By KAMAU NGOTHO
In his days in power, President Daniel arap Moi was a real hands-on man with his finger on the pulse – aware of things happening in every corner of the country.
By 6.30 in the morning, he would have gone through the day’s newspapers and got on the phones.
A provincial commissioner would call to brief him on some event in a remote corner of the country only to discover the President already knew about it.
Moreover, Moi would have subordinates spying on their superiors and vice-versa. Even the head of the Security Intelligence was never sure a cleaner in his office wasn’t reporting on him! Another thing: The President wanted information given to him unfiltered — the raw data, half-truths, and outright gossip.
DIRECT TELEPHONE LINES
Back to the story. The President had direct telephone lines of all senior editors in the country and would fire a call at the slightest provocation.
At the Kenya Times newspaper where I worked, the Head of State had direct lines of Editor-in-Chief Philip Ochieng, News Editor Chris Musyoka, and Kanu News Editor Charles Kulundu. The latter was a curious specimen. He was Kanu damu — ndani,ndani,ndani kabisa (staunch supporter) and would come to the office dressed in the ruling party’s colours of a red shirt, Jogoo tie depicting its cockerel symbol and a badge.
One day I happened to be alone in the newsroom a few minutes past six in the morning. Those days I was a bachelor and never had to care about such “silly” things as having breakfast in the house.
Suddenly the direct newsroom line rang. It’s a rule of the newsroom that you don’t ignore any in-coming call lest you miss on a big story.
“Wapi huyu Musyoka? (Where is this Musyoka?)” the agitated caller demanded.
“He isn’t yet in, sir. Can I take your number and ask him to call you?”
“What time do you people come to the office? I cannot get Musyoka, I can’t get Ochieng and I can’t get Kulundu!,” the caller fumed. “When they come, ask them to call Moi,” he commanded and banged the phone. I was left frozen. I had just been talking to the President!
I would later learn that senior editors in all newsrooms had designed a survival tactic to avoid the Big Man’s call, especially when they suspected there would be trouble. Luckily, there were no mobile phones those days and editors could easily play hide-and-seek until the Big Man’s tempers cooled down.
George Mbugguss, a long-serving Group Managing Editor at the Nation, once told me how he managed to play mind games with State House whenever he smelled trouble. He would lock himself in his office at the Old Nation House, unhook his direct line, and instruct his secretary to tell everybody that he was out for a meeting away from office.
In the meantime, he would be communicating with the secretary through hand-written notes sneaked under the door. When the time came to leave the office, he would quietly vanish through the back-door and off to Karangi Bar in Nairobi’s Ngara area where his driver would monitor the goings-on in the office though a public telephone booth outside the watering joint.
He specifically remembered one “hot” day when the Nation splashed a sermon by the Rev Timothy Njoya calling for a multi-party system of government at a time it was political taboo to do so.
Come Monday morning, and expecting State House would come out with all guns blazing, Mbugguss didn’t show up in the office and disappeared from his residence as well. In the meantime, he instructed his editors to give full play to Kanu’s rejoinder to Rev Njoya’s sermon.
The following day, the editor and two of the company directors presented themselves at the offices of powerful Internal Security Permanent Secretary, the dreaded Hezekiah Oyugi, ready to be hauled over the coals. On seeing Mbugguss, Oyugi shouted: “You’re very lucky Bwana Mbugguss. I was just about to issue instructions that you be arrested and brought here! You’re also lucky Mzee (the President) is happy the way you have treated Kanu’s reply to that mad man (Rev Njoya) and has asked me not to take action on you!”
Another of the old chief editors at the Nation, George Githii, had his own “defence” mechanism. He had a loaded pistol tucked in his top drawer just in case the State sent goons to harass him in office. It wasn’t without a good reason. Once Githii got a tip that founding President Jomo Kenyatta was in a coma at his residence in Mombasa. Like any editor would do, Githii had his writers do a story of the life and times of the President and keep it in a safe, just in case … Somehow, security agents got wind of it and the editor was carted away from the newsroom to spend a night in police cells.
On another occasion, the Nation was about to serialise an international best-seller that told of Kenya’s complicity in the 1976 raid on Entebbe Airport by Israeli commandos. The Police Commissioner telephoned Editor Githii demanding the serialisation be dropped.
The editor told him off. Early in the morning, police stormed Githii’s private residence, arrested him, and took him to the home of the Police Commissioner where the riot act was read to him.
Henry Gathigira, who was editorial boss at the Standard and later at the Kenya Times, too, knew how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. On a day he expected trouble, he would bolt away from office as early as three in the afternoon and communicate with his editors from the safety of a public telephone booth in an undisclosed location. While there, he would dictate headlines and give instructions on where to place what story.
Meanwhile, any suspicious caller to his office would be told the editor had travelled to Rumuruti in Laikipia where he reared goats. One day a caller fed up with the Rumuruti story remarked to the secretary: “You mean your boss has to deliver a copy of the newspaper to be read by his goats every morning!” As a precaution, Editor Gathigira also never let anybody – including the company drivers – know where he lived. He would have one driver drop him in the middle of the road and then disappear to God-knows-where. The following day, another driver would pick him up from a different street. Of course, nobody dared ask the boss where he had come from.
When writing this column, I inquired from a source close to the source whether retired President Moi still takes a keen interest in current affairs. “Very much so,” was the reply. Even now in his mid 1990s, the former president faithfully reads newspapers and watches evening television news. Whenever he spots something he doesn’t like, I am told, he always remarks: “Sasa hii ni ghasia gani wameweka! (What rubbish is this they have published!)