• The tense moments between 3.30am, when Kenyatta died, and 12:30pm, when the nation finally knew what had happened, were a make-or-break moment for Moi.
• Right to the very end, Moi’s political enemies were still digging in to stop him from accession.
Saved by a call of nature and his own wits.
On the night of August 22, 1978, an old Peugeot 404 station wagon sped through the rough dusty road, up the escarpment on the scarcely used road between Suswa and Ngong.
The driver was Vice President Daniel Moi, disguised as his official driver, desperately rushing to reach Nairobi in the few short hours before the dawn.
Earlier that night, as the story goes, Moi had awakened in his Kabarak home and went to use the toilet.
His house telephone was faulty, and while he had called for it to be fixed, he wasn’t sure if it working.
On his way back to bed, he heard his telephone ping — the ringer was faulty. He lifted the handset and the caller, Coast provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu, informed him Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had died, using the idiomatic phrase ‘the eyes of Kenya have closed.’
Moi knew he wasn’t going back to bed. He called spy chief James Kanyotu and chief secretary Geoffrey Kariithi, both of them had stood with him in the raging succession wars that had gripped the country in the final years of Kenyatta’s presidency. Kariithi told him to be very careful leaving Kabarak since it was not clear if he was targeted for elimination.
Just then, Moi knew he needed to reach State House, Nairobi, at once. But how could he? The main highway was out of bounds for him since he had already known that the plan of blocking his accession, involved elaborate roadblocks, where hit squads had been stationed to eliminate him.
He also could also not use his usual vehicle, lest a bird report he had left Kabarak and alert the hit squads. He could also not get a plane as it could easily be monitored. He thus chose the back-roads route to Nairobi. He quickly reached his servant’s quarters and woke up his driver, KibetRere, and bodyguard Leonard Yator, aka Kipchomber, and another Elijah Lang’at and told them what had happened.
He told them that they needed to get to State House at once but they could not use the usual Nairobi-Nakuru highway. They agreed that his driver and bodyguard would take the back seat while he would drive the car disguised as a driver. They agreed and then quietly eased off Kabarak and headed for the south route through Elementaita to Suswa and then to Kedong and finally to Ngong.
The route, then as now, was largely untarmarked and the Peugeot took a beating as it bounced over the rough road, leaving behind massive dust clouds. Unrelenting, Moi stepped on the gas, with only one thing in his mind — getting to State House.
The early rays of the sun emerged as the tense group finally touched tarmac on Ngong Road heading into Nairobi. Moi, still on the driver’s seat, sped through the misty early morning air through the back routes to State House. Once he had cleared security, they walked through the doors, unimpeded, the soldiers did not even know what was happening. He went straight in and started making phone calls. Sitting physically inside State House was a significant psychological coup against those who were opposed to him becoming President. He had taken charge.
THREE THINGS GOING FOR MOI
One, his full bladder had awakened him to hear the faint ping and so he took the phone call. Second, the Peugeot had endured the rough road and finally, the weather was on his side. Had it rained, his vehicle would not have made it through the rough road and he might have been stuck in the middle of nowhere and watched the world speed by. He might never have been president if the dawn didn’t find him inside State House Nairobi.
Moi had been a part of the elaborate scheme to secure his own succession, and the fact that Kenyatta had died away from Nairobi helped since had he died in Nairobi with Mbiyu Koinange by his side, it would have triggered a power struggle. Moi would not have won.
The tense moments between 3.30am, when Kenyatta died, and 12:30pm, when the nation finally knew what had happened, were a make-or-break moment for Moi.
Sitting inside State House gave him the power of command and he called a Cabinet meeting to break the news to the inner circle. The people he needed were in Nairobi — Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who had helped scuttle the Change-the-Constitution movement, was by his side.
Right to the very end, Moi’s political enemies were still digging in to stop him from accession. The declaration by Njonjo that so much as imagining the death of the President was a treasonable offence eased pressure on Moi, but he was not out of the woods. Just before leaving for Mombasa, Kenyatta was in Nakuru.
The main protagonists in the Change-the-Constitution movement — Kihika Kimani, Njenga Karume, Dr Njoroge Mungai, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru, Jackson Angaine and Paul Ngei — met with him in Nakuru to discuss their onslaught against Moi (which Kenyatta had covertly blessed).
