Previously, I have told in this column about my one-on-one exchange with President Moi. It wasn’t a friendly one and I narrowly escaped roughing-up by the presidential guards.
It happened in Njoro of the present-day Nakuru County at the height of politically instigated ethnic killings in January 1998. The President had just finished addressing a public rally and came where journalists were standing to lecture us on why we should be “patriots and love our country”.
As he made to leave, I shot at him a question: “Mr President, is Kenya not slowly but surely sliding the path of the 1994 Rwanda genocide?”
He wasn’t amused, prompting his bodyguards to move menacingly forward ready to pounce on me and “teach me good manners”. The President stopped them just as they were about to whisk me away.
In contrast to that first encounter, the next three occasions I met him were friendly and I came to know the other side of the old man.
Away from the trappings of power and protocols, he struck me as a disarming father-figure, one quick at playing on peoples’ psychology — and yes, generous to a fault.
Not long after the hostile encounter in Nakuru, Mr Wilson Chepkwony (may God rest his soul in eternal peace) was appointed the new Comptroller of State House.
Pleasant, honest men were a rare commodity in the Moi regime. Mr Chepkwony was among the few. I came to know him when he was Kiambu District Commissioner.
Shortly after his appointment as Comptroller, I bumped into him at a city hotel. He was pleased to see me and said he’d be inviting me to the House on Hill when an opportunity arose. I forgot about this promise until a week to Kenyatta Day of 1998 when a white envelope addressed to me landed at my desk.
Inside, I found an invitation card emblazoned with the national flag and coat-of-arms. It read: “On the 46th commemoration of the Kenyatta Day, His Excellency the President of the Republic of Kenya and Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces has the pleasure to invite you to a State luncheon and thereafter a garden party at the grounds of State House, Nairobi.”
Enclosed also was a car sticker indicating where to park inside State House grounds and a two-line handwritten note from Mr Chepkwony to inform me the invitation had come from him.
In State House invitations, a luncheon is reserved for select VIPs who join the Head of State for a meal in the dining room. The more “common” garden party invitation, is where all other people — including the media and the traditional dancers — gather for refreshments and are later joined by the President and other dignitaries who sit at the presidential dais.
In my case, I was to dine with the President and his special guests and later sit at the dais in the garden.
I, however, felt it would be awkward sitting on the “other side” away from my journalist colleagues. There was an even bigger problem. I worked for an opposition leaning newspaper and occasionally had, in the course of my work, crossed swords with some big names in government. I imagined how such people would react to seeing me.
I telephoned Mr Chepkwony, thanked him for his kind gesture, but told him about my reservations and why I was declining his invitation.
“Look, I have cleared your invitation where it matters. Anybody harassing a guest of the President inside State House would be in for a real firestorm,” he told me with the added assurance that he would place me on a table where I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or give goose pimples to those I sat with.
“I’ll be coming,” he said.
President Moi played the perfect host on such occasions. He’d be the first to enter the dining room and stand at the end of the long corridor to shake hands and personally welcome every guest. As I approached, I didn’t expect the President to recognise me and was surprised when he said: “Welcome young man, I was told you’re coming.”
“Thank you very much, Sir, for the invitation,” I stammered as I quickly moved on to let him usher in the next guest.
True to his word, the Comptroller had placed me in good company in a table of four. With me were women leader Mrs Zipporah Kittony, Catholic Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, and South African High Commissioner to Kenya Griffiths Memela. Typical of diplomats, the South African envoy was pleased to sit with a journalist and immediately we got into a conversation.
But what I dreaded happened at the end of the meal as we followed the President in a procession to the State House gardens.
I came eyeball to eyeball with a prominent Kanu functionary whose path I had crossed sometimes back after publishing a story that he’d been overpaid for goods supplied, and others not supplied, to a State corporation.
He gave me a cold handshake as his face furrowed to make it clear that were the circumstances different he would have used the nearest tree to hang me.
My next one-on-one with President Moi came a few weeks before his exit from State House in December 2002.
He was in an intense campaign to have his handpicked Kanu candidate Uhuru Kenyatta elected to succeed him. But all indications were that the opposition was unstoppable.
One morning, Mr Joseph Kaguthi, a long-serving Moi-era civil servant who is well-known to me, asked for my journalistic perspective on how the Uhuru campaign could be saved, including from a seemingly well-coordinated media onslaught from the opposition.
