Lee Njiru: Jomo Kenyatta’s chaotic State House and his callous handlers
What you need to know:
- From 1977, Mzee Kenyatta began suffering from serious paranoia.
- When I joined the Presidential Press Service (PPS), there were numerous stories about how Mzee Kenyatta used to cane his ministers.
The former head of the Presidential Press Service, Lee Njiru, details the chaos and plunder in Jomo Kenyatta’s reign, recounts the day when the president slashed him with a sword and the comically tragic power struggles at State House in his book, “President’s Press Man”. This is the first of a four-part series.
How I joined State House.
Jomo Kenyatta had a special relationship with Haile Selassie.
This had led to the signing of a defence pact between Kenya and Ethiopia, purposely to counter the Republic of Somalia’s expansionist schemes.
Somalia had vowed to annex Kenya’s North-Eastern Province and Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.
This led to the infamous shifta war that took place between 1963 and 1968.
Kenya won the battle to protect its borders. Another great friend of Mzee Kenyatta was Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia.
The embassies of Ethiopia and Yugoslavia in Nairobi are contiguous and close to State House.
The plan was that if Haile Selassie or Josip Tito had an urgent message for Mzee Kenyatta, their respective ambassadors would just walk to State House and deliver it.
Kenyatta and Selassie were so close that the latter graced Kenya’s Jamhuri Day celebrations in 1964.
Kenyatta made a reciprocal visit to Addis Ababa in 1969.
It is through this friendship that a major road in Nairobi was named after Haile Selassie.
By 1977, Kenyatta, a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, did not like the political direction Ethiopia was taking under the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Kenyatta desired to have first-hand information about the happenings in Ethiopia.
In the Presidential Press Unit (PPU), there was a brilliant young press officer called Francis Muigai Kamau.
He got posted to Kenya’s embassy in Addis Ababa as a press attaché.
His main duty was to furnish Mzee Kenyatta with detailed information regarding the emerging policies of Haile Mariam and their possible effects on Kenya’s security and political dispensation.
Muigai’s departure from PPU created a vacancy that had to be filled immediately.
Kenyatta instructed the then Director of Information, Edmund Matu, to do the needful.
Matu summoned the chief press officer, Tom Mzungu, and the chief information officer, Arthur Reuben, for deliberations.
It was in this meeting that the name of Lee Njiru popped up.
I was then 28 years old, working in the Provincial Information Office, Kakamega, Western Province.
When I received Matu’s orders to immediately report to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in Nakuru, I trembled.
My fear of Kenyatta emanated from the weird and frightening stories I had heard about him as a child and during my teenage years.
In the 1950s, when Kenyatta was in detention, the whole country was awash with accounts of his strange characteristics.
In Embu, where I grew up, my impressionable brain was inundated with such untruths.
One was that Kenyatta had a hairy tongue. The second was that his eyes were fiery, penetrating and on the forehead.
The other one was that he could read people’s minds.
We, thus, grew up holding Kenyatta, whom we had never seen, in great awe.
He was a veritable bogeyman until I met him physically. This is the man I was to work for.
My trip from Kakamega to Nakuru to take up my role was a nightmare.
My fellow passengers in a Peugeot 504 station wagon matatu christened ‘Wepesi’ thought I was terribly sick.
Beads of sweat were trickling down my face. On arrival in Nakuru, I telephoned my wife, Rose, who was a secretary in the Ministry of Works.
In my initial customary salutation, she discerned some unusual stammer and anxiety in my voice.
She asked me what the matter was. I told her I had arrived in Nakuru and was about to face the legendary Jomo Kenyatta as his press officer and that I could not succeed without genuine, sincere prayers from a person who loved me unconditionally.
I told her that person could only be my mother Grace.
We agreed that she should immediately travel to Runyenjes and plead with my mother to perform this divine task.
I took a taxi from Njoro House, Nakuru, at 2 pm.
I wished the journey to State House Nakuru could take longer to delay the torment of being in front of this legend, Mzee Kenyatta, but it took five minutes only.
Alexander Njoroge Gitau, the Comptroller of State House, was waiting for me.
On the left side as you enter State House, Nakuru is a small parlour where important guests are entertained.
Gitau knocked on the door. A husky voice bellowed, ‘come in’. It was Jomo Kenyatta, seated with his Minister for State and brother-in-law, Peter Mbiyu Koinange. I froze.
The comptroller introduced me in Kikuyu, saying I was the young man sent by Edmund Matu to replace Francis Kamau.