They were surprised when Kenyatta told them that they should have taken their matter through Parliament. And with that, he left for Mombasa for the final 24 days of his life.
Kenyatta left Nakuru on July 29, 1978, for Mombasa. The temperature had already fallen dramatically in Nairobi and it was felt that Mombasa would be much better for him. He only stopped briefly in Nairobi and was on the road again, arriving in State House Mombasa (which like the Nairobi State House, was not a preferred residence, but rather more like an office).
He preferred to stay in his private home in Mombasa but all the official functions took place at State House. In Mombasa, he had with him his constant companion Koinange, who shadowed him as the Biblical Elisha did to Elijah.
On August 14, Kenyatta hosted a family reunion in Mombasa and on August 21 Kenya’s envoys at State House Mombasa. The diplomats could notice that all was not well and the incoherence in his speech gave signalled the President was not well.
After a gruelling day on August 22 that saw him spend some time in Msambweni, South Coast, where he suffered a mild heart attack before recovering sufficiently, Kenyatta was driven back to State House.
He would not have normally missed the ‘ngoma’ dancers who were there to entertain him, but he lay in bed as his heart weakened. He deteriorated until he expired at 3am.
Mahihu, on learning about it, telephoned Moi to inform him and so began the journey in the dark to reach Nairobi. After chairing the emergency Cabinet meeting, the announcement was made to a stunned nation at 12:30pm in a special bulletin by the Voice of Kenya. Sir James Wicks, Kenya’s Chief Justice, swore in Moi as President.
THE INSTRUMENTS OF POWER
The signing of the instruments of power in front of Justice Wicks properly disarmed his erstwhile detractors particularly Koinange. Moi now assembled a funeral committee that included Kenyatta's brother James Mungai and his son Peter Muigai.
Other members of the committee were Njonjo and Head of Public Service Kareithi and Kenyatta’s brother-in-law Koinange. The burial date was set for August 31 and George Vamos, a Nairobi architect, was tasked to design a mausoleum that was constructed on the grounds of Parliament by C. Campagnola Ltd.
The elaborate State funeral took place in the presence of Kenyans in their hundreds of thousands and heads of state and guests from over 85 countries, including royals.
The following day September 1, Moi held his first full Cabinet meeting as acting President. The Cabinet issued a statement proclaiming ‘total confidence’ in Moi, urging all Kenyans to do the same.
One week later, on September 8, Kanu acting secretary general Robert Matano, a close Moi ally, outlined procedures of electing the party president and nominating a candidate for president. The nomination was set for September 23 and the election date October 6.
On September 10, former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga sent his message of support to Moi, saying he backed him as the new President. The irony of it was that he would have been president at that very point, had he not fallen out with Kenyatta 13 years prior.
But Moi’s hold on power still remained quite shaky. He was cleared as the sole presidential candidate and on October 6, Kanu party delegates in Nairobi affirmed the position.
In his acceptance speech, Moi announced that Kanu national elections would be held on October 28. Five days later, on October 11, he named Mwai Kibaki as his Vice President and also carried out a Cabinet reshuffle to reposition his allies.
On October 14, he was installed as the Second President of Kenya and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces in a large public ceremony in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. On October 20, Moi led the nation in the first Kenyatta Day celebration without Jomo. Eight days later, the Kanu national elections were held and the results — Mwai Kibaki was elected vice president, Robert Matano secretary general, Justus Tipis the national treasurer, while Isaac Omolo Okero became first national chairman. Nathan Munoko became the national organising secretary.
REORGANISING SECURITY ORGANS
With the party firmly in the hands of his allies, Moi moved in to reorganise the security sector by removing police commissioner Bernard Hinga, who had made his life difficult while he was vice president, and appointed Benjamin Gethi as his replacement on November 1.
He also reorganised the army later that month and created the position of Chief of General Staff. He also built his international image by taking a tour of Europe for seven days, returning on November 19.
During Jamhuri Day celebrations, he released political prisoners, abolished school fees for Standard 6 pupils and ordered free milk for all primary school children.
The milk would be his enduring positive legacy for the next 24 years and we now remember him more for that than perhaps anything else that he did in his time of office.