The late president Daniel Moi had tirelessly worked behind the scenes to have his preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, clinch the Gatundu South parliamentary seat in 1997.
By 1996, Central Province was completing five years of rebellion against Kanu. Of the eight provinces, it was the only one that had denied the ruling party Kanu a parliamentary seat since the return of multiparty politics in 1992.
By-elections in Starehe in Nairobi, when Kiruhi Kimondo defected in 1994, followed shortly by Makuyu, Murang’a after the defection of Julius Njuguna Njoroge (both of Ford Asili), and in 1995 in Kipipiri, Nyandarua after Laban Muchemi’s death had failed to break the impasse.
That is how the ruling party eventually found itself counting on a new crop of moneyed elite under the Central Province Development Support Group (CPDSG) to turn the tide in 1997. They included Stanley Munga Githunguri in Kiambaa, SK Macharia in Gatanga, PG Mureithi in Nyeri town who would also collapse like a pack of cards.
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Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta was never a prominent CPDSG member. To avoid sabotaging Uhuru’s bid, the president backed him discreetly. The Gatundu District Officer was under strict instructions to help when necessary and a Canadian and Austrian-educated Tourism Ministry official David Kigochi, who held the title of Senior Tourism Officer, had been appointed the unofficial political assistant to Uhuru.
As the country counted down to the elections, he was tasked to ensure that Uhuru had no formidable opponent who would block his win. “Our first task was to get rid of the possible opponents from the larger Kenyatta family, the most prominent of which was former MP Ngengi Muigai,” recalls Kigochi.
Ngengi was by then out of Parliament for two terms after he inherited Kenyatta’s seat in 1979. First he had lost the seat to Zakary Gakunju in the 1988 mlolongo elections and an attempted comeback in 1992 on Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP) ticket had been frustrated by a newcomer, Kamuiru Gitau, running on Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili ticket.
Ngengi was, however, in 1997 still a lethal force additionally rejuvenated by the subdivision of Gatundu into South and North constituencies. He was finally convinced not to vie against his younger cousin, recalls Kigochi. Now only a little known quantity surveyor by the name Moses Ng’ang’a Mwihia stood between Uhuru and Parliament, according to Kanu projections.
Negotiations to have him drop from the race were happening late in the day. By the time negotiations were completed, the presentation of nomination papers was set for the following day.
“Those days it was mandatory to present a national ID and voters registration card to be cleared to run. So we asked Mwihia to leave his voters card with us as an assurance that he would not run,” recalls Kigochi. If all went well, Uhuru would be the only candidate cleared, and possibly Kanu’s first elected MP in Central Province since the return of multiparty democracy. But it turned out to be a spectacular miscalculation.
According to Kigochi, hostile Kanu system insiders were keeping tabs on their every move. A counter scheme was expertly hatched. Mwihia was advised to pick a letter early the next day from the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) headquarters confirming he was a registered voter.
“We later learnt that when Mwihia got to the ECK headquarters, the letter was waiting for him and he was comfortably able to dash to Gatundu and get a nomination certificate to run on a Social Democratic Party (SDP) ticket,” Kigochi recalls.
Also eventually on the Gatundu South ballot in 1997 was a perennial contender called Kimani Kagombe who would receive a token of votes in these elections. Kanu considered him a minnow and had no reason to negotiate with him.
Kigochi recalled that a second attempt to have Mwihia opt-out of the Gatundu South race floundered when Moi declined to meet Uhuru and Mwihia at State house after they had waited for five hours. “Mwihia was not campaigning though and not visiting the constituency and all indications showed the seat was for young Kenyatta’s taking by a landslide,” recalls Kigochi.
That was until an episode in the last few days to the December 27 elections. According to Irung’u Thatiah in Hard Tackle-The life of Uhuru Kenyatta published in 2014, “Uhuru was about to learn one of the most important political lessons of his life.”
Thatiah and Kigochi recall that on December 24 , a man called one of the leading daily newspapers about the “abduction” of Mwihia. “He told attentive scribes in the newsroom that Mwihia was missing. For all they knew, Mwihia had been killed by Kanu for opposing the president’s favourite candidate,” Thatiah writes in Hard Tackle.
Kigochi recounted that a combination of bad luck and coincidences ensured the story was prominently published the next day - Christmas Day on front page. It would also be a day that Gatundu South woke up to find a bloodied car that had been plunged into river Thiririka near Gatundu town on the bend towards Ichaweri. It resembled Mwihia’s car.
“The racket and pandemonium was instantaneous. Gatundu town exploded into a fit of banshee screams,” Thatiah writes.
The ploy had paid off handsomely with Mwihia getting over 22,000 votes at the conclusion of counting at the Gatundu Township Primary School. The Kenyatta scion managed just over 10,000 votes.
Uhuru Kenyatta turned out at the school compound on the night of the counting but couldn’t summon enough courage to get into the hall. One of his sisters ebbed her way into the hall but left shortly on sensing the tide and the mood.
According to Kigochi, the deceptive ploy had been elaborately spurned by a brilliant political schemer who was formerly an MP in Kiambu and coordinated by an activist who would a decade later be elected MP and is today one of the most vocal legislators in Mt Kenya region. It would be the magic touch that would take the quantity surveyor to parliament on his debut and be literary a baptism of fire for Uhuru