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Lessons for Ruto: What it took past presidents to make their disloyal ministers toe the line

President William Ruto. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

My eyes trailed him across the floor of the discotheque. I had been eyeing him for some time and I thought I should strike. With my three years of karate training, I was certain I would take him down.

He hadn’t provoked. I didn’t even know him. However, the slum had taught me that to impress a girl, one had to show prowess in physical combat. Here he was, a man shorter than me in the company of a beautiful girl.

Constant police brutality had made us believe that short people were created to be bullied.

I rose from my seat and slowly walked towards him. I deliberately stepped on his toes. He didn’t seem to notice. Furious, I violently pushed him away from his girlfriend. He quickly gained his balance and walked back towards her. I was now fuming. He didn’t even seem to have noticed my presence.

I eventually slapped him across the face. The bottle of soda he was holding fell with a thud and broke to pieces. The music stopped. The DJ had noticed the commotion and wanted it investigated. When the bouncers rushed towards us, the man waved them away and said calmly; “It’s actually nothing. We were just playing.” He then turned to me slowly and whispered in my ear, “Young man, please go home.”

I walked away in shame that Friday night. I really wanted to fight him but I had heard my seniors say that when a man refuses to pick a fight and appears calm in a storm, be afraid. I was afraid. I couldn’t sleep well that weekend.

On Monday, I arrived at the karate dojo full off steam. Lo and behold! The man I had tried to pick a fight with stood there with my sensei (teacher), resplendent in his shiny karate Gi, donning a black belt. “Come here,” my sensei beckoned. “Do you know this man?”

“Yea…...yea. y…yes,” I stammered.

“He is my senior. Do you think you can fight him?”

I stood there dazed and speechless. My knees shook violently. My body was drenched in cold sweat. My sensei ordered four of my agemates and rank mates to fight me. I was pushed into the centre of the dojo. In those days, karate was a bare-knuckle affair. It was not a sport. There was no holding back or controlling of punches and kicks. I was thoroughly beaten.

By the time they were through with me, I had a battered face with puffy eyes and swollen lips. I had suffered two broken ribs. I was carried away and ferried to the hospital. For days, my sensei and his friend would visit me until I recovered fully. I later trained under my sensei’s senior. He became a good friend, teacher and mentor.

I had learned a lifelong lesson. Since then, I have never picked a fight. I have never underrated anyone in any sphere of life. I have only used my karate skills for peace-making and self-defence.

Lessons for Ruto

I have repeated this story to my karate and journalism students. It vividly came back when I read in the press early in the week that President William Ruto had read the riot act to his wayward Cabinet secretaries. This is after his ministers had started to read from different scripts.

If Ruto intends to run his government in an orderly fashion, he needs to learn some critical lessons from his predecessors.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta acted like my coach. He did not tolerate nonsense in his Cabinet. Ministers were subjected to fierce discipline for misbehaving in public or talking recklessly.

If Trade CS Moses Kuria was in Jomo’s Cabinet, he would have been disciplined immediately he spewed reckless remarks about ‘Kenyans die anyway, why not increase options for them to- through GMOs’. Jomo would have summoned him to his Gatundu home or State House and given him a thorough beating.

In my book-writing ventures, I once interviewed two former ministers in Jomo’s government; Dr Njoroge Mungai and Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano. They confirmed that in severe cases of indiscipline, Jomo would make his ministers lie prostrate and whip them on the backside.

“Mzee didn’t tolerate nonsense especially if a leader’s utterances were a threat to national security and stability. The leader would face the wrath of this lion” Dr Mungai would recall years later

When Jomo fell out with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, he heard distressing reports that there would be a revolt in his Cabinet.

Walking in fuming

He urgently summoned the ministers to his Gatundu home. After they had all settled down, Mzee walked in fuming and in a foul mood. He didn’t even sit down; he turned to his Vice President Daniel Moi and asked him; “Bwana Moi are you still with me?” Moi mumbled a “Yes”.

He then moved to the Head of Civil Service Geoffrey Kareithi; “Kareithi are you in my government?” Kareithi answered in the affirmative. Then came the turn of his Attorney General Charles Njonjo. “I hope you are with me too”, Njonjo said “Yes your Excellency” Mzee then dismissed the meeting and went back to sleep, an act that Kareithi describes in his memoir, Cool Under Fire as an anticlimax.   

