When Kenya was painfully birthing multi-party politics in 1994, one of the voices of reform that stood out was that of Dr Richard Leakey, a fierce conservationist ready to sacrifice his life for democracy.
At one point in Nakuru, he was whipped by goons as he took his campaigns through Safina party, an ark he had with the assistance of donor funding, formed to rescue Kenyans from ills of tyranny.
Until his death on January 2 this year, Leakey had outlived four kidneys, a plane crash and myriad accidents in the 77 years he lived. Leakey had cut an image of a caring, people loving researcher, archeologist and conservationist. However, people who had worked with him liken him to a strangler fig tree, which sucks the life of its host as it stretches up, covering the African sky even as it spreads its trunk downwards and ultimately touches the ground.
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- Prayers ‘saved’ Leakey, who believed there was no God
- Leakey, always the colourful man, had ‘aide de camp’ at KWS
- When Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere said a big NO to Richard Leakey
Leakey, according to his critics, was like this fig tree which mercilessly ate the host tree to death. His unflattering side is exposed in Richard E Leakey: Master of Deceit, a ruthless tome of scandalous anecdotes published in 1995, penned by two colleagues, Eustace Gitonga and Dr Martin Pickford.
Under his watch, Africans were not allowed to use some toilets “reserved for whites with clean bottoms” while he employed divide and rule tactics among his staff, using tribal lines. Foreign gay researchers sexually molested Kenyans in archeological sites and victims who objected lost their jobs. At his headquarters, he encouraged office love affairs where partners were encouraged to maintain open relationships.
The two authors, who served with Leakey when he was the Director of Museums, provide details of a man who lived a double life and sum him as a “charmer capable of talking a hyena out of a carcass.”
He was also a contradiction of beliefs for even as he professed to be an atheist who believed in evolution and had no regard for God, he was terrified when he was told by his spies that the he was about to be sacked by KWS. The yarn fed to Leakey was that one of his tormentors, a well-educated Kenyan heading one of the key departments at the museum, had enlisted the services of a witch doctor.
At the time, Leakey was sickly and bedridden in hospital undergoing dialysis. The Government was auditing his performance and had unearthed indicting evidence of massive looting. Some MPs had also raised questions in Parliament. Leakey, according to the authors, approached his godfather Charles Njonjo, who swiftly transferred the National Museums of Kenya from the Ministry of Housing, Culture and Social Services and place it under the Attorney General’s office and insulated his friend from further investigations.
Meanwhile, since the witch doctor could not be allowed to administer his charms in hospital, Leakey’s spouse received the special treatment. The voodoo was conducted in the dead of the night in his office at the International Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Pre-history.
When his multiple affairs broke his marriage and his first wife secured a divorce, their daughter and alimony, a panicked Leakey approached the then Vice President Daniel arap Moi for help.
“I want her to be thrown out of Kenya while I remain with the child. Fortunately for me sir, this falls under your ministry.”
According to the book, Moi cut him short... “that is impossible. I would be breaking the law…It would be contempt of court...”
He was embarrassed by another African president when he tried to take credit by undermining an African expert: He was cut short by Nigerian President, Olesegun Obassanjo who “wondered how a white man with no scientific qualifications could introduce The origin of man in Africa while there was one an African, Dr Onyango Abuje, with a PhD in archeology in charge of the pavilion.”
To save Leakey and Kenya from further embarrassment during the exhibition held in Abuja, the then minister of culture, Dr Zachary Onyonka called on Abuje to give the presentation. Later, Leakey fired Abuje but not before the latter was attacked by thugs on a dark night and had to be hospitalised.
During an exhibition to mark Kenya’s tenth birthday, at the National Museums of Kenya, Leakey wanted to use the picture of his uncle Archbishop Right Reverend James Leonard Beecher. The Secretary to the Cabinet, G K Kariithi ordered the picture be pulled down exclaiming that the cleric was still alive and that he had made bad remarks about Africans.
Leakey is also accused of forging documents to incriminate staff he did not like, favouring white expatriates whom he paid super salaries while exploiting Africans as well as taking credit for other experts’ work and even faking scholarly papers. There are reports that at one point he used his semi-literate workers to fund-raise money, ostensibly to assist the man whose children were being chased out of school.
He organised for a fundraiser in Washington DC where each of the 400 guests paid $400 in an event attended by retired US President Ronald Reagan.
A total of $160,000 was raised, out of which Leakey’s African staff was ceremoniously given $10,000 that night. This money was snatched the following morning and the junior worker loaded on to a plane to Nairobi where he was later rewarded by Leakey with an old pick up. Martin Pickford narrates how he went to Kobi Fora, north of Lake Stephanie in Ethiopia where he and his team found monkey fossils aged 17 million years. But was, however, forbidden from carrying the exhibits.
According to the author, Leakey and his wife went back to the site collected the fossils and published a paper in Floria primatologia but left out Pickford’s name. When questioned, he accused the researcher of incompetence for leaving the fossils uncollected. The book also accuses Leakey of using his influence to hive off 400 acres of Oloolua Forest in Ngong to establish Primate Research Institute which was used to propagate racist theories by crooked researchers.