Casebook: Who stole Moi's golden cockerel?

The theft of the cockerel was a severe blow to the politics of symbolism and the president's ego.

In 1999, former President Moi's Kabarak house was broken into and a golden cockerel stolen. Evidence pointed into an inside job. Were members of the elite presidential bodyguard the culprits? Was the theft meant to fix their boss, Samson Cheramboss? asks ODINDO AYIEKO

Nobody has ever been charged with the June 1999 theft of a 20-kilogram golden cockerel from the Kabarak home of former President Daniel Arap Moi. Other pricey items were also purloined.

After an initial in-house investigation by the president's security detail, three officers were questioned by Nakuru police after which the matter was laid to rest. The public never got to know how thieves could break into the well-guarded home and into the president's bedroom, where the cockerel – obviously worthy millions political symbol was kept.

The mystery of the theft lingers on. Probably, on instruction from State House, police dropped the matter on an account of its embarrassing ramifications.

Former State House Comptroller Franklin Bett, now a nominated MP (Narc), says the whole thing might have been cock and bull. The perfunctory manner in which the theft was handled, he says, did not bespeak of presidential wrath.

"There is no way such an issue could have been just swept under the carpet if the lost items were of the value quoted," says Bett.

No minister denied the matter when it came up in Parliament

But, if it was a hoax, why was there never an official denial by President Moi, who was known to react promptly to negative publicity? Not even a terse statement from the Presidential Press Service was forthcoming. And, when the issue came up in Parliament, no Minister, including the one in charge of state security, denied the story.

Fingerprints were taken from the members of the elite presidential guard at Kabarak but those questioned were reportedly warned not to keep their mouths shut. 

The then head of Presidential Escort, Mr Samson Cheramboss, denied the burglary reports. However, barely three days after the reports went public, he was tellingly moved to the less plum post of the General Service Unit Commandant– less plum in the sense that his proximity to the President was reduced. 

The Jogoo, the symbol and slogan of the then ruling party, Kanu, was said to have a black market value of Sh2.5 billion.

When the burglary took place, President Moi had travelled to Nigeria for the inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Back in Kenya, he is said to have been so incensed that he threatened to fire some of his security chiefs.

Four days later, the president lived to his threat and kicked out Cheramboss from his security detail, replacing him with Mr David Kimaiyo who was by then an Assistant Commissioner of Police.

Why did the president make the changes almost immediately after being told of the burglary? Was he holding Cheramboss responsible?

The no-nonsense Moi’s security chief performed his duties with zeal. His relationship with journalists was not anything to write home about. He had been accused of high handedness during presidential functions. Those who crossed paths with him say Cheramboss, a former Kenya Wildlife Service head of security, would use all manner of force to ensure photojournalists never got close to the president – more so if the security man considered them a security threat or suspected that their pictures would cast the president in bad light.

Journalists would keep their distance from Cheramboss who would even turn violent if the journalists failed to take his instructions, others would take cover at the sight of the president's security chief. His transfer was therefore a welcome relief to journalists.

A day before his transfer, Cheramboss denied there was any break in at the president’s residence. However, he unwittingly revealed that there had been a crack on the window pane in one of the rooms. It did not matter that he was at pains to explain that the crack had nothing to do with burglary.

The security chief would further spill more beans – again inadvertently – by disclosing that fingerprint experts had dusted the window pane but found no prints. So, why was there an investigation if no crime had been committed? As for the crack, he blamed the "forces of contraction and expansion."

Physics aside, how could Cheramboss explain the questioning of the three security men by the Nakuru police after the burglary?

Did the thieves collude with 
other security officers?

Word had it that disgruntled members of the presidential bodyguard had used metal cutters to access the president's bedroom.

If it was an inside job, what became of the cockerel? Was it sold intact or the gold smelted?

Further, how did it leave the president’s residence, did the thieves collude with other security officers and Kabarak employees to sneak it out and share the loot once it was sold?

Mr Bet, who served President Moi for a decade, says through his ten years at State House, he never saw the cockerel. "I don’t know if the president had such a thing in his room."

The theft of the cockerel was not the first serious security breach at Kabarak to become public knowledge. Months to the 1997 general elections, presidential guards stole millions of shillings at the same residence.

While the government did its best to keep this matter secret, five guards who were on duty on the day the money disappeared were later arrested and charged with deserting duty. They were corporals J. Cheruiyot, Samuel Mutai, Eric Munai, Paul Kiptalam and Justus Nzioka.

The case was later withdrawn in its initial stages after the president indicated his wish to let matters rest as long as he got back his money. However, this was not after the head of the security team, Mr Stephen Sang’ had been removed and posted to Hola. Now Hola is not is not a very hospitable place.

Bett confirms the 1997 theft, which he says rubbed the president the wrong way. He was not amused at the fact that his own servants could steal from him. "But he was very lenient.... any other person would have dealt with them ruthlessly," says Bett who left State House in 1998, a year after the cockerel was stolen.

Given that the three officers picked up for questioning in connection with the theft of the golden cockerel were released almost immediately, does it mean that Moi had no wish to pursue the case provided his golden jogoo was returned?

The Kabarak burglary caused an uproar in Parliament with Mr Kiraitu Murungi (now Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs) demanding the immediate resignation of the government for failing to protect the property of its own leader. 

The presidential guards protected all presidential abodes and still do. They were stationed at the Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru State Houses, the Eldoret State Lodge, Moi’s private residences at Kabarak, Nakuru and Kabarnet Gardens in Nairobi’s Kibera estate.

The armed guards were on duty round the clock and security, especially in Kabarak where Moi spent his weekends quietly, was very tight. Intruders rarely went unnoticed. Even at times when the security was lax especially when the president was away, it was near impossible to enter the compounds.

It is widely believed that the cockerel theft was an inside job. The mystery is who did it, how they went about it and for what reasons. Was it just meant to fix Cheramboss?

With the 1997 cash theft and the 1999 burglary, does it mean that the president’s security team was no longer dependable on? How secure was the president with armed men who had no qualms when stealing from him?

That aside, the question that remains unanswered is: who sold Moi's jogoo? Who bought it?