How Jomo Kenyatta tackled major crises during his days at the helm

Geoffrey Kareithi was the Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet in the 11 of the 15 years Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was President.

Kareithi, who died at the age of 85 five years ago, was the archive of secrets of the presidency. As expected of such a person, he talked less and wanted the media a million miles away from him.

In the rare times he opened his mouth, he was clear what he wanted to say, why say it, and how to say it.

But somehow, I got along well with him, and he opened up on the few occasions I had met him.

His only rule was that I be alone when going to see him and take no notes. Recording him electronically would have made him summon the firing squad. After chatting with him, I made sure I sat down immediately we parted and wrote down whatever he had told me while my memory was still fresh.


In our first meeting, I had made the mistake of going to see him with a photographer and, of course, the company driver at his home on Kenyatta Road off the Thika Highway.

Immediately he ushered us in, he instructed that the photographer and the driver be given refreshments in the living room as he led me to the backside verandah of his house where he liked to rest.

He began by lecturing me: “Young man, when an old man invites you to his house, you don’t go to see him accompanied by other men. It could be that he has a juicy piece of meat he wants only you to have or there is a beautiful girl in his compound he wants you to see and get ideas!” I got the point.

Back to the story. The very first major crisis under Mzee Kenyatta’s watch came only three weeks after independence when soldiers at the Nakuru-based Lanet Army barracks went on a mutiny. On the same day, a self-styled “Field Marshal” John Okello had staged a military coup in Zanzibar islands and was said to be headed to do the same in Kenya.


It was a weekend and Prime Minister Kenyatta was at his Gatundu home. He immediately summoned a Cabinet meeting which was held under a mango tree in his compound.

The Cabinet resolved that British army units still in the country be given permission to storm Lanet Barracks to disarm and arrest the defiant soldiers.

Two weeks down the line, elders in the North Eastern Province, Marsabit and Isiolo (what was then called Northern Frontier District) declared secession.

To prove they meant business, they murdered then Isiolo District Commissioner Daudi Wabera (Nairobi’s Wabera Street is named after him) and six other senior government administrators in the region.

Mzee Kenyatta ordered the military and the General Service Unit to move in. It took four years of scorched earth military operation, psychological warfare, and diplomacy to restore order in the troubled region.


Mzee Kenyatta’s third baptism of fire would come on July 5, 1969, when Cabinet minister Tom Mboya was gunned down in broad daylight as he walked out of a chemist’s shop in Nairobi city centre.

Kenya was in ferment. Opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, though he never politically saw eye to eye with Mboya, made to exploit and milk dry all political mileage there was in the tragedy.

Mzee Kenyatta was mad. He said he would visit Jaramogi’s Luo Nyanza backyard to show him who was the boss. Cabinet Secretary Kareithi and the security intelligence had advised against the visit only to have the old man hit the roof: “How dare you people tell me not to visit Kisumu. Is Kisumu not part of Kenya?” he had thundered. To tweak Jaramogi’s nose, he said he would be going to open the Nyanza Provincial Hospital, better known as Russia Hospital, and built with a grant from Russia solicited by Jaramogi. He also instructed the latter be officially invited to attend the occasion.

When the presidential motorcade pulled up at the venue, angry mobs shouted “Ndume, Ndume!” the slogan of Jaramogi’s opposition Kenya People’s Union party (KPU) that was formed in 1966.

Breathing fire, Mzee Kenyatta headed to the microphone to engage the rowdy crowd and Jaramogi, who stood opposite him. He was at his worst, taunting the unruly crowd in any unprintable word that came to his mind.


Not to be intimidated, Jaramogi shouted back at him, making the latter all the mad. Then pandemonium. The crowds threw stones in the direction of the Head of State.

The presidential guard responded with live bullets as they moved the cursing President to his car. The presidential party literally shot a pathway out of the lakeside town.

More trouble was cooking in Nairobi. Some rogue politicians in Mt Kenya region were forcibly and secretly conducting oaths to bind people that the presidency shall never leave central Kenya. The church in the region loudly condemned the abominable oaths. When religious leaders felt they were speaking to the deaf, they organised mass demonstrations to denounce the oathings. Mzee Kenyatta was mad and asked Kareithi to summon the church leaders to a meeting at Nairobi State House.

