The tension was thick and palpable. All eyes were fixed on the red telephone handset atop the large mahogany desk. He stood still.
Sweat trickled down his balding head streaming through the furrows on his face. At last, it rang. The sudden sound startled us all and we momentarily froze. With his hands trembling, he reached out and picked it up.
His secretary had placed the phone on loudspeaker to enable us follow the conversation. “Good afternoon Mr. Wanjau” came the commanding voice of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information David Andere.
He had barely responded when the PS prodded: “I hear you are fomenting trouble in your own institution? Kindly bring to an end the uniform scheme you have imposed on the students. Ensure you work with the student leadership.”
The phone suddenly went silent. Mr. Wanjau remained motionless with the handle dangling in his shaky hand. The PS had hung up on him.
“I told you Sir that we should resolve this issue amicably. You didn’t need to call the riot police on us. If anything happens to any student, their blood will be on your hands” I said as I slowly turned to the senior police officer standing at the door. “Please ask your boys to disperse and leave us alone. The students are peaceful.” I told him.
He walked out into the yard where armed policemen had formed a line with shields and batons ready to combat the students. I followed behind, waving at the students. I told them we had resolved everything: “No more uniforms. No more expulsions.” There was a thunderous roar of appreciation and shouts of victory.
An hour earlier, I had a bitter exchange with our Principal Mr. Jacob Wanjau. I was the President of the Trainees Body Organisation (TBO), at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC). We had all settled down well, enjoying our studies and a monthly student allowance. Then from the blues, the institution introduced compulsory uniforms. It also imposed harsh penalties which included expulsion of female students who became pregnant while still in college. Mr. Wanjau vowed that he must have his way.
Just like President William Ruto and his Finance Bill of 2023, Wanjau refused to back down. He ignored all voices of reason. He rubbished our protests. No student wanted to hear that money will be deducted from their monthly allowance to cover tailoring of some ugly grey uniforms. “Why would college students wear uniforms and who told you we need uniforms?” we challenged Wanjau to no avail.
A few months later he was replaced by a more amiable and approachable leader, Mwalimu Joab Osiako.
All Kenyan presidents, just like Wanjau, have faced crisis and made some stupid decisions that brought about unrest. However, they had a way of wriggling through the situation. Today, President William Ruto is faced with a Wanjau moment. A riotous national mood.
By the time he was being sworn in as the 5th President of the Republic of Kenya, the citizens were tired, miserable and overtaxed. Prices of electricity, fuel and essential commodities were galloping and have continued to rise.
He inherited a crippled economy. Few sympathize with him. They say he was part of the architectural team that destroyed the economy. Today, he is asking for more taxes from a wounded, limping and choking population.
Leaders all over the world must know when to put up a fight and when to back down. Ruto’s predecessors had their own Wanjau moments. When they couldn’t back down, they designed a formular that saved both face and the country.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
In my Luhyia culture, a good leader always had a man called Omwinyambi (the one who farts). His task was to take the blame whenever Omwami (leader), let out the foul smell. He would always save Omwami’s face.
Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi always had the foul guys upon whom the sword would fall to leave them smiling and looking good in the public eye. Just like Ruto, they all took office in times of crisis.
Kenyatta had to contend with high expectations of Kenyans after the departure of the colonialists. Then, only a month into internal self-rule, Shiftas struck parts of Kenya. In cold blood, they killed citizens and government officers among them District Commissioner, Daudi Dabasso Wabera.
A few months to full independence in December 1963, Somalis in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa proclaimed their wish to be part of the Somalia Republic. The Kenyatta government had said a firm No to such wishes. Those who wanted to leave, said the government, could do so as individuals. The Somalis formed a guerrilla army, referred to as the Shifta.
Former head of civil service Geoffrey Kareithi says that in their crusade to secede, the Somalis enlisted the support of Isiolo Borans. Borans from Marsabit and Moyale led by Daudi Wabera opted to stand with Kenyans.
Wabera was chosen to spearhead the delicate mission of convincing the Isiolo Borans to abandon the secessionists. The government hoped to get all Borans on its side, and thus secure a buffer zone from the Somalis in North Eastern Province. Wabera’s team had a fruitful moment with the Boran elders. But on their way back home, they fell to a volley of Shifta bullets. Wabera and his companions were killed on the spot.
