Mr Lee Njiru worked for President Jomo Kenyatta as press secretary for one-and-a-half years and President Daniel Moi for 24 years when he was in power and 18 years after he retired.
Ahead of the release of his autobiography, he reveals the triumphs and trials working for two presidents. It is a story of top secrets, intrigues, political backstabbing and infighting at State House he witnessed during his 46 years as a civil servant, including Mr Moi’s sunset days.
You joined the presidential press service unit in 1977 and worked for Mzee Kenyata. How was it?
It was baptismal of fire. There was a lot of tribalism. I feared I might be sacked anytime, not on account of incompetence but on account of tribalism, which was visited upon me by workmates from Central through ritual epithets and slurs. People were looking at me as if I was a child of a lesser god. I lived with toxic tribalism. For the one and half years or so I worked under Mzee Kenyatta, the workplace was like hell on earth. I realised I didn't have any senior person to protect me.
You joined Moi's press service unit. How was the transition period?
Things became worse. I was being discriminated against by a handful of people from the President’s ethnic community. Most of them did not want anybody, especially from the Gema community because people like Mwai Kibaki, Paul Muite, Charles Rubia, Njeru Kathangu, Maina Kinyatti, and Kiraitu Murungi were all perceived to be against Moi. People were wondering why a Gema person was holding an important position in State House. It was a matter of time. I used to get letters threatening me, especially when Moi did not get many votes in Embu (where Mr Njiru comes from) in the 1992 polls. They used to ask me ‘where are the votes?’ but I pleaded with them not to ask me about the votes as I got only one vote. I lived in fear. I knew it was a matter of time before I would be sacked or they could do something incriminating just to destroy me.
What was working as Moi's press secretary in his retirement like?
Frustrations after Mzee Moi retired escalated. I feared for my life. If people hate you, they can plant a gun in your room, and say you wanted to overthrow the President. I feared they could even poison me. Those people were so desperate they didn't want to see me. I didn't enjoy it totally because of the infighting.
I was discriminated against, not by Mzee Moi but by senior officers. They used to tell me openly to go and work for Uhuru Kenyatta and leave their man alone. They thought Moi was a villager and didn't know he was a nationalist. They frustrated me right, left and centre. They had spare keys to my cars and took away my official car whenever they wanted it without my consent to force me to resign.
I didn't resign. Luckily, Mzee Moi stood by me—but, unfortunately, he was old and ailing. They were bothering him for nothing. However, my tormentors forgot that I grew up during the Mau Mau period and I was toughened up. I'm the son of Mau Mau. I saw brutalised bodies and, psychologically, I was prepared to handle such nonsense, even physically, and they knew it. I didn't care. Today, some of them when they see me in a supermarket, they hide because of shame. It was open tribalism. Imagine a senior civil servant like me waking up and your official car is not there. It was so bad that one day Mzee Moi called Comptroller of State House Kinuthia Mbugua (in Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration) and told him ‘if those people write a letter there purporting that he was the one that does not want Njiru he should treat them as trash.’ Moi went to that extent to protect me.
With all these animosities, what was your fallback?
I turned intimidation, victimisation and insults to my advantage, and started Cherrynam Resort on my 25-acre farm in Ngata on the outskirts of Nakuru. The farm and resort are worth Sh700 million. When I look back, I could not have gone that far if I did not fear for the future. I went through the hands of the worst tribalists you would ever think of and I cannot wish it even on my worst enemies. It's a horrific trauma.
Given a chance would you revenge?
I will never contemplate avenging the wrongs committed. That is why out of my staff of 25 people at my Hotel in Ngata, there is only one Embu and he is not in the management. I have Kalenjins, Kisiis, Kikuyus, Kambas, Taitas, and other communities. Anybody who practises tribalism on Kenyan children is better dead. I will never in my life visit such injustices on a Kenyan child. That is the only way of hitting back. I want to teach people the dangers of tribalism in the workplace and society at large.
Do you plan to write a book about your journey?
Yes, it is already with the publisher. Mostly, I am writing about what most people don't know. I don't want to pre-empt much information, but it will be a compelling book to read.
Give us a peek into the book; what is it that people don’t know about your time working with Moi?
Many people don't know, for instance, that I, together with a (senior Cabinet Secretary) and a retired intelligence chief, started planning Mzee Moi's burial in 2019 (he died in February 2020). We had a house in Nairobi where we were mandated by the government to plan. When people saw the seamless manner in which Mzee was buried on February 20, 2020, they did not know that it was not an abrupt plan. I noticed Mzee had stayed in hospital for 42 days and was on oxygen and in bad shape. I said we should not be caught unawares. People think burial preparations were done when he died. No, we didn't want to be caught unawares like when Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978. That and many other stories are in my book. Don't miss it.
What other juicy political happenings are contained in the book?
The infighting at State House, backstabbing and many intrigues. People don't know I was doing other things. I was also, sometimes, Moi's emissary. He could send me to deliver financial assistance to freedom fighters like Joshua Nkomo (of Zimbabwe) when he passed through Nairobi secretly.
People like Clarence Mlami Makwetu, South African anti-apartheid activist, politician, and leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, received financial assistance from Mzee Moi.
Mzee Moi believed the white South Africans might kill Nelson Mandela and the country would be left without a leader. We were grooming Makwetu. Mzee Moi supported Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. The infighting among the Kalenjin sub-tribes is another topic in my book. They were not together. The Kipisgis and the Nandis were not happy.
Which is your happiest moment as a press secretary of Mzee Moi?
I almost got everything one would aspire to get in a lifetime. I have been to all continents. I wore the best suits. I have bought a house in Nairobi. I bought a piece of land, thanks to the travels facilitated by the government. I enjoyed the finest wine and food. I don't suffer from wanderlust. I know Kenya like the back of my hand.
What did people think of you while working as director of the Presidential Press Service?
People used to say I was a proud man. When you're with Moi 24/7, you have no Saturdays, Sundays or holidays. People think you're avoiding them. They wait for you to retire to punish you, but I believe you have got two genuine friends in the world—God and money. Those will never forsake you. Friends are fake, they are like the British weather. There is nothing else let nobody cheat you.
What is your advice to journalists?
There is life after journalism. They should stop the life of exhibitionism because they should not think they are more important than other people. When they are glorified by bylines, they think they are above everybody. They will know it is not so when they stop working. They should establish a permanent economic base. They must create in their youth money-making ventures. If people don't remember off head when Mzee Moi died or when Njonjo died—and those are great men who made an impact in this country—then journalists should humble themselves.