After the introduction, Gitau did something which I regarded as a betrayal.
He left the parlour and shut the door, leaving me with the two power men.
At first, Kenyatta was gentle when asking me about myself and where I came from.
But he got nasty when we discussed my posting. “Will you perform your duties diligently and to my satisfaction?” he asked me. “I will try, sir,” I answered.
I was convinced that I would not be accepted here. All the same, I mumbled, “I will do the job, sir.”
Kenyatta smiled and turning to Mbiyu, he said in Kikuyu, “Nikarainaina” meaning “the small boy is trembling.”
Mbiyu answered in English, “It is the right of every citizen to tremble in front of his leader.”
Kenyatta laughed loudly and asked Mbiyu rhetorically, “So sometimes you can talk sensibly?”
Mzee dialled a number and summoned Gitau to take me for further instructions.
I was taken to a building named ‘Angola’ where I had lunch.
This building was named ‘Angola’ because it was the one that Kenyatta used to hold a reconciliation meeting with Angolan freedom fighters in the seventies.
Mombasa, Nakuru State Houses
In Mombasa and Nakuru State Houses, which had huge entertainment arenas, traditional dancers and school choirs would be ferried, even from far-off rural areas for Mzee’s entertainment.
The mobilisation, transportation, accommodation and feeding of these entertainers were often a logistical nightmare.
The provincial administration, the Ministry of Social Services and the Treasury worked together to make the programme a success.
They accommodated students in cheap hotels. But subsumed under the seemingly innocuous veneers of entertainment was a monumental morass of debauchery, decadence and corruption.
Many of the older schoolgirls, who were part of the choirs and other entertainments, were after the State House performances, isolated and shared among male teachers, immoral district officers and other officials who were part of the scheme.
Some of the female teachers, including married ones, fell into the same trap with promises of promotions, beach plots and other irresistible trappings.
It was shocking that the very people charged with the responsibility of looking after the welfare of the schoolgirls turned into predators.
This was an absolute betrayal of trust. It appeared that as long as Mzee Kenyatta was sufficiently entertained, nothing else mattered.
Nobody would dare to rock the boat since the rot was considered to be insignificant collateral damage.
You see, Mzee Kenyatta was deified. Nobody knew that he was at one time a carpenter and later a water meter reader with the Nairobi City Council.
He had acquired great charisma through his political success and the creation of a cult of his own personality.
He had deliberately nurtured the status of an infallible superman until Kenyans willingly accepted the outrageous estimation and glorification of himself.
As Kenyatta’s handlers got deeply engrossed in merry-making, the old man was left alone to contend with the vicissitudes of age such as arthritis, poor eyesight, a weak heart and incapacity to govern.
There was no resident physician, neither was there a cardiologist to respond to any medical emergency.
All Mzee was given by his government was a poorly equipped nurse, Isabella Wangui.
Whenever we travelled outside Nairobi, Wangui had to hike a lift from other departments.
In the presidential escort, there was a team of policewomen that had self-drive official cars.
These women were purely for decorative purposes. But nobody found it necessary to provide a special vehicle for Wangui, who was supposed to undertake the critical function of handling the medical needs of a sickly President.
The people around Kenyatta, especially in the later years of his presidency, were uncaring and spent most of their time moving around the country, looking for valuables to plunder, like rogue elephants let loose on a maize plantation.
His welfare to them was of no consequence. What a terrible irony! Mzee’s security team was divided into two cadres.
There was the professionally trained group seconded from the regular police and the General Service Unit.
This group was disciplined and guided by the Force Standing Orders.
Then there was the untrained group known as the "Gatundu One".
When Kenyatta was released from detention in 1961, a group of young illiterate men from his Ichaweri village volunteered to protect him.
He was paying them from his pocket.
After he became the prime minister in 1963, he ordered that these young men be absorbed into the police force.
It was this group who, without shame, continued to commit atrocities against the people.
Sometimes in 1977, Mzee was invited to lunch at the Eden Rock Hotel in Malindi.
The host was the owner of the facility, a German lady that Mzee had nicknamed ‘Mama Maridadi’, meaning the gorgeous lady.
After the sumptuous luncheon, a section of the presidential security team did the unthinkable.
They ransacked the cloakrooms, the lounges and the unoccupied rooms.
They stole towels, bedsheets and pillowcases. One of them tried, unsuccessfully, to force a coffee table into the boot of a security Mercedes that was already full of guns.
It was unfortunate that the onlookers believed the loot was a gift to Mzee Kenyatta from Mama Maridadi.