Kareithi told me Mzee Kenyatta came to the meeting erupting like a volcano. After half-an-hour of reading the riot act, the unshaken clergy took to the floor and politely told him why the secret oathings were bad for the country and would damage the President’s reputation.


Once they were done, Kareithi recalled, the President took a deep breath and said: “You know the Kikuyu and the Maasai fought because they couldn’t talk to one another. You and I are fighting because we’d not sat down to talk and understand one another. Now that we have talked, you never again hear of the oathing and I am sure I will never again hear that you had led demonstrations against my government.” Everybody left the room happy.

On March 2, 1975, fiery Nyandarua North MP, JM Kariuki, was last seen alive walking out of then Nairobi Hilton Hotel in company of GSU commandant, Ben Gethi.

Ten days later, his family found his decomposed body at the City Mortuary and rushed to parliament to report their finding. Once parliament confirmed the news, the House went into flames with one MP declaring: “We have heard enough of these killers in the government!”

Reading the mood in the House, members of the cabinet led by Vice President Daniel Moi hurriedly left the chambers, removed national flag from their cars and fled town. Cabinet Secretary Kareithi telephoned his boss to say: “Mzee, you have no government. Cabinet ministers have thrown away their flags and gone home!”


“Well”, the President replied, call each one of them and inform them there will be a cabinet meeting at exactly eleven tomorrow.

The President, recalled Kareithi, arrived at exactly eleven high in octane and limping from gout pains.

Once seated, he went straight to the point: “I hear you have all quit my government. Can I now personally confirm it from you?”

Then he turned to Vice President seated next to him: “Mr Vice President, are you with my government or not?”

Moi replied in the affirmative and went on to explain something only to be cut short: “Mr Vice President, you have answered my question so we move on to the   next person!’

When all cabinet ministers had answered – of course all saying yes – as the President rose to go as he said: “Gentleman that is all I wanted to know!”

Mzee Kenyatta’s next stop was at the balcony of the Kenya Cinema building on Nairobi’s Moi Avenue  where inspected guard of honour by the military and took salute from assorted uniformed as military jets overflew above. It was his way of saying he was still the big man in town.


Early in July 1976, Kenya was again at boiling point. Israeli military jets had overflown the Kenyan airspace to rescue Israelis hijacked in an Air France jetliner  and detained at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.

On their way back after a successful mission, the Israelis made a stop-over in Nairobi for medical care and refuelling. Uganda’s President Idi Amin was mad at Kenya and ordered his military to attack Kenya.

Cabinet Secretary Kareithi was presiding over a fundraiser in his Gichugu home in Kirinyaga when a military chopper arrived to pick him up for an emergency meeting at Nakuru State House.

At the meeting chaired by the Commander in Chief and attended be the country’s top security brass, it was resolved that Kenya Air Force jets immediately overfly Kampala and make a sonic boom (war cry) to make it loud and clear to the Ugandans that Kenya was ready for war. Mark you, the few Russian-supplied planes Uganda military had already been destroyed by Israeli commandos.


Besides, President Kenyatta ordered all the supplies to the land-locked Uganda passing through Kenya, including the all-important fuel for his military vehicles, be seized by Kenyan authorities. President Amin had been caught pants down and deflated.

Mzee Kenyatta’s last major crisis a few months to his death was yet another threat of another military invasion, this time by Somalia.

The latter was engaged in a war with Ethiopia over a piece of a desert called Ogaden. Kenya had thrown her full weight behind Ethiopia and Somalis weren’t amused.

Taking the threat seriously, the President dispatched a high-level delegation to Washington, London and Bonn (capital of then West Germany) to ask for urgent military aid, which was granted. Somalis got the drift of it and cooled off.


On the Sunday afternoon of August 20, 1978, Cabinet Secretary Kareithi flew to Mombasa for a next morning appointment with his boss at Mombasa State House. After a briefing and discussion on the government business in the beginning week, the two agreed to meet again on Friday.

Kareithi flew back to Nairobi. At four o’clock in the night, the phone in his bedroom rang. It was the Coast Provincial Commissioner calling with a coded message: “Kenya’s eyes have closed. Please come down.” Kareithi had no problem decoding the message. His boss, the President, was dead.


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Written by Daily Nation

The Nation Media Group (NMG) founded by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1959 has become the largest independent media house in East and Central Africa. It has been quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange since the early 1970s.

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