By JOE KIARIE
In his final years, he was a man to whom President Kibaki turned for many of the biggest tasks of his two-term presidency. Thus, his sudden death in a helicopter crash a week ago tears a big hole in both Government and national politics.
Friends, family and country remember a complicated man who was “no angel”, but did his duty until his dying day, earning respect for his sacrifice.
As Kenya pays its last respects to former Vice-President George Saitoti, 67, the true
scale of his service and the nation’s loss continues to unfold. Thousands were on hand at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi Friday for a funeral Mass in honour of one of the most experienced and accomplished hands in the Kibaki Cabinet.
There, Prof Saitoti was eulogised as a friend, advisor, dependable right hand, effective leader, and a statesman. Messages of condolence have been received from Pope Benedict XVI, current and former presidents, diplomats, politicians, scholars and ordinary citizens. And, today, thousands more who are shocked at his demise are trooping to his Kitengela home to join his family and friends in giving him a heroic send-off after decades of political service.
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“The loss of Prof Saitoti has been a painful experience for me,” President Kibaki said Friday, describing the departed leader as “a personal friend to whom I entrusted (some of) the most crucial dockets in Government.”
Praising Saitoti’s sense of decorum and careful public manner, the President said he took solace in the knowledge he leaves behind a rich legacy. “I will always be thankful for the competent manner he implemented the policy of Free Primary Education that has remained very close to my heart since we introduced it nine years ago,” he said.
“We thank God for the time we shared with the late Saitoti and for the service he has rendered to our country.” Honouring Saitoti’s life as a devoted Catholic, senior leaders in the Church showed up for the Mass, which was conducted by the Archbishop of Nairobi, John Cardinal Njue.
Sitting beside him were almost all Catholic bishops, foreign bishops, retired Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, Bishop Emeritus of Mombasa John Njenga, and a considerable number of priests. It is Njue who set the flurry of tributes to Saitoti rolling, with the bulk of his sermon lauding the fallen minister’s role in nation building.
“There is a sense of loss for the whole nation and Saitoti will be remembered for the good work he did. He will also be deeply missed in Kajiado, where he worked wonders,” Njue said.
The Pope’s representative to Kenya, Apostolic Nuncio Alain Paul Charles Lebeaupin then read a papal message noting Kenya’s loss, to which the faithful responded with loud applause.
Former Ghanain President Jerry Rawlings, who was given a chance to pay his tribute, described the late minister as a man of “equal grace”. “When I met him during my first trip to the country I was amazed by Saitoti’s grasp of issues, his looks, and movements. I later learned that all his life revolved around mathematical sense,” he said. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Saitoti was a selfless leader who never found it difficult to occupy any position in Government.
“As you have heard the late Saitoti was many things to different people. He was an intellectual, thoughtful, and easy to engage. He found no difficulty in any new arrangement,” said Raila. The PM, however, regretted how a poisoning in the early 1990s changed his lifestyle. Saitoti, he disclosed, always insisted on travelling with two bodyguards, even when there was limited space on an aircraft.
Raila promised the family of the deceased that the Government would get to the bottom of the circumstance of the helicopter crash. “It is the duty of this Government to win the trust of the people of Kenyan in such inquiries,” he said.
Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka recalled how Saitoti took in his stride the fact that he would not become the First Deputy Prime Minister in the Narc Government under a 2002 pre-election deal that was not honoured. Saitoti, he said, dropped his ambition without complaining and later signed the MoU in which Raila was to become Kenya’s PM after the 2002 General Election.
House Speaker Kenneth Marende called for thorough investigations into the air accident that led to his death, saying it was time for Kenya to embrace high standards to avoid accidents. He described Saitoti as an outstanding contributor in the House who stood as a voice of reason and was always determined to succeed “keeping his eyes on the prize, the nation”.
In a message read by a friend, the late Saitoti’s wife, Margaret, reflected on their life together saying their love knew no bounds.
“The first time we met as young people, in 1976, we were full of hope and love. That was the most memorable day of my life,” she said. Margaret added she realised that her husband had a higher calling of serving the public in various capacities and so she gave him the chance to serve the country, adding that the late Saitoti was naturally focused in serving the people of Kenya.
Mr Jimmy Wanjigi, a close friend of the late Saitoti, said it was impossible to come to terms with the tragic events that led to the death of the minister.
“It is sad that his journey was cut short in the constituency he grew up in, and just near a primary school he attended at an early age,” said Wanjigi. It was lawyer Fred Ngatia, however, who probably summed up Saitoti’s life best when he stepped forward to read the eulogy.