How Mzee Kenyatta's state funeral was planned from scratch

It had never been done before, so Kenya had to figure it out, drawing heavily on British tradition

In Summary

• Though Attorney General Charles Njonjo had thwarted a plot by the Mt Kenya Mafia who wanted to prevent Moi from succeeding Kenyatta, the Constitution still allowed anyone to run for president. 

•  The Mt Kenya Mafia scheme was this: In the 90 days interim, they proposed the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice, and the Head of the Civil Service, to preside over government. Moi was nowhere in the plan.

Jomo Kenyatta with his little son Uhuru, Vice President Moi and AG Charles Njonjo (L) in the mid-1960s.
GOOD OLD DAYS: Jomo Kenyatta with his little son Uhuru, Vice President Moi and AG Charles Njonjo (L) in the mid-1960s.

In 1986, President Daniel arap Moi published a book titled Kenya African Nationalism: Nyayo Philosophy and Principles. 

Moi wrote in the preface, “This little book is not an autobiography. It is not my life history; such a book may see daylight on another occasion.”

He intimated that he wished to share his “beliefs” and “working notes” on the pragmatic management of national affairs. As fate would have it, Moi departed the earth on February 4 without having penned his autobiography.


However, a finicky scribe or biographer will write a comprehensive biography of Moi because he is arguably the most documented Kenyan leader, especially with the emergence of the 'autobiography genre' in Kenya. Andrew Morton, the British royal biographer, was the first to undertake such a task, and he wrote the flattering biography, Moi: The Making of an African Statesman.

In 1978, a day after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, General Daniel Opande, then a Lieutenant Colonel, was called by his boss, General Jackson Mulinge, and informed that Kenyatta would be given a State Funeral.

General Opande was then the staff officer responsible for ceremonial duties at Army Headquarters. General Mulinge directed him to prepare a brief for him before his scheduled meeting with Vice President Moi.

Opande was to provide a summary of the conduct of a State Funeral since Kenya had never conducted one before.

Opande writes in his autobiography, In Pursuit of Peace in Africa, that he looked for any file or document with relevant information, but there was none. He checked with his counterpart at the Defence Headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kipsaitta, but there was nothing. Kipsaitta, however, suggested that Opande call Kenyan military attaché in London Major Joel Mumbo, and ask him to secure the British Army’s guidelines on state funerals.

He was able to put together 'rudimentary, but sufficient information' to brief General Mulinge and Brigadier Peter Kakenyi. The two were pleased, but they instructed him to further provide the “exact details of what each phase of the funeral would take".

What would lying in state entail? How would the casket move to Parliament Buildings? How would services be conducted and the burial carried out? Opande and Kipsaitta were instructed to attend all the planning meetings at Defence Headquarters and at the Office of the President as representatives of the military.


The military and the civil service burned the midnight oil to produce a plan setting out clearly the various stages of a State Funeral, the resources required, the timelines, and who was to do what and when.

Being the funeral of a head of state, the military would assume a greater role in the planning and the execution of the actual ceremony. The military took responsibility for crowd control together with the police. It would provide pallbearers, the wagon to pull the casket, and provide a guard of honour for visiting heads of state and government. Everything was done with military precision.


However, a day before the burial, Uganda President Idi Amin unexpectedly flew to Kenya and landed in Naivasha in a camouflage military helicopter. That meant the original programme would be tweaked to accommodate Amin’s delegation.

On the morning of the burial, police and State protocol officials issued the format and order of arrival of State guests to avoid confusion and traffic snarls. Once again, the unpredictable Idi Amin pulled a fast one on Kenyan officials. Rather than drive to Parliament Buildings, where the funeral would take place, Amin decided to walk from the Hilton Hotel where he had stayed.

The police had to quickly clear traffic off the City Hall Road to protect Amin’s entourage from curious onlookers who were beginning to swarm around to get a glimpse of the capricious Ugandan strongman.

President Jomo Kenyatta was buried on  August  31, 1978, with full military honours befitting a head of state. After the funeral, Opande and Kipsaitta drafted and produced a document that was later accepted as the reference for State burials in Kenya.

