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When Mwai Kibaki ate Nando's chips, Moi meeting intrigues, and the small matter of missing shoes

Mwai Kibaki marking his ballot from his limousine in Othaya, December 28, 2002. [File, Standard]

As his presidency swayed in the waves of a bitter fallout with Mr Raila Odinga–the man credited with catapulting him to the hallowed seat during the 2002 election–President Mwai Kibaki invited his predecessor, Mr Daniel arap Moi, to State House, Nairobi for consultations.

A bitter Odinga was literally furrowing the grounds on which Mr Kibaki’s top seat was perched at State House. Around the President were new power brokers like Dr Chris Murungaru, Ms Martha Karua, Mssrs David Mwiraria, Materi Keriri, Francis Muthaura and Kiraitu Murungi. All were still on the dance floor, gyrating to the National Rainbow Coalition anthem, feeling ‘unbwogable’ and invincible. It took them long to realise the music had stopped and the new president had put on a new song whose refrain was “sasa tufanye kazi” (Now let us get down to work).

That was hardly six months into his presidency. Mr Kibaki was of frail health and was on medication “enough to knock down a horse” as one of his top aides told me then. He was struggling to soldier on amid a perception that he was the embodiment of ingratitude and was a callous betrayer of those who, like Mr Odinga, had stood by him.

Given the acrimony between Mzee Moi (and his team) on the one hand and President Kibaki on the other, for the President to call his predecessor for consultation was too big a story from a journalist’s point of view.

Many Kenyans had not forgotten that although Moi had handed over power peacefully at Uhuru Park, he had mud-balls thrown at him on hand-over day. Word had it that he had flown to Kabarak and hang his coat unwashed after the incident.

There were also claims that Mr Moi had ‘cursed’ Mr Kibaki, who he had helped many times in his career, including in a case of surgery abroad, and that the gods had conspired against the former Vice President. But give it to Mr Kibaki, it was truly an act of courage to invite a man against whom he had joined in singing ‘Yote Yawezekana Bila Moi’ (all is possible without Moi) openly with his fist raised high.

That invitation presented several problems for Mr Moi. For one, he did not want to be humiliated by the political upstarts around President Kibaki or dragged into the emerging comedy of errors. On the other, he was a patriot who respected the institution of the presidency. There were also those around him who felt that the meeting could be a trap and that Mr Moi could suffer harm in the process.

“We talked and agreed that he should not touch even a glass of water at State House, and he should not go alone,” a high-ranking politician said at the time.

Mr Moi insisted that the meeting be made public and that the contents of the discussions would be shared with the media later. He agreed with one of the political leaders closest to him that he would brief the politician on what would be discussed in the meeting and that they would in turn loop in Mr William Ruto (then the Kanu Director of Elections), who would then discreetly brief the media.

Now you know where the headlines came from on the meeting between two statesmen. Interestingly, even President Kibaki knew who the little bird that whispered to the media was.

Despite the leak, the mutual respect between Mr Moi and Mr Kibaki remained, a fact discernible when Mr Moi lost his wife Lenah and when both he and Mr Kibaki lost mutual friends like Njenga Karume.

The late Njenga Karume. [File, Standard]

Now, both old men have gone with their secrets but then this showed the difference between them; the elder man was not one to close his heart and not speak his mind, while the latter would prefer to suffer in silence until when it is no longer tenable.

Mr Kibaki stumbled through his first term with a dizzying hemorrhage of friends, intra-family challenges fueled by a well-connected ‘activist’ and pressure arising the shocking return of the gale of corruption through the Anglo-Leasing twin scandals that Mr John Githongo called “a skunk handed to Narc by Kanu”.

However, President Kibaki steadied the national ship, gave the engine of the economy a new roar, overhauled infrastructure and gave every child in Kenyan homes access to free primary education. But that is where it started and ended, because by the time he was fighting for his second term, he was a shadow of his earlier self. The old political fox was about to wade through the worst of his legacy – the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

There are some memories I would like to share from my journalistic interactions with Mzee Kibaki right from when I started reporting Parliament before the 1997 elections. Back then, he had a weekly campaign engagement with the media – typical of the man - and which was dubbed ‘Kibaki on Thursday’. It was a refreshing lecture for those of us who never went to Makerere to listen about how to turn Kenya around. He wanted the government to stop domestic borrowing - which was making loans expensive - arrest tax cheats, put up a farmers’ bank and give incentives for the reviving of agricultural and industrial sectors, especially through restrictions on imports.