President William Ruto during the opening of the 13th Parliament on September 29,2022 [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The Angaine fury

Former ambassador John Mwaura recalls how Jomo handled ministers who had ego issues. During his work as a District Officer (DO), in Nyambene, he hosted Jackson Harvester Angaine, a cabinet minister in Jomo’s government. Angaine and the local MP Samuel M Ithurai had visited Mwaura at his residence in Maua. Soon the two were ensnared in an argument over some colonial court cases. Angaine said he was going to ensure the people involved in the cases were arrested and charged afresh. The MP loudly stated that the minister was lying since he did not have powers to do so.

“In a flash, Angaine unleashed a powerful punch on M’Ithurai’s face. The heavy blow floored the MP. I tried to resuscitate him by conducting a cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The MP remained unconscious. I rushed to the kitchen filled a bucket with cold water and poured it on him. He remained still, stiff and unconscious. I poured water on him one more time. He woke up puffing and gasping,” says Mwaura in his forthcoming memoir, For the Flag and Country.

Before Mwaura could even internalise the happenings, Angaine instructed the area OCS to arrest the legislator. Mwaura had to stop the arrest. He ordered the MP to leave.

Weeks later, President Jomo Kenyatta visited on a tour of Meru. All leaders had left the PC’s residence and queued outside. Mwaura remained indoors since the President had gone to use the washroom. Angaine entered the house to catch a private moment with Mzee Kenyatta. As he waited for Mzee to leave the bathroom, he filled a glass with whiskey and gulped it down. His eyes bulged as he cleared his throat. He then confronted Mzee. He urged the President to ensure that while addressing the public in Meru, he would ask MP M Ithurai to resign from parliament.

“Your Excellency, this MP is not loyal to you. His loyalty is with KPU the opposition party of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.” He paused to wait for his words to sink in. Angaine and Kenyatta were close friends who referred to each other as “Muthoniwa” (In-law). Kenyatta, paused and listened keenly to Angaine. He then told him: “Muthoniwa how can I force an MP to resign and yet I am not the one who elected him to Parliament?”. Mwaura says that; “Angaine tensed. His huge frame trembled slightly. He gave Mzee Kenyatta a hard look. Angaine was a man with a terrible temper. I was frightened. I froze in my tracks. I was not sure if he would lose his cool and punch the President. The two eyed each other briefly before the President calmly walked away. A fuming, Angaine followed him.”

Reckless anti-Moi leaders

During the mid-70’s campaigns to change the constitution in order to stop Moi from stepping into Jomo Kenyatta’s shoes in the event of his demise, two men, Njenga Karume and Kihika Kimani, turned out to be extremely reckless with their words. A day after a series of rallies, Intelligence head James Kanyotu and Head of Public Service Geoffrey Kareithi travelled to Nakuru to brief Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta told the two: “I warned these fools right from the beginning. Moi is cleverer and keeps quiet as they run around saying silly things. Now I have to stop them.”  A Cabinet meeting was called the following day at which Kenyatta tongue‐lashed Angaine, Paul Ngei and James Gichuru.

Geoffrey Kareithi says the Kihika group became so reckless that the administration and security machinery had to prevail upon President Kenyatta to stop them. Kareithi says that after reviewing verbatim recordings and translations of the speeches Kihika made at a rally in Meru, they were alarmed. Kihika told the charged rally that:

 “There is no section in the Constitution we cannot amend. And nothing will prevent us from doing exactly that. It is I, Kihika, who is saying it. Let them also know that we are very serious men and can dispatch to the other world anybody joking around with Kenyatta and Mama Ngina…..”

These are the kind of utterances that could easily have sparked violence and thrown the young nation into civil war.

Moi’s style

Moi had his own way of dealing with reckless or wayward leaders. If he wanted to take you out, you would be isolated and dogs of war unleashed upon you.

Charles Njonjo was a powerful attorney general and very influential leader. He was isolated and quickly cut down to size. He didn’t fall alone. He fell with all those close to him.  One of his friends was Stanley Shepashina Oloitiptip.

Oliotiptip had accumulated power and wealth as Member of Parliament for Kajiado South and minister for home affairs. As soon as he fell out of favour with the system, he was immediately deserted and isolated. A tall, bulky man with 13 wives and 67 children, was soon falling into depression. He was fired in 1984 and his loans immediately called in by financial institutions. He was arrested for allegedly failing to pay taxes and thrown into police cells. The shock of the sudden fall and dejection were enough to kill the Maasai Kingping. In January 1985, he passed on, a sad, dejected and broken man.