“As I mourned the loss of the great officers and gentlemen that night in 1963, little did I know that four years later, the Shifta menace would be one of the toughest items on my in tray when I was appointed the head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet. I was now in the eye of the Shifta storm.” Says Kareithi in his forthcoming memoir Cool Under Fire. Kareithi says that Jomo Kenyatta, dealt with national crisis with a sense of ruthless efficiency. Kareithi and his team became the Omwinyambi. They had to ensure he always looked good.
When designing their national flag before their independence in July 1960, the Somalis deliberately put in it five stars to represent what they regarded their rightful territory. It included the former British protectorate Somali‐land, the former Italian territory of Somali, the current Somalia, the French Somaliland, now Djibouti, the Somali‐speaking Ethiopian provinces of Ogaden and Haud, and the then Somali‐dominated Northern Frontier District of Kenya.
At independence, the Somali government vowed there would be no compromise in securing their territory as defined in their flag.
On Boxing Day 1963, the Cabinet convened under a mango tree at the Gatundu home of President Kenyatta. It declared a two‐week state of Emergency in North Eastern Kenya. Kenyatta had to use the military, high-level diplomacy and propaganda to tame the Shifta menace.
The Shiftas would raid and burn villages at night and ambush government forces during the day. They became nastier when they started mining roads in the battle terrain. Three truckloads of Kenya Army personnel were blown up in quick succession in the month of October 1966.
Eventually, after receiving serious military blows, the Somalis agreed to allow Presidents Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, to mediate in the peace talks. The talks were held in Dar es Salaam
“On May 16, 1968, I accompanied President Kenyatta to present our case in the Tanzanian capital. The meeting was dubbed; “The Good Neighbours Summit”. President Nyerere chaired it with President Kenyatta and Somali Prime Minister, Mohamed Egal, as the protagonists turned good‐neighbours.” Says Kareithi
Uganda’s President, Milton Obote, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, and Malawi’s, Kamuzu Banda, attended as observers. At the meeting, it was resolved that both sides cease hostilities. A non‐partisan committee was picked to monitor the same and report to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, today’s African Union). On February 20, 1969, President Kaunda and Prime Minister Mohamed Egal flew to Nairobi for the official signing of the protocols that eased the Shifta war.
Ruto, like Jomo Kenyatta had to contend with his own form of Shifta. Bandits who steal livestock and terrorize citizens in northern Kenya have kept his government on high alert. They kill for the high and mighty who thrive in the trade of meat. It is believed in many circles that the boldness and meticulous coordination of the bandit attacks, despite heavy security presence, is a clear sign that they are well sponsored to undermine Dr. Ruto’s government. The City of Nairobi was hit by Azimio coalition street demos that usually turned violence. Then the tragic and ugly tale of Shakahola mass graves engulfed the country.
Ruto is lucky he presides over a legislative assembly of members, many who are mercenaries for hire. They can easily be swayed to vote in any direction. Ruto may not have survived the parliament voted in in the 1974 election. It remains the most assertive in the history of Kenya. Half of the members of the Second Parliament (1969‐1974), among them five cabinet ministers, were rejected by the electorate during the ‘74 election.
Then, majority first‐timers in the Third Parliament were young, energetic, educated and idealistic individuals, ready to serve citizens. Among them were mavericks such as; Chelagat Mutai, George Anyona, Peter Kibisu and Elijah Mwangale. Others were outspoken veterans such as; J.M. Kariuki, Jean‐Marie Seroney, Martin Shikuku, Waruru Kanja and Mark Mwithaga. They gave the all-powerful, authoritarian executive a rough time forcing Jomo Kenyatta to invoke the brutal colonial law of detention without trial. Many of them were sent to prison.
On February 6, 1975, a bomb exploded at the offices of the Tourism Information Centre within the compound of the Nairobi Hilton Hotel. Another explosion followed a week later at the Starlight Discotheque. The country was gripped in fear.
On March 1, 1975, Nairobi was shattered when a powerful bomb exploded at the OTC bus station on Racecourse Road. It left 27 people dead and 100 critically injured. Kenya was at war with itself.
The outspoken Nyandarua North MP, J.M. Kariuki went missing. A few days later, JM family stormed parliament screaming that his body was lying at the City Mortuary. Furious parliamentarians ran out of the chamber and headed to the morgue.