Having presided over this State function, Moi got down to the business of consolidating his power proper. He was then in an acting capacity, which would last for 90 days before a General Election to elect a new president. Even though Attorney General Charles Njonjo had thwarted a plot by the Mt Kenya Mafia who wanted to prevent him from succeeding Kenyatta, the Constitution still allowed anyone to challenge him for the presidency in the election. That explains why Masinde Muliro, a former colleague of Moi in Kadu, and a principal of pluralism, who had led the Luhya nation into the opposition at Independence, came out to challenge Moi at the presidential ballot.

Burudi Nabwera, a former Cabinet minister and Ex-Kanu secretary general in Moi’s government, writes in his memoirs, How it Happened, that Muliro was dissuaded from running and Moi was elected unopposed, thus becoming Kenya’s second president. Had the Mt Kenya Mafia succeeded in their scheme to change the Constitution, and bar Moi from acting as President, that would have complicated matters for him because he would not have been anywhere near the presidency in the new arrangement.

The Mt Kenya Mafia scheme was this: In the 90 days interim, they proposed the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice, and the Head of the Civil Service would preside over government. Moi was nowhere.

It would seem that four things worked in Moi’s favour. One, in the 12 years he had served Kenyatta as his Vice President, he had been loyal and dedicated, thus earning the trust of the old man. Secondly, within the Mt Kenya Mafia, there was infighting, backstabbing and raw ambition ghat they exhibited shamelessly in their attempt to succeed Kenyatta.

Thirdly, as VP, and with his wealth of experience dating back to the pre-independence Legco days, Moi had quietly built a network of friends and loyalists across the country.

Fourthly, he was humble, friendly, calm and non-combative — therefore admired by many. It was in this context that Moi moulded a formation that had powerful individuals, no less, from the Mt Kenya region. Njonjo, popular Laikipia MP GG Kariuki, and Jeremiah Kiereini, then Permanent Secretary for Defence, all supported Moi.  

Kiereini writes in his autobiography, A Daunting Journey, that most of the individuals scheming to stop Moi had amassed a lot of wealth because of their proximity to Kenyatta and were uncomfortable with a non-Kikuyu taking the reins of power. Moi was a Kalenjin, and therefore they were not assured of protection if someone outside the House of Mumbi became president.

They believed they would lose their privileges.  They wanted to instal one of their own. There was yet another group among the Mt Kenya Mafia that thought Moi was not fit to govern. But Kenyatta viewed Moi as the most able politician around him 'to unite the country'.He believed that Moi was capable of holding the nation together.

It was Njonjo, the powerful and shrewd AG, who stopped the Mt Kenya Mafia in their tracks. Njonjo extracted the relevant provision from our laws and went to Nakuru to discuss the matter with Kenyatta. He told the President that people were holding public meetings to discuss his death. Njonjo relied on Section 40 of the Penal Code that provided that “any person who imagines, invents, devises or intents, the death of the president, is guilty of the offence of treason, which carries the death sentence.”

He told Kenyatta this was illegal. Kenyatta told him to stop these meetings. Thus, the announcement was prepared and broadcast on the 1pm news. Still, lost in this cacophony was the odious hegemonic discourse that continues to plague independent Africa. Was Njonjo acting in the interest of the nation or he was plotting his own stab at the presidency?

 In 1982, there was an attempted coup against his government. Moi’s leadership style changed. He became more combative, assertive, unpredictable and ruthless with his adversaries. Both ex-Special Branch officer Bart Joseph Kibati in his book Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster and former Kitui Senator David Musila in his autobiography Seasons of Hope intimate in detailed accounts that President Moi knew about the planned coup. It’s perhaps former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, in his autobiography, The Flame of Freedom, who comes closest to answering this question.

A lot has been said and written about President Moi. He has his harsh critics and ardent admirers. Many agree that in the early years of his presidency he was focused on holding the country together and was committed to taking it to the next level. He embodied his clarion call of peace, love and unity.

The nation mourns the departure of a schoolteacher, whom the British would not have sent to the Legco, were it not for he sanctioning and intervention of his school inspector Moses Mudavadi who