In his book; Kenya; A History Since Independence; Charles Hornsby says of Oloitiptip; “Not a single MP dared attend his funeral”. He died alone, impoverished and dejected.

Kneel before me

Misfortune befell Vice President Josephat Karanja, a man who was described as proud and aloof. He was quickly isolated. Two men, Moses Mwenje and Kuria Kanyingi set upon him. They started accusing him publicly of being too ambitious and forcing leaders to kneel before him. They said that he wanted to be worshiped. After a series of public bashing, Parliament took up the matter. Dr Karanja was dropped as VP.

If the misbehaving minister was one of Moi’s favourites, the President would invite the man to State House. Upon arrival, the minister would be shocked to find all key community elders waiting for him in the presence of the Head of State. “You can imagine the shock when you find your elders there. They would ask you why you are giving Mzee grief” says former Vice President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka.

Kiano said that Moi was known “to visit errand ministers in the dead of the night. Imagine being woken up by your spouse and being told that the President was in the house. You descent the stairs in your pajamas, fuming as to who dares disturb your peace only to find the President, in his suit, seated in your living room holding his Nyayo rungu. He would then tell you; “I have just come to say jambo and find out if you are still in my government because I can hear you saying strange things.” Moi used to make such visits with his full presidential motorcade.

During his tour of duty as District Commissioner, Eldama Ravine, Ken Lusaka was given specific duties by President Moi. He was to supervise the construction of a church while protecting forests from loggers. Lusaka, in his forthcoming autobiography, When God Spoke, recalls that Moi would visit anytime, any day without notice or warning. Leaders had to be ever alert and sobber. Moi couldn’t tolerate smell of alcohol and no leader would be stupid enough to partake of alcohol when he was in the neighbourhood.

Moi noticed that some leaders in the district were destroying forests. During a leaders meeting, he told Lusaka; “Bwana DC, chunga misitu yangu”

Lusaka quickly mobilised security personnel and that night seized lorries with tree trunks and timber. A local member of parliament protested and asked the DC to leave his business alone. “Mheshimiwa, you heard what the president said. This is a matter I must pursue conclusively,” said Lusaka.

Angered, the MP started a malicious rumour that the DC had “eaten and sold relief food”. Fortunately, investigations proved them to be fake and Moi urged him to tighten the “pliers”

Moi was also quick to tell off sycophants whenever they crossed the line. During a graduation ceremony at the University of Nairobi, education minister Peter Oloo Aringo in his speech referred to Moi as “The Prince of Peace”. Moi admonished him. He told him and other leaders never to ever equate him to, “Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour”

Okondo the reckless one

One sunny morning while going through my daily newspapers at my Nation Kisumu office, I received a most unlikely visitor. Peter Habenga Okondo, who had just resigned as minister for Labour. I offered him a comfortable seat and a cup of hot African tea. He started babbling. I had to cool him down and ask him, “Mheshimiwa, I am here to listen to you so let’s take it slowly.”

“I have been falsely accused. I had nothing to do with the death of Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge. I want to tell Kenyans that I am innocent.” He spoke.

Bishop Muge was the Anglican Bishop of Eldoret and a critic of the Moi government. He advocated for civil rights. In 1990, Muge was due to attend a function in Busia. In one of his worst verbal diarrheas, Okondo warned Muge not to step in Busia. He told him that; “He wouldn’t leave Busia alive if he dared set food there”. On August 14, a defiant Bishop Muge visited Busia. He accomplished his mission without incident and left. On his way back however, his vehicle rammed into a stationery lorry on the Busia-Eldoret highway. He died on the spot.

Okondo’s thoughtless outbursts had in the past shocked even his close friends and supporters. But the utterances on Muge cost him his ministerial job and reputation. He was forced to resign. Moi had to let him go. Now here he was in my office trying to repair his image. After some lengthy discussions, I asked him; “But tell me Mheshimiwa, is it not true that you have a reckless and loose tongue?” his grey eyes squinted. He gave me a long look, shook his head, shot up and left. I smiled, turned to my typewriter and banged away my splash.

Moi had his tolerance limits. Some tongues had to exit from his cabinet.      

Kibaki and Uhuru

President Mwai Kibaki might have appeared aloof and detached but one of his Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka says: “During cabinet meetings, he was firm and no nonsense. If a minister had behaved without decorum, he or she would get a tongue lashing and called to order.”

It is only Uhuru Kenyatta who appeared to have no firm control over his ministers. This turned his government into a house where anyone would say anything and get away with it.

By Agencies Jan. 27, 2023
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