What you need to know:
- Nyachae rose very quickly within the ranks without Charles Njonjo and his ally, Jeremiah Kiereini .
- Together with Hezekiah Oyugi, they managed to entrench themselves.
Nine months after the 1982 coup attempt, Simeon Nyachae organised a harambee for all primary schools in Kisii with President Moi as the guest of honour at the Gusii Stadium. Date: Sunday, May 8, 1983.
It was an event that would ultimately alter Kenya’s politics and see the fall of Cabinet Minister Charles Njonjo and his supporters, and entrench Moi as his own man. Those who had dismissed Moi as a ‘passing cloud’ were to start falling as the choreographed scheme started in earnest.
At the centre stage was Simeon Nyachae, who was rising fast within the power circles, Hezekiah Oyugi, then a provincial commissioner, and Nicholas Biwott, then Regional Development, Science and Technology minister.
The previous day, May 7, 1983, Moi had conducted another harambee in aid of Moi Institute of Technology (now Rongo University) in Kitere, Migori and had opted to spend the night at Oyugi’s residence. Here, the pep-talk into the night centred on politics – minus the Mt Kenya heavyweights who then included Charles Njonjo and G.G. Kariuki.
Fall from power
“After the attempted coup,” Kariuki wrote in his book Illusion of Power, “politicians tended to accompany the President wherever he went, lest they be seen as being unfaithful or not following the right footsteps.”
As Kariuki, who apparently was not in Nyachae’s Harambee, would later tell this writer, it was a night of “fitina” and it marked their fall from power.
It was at the breakfast table, just before they left for Gusii Stadium, that Moi promised to drop the bombshell. Hours later, and out of the blues to those who were not at the breakfast, Moi alleged that some foreign countries were grooming a certain person to take over the presidency: “I know that not everyone dances to my tune, but I was elected President of Kenya in order to protect the lives of 17 million people.”
And, in order to help people identify the political target, he warned those undermining Vice President Mwai Kibaki to cease.
By then, the Njonjo and Kibaki axis were at loggerheads as each tried to consolidate their might in an environment full of backstabbing, and ‘political hysteria’ — as GG would later describe it.
Simeon Nyachae was the Central provincial commissioner when Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta in 1978. He knew that the Mt Kenya region might not accept his leadership and that was the reason he kept Njonjo, Kibaki and a newcomer GG Kariuki close to him.
Nyachae would also be useful, according to his deputy David Musila, who would later replace him as PC.
“When Moi became President, it fell upon Nyachae and all of us under him, to rally the people of Central Province to accept the new leadership. Our PC was a man of very strong character; and the new President did not fail to notice the skill and talent in Simeon Nyachae. The PC organised other leaders and wananchi to visit and pay homage to the new President,” writes Musila in his autobiography Seasons of Hope.
Musila described Nyachae as a man with a ‘larger than life personality’ and as a strict administrator.
“He was feared and revered in equal measure. Those who knew him well also knew that he was a very likeable person. If you did your job well, he rewarded you. He was .., a very accommodative person. I think Nyachae and three men from Central Province, played a pivotal role in Moi’s successful ascendance to power.”
Dropped from power
But when time came, Njonjo, Kariuki and later Kibaki were all dropped from power in that sequence.
Nyachae had been approached by Moi in late 1979 and asked to suggest a better replacement as PC since he was to be made a permanent secretary at the Office of the President in charge of Cabinet Affairs and Development Co-Ordination. It was Nyachae who suggested Musila’s name and by September 1979, he was out of Central Province.
That January, a farewell party was held at the Nyeri Golf Club where Mwai Kibaki was the chief guest — an indicator of the good rapport the two had. That would explain, too, why Nyachae would become an insider in Njonjo’s fall drama.
As the PS for Cabinet Affairs, Nyachae had taken a portfolio previously held by Jeremiah Kiereini whose powers were being trimmed. Kiereini had remained the chief secretary and head of civil service.
With Nyachae at the Office of the President, two powerful men now shared the same office. As Kiereini would later recount in his book A Daunting Journey, he started “feeling uneasy with the illogical and arbitrary events that were taking place. Gethi had faced detention and Njonjo’s political career was over. Both were especially close friends.”
Position whittled down
While Kiereini also sat in the Cabinet, taking minutes, the entry of Nyachae to take over the task meant that his position was whittled down. He had also eclipsed then Comptroller of State House, Andrew Limo, and any person who wanted to see the President had first to get approval at the Office of the President. Initially, it was Kiereini who would give the approvals, but later the docket was given to Nyachae.
Before Ngeny died in a road accident in September 1983, just before the Njonjo-scare general elections, the President’s diary was in the hands of Nyachae — and crafted from his Harambee House office.
Also, after the 1982 coup attempt, Moi had appointed Wilson Boinett as his aide-de camp, replacing the Kenyatta-era Maj Gen Peter Ikenya. With the help of General Mulinge, the Chief of General Staff, Moi had managed to purge the system and clip the wings of various security personnel whose links to Njonjo was obvious. The only Njonjo-man who had remained standing was Kiereni.
