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Of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s cluttered desk and a State House so tiny Barack Obama ate in a tent

 President Uhuru at State House

Old Jomo, Kenya’s first president, spent only one night in Nairobi’s State House and never returned, saying he couldn’t sleep a wink because of the ghosts of colonialists in the 1907 stately edifice of neoclassical architecture designed by Herbert Baker. 

His son Uhuru, and Kenya’s forth President seems to have elected to fuata nyayo, preferring to conduct the affairs of state at State House but retiring for the night to his private residence across the road.

Tucked somewhere in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s office inside the vast annals of the State House, Nairobi, is an L-shaped mahogany desk on which the President signs off on some of the country’s most important, and often, most controversial decisions.

On the desk, there are five telephone headsets: two white ones, three black ones. These are connected to cords that run clumsily over the top of the desk on Uhuru’s left side. His left hand is his dominant hand. Next to these five telephone headsets, lies a black cordless satellite phone on a black holder. This bank of telephones connects President Kenyatta to anyone anywhere in the world.

Next to the centre of the L-shaped table, right at the corner, there is a brown marble or ivory statue standing on a marble stand. Next to it, there’s a mahogany executive desk organiser with yellow, white and light-blue papers. And then, on any given day, there is always a shiny tray with two bottles of mineral water — always two little half-litre bottles, not one; not three —, and a glass, turned upside down on a serviette. In between the bottles of water, and the desk organiser, is a black calculator. Yes, a calculator, the big one that accountants and auditors carry around.

As you shift to the front of the desk, there’s a desk calendar; a little mahogany stand with a miniature white globe on it, with pen holders on one end. Here, the expensive ink pens that he signs government documents are placed. More pens — these ones black and gold — sit on a white pen holder, with what looks like bottles of ink. Then, there’s a giant leather writing pad, right in front of the huge black leather chair that he sits on. As your gaze shifts towards the end of the table, you will notice miniature Kenyan flag — not the presidential standard — on a silver table-stand.

All this stationery in the President’s office is part of the annual supply that will this financial year gobble up a huge chunk of the Sh11 million budget that has been allocated to State House, Nairobi under the vote-head “Office and General Supplies and Services”.

Understandably, there’s no “in-tray” or “out-tray” at least on his table. Those familiar with State House operations say, most paperwork is processed by the Chief of Staff and the dozens of secretaries and special advisors, and they mostly get it to the President for his signature.

But even with the multimillion budget for office supplies, the President’s desk looks cluttered, compared with that of President Barack Obama, one of the world’s most powerful figures — whose desk at the Oval Office is usually clear save for a black telephone and a pen holder. Sometimes, just like Uhuru’s desk when he is busy signing bills into law, it is cluttered with papers, but on any given day, all you see is the mahogany top and a black telephone headset.

The clutter on Uhuru’s desk — the statues, the little national flag, the pen holders, the globe, the calendar, the ink bottles, the six telephones and the two water bottles — may appear too much for someone’s desk, but he is the President. Perhaps, they are symbols of power. When he is in the mood, he lets children visit his office, sit on his chair, and admire the toys, while he stands in a corner and marvels at it all.

Whenever President Kenyatta has guests — the way he hosted US President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma’s and Prime ministers Narenda Modi (India), Shinzo Abe (Japan) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel) — there’s a different room, stately room where he entertains them. But the trouble comes when he has to address journalists.

For the news conferences, the workers at State House have to erect a platform by the doors facing the garden, next to the two giant canons. They cover the platform with a red carpet and decorate it with the Kenyan flag. Then, they erect the flags of the visiting leader side by side with the Kenyan flag and wait for the leaders to emerge from their tête-à-tête.

Whenever they (President Uhuru and his guest) come out to address the media, the sun is usually hot, and they have to squint as they read the black text on the gleaming sheets of white papers, all this time standing behind identical lecterns written “Republic of Kenya”.

Their audience –— usually Cabinet secretaries and journalists — sits on metal-and-sponge chairs, under the shimmering sun, their necks tilted up so that they look the leaders as they pledge “mutual cooperation” in a variety of words.

When dinner arrives, it is also held in giant tents mounted on the State House gardens and the grounds covered by red carpet. In this financial year, the budget for the hospitality of guests at State House is Sh420 million.

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