionist going by the name Wakidole.

Kenyatta’s physician, Dr Eric Mngola was just an occasional visitor. I should guess that he did not get sufficient appreciation from the aides.

Even when it was obvious that Kenyatta was battling with vicissitudes of age, a weak heart and hateful politics, his aides did not put in place contingency plans wherever he went.

There was nobody and nothing between Kenyatta and mortality.

In all state houses and lodges, there were no buttons for Kenyatta to press in case he needed emergency attention at night.

These things did not bother the aides as they were befuddled by alcohol, stupidity and sheer lack of social tact.

Instead of giving Kenyatta the succour he needed, these people pre-occupied themselves with plots, schemes and conspiracies to block Vice-President Daniel arap Moi from ascending to the presidency. Mr Moi had not told anybody that he wanted to become president.

Kenyatta’s inner circle wanted the announcement of the death and swearing in of the new president delayed.

But they were in for a shock. General Jackson Kimeu Mulinge warned them that the Armed Forces needed a Commander-in-Chief immediately or else....