Next to face the axe
With all these, Kiereini knew that he would be next to face the axe “and I felt that I owed it to myself to retire with my dignity intact instead of risking the humiliation of being kicked out of service.”
In July 1984, after a fourth request, Moi allowed him to leave and Nyachae took over as a powerful Chief Secretary.
The entry of Nyachae and Boinett, and exit of Kiereini, saw dramatic changes within State House.
While Moi used to host morning breakfast and lunch for his former henchmen, these were scrapped and Moi now surrounded himself with home boys who had been eclipsed by GG and Njonjo.
Another entrant into the circle was Rift Valley PC Hezekiah Oyugi, the man who had been used to dismantle the powerful Kikuyu cabals in the Rift Valley and which had the likes of Kihika Kimani — the chairman of the powerful Ngwataniro Mutukanio Farm.
Moi gave Oyugo the order to cut down the farms and issue title deeds which denied these chairmen a continued hold on the shareholders. More so, some profitable farms finally became useless.
Also, as Rift Valley PC, Oyugi had been the key organiser of goodwill visits by various delegations that went to either Kabarak or State House, Nakuru to pledge loyalty to Moi.
It was in this political scenario that Njonjo’s fall had been plotted and when the groups met in Oyugi’s residence on May 8, 1983, it was obvious that there would be major shifts.
National fundraiser record
The fundraiser for the now Rongo University had realised Sh7.13 million while the Kisii harambee had set a national record by raising Sh42.68 million, a figure that had been unheard of. Nyachae had managed to ask for support from the entire provincial administration and had mobilised various civil servants and Cabinet ministers to chip in.
Interestingly, GG Kariuki had not attended that harambee and opted to go and witness the allocation of title deeds to Muhotetu Farmers Company — one of those targeted by Oyugi. Also, Njonjo was away in London, naively oblivious of the schemes that were being hatched.
The witch hunt appears to have started in April 1983 when Cabinet Minister Justus ole Tipis, a minister in the office of the President, claimed that there were ministers who wished the government would collapse. He further alleged that some ministers were preaching Nyayo during the day and Pambana during the night. Pambana was a proscribed publication associated with radicals opposed to Moi rule.
While Moi’s speech in Kisii did not name the ‘traitor’ it was left to Kanu mandarins to hunt down the perceived supporters and expel them from Kanu — and end their political careers.
‘Traitor is a minister’
Two days after the Kisii rally, Kerio Central MP Francis Mutwol, then Kanu’s Parliamentary Group secretary, claimed that the “traitor is a minister.” He later added that the “the traitor was very powerful and could make a foreign trip without any clearance from the Office of the President.”
By then, the foreign trips were being approved by Njonjo’s ally, Jeremiah Kiereini — and as such, he was one man who was the target of the pep talk.
Since Njonjo was in London, the British High Commissioner, Sir Lenard Allison, booked an appointment to see Moi on May 13 and dispelled rumours that Britain was behind a regime change in Kenya. Similar private messages were received from Milton Obote.
Back in Nairobi, the traitor issue, as it was known started to define the politics and Isaac Salaat, an MP, called a press conference and demanded that “the traitor should fly back and clear his name.”
“In the atmosphere of political hysteria, my own political enemies soon began to capitalise, both quietly and publicly, on any statement that I made,” Kariuki would later say.
He was not alone.
Njonjo was also to face the same fate after he returned to the country and denied he was the traitor. But when a church service was held at the PCEA Rungiri Parish and the preacher, Samuel Githegi, a former Coffee Board of Kenya chairman, preached about the ‘limping sheep’, this was interpreted as a direct attack on Moi.
After the Rungiri service, and inside State House, Moi surrounded by various figures discussed the traitor issue. Moi was sitting at the edge of the table, a position he loved. Nyachae was among the attendees together with Oyugi.
The next day in Parliament, Martin Shikuku met Njonjo in the corridors. Ever since he was detained, he had never forgiven Njonjo.
“You have to go,” Shikuku told Njonjo.
Looking for witnesses
On June 29, a Wednesday, Moi called his aides, among them my source who is still alive, and asked them to start looking for witnesses to nail Njonjo. Soon, a commission of Inquiry was formed and various Njonjo enemies — with evidence and without — were lined up to humiliate him.
Nyachae rose very quickly within the ranks without Njonjo and Kiereini and, together with Hezekiah Oyugi, they managed to entrench themselves.
That was until their time to be dispatched into oblivion came.
But interestingly, Nyachae, the politician at one point worked with Moi and as Agriculture minister he was allowed to start a tea brokerage firm in Mombasa.
More than that, his milling enterprise grew steadily and he survived the Moi era by playing smart.
But with age, and with the multiparty system, he found himself working as a Cabinet minister for Kibaki — the man he had helped when Njonjo was brought down.