“If I were you I would be more interested in the strength of the shilling rather than whether my portrait would be on it,’’ he dismissively responded to a journalist once.

Many will recall how President Kibaki brought informality into office; he was the originator of casual shirts and not the dynamic duo of Uhuru and Ruto. In contrast to Mr Kibaki, Mr Moi only used to wear casual shirts during field days and when relaxing at the Coast.

Unlike Mr Moi, who was a regular at the Nakuru State House, President Kibaki once showed up at the official residence unannounced. On that day, while flying back in heavy rain, his pilot was forced to land in Nakuru for safety reasons. It was growing dark when the President - riding in a provincial commissioner’s old Benz - arrived at the State House. Whereas the sentry guards opened the gates, Kibaki could only go as far as the veranda as there was no one to open for him! State House staffers had already clocked out for the day and left with the keys.

Mr Kibaki simply directed that he be driven to Nairobi in the same car. At Kinungi, the old GK-plated vehicles in his convoy met the presidential escort vehicles. In the drizzle and despite the risk to the President, he walked to his official limousine, surrounded by a handful of bodyguards. The road, of course, had been blocked for him to amble into his limousine, siren lights glowing in the dark.

Mwai and Lucy Kibaki. [File, Standard]

That was Kibaki; a simple man but not one with a simplistic mind.

He will also go down in history as of the loneliest presidents Kenya has ever had. Take the case of the day Kibaki, who lived in State House, declared to his staff he would that night dine with his family in his Muthaiga home. A senior security officer in his team told journalists that the kitchen staff were given time off. But it seems things were not very smooth at home. When the security team arrived at the gate, they found it locked. The sentry guards said a senior member of the family had taken the keys to the house. The lights were off in the main house. When Kibaki noticed this, he just told his security team, “Sawa, wacha turudi” (“Ok, let us go back”). No one would even think of forcing the gates open. Mr Kibaki was not the kind of man to court a family showdown in public.

There was drama, however, as the motorcade reversed back onto the road. A senior commander quickly sprinted towards one of the vehicles with his wallet open.

“Please drive to Nandos next to Jeevanjee Gardens and buy a packet of chips, soda and chicken. Mzee has nothing to eat at State House,” he told the occupants. It would shock the staff at the eatery that night to learn that the presidential escort Benz parked right outside the entrance was meant to deliver food for Mzee Kibaki before he retired to bed.

“We swore to protect his image and dignity,’’ a former top official revealed later that week. “He cherished his privacy and we respected his distance.”

For reporters, there were many days with such drama. One time, journalists were invited to cover the President being discharged from Nairobi Hospital. The shocker was that the discharge was delayed because apparently he had no shoes! Reporters had to wait until a pair was delivered.

Earlier, one newspaper had published a story about the President being admitted but got the dates wrong and had to apologise. I spoke to sources who confirmed that indeed Kibaki had had an accident in his bedroom. His caregivers fled and only two people were left in the room; Materi Keriri - who was of the opinion that they should sneak the President to hospital - and the Aide-de-Camp, forever the military professional, who said that was not how to handle a Commander-in-Chief.

“What will we tell Kenyans if anything happens to him in our hands?” he asked Mr Keriri.

Later that evening, Mr Kibaki was taken to hospital as his top aides drafted a statement informing Kenyans that the President “has this evening been admitted to Nairobi Hospital for a routine check-up”.

To ally public fears, journalists were invited to cover as the President was being discharged a few days later. However, after he had dressed up, his team realised they had not carried his shoes. By that time, journalists and VIPs were waiting at the front steps of the hospital.

Suddenly, there was commotion as a top aide shouted at young security officers; “number nine, number nine! Bata at Hughes House ground floor!” They sped off and, after a while, they arrived back, brakes screeching, with a Bata package. Voila! The President had new shoes. The fact that he walked with unease and his shoe laces were loose was attributed to the accident he had survived when his campaign vehicle had crashed in Machakos ahead of the December 2002 election.

He left hospital to recuperate at State House in what turned out to be a long and dreary process that at times necessitated that he be driven around to “see the outside world and breathe fresh air”.

To be continued tomorrow

Mr Tanui is the Group Executive Editor and Head of News at the Standard Group