Tale of a ‘traitor’ and a VP accused of telling people to kneel before him

Charles Njonjo had escaped the Andrew Muthemba treason trial unscratched but, as US World War II General Douglas McArthur would have put it, the grandmaster of political chess, President Daniel Moi, had only made a tactical retreat and would return with the knock-out punch.

In late April 1983, Mr Njonjo travelled to London on a private visit where he was, to among other errands, collect his bespoke suits and President Moi’s at the Savile Row where they shared a tailor. While Mr Njonjo was away, President Moi travelled to Kisii where he dropped the “bombshell” that there was a msaliti (traitor) being groomed by some foreign powers to overthrow him. The word msaliti would, in the coming months, be a common refrain in the political lexicon.

Head of the Presidential Press Unit Cornelius Nyamboki recalls how casually the msaliti narrative was weaved. “The President was hosted for a private lunch at the home of a top civil servant where the plot was hatched. It was agreed for President Moi to just make the public pronouncement that there was a msaliti and leave the top civil servant to look for the evidence to nail down the person.”

SECRET SECRETARIAT

Back in Nairobi, a secret secretariat was hurriedly set up at the Harambee House office of the President and top lawyer AR Kapila appointed to co-ordinate the team that would assemble the evidence to crucify the msaliti.

Mr Kapila had never seen eye to eye with Mr Njonjo. He would tell me at a later interview: “Njonjo had rubbed many people the wrong way, so getting the dossier to nail him was a walk in the park.”

The same day President Moi made the msaliti announcement, Kenya’s High Commissioner in London Bethuel Kiplagat was instructed to look for Mr Njonjo in London and tell him to get on the first available plane back home.

Knowing how the system worked, Mr Njonjo saw the writing on the wall. On arrival, he headed straight to his private office, wrote a resignation letter as a Cabinet minister, and took it to State House.

But President Moi wouldn’t let Mr Njonjo have the last word. He rejected the resignation. In an interview he granted me later, Mr Njonjo’s lawyer Paul Muite said Mr Moi even assured Mr Njonjo that he was not the msaliti he had in mind and there was no cause for alarm.

HINTS DROPPED

But, it appears, President Moi was only borrowing time before making his move. In the meantime, the msaliti chorus went a notch higher, with handpicked politicians dropping hints here and there that left no doubt who they had in mind. Finally, vocal assistant minister in the office of the President and Butere MP Martin Shikuku announced in Parliament that Mr Njonjo was the said traitor, after all. By then, this was common knowledge.

Mr Njonjo, who was also Kikuyu MP, was fired from the Cabinet and a Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate his conduct. In the meantime, President Moi called a snap General Election and anybody remotely associated with the former minister and one-time powerful Attorney-General was beaten. Senior civil servants and security chiefs suspected to be Mr Njonjo’s allies were also not spared.

At the Inquiry, all manner of accusations were levelled against the former minister. He was said to have, among other things, illegally sneaked into the country assorted weapons and illegal communication gear that could jam communication at State House and at the Department of Defence headquarters in Nairobi.

He was also said to have conspired to have a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the Moi government. But the most serious of the allegations was that he planned his own military coup just before the failed August 1, 1982 attempt by sections of the Kenya Air Force to overthrow President Moi. Mr Raila Odinga, then in detention on charges of treason, had to be ferried to the inquiry to testify about the Njonjo “coup”.

After a year of high drama, the inquiry ended in an anti-climax when President Moi announced he had “forgiven” Mr Njonjo on account of old age. At the time Mr Njonjo was 64 years old. Wonder what Mr Moi would say today when Njonjo is 97 – and still drives himself around on weekends!

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Vice-President Mwai Kibaki was the immediate beneficiary of Mr Njonjo’s fall from grace. The two had never been best of political friends.

But as soon as Mr Njonjo was gone, Mr Kibaki was the next on the chopping board a few years later. Politician Kimani wa Nyoike, then assistant minister, recalls: “One could tell Kibaki’s days as Vice-President were numbered. President Moi would summon to State House people he thought were allied to Kibaki like myself, and all of a sudden start back-biting his deputy. If you didn’t fall for Moi’s game, you automatically became a targeted person.”

So hounded was the Vice-President that he stopped discussing politics with anybody as his boss set spies on him. At the Muthaiga Golf Club where he frequented, Mr Kibaki would quickly point at the inscription “Beer Only” on the Tusker bottle anytime somebody attempted to get him to talk politics.

Eventually, a story came up that Mr Kibaki had his own line-up of “sponsored candidates” in the 1988 General Election. When a government-friendly magazine published the story with a banner headline, Mr Kibaki went ballistic at a press conference accusing the publication of playing malice with assistance of “whoever is working with them.” But just to show Mr Kibaki who was the boss, the official Vice-Presidential Press Unit assigned to him declined to cover the event!

President Moi went ahead to demote Mr Kibaki as vice-president to Minister for Health. In the 1988 infamously rigged mlolongo (queue-voting) election, nearly all Kibaki allies were shown the door.

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Next to face the guillotine was the man appointed to replace Mr Kibaki as President Moi’s vice-president, Josephat Karanja. A highly arrogant but naive politician, Mr Karanja took his job with rare zeal. Where Nyayoism was concerned, he was more catholic than the Pope. He had the sharpest barbs even for the most well-meaning critics of the Moi government, at one time dismissing the National Council of Churches of Kenya and the Law Society of Kenya as an “irritating nuisance.” Little did he know his day of reckoning was beckoning.

Visiting Paris in early 1989, President Moi had in his entourage a curious short man with even shorter political mannerisms known as Kuria Kanyingi. Kenyans had never heard of him before. Also in the delegation was another politician not known for much decorum by the name David Mwenje, the original Nairobi stone-thrower before Ferdinand Waititu.

While in Paris, politician Joseph Kamotho would later tell me, a plot was hatched to clip Dr Karanja’s wings.

The plan was simple: Back home, President Moi would drop the “bombshell” that there was a kneel-before-me politician who was going round demanding to be “worshipped” by other leaders and boasting that he was the de facto President any time Mr Moi was out of the country.

The plot worked to perfection. President Moi made the announcement at the airport from where it was picked up by Mr Kanyingi and Mr Mwenje. Within three months, Dr Karanja had been sacked and reduced to a political nobody.

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