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Big men from Kirinyaga pounce in silence, and get things done

By Kamau Ngotho | October 17th 2021

Anybody visiting Kirinyaga County will wonder how the place has transformed in the last few weeks. A State Lodge has been constructed, a stadium revamped, and an airstrip and roads paved.

On Wednesday, the county will host the national celebrations to mark the 69th anniversary of Mashujaa Day and the last to be presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The most interesting thing is that entire Kirinyaga leadership is united in hosting the national festivity and showcase Kirinyaga as the new destiny of choice for tourists and investors.

That is a major feat given that Kirinyaga leadership is known to be so divided and toxic. It is the place that has three women interested in the gubernatorial seat and can’t be left in the same room lest they gouge out each other’s eyes.

The MCAs are ever in on-and-off combat with their governor, and the MPs are split in the middle between Kieleweke and Tangatanga bullfighters. The place is a political furnace.

The man behind the surprise unity of purpose in Kirinyaga leadership is the Principal Secretary in the Interior ministry Karanja Kibicho. He has quietly done it through persuasion and application of immense but soft power of the State.

Dr Kibicho falls in the line of other four powerful men from same county who silently got things done behind the scenes. They were the head of the civil service who served the longest ever in the history of the republic, the late Geoffrey Kariithi, two longest serving heads of intelligence, James Kanyotu and Michael Gichangi, and a former governor of the Central Bank Philip Ndegwa.

Mr Fix it

I have spoken to Kibicho only once on telephone. At the time he was the Principal Secretary in the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was Special Projects Editor at the People Daily. We had published a story touching on the Foreign ministry and misrepresented facts.

The PS telephoned on a Saturday and was put through to me. Unlike most government honchos who will call breathing fire and issuing threats, he was very friendly and gave me the true position.

He didn’t demand a correction or apology, but with regard to his diplomatic approach, we voluntarily published a clarification and correct representation of the facts.

Government insiders whisper that Kibicho is the actual Mr Fix it in the system, while his boss Dr Fred Matiang’i is the face and voice of it. The two work so seamlessly because Kibicho faithfully observes the Number One Law of Power: Never outshine the master.

You could see it like on the day the two appeared before the parliamentary committee on security to answer questions regarding changes in the security detail of the Deputy President William Ruto.  Kibicho let the boss do all the talking. But you could see the CS consult the Principal Secretary in whispers as the proceedings went on.

The Cabinet Secretary himself lets everybody know that his PS is the technical person at the implementation. Incidentally, Kibicho is a mechanical engineer by training and was a university lecturer on the subject before he joined the Civil Service.

If Matiang’i ventures into electoral politics next year, Kibicho will be the man holding the fort at the Interior ministry during the highly charged electioneering and presidential transition.

Man called GK

Geoffrey Karekia Kariithi who hailed from Gichugu was appointed second head of the Civil Service at the age of 42 in 1967. He stayed in the position for 12 years, the longest ever for an occupant of the position.

He is the man who so efficiently handled the transition from first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to second President Daniel Moi. In his days, he was the person running the government from behind the scenes. His peers referred to him as the Government of Kenya (GK) in mimic of his initials.

In retirement, I am one of the only two journalists he opened up to about his days in the Civil Service. I have written some chapters in his yet to be published memoir.

He told me that Mzee Kenyatta trusted him so much that he would ask him to give him a list of who to appoint to the Cabinet and the President would go with it without any change. He was also the only person allowed to receive intelligence briefs on behalf of the Head of the State.

He was in Mombasa to brief Mzee Kenyatta on the last Monday he was alive, but the President, who was a bit unwell, asked him they postpone the session until after two days. Early in the dawn of the next day Kariithi, who had flown back to Nairobi, was telephoned to be told the boss had died in his sleep.

The two invisibles

Of five men who have served as heads of the security intelligence in the country, the two longest serving came from Kirinyaga. James Kanyotu clocked 27 years, while Michael Gichangi chalked up 10 years.

I wrote the story of James Kanyotu. I first did as a four-day series when he was alive in year 2000 and followed it with a full week serialisation when he died in 2008.

I personally came to feel his soft power when I wrote the first story. The Daily Nation where I worked at the time had put a promo for the story a day before publication. When Kanyotu saw it he quietly looked for then chief executive of the media house, Wilfred Kiboro, and asked that he be allowed to see the story before publication. Though not the practice in the media, his request was granted on account of his skills at getting what he wanted. He went through the story with his lawyer, Paul Mwangi (the BBI man), and made a few clarifications.

As usual with heads of intelligence, Kanyotu was hardly seen in public. In local media libraries, there is one very common picture of him taken at the JKIA on one of those rare days he appeared in public when he was in office. But he did his job so efficiently that he earned the trust of two presidents.

Gichangi was the other one. Though he came from Kirinyaga, he grew up in city’s Eastlands and spoke fluent sheng.

With his predecessor Wilson Boinnet, they are two heads of Kenya intelligence to first come head to head with terrorism and radicalisation. It is during Gichangi’s tenure when a decision was made to go to war in Somalia. Before he joined the intelligence services, Gichangi was a decorated jet pilot in the Kenya Air Force. His first appointment in the intelligence was as founder director at the Karen-based Counter-Terrorism Centre.

Mr Moneybags

The other one in Kirinyaga’s roll of honour was Philip Ndegwa, the second governor of the Central Bank of Kenya. His first appointment was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning, and he was behind-the-scenes author of the famous Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965.

Ndegwa was also a pioneer indigenous entrepreneur and his family is one of the most wealthy in the country. They are in banking, real estate, farming, shipping – name it. But you wouldn’t know it because like their patriarch, the Ndegwas are invisible in public.

Indeed, Kirinyaga tigers never show their claws. They pounce in silence. 

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