By Moses Njagih and Vitalis Kimutai
Internal Security Minister George Saitoti killed in the Sunday chopper crash lived on the edge, as if agents of death were stalking him.
In and out of Parliament he appeared to wake up every day determined to outpace any potential killer walking in his shadow.
He kept the number of friends who would know where he was at any one time or those who could drop at his home to bare minimum, and was never one to be found in the city social circuit at night. In security circles he was known for sticking to his trusted security guards for years, never allowing them to be replaced probably because of the extended fear of the unknown.
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Sources around him over the years, reveal that the late Kajiado North MP extended his fears to the food he ate, and let it influence where and how he travelled, and whose hands he shook. He was sick for three months.
But in his Kajiado North constituency he appeared to let loose his fears and mingle freely with his constituents. Whereas in the city and abroad his aides had to check out his food long before it was served, in Kajiado he would just pullout his pen knife, or ask an age mate for one and proceed to cut off pieces of roasted meat for himself.
But according to his former security chief for 20 years, Senior Superintendent Johnstone Koech, Saitoti’s paranoia was not without basis and actually started off with a near-fatal food poisoning experience that traumatised and dogged him to the end of his life.
“From then on, four security officers would check his food throughout the cooking and serving. He would not eat anything that had not been cleared as fit for his consumption by his security team,” said Koech.
He added: “At the time of the poisoning, I was not with him. My colleagues were with him. He is said to have developed clear signs of a serious illness and he had to be rushed to Nairobi Hospital for treatment.”
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It started in February 1990 in an Indian restaurant in Nairobi’s Muthaiga area. Opinion among investigators then was that he probably ingested cyanide gas, probably laced on his food or plate. Though Kenyans were never told who wanted him dead and why, Saitoti only opened up when retired President Moi declared the killers of his then Foreign Minister Robert Ouko “are the same ones who poisoned my Vice-President”.
According to Moi the poisoning was motivated by a conspiracy to overthrow his government. According to Moi and Saitoti, the poisoning took place shortly after Ouko was assassinated.
Koech, who shadowed Saitoti for many years alongside Inspector Joshua Tonkei who also died in the Sunday crash, as well as others aides like the tallish Ole Surtan who died four years ago, says the former minister changed his routine and raised his level of security consciousness after the incident.
Saitoti would later tell Parliament his skin peeled off after the poisoning and a new one grew in its place. But it also seems alongside the new body cover, also came a different view of life and its risks.
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Cabinet ministers Kiraitu Murungi and James Orengo alluded to this change in Saitoti after the horrendous experience.
Orengo said: “That is the reason he kept looking around from left to right whenever he was engaging in any conversation because of what those he worked with in Government at the time did to him,” said Orengo.
Kiraitu recounted felt safer in Masailand thus: “I was debating on whether to eat the meat or not because there was a ban on eating meat over the mad-cow disease, but he picked his knife and began eating. I said if Saitoti was eating who was I not to eat?”
Other MPs, who cannot be quoted because of the sensitivity of the matter and respect for Saitoti and his family, also reveal that the minister at times showed signs of unease wherever an explosion, even if a vehicle’s backfire sound, was heard. They also talk of the same experience when, say the loud speakers crackled or the microphone fell off during his rallies.
Nowhere was this evident, Saitoti’s associates say, than in Narok when he slipped and fell as he mounted the microphone in 2007.
In security circles he was silently called the man who feared sindano (needle).
This was because security officers had noted that in his quick and soft greeting, appeared to have been motivated by fear that he could be killed through a hidden poisoned needle on the palm of those reaching out to greet him. This could have been to him, borrowed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by use of an umbrella’s poisoned tip in 1914.
To enhance his security and safety, he always put on a light bulletproof vest, something that seemed to give him an enlarged burst and tummy.
“It was his insurance and he never forgot to wear it. The minister was always fearing something would happen to him,” said another security officer, who worked with him for long.
His aides revealed in the 1990 incident Saitoti suddenly started gasping for breath and sweating profusely.
Nairobi Hospital’s medical personnel who attended to him later conceded quick action by his handlers saved him from death.
He is then said to have collapsed and became unconscious before being rushed to hospital.
Maybe fearing that whoever had poisoned him could follow him up to finish the job at the hospital, Saitoti demanded that he be immediately discharged from the hospital and taken to his home, when he came to.
Not even the doctors advice that he could not be moved as he was still sick and required close attention could break his resolve to go home. A recuperation room was then set up at his house and he was moved. After recovering, Saitoti downplayed the near-tragic incident until years later.
But even as he kept his tribulations to himself and very close friends, Saitoti narrowed down his choice of restaurants to a handful. The few places of choice were Tratorria and Tamarind’s upper-end restaurants in Nairobi’s city centre and Osteria restaurant along Lenana Road in Hurlingham area.