Kenyatta’s Escort Commander, Bernard Njiinu, who later became the Commissioner of Police in President Moi’s Administration, viewed this cadre with utter contempt.
But he was powerless. They were a law unto themselves.
We kept meeting with Geoffrey Kariithi, the Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet and talked a lot about official and even personal issues.
When I joined the Presidential Press Service (PPS), there were numerous stories about how Mzee Kenyatta used to cane his ministers.
One day I asked Kariithi if that was true and he confirmed.
But he was quick to clarify that in Kenyatta’s mind, he was caning wayward children who did not undertake their chores seriously.
He told me that Dr Gikonyo Kiano, the Minister for Commerce and Industry, had suffered Kenyatta’s caning for taking bribes during the Africanisation of businesses in Kenya.
“You see, Kiano was born in 1926. Mzee’s firstborn son, Peter Muigai was born in 1920. Thus, Mzee was not only caning a minister but a son. Kiano was in the same age bracket as Kenyatta’s first daughter Margaret who was born in 1928,” Kariithi explained to me.
Sword and failing memory
From 1977, Mzee Kenyatta began suffering from serious paranoia.
One day in his Gatundu home, a man called Njoroge Nguyai visited him with the sad news of the death of a woman freedom fighter named Rebecca.
The old man sent for me. Since I did not know why he called, I took Mathias Agare, a photographer.
I entered Mzee’s house, focusing on the inner chamber where he normally sat.
But he was sitting at the outer chamber where I almost stumbled on him.
He, swiftly, like a fencing expert, drew his sword and charged at me.
The sword caused a minor laceration between my left thumb and index finger.
Kenyatta’s walking stick had been fashioned in a way that there was a sword inside. He then bellowed, “I am not a joker!” followed by laughter.
He summoned Nguyai and asked him to give me a rundown of Rebecca’s exploits in the freedom struggle.
I then wrote Mzee’s message of condolence.
With time, it became clear that Kenyatta’s health was deteriorating fast.
Mzee Jomo Kenyatta left Nakuru by road on Wednesday, August 2, 1978, for Mombasa.
The following day, Thursday, Mzee never left the precincts of State House, Mombasa.
Whenever he spoke, his speech was generally incoherent. His gait was laboured.
When on Friday, August 4, 1978, he read the speech to officially open the Mombasa Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) Show, he ignored the final salutation at the bottom of the speech, which was ‘thank you’ and substituted it with ‘Amen’.
That, ominously, was his last official speech on earth, the land of the living.
On August 14, 1978, Mzee Kenyatta hosted his family at State House, Mombasa.
Although the event was to celebrate his release from detention on the same date in 1961, tongues were wagging that he was saying the final goodbye to the family.
And indeed he was. On Monday, August 21, 1978, Mzee Kenyatta had lunch at State House Mombasa with all the Kenyan envoys abroad.
It was after lunch that things became terrifying. Mzee missed his way out of the dining hall and entered the dingy caretaker’s office.
He caused a commotion among the junior staff as the room was littered with dirty utensils and leftovers.
When he was redirected to his sleeping quarters, the old man could not make it upstairs without a pause.
After a brief rest, he went to his private quarters. After witnessing all this agony suffered by Mzee Kenyatta, I was convinced that Koinange or PC Mahihu or the Comptroller of State House, Gitau, would cancel the pre-arranged Msambweni function.
They did not. I believe that Kenyatta’s life would have been saved if immediate medical attention was made available.
We proceeded to Msambweni Primary School grounds, the venue of entertainment.
Halfway between the performances, Kenyatta went to the makeshift washroom, situated at the back of the VIP dais.
He overstayed. Mbiyu and Mahihu went in to check and found Mzee slumped on the toilet seat.
They lifted him, reorganised his dressing and brought him back to the dais. A security cordon was thrown around him.
To hoodwink the people, the hoi-polloi, PC Mahihu asked Mzee Kenyatta to end the function with this clarion call of ‘Harambee’. I thought it was callous of Mahihu to subject Mzee to this ordeal. But it was the loudest roar I had heard from Mzee Kenyatta during the period I had worked for him. Unfortunately, it was the last.
At 4 am on August 22, 1978, Tuesday, there was a knock on my door at Mickey’s Hotel.
A telephone call from State House, Mombasa, to the hotel had demanded that I report to work urgently.
My fears were confirmed when, at the entrance to the main building, I saw an ambulance. Kenyatta was dead.