I replied that perhaps the best thing to do was to pick out specific issues the opposition was using to attack the ruling party’s candidate and counter them with facts and figures.
“What is making candidate Uhuru an easy punching bag for the opposition?” he asked.
“Well, his age and perception that he is merely a Moi project with only a surname in his quiver!” I replied.
After a pause, he asked whether I could respond to those issues in a campaign booklet. I told him it would be difficult since I was in formal employment and not allowed to publicly identify with any candidate. However, I told him I could partly do the booklet in my private time with the help of a media consultancy owned by a friend.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Drop the outline in my office in the morning.” Hours after he received the outline, he called to ask me to be ready for a meeting with “the principal” at six in the evening the following day. I assumed “the principal” was Mr Kenyatta.
Come the appointed hour, I linked up with Mr Kaguthi at the agreed venue on Nairobi’s Ngong Road. Once inside his car, he said, to my surprise:
“I suppose you know we’re going to meet the President.”
When I told him I assumed “the principal” was the candidate, Mr Kaguthi responded:
“No, I meant the President. He is the chairman of the party (Kanu), so he is the principal. But anyway, you don’t have to worry.”
He assured me that all I needed to do was take President Moi through, “just as you have put it in writing”.
Unlike the State House, Mr Moi’s city private residence, Kabarnet Gardens, is homely and friendly. Except for two uniformed and armed GSU officers at the barrier just off the main road to Kibera slums, I saw no other officer anywhere in the expansive compound.
The only odd thing is that the two-floor building looks more like an office block than a residential house.
We were received at the outer veranda by a person whose face I recognised to be that of the President’s notorious personal assistant Joshua Kulei. I was ushered into one of the many rooms adjacent to the expansive lounge as Mr Kulei and Mr Kaguthi proceeded on the winding corridor.
I was hardly seated when a uniformed chef walked in with food in a tray. The portions in the plate were the “prescriptions” you get from a nutritionist. A piece of ugali-wimbi, the size of a folded-fist, three pieces of red meat — I counted them — a piece of fillet fish, and generous serving of mixed vegetables. For a chaser, there was a jug of hot water, honey and pieces of lemon.
I swept my plate clean and had just poured myself a glass of hot water when the door flung open. In came the President with Mr Kaguthi in tow. He was casually dressed in a flowing shirt, minus the trademark fimbo ya Nyayo.
“Welcome young man,” the President said as he shook my hand and asked me to sit next to him. I had been wondering how to address him when finally ushered into his presence, but his fatherly, disarming presence eroded all that and I found myself addressing him only as “Mzee” which he seemed comfortable with.
He asked me to take him through the outline of the Uhuru campaign booklet I had in mind, and attentively listened as I did so. He liked the idea and asked that I do a sample booklet for him to see.
Without asking me how much it would cost, he pulled a bundle of notes from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to me.
“I am sure that will be enough for the job,” he said.
Within a week, I was ready with the sample booklet. But Mr Kaguthi happened to be out of the country. Because of the urgency of the project, I requested prominent businessman and Kanu politician Stanley Githunguri to get my appointment to take the completed work to the President.
He got it and we were requested to be at State House for a 6.30am the following day. The President was great in keeping time and we were ushered into his office about ten minutes before the appointed time. He was pleased to see the finished work.
“How many do we print and what is your fee?” he asked. I suggested to him we start with 50,000 copies, and showed him the stamped quotation of printing cost from the well-known printers, Colourprint Ltd. To it, I attached invoice on my professional fee, all which was added up to a modest seven figure.
“How much discount do you give me?” he asked. “Your Excellency, I will give 10 per cent on my fee but the printing cost is fixed by the printer.” “All right,” he said and excused himself to the next room. He came back with a briefcase which he handed to me as he said. “Well, I have given you what you asked for and added something small for fuel.”
It occurred to me that the President’s generosity may not all have been to buy political support, but also had to do with something I saw in the generation of my own father who believed that you didn’t visit somebody’s home and leave empty-handed.
On the way from the State House, Mr Stanley Githunguri, who accompanied me remarked: “You must have surprised the President by billing him the exact cost and carrying supporting documents. He is used to dealing with crooks!”
I didn’t tell him this, but even though I am no saint and have no allergy for money, I have always tried my best to obey the eighth Commandment as was taught to me in Sunday school.
Postscript: I still retain as a souvenir the briefcase given to me by the President that day — only that it has never been re-filled and remains empty.
Happy birthday, Mzee Moi!