Kareithi says that: “As news spread in the city, panicky Cabinet Ministers hurriedly removed flags from their vehicles and fled to the safety of their homes. Nobody in the cabinet could be reached by my office for decision making and the president was unwell and under sedation in Gatundu. After several days with no improvement in the situation, I asked the doctors who were taking care of him to remove the sedation and report to me when he was able to take my call. I then telephoned the President at Gatundu to tell him he had no government. “Mzee your Ministers have fled their offices and removed flags from their vehicles, meaning you have no Government at the moment.”
He responded: “Ok, Geoffrey, I want a Cabinet meeting at State House ten on the dot tomorrow”. Kareithi had to physically seek out and summon cabinet members. Ten O’clock next morning, the Cabinet was seated in the cabinet room when Kenyatta arrived from Gatundu. He was in a foul mood and limping with gout pains.
“Moi and I were outside to receive him. He greeted us with clenched teeth and we right away headed to the cabinet room. There was no agenda and no cabinet papers to go through on that day. It was Kenyatta’s meeting and he went straight to the point.” Recalls Kareithi
“I am informed that you have quit Government, vacated your offices and removed flags from your vehicles. Now I want to hear it for myself that you are no longer in the Government.”
Then turning to Vice President Moi, Kenyatta demanded: “Are you in the Government or not?”
Moi replied in the affirmative. He tried to explain something but the President cut him short and moved to Attorney General Charles Njonjo, “Njonjo, are you in the government or not?” In less than 10 minutes, Kenyatta had put the question to all his Ministers. He then rose to leave: “That is all I wanted to know from you. The meeting is over.”
Meanwhile, the national assembly was smouldering. Waruru Kanja told the house: “We are ruled not by a government but a bunch of thugs. This is a gangster government!” Kamukunji MP, Maina Wanjigi said: “We have in Kenya a government of killers!” Butere MP, Martin Shikuku, would add: “The hyenas first ate Pinto, then Mboya. Now they have eaten one of their own!”
The JM murder sparked riots and unrest. In early February, 1976, Uganda dictator president, Idi Amin, lay claim to a third of Kenya’s territory from Lake Victoria to Naivasha.
The Shifta had drained the young Kenyan military. Amin’s claim came when Kenya was at its most weak and vulnerable point militarily. Kareithi paints the picture: “Our Armed Forces was highly trained and in good moral, but we were so outgunned in numbers and equipment that any one of our neighbours could easily have overrun our territory. We had an Army of about 6500 personnel, Air Force of 700, and a Navy of 350. In terms of equipment, we had less than 20 armoured vehicles, 14 combat aircraft and four patrol boats. Compare that with Uganda that had a 20 000 strong Army and 1000-man Air Force, besides 30 Soviet supplied heavy tanks, 100 armoured vehicles and 46 combat aircraft.”
He adds that: “Somalia had an Army of 20 000, Air Force of 2700, Navy of 300 and a militia of 3000. They also had the same number of tanks, armoured vehicles and combat aircraft as Uganda, also supplied by the Russians. Tanzanians had an Army of 13 000, Air Force of 1000, Navy of 600 and a stand‐by militia of 35 000.The biggest war machine in the region was Ethiopia with a 41 000 Army, Air Force of 2300, a 1500 Navy and a border militia of 40 000. Besides, they had over 100 Chinese supplied battle tanks, over 300 armoured vehicles and 50 combat aircraft. Clearly, Kenya was the underdog. To confront Idi Amin, we quickly had to think of other strategies besides the military. “
Kenya’s first line of attack was a blockade. Despite Amin’s superior military, he needed oil supplies through Kenya. Amin had messed his country’s economy and had scant oil reserves. It would not take long for Kenya to ground his entire country, by closing the Port of Mombasa. “We did not take the drastic action of shutting the border. Nevertheless, we sabotaged supply of oil and other strategic commodities to the land‐locked country in a manner sufficient to make Amin feel the heat.” Idi Amin Dada made a climb‐down and apologized to Kenya.
On June 27, 1976, pro‐Palestinian guerrillas hijacked a French air bus en‐route to Paris and commandeered it to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. The hijackers demanded the unconditional release of 53 Palestinians in Israel jails lest they blow up the plane with 98 Israelis aboard. The rest of the non‐Israeli passengers in the plane were released and flown to Paris from Kampala. Idi Amin declared himself chief negotiator between the “Zionists” and their captors.
Kareithi and the director of Intelligence James Kanyotu, took an Israeli delegation to meet Kenyatta at State House Nakuru. “Though we had broken diplomatic ties with Israelis during the 1973 Israel/Arab war, we had retained cordial but secret relations with the Jewish state and they could always count on us in their hour of need the same way we did. Besides, we had an axe to grind with Idi Amin and didn’t mind that he be taught a lesson.”
