We were at the 7th floor Resident’s Bar in the Intercontinental Hotel, Nairobi. It was an expectant Friday (August 31, 1978. The nation had the previous day bid farewell to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. Who was to succeed him, was the question on every lip. Under pressure, the Cabinet had to say something on the way forward.
According to the 1964 Constitution, upon demise of the President, the Cabinet was to organise a special election to fill the vacated seat within 90 days. Were Kenyans of voting age going to be subjected to the exercise?
The Vice-President was, in the meantime, supposed to be running the country as Acting President. Would he stick to the dictates of the law?
There had been a push for the change of the Constitution in 1976. GEMA Secretary-General and Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani, had held a meeting of 20 MPs and three Cabinet Ministers to push for it. Defence Minister James Gichuru, Lands & Settlement Minister Jackson Angaine, Cooperative Minister Paul Ngei, Foreign Affairs Minister Njoroge Mungai and Gema Chairman Njenga Karume and other political players had attended. Ngei had explicitly declared that given the 90-day window he could teach people an unpleasant lesson.
This clamour for change was doused when Attorney General Charles Njonjo admonished those pushing for it. He declared that it was a criminal offence to ‘compass, imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the President. Anybody who committed the offence could face the death penalty.’
In Moi’s favour was the fact that, as VP, he had travelled round the country promoting harambees for 10 years and knew the country and people better than all those other pretenders. They knew that, but wished to sweep it under the carpet. Since Mzee had died, would it still be criminal to discuss succession? Or would ambitious politicians now turn the heat on and start campaigning against and for Daniel arap Moi to succeed Mzee? In the event, there was much speculation, most of it negative. Would the country hold together?
It was to answer these and other questions that the Cabinet met in the absence of acting President Moi. It turned out to be the longest and most acrimonious Cabinet meeting since President Kenyatta’s reign began 15 years earlier. It ended shortly after 11.30pm that Friday night.
Ngei, who was opposed to Moi taking over without contest, had promised his friends Joseph Kang’ethe and Erastus Karagania that he would not sleep without briefing them on whatever transpired at the special Cabinet meeting. He would pass by the Resident’s Bar. Being close friends of the two, five other men (yours truly included), had joined them as early as 7pm. Beer and meat went with such weighty rendezvous.
By then, Mbiyu Koinange, who was convinced that Mzee had tipped him to succeed him, had fruitlessly searched for such written tip. The Attorney General had not been given any written tip. How could Mzee have left them without an indication of his wish? Koinange’s ambition had thus been doused. He threw his weight behind the ‘Change the Constitution Group’, which wanted a contested special election.
Angaine and Ngei were sure bets for that group. Dr Mungai, who had engineered the change group, had already fallen by the wayside at the 1974 elections but was still a Nominated MP and a supporter of the group. Jeremiah Nyagah was said to be sitting on the fence.
When vocal Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani took the motion to alter the constitution to Parliament, Kajiado South MP and Minister for Natural Resources (then the heaviest MP in the House) Stanley Oloitiptip, collected enough signatures to throw it out!
Staunch proponents for the Moi succession were led by Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki who, although not close friends, nonetheless saw Moi as the right man to succeed Mzee. They won the day by incorporating some conditions of their own to protect their interests. Kibaki was proposed to succeed Moi as Vice-President. That was hailed across the board. The carrot that won the day was the concession they gave to the Change the Constitution Group, was that the Cabinet would be left intact for the duration of the term until the 1979 General Election. It was with this news that Ngei burst into the bar at 11.45pm proclaiming, “We have lost!” After downing two double Johnny Walker tots (I can’t remember whether Black or Red Label) standing, he took his usual seat and wearily recounted the ordeal of the evening.
He reiterated that Njonjo had argued that since Mzee had installed Moi above them and left without any indication of a change of mind, they would do the country and Mzee proud by respecting the status quo with all its attendant consequences. To act otherwise would jeopardise the peace, tranquility and cohesion prevailing in the country. The Cabinet endorsed that sentiment by Njonjo.
The remaining issue was how to avoid or circumvent the constitutional provision that decreed a special election within 90 days. The change group thought this would save the day. But after much discussion and reflection it was agreed that the Cabinet members would mount a campaign stating that no one but Daniel arap Moi wanted the seat. This they did and after a short while Njonjo again came to Moi’s rescue. He stated that President Moi was not an acting President but the President and Kibaki was the Vice President. The politicians begrudgingly agreed. And thus the 90 days passed without incident. Except that there was a master stroke by Moi. He released all political detainees with the blessing of his close allies Njonjo and Kibaki. All Kenyans welcomed the move.
Since the Almighty God has given the three statesmen, who ensured a smooth first transition, longevity, would it not be good for the country if the President and the Clergy could prevail on them to extend a hand of reconciliation in their sunset years? After all, this is a time of building bridges.
-The writer is a lawyer
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