• Caleb Atemi

Setting bridges on Fire; Sneaky lessons from history


If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.” -George Bernard Shaw


Some leaders were cheered while others were jeered. Clapping, shouting, ululation, song and dance spiced up the drama and sideshows during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report.


With a sense of foreboding I watched the events unfold at the Bomas of Kenya, which has become our home of constitution making. It is here that we spend months on end working on the Kenyan constitution during the wee hours of Mwai Kibaki’s Presidency.


It is at Bomas that vulnerable groups and small communities told their heart-rending tales and shed tears as they sought to be formally incorporated into the Republic of Kenya. It is at Bomas that back stabbing and betrayal reigned supreme with the ruling class high-jacking the constitution making process. It is at Bomas where constitutional bridges were built and destroyed before they could be utilised.


Ironically, the event meant to launch the Building Bridges Initiative was being used to set other bridges ablaze. Sadly this seems to be the story of Kenya.


Historical similarities


The event however reminded me of the sneaky nature of history. In 1976, while Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was quietly struggling with ill health, some leaders from his Kikuyu community were plotting to change the constitution to bar his deputy Daniel arap Moi from ascending to power in the event of Mzee’s demise.


Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, a man known to love beer and smoking had a deputy who professed the Christian faith and was a teetotaller. The deputy hailed from the Kalenjin community.

The year 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of Jomo Kenyatta’s death. 40 is Biblically a powerful and symbolic number. In terms of time, 40 can represent a period of probation, trial, and chastisement. It can also represent a time for generational change. It is therefore accidental that on the 40th year of his demise, we were legally removing his image from the Kenyan currency?


Meanwhile, his son who also loves his drink and smoking stick is firmly in the seat of power. Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta has a deputy who professes the Christian faith, is a teetotaller and hails from the Kalenjin community. He also happens to be the political student of Daniel arap Moi.


However, Ruto is the son of a peasant who sneaked into the palace and snatched the crown meant for a Crown Prince. History is replaying itself with calls for a referendum and fight against corruption. Ruto’s supporters believe that all these initiatives are meant to stop him from ascending to State House.


In Jomo’s time, the Change the Constitution movement spearheaded by the late Kihika Kimani and Njenga Karume, necessitated the calling of national elections for the ruling party Kanu. Jomo Kenyatta was to be the unchallenged choice of party president, but Moi faced stiff opposition as the party Vice Chairman.


In his unpublished memoir, Cool Under Fire, which I edited, former head of Civil Service Geoffrey Kareithi narrates that the party elections were eventually called off due to “unavoidable circumstances”.


“The truth was that Kenyatta had been ill for a period of three weeks and with no certainty of when he would recover I was left with no option but to cancel the elections. Soon after this a senior officer from the air force came to see me. He had interesting news. He had attended a meeting with several politicians where a plan to stop the vice president from being sworn in as acting president had been planned.


I listened quietly until he finished. I told him to continue attending those meetings and keep me briefed. There commenced what Kenyans refer to as the Ngoroko affair. Like the coup plot of 1971, although the plotters happened to think that it was possible to wipe out all the leaders of Kenya and take over the country through the use of a small band of commandos, it never had any serious chance of success. We decided to do nothing but remain alert to their every move as they were dependent on the death of Kenyatta in Nakuru before they would move on anybody including the VP.”


Jomo’s Ill health

Kareithi says that sometime in 1968, President Kenyatta suffered a stroke while in Mombasa and was in a coma for three days. The close shave with death made Kareithi start preparing for the inevitable: “Not known to many, as we held our breath and the President lay unconscious at his private residence at the Coast in 1968, we had put in contingency measures for his burial and smooth transition. It is the same contingency measures we would dust up and implement a decade later when the curtain finally fell on the founding father. After the 1968 incident, Kenyatta would frequently be indisposed but we managed to handle it all without raising a fuss. Indeed, whenever it happened, only those required to know got to know about it. Our reasoning in those early days was that there was no need to get the young nation into a panic mode every time the old man got ill. However, for those of us with their hands on the pulse of the nation, we kept prepared just in case…. To a small group of us was known the code to use to communicate news of Kenyatta’s death when it happened. “Kenya has closed its’ eyes”, was the code.


Kareithi says that as the constitutional noises went on, by 1977, all indications were that the old man was on his last leg. A world renowned heart surgeon, Dr Christiaan Barnard was flown in to examine him. His verdict was that the President’s heart was so frail he needed a pace‐setter inserted immediately. Kenyatta adamantly refused. “Quietly, Dr. Barnard told us he doubted Kenyatta would live for another 6 months. As a precaution, I instructed that two doctors always be in the president’s convoy whenever he was traveling. They would be dressed in DOs uniform so as not to unnecessarily raise alarm.”


Kareithi also instructed that two nurses be put on night shifts wherever the president was. He further deployed the Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Health, Dr. Eric Mngola, to personally be the doctor‐on‐call at State House.


On the day of his demise, at about three o’clock in the morning, the two nurses watching on the President were alarmed by his unusual snoring. They woke up the First Lady, Mama Ngina, who instructed them to alert Dr. Mngola. The Coast Provincial Commissioner, Eliud Mahihu, who lived near State House was summoned. Mahihu on his part asked two other Mombasa doctors used to State House emergencies to come by.


The doctors embarked on administering First Aid to the President. “When the second doctor arrived at about 3.30 am, he went straight for the President’s pulse and then looked up in resignation: “What is it, doctor?” Mahihu asked. “I am sorry the President is no more” was the reply. There was a brief moment of disorientation for those around the death‐bed as they struggled to cope with the enormous reality. When some composure returned, Mahihu asked the two doctors to give him a written note to certify that Kenyatta was indeed, dead. There was a good reason for that: the two nurses assigned to the President as well as Mama Ngina were still hopeful that Kenyatta had simply gone into the usual “black‐out” and would come back to life. As such, Mahihu did not want a situation where he would inform his superiors that Kenyatta was “dead” only for him to resurrect after some time. But with a written confirmation from the two professionals, Mahihu felt sufficiently confident to communicate the sad news. It was about 4 in the morning when the phone rang in my bedroom. Telephone calls in those wee hours of the night were part of my routine. From such calls, I had always hoped for the best but expected the worst.


“This is Eliud”, a voice that needed no introduction said from the other end. “Please come down. Kenya has closed its’ eyes”. As the one who had come up with the “code” I needed no elaboration. Three things weighed on me as I put down Mahihu’s telephone call: Safety of Vice President Moi who, by virtue of the Constitution, was now the acting president; how to manage news of Kenyatta’s death, and thirdly how to ensure a smooth transition.


My first call was to Moi who Mahihu had already informed of the sad news. He was in his home in Nakuru. I requested him to come immediately to Nairobi to a secure location. He was in Nairobi in 55minutes, only narrowly escaping James Mungai’s road block just outside Nakuru at Lanet, by 20 minutes. Next I called GSU commandant Ben Gethi with instructions that he personally take responsibility for Moi’s security until further communication.”

Moi survived assassination by 20 minutes. Had Kenyatta died in Nakuru as his rivals had hopped, the history of Kenya would have been dramatically altered.


The next general elections are two years away. Politicians are scheming and conniving. Some are planning the destruction of others while others are campaigning for self-preservation. Very few are invoking the name of the Almighty God. Two years in God’s calendar is like 2000 years. It is also like a breath away. History might just be smiling at the contestants ready to sneak in another surprise.

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