Under the cover of darkness on July 4 1976, Israeli commandos flew low over Lake Victoria and struck Entebbe. In less than half an hour, all the hostages, except one who was away in hospital, were
airborne to Nairobi. Amin’s squadron of 11 jet fighters was destroyed on the ground. Their aircraft re‐fueled in Nairobi and the traumatised hostages received treatment at the Nairobi Hospital.” Says Kareithi in his book.
Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi, had countless moments of political, economic and social crisis. From the 1982 military coup, to devastating drought, civil unrest to terrorist attacks, the worst being the 1998 terror attack that brought down the US embassy and several buildings in Nairobi. Despite ruling with an iron hand, Moi knew when to back down.
After years of bloody street battles and protests with Kenyans demanding for certain freedoms and constitutional changes, Moi called a Kanu delegates meeting at Kasarani in 1991. He had pushed Kanu leaders into hardline trenches. He would remind Kenyans that the country was not ready for multipartyism.
Then during the Kanu meeting, after all Kanu leaders had given hardline speeches describing the single party rule as the best for Kenya, Moi told a delighted nation, that he would respect the voice of the people. He allowed the amendment of section 2a of the constitution, which would allow formation of more political parties. The Kanu leaders were in shock. They had all become Moi’s Omwinyambi. They took the foul smell as he emerged the people’s hero.
In 1998, Kenya witnessed one of the longest teacher strikes. Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka was the minister for education. For months Moi remained adamant that there was no money to pay teachers or give them a salary increase. Kalonzo, in his autobiography, Against all Odds, describes the pain and struggles he endured to settle the teacher demands. “I had almost given up hope of reaching a workable agreement with the teachers, who were increasingly becoming agitated. Their street demonstrations and confrontations with the police were getting ugly.”
He goes on:” Then help came in the name of Mulu Mutisya, one of my political mentors. He put together a team of elders who joined us in lengthy consultations with the teacher’s union representatives. He later took the National Union of Teachers officials who included secretary general Ambrose Adongo and Chairman John Katumanga to State House, Nairobi, at night to meet Moi and the strike was called off the following day” once again, Moi emerged as a great and generous stateman.
The Finance Bill 2023, has become one of the most controversial ever placed before the National Assembly. The 3% house tax Ruto is suggesting comes after the pay-slips of workers have been massacred by the increase of mandatory contributions to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), and the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF).
The house tax may be a good idea coming at the worst of times. Kenyans also have countless reasons to be suspicious of projects championed by politicians. With the history of mega corruption, Ruto needs to tread carefully with his economic ideas. He needs to be more seductive and persuasive and not forceful and authoritarian. If he forces the bill through parliament, he will make himself the most unpopular leader Kenya has ever had.
There are many reasons why people are suspicious of the house tax. Since Kenya operates on a five-year economic agenda pegged on the electoral cycle, there is no guarantee that the project will live to the 25 years an individual is supposed to contribute in order to own a house. The country is also a graveyard of many failed projects stuck in the muddy pits of corruption.
In his memoir, Seasons of Hope, former Kitui Senator David Musila talks about the death of the Tana and Hola Irrigation Schemes that were initiated in the 1970s.
“I was shocked when I visited Tana River region in 2016. I had travelled with some former expatriates at the Hola Irrigation Scheme. They were keen to visit the place that once stole their hearts, to savour the progress of the project they initiated. I pleaded with them to change their minds but my attempts to dissuade them were unsuccessful. It was like visiting a city in ruins after war. My friends were in tears and broken hearted. The scheme that was once flourishing when I was DC in Hola was long dead and the road from Garissa to Hola was still a long stretch of the wild drive it was 37 years ago.”
Kenya is a nation of many shattered dreams and dead projects such as the Hola irrigation scheme. Each government creates its own projects from which greedy leaders eat. They are then abandoned at the next election.
However, Ruto being a strategist who learned from the Professor of Politics Daniel arap Moi, will not allow the Finance Bill to fail. Most MPs know that if the bill fails in totality, the country will shut down and parliament will be dissolved.
The voting is also conducted clause by clause, Ruto might actually be using the House Tax as a Squirrel to keep opposition blinded from the elephant on their path. Unlike Wanjau, Ruto must be having his own Omwinyambi ready to take the blame for the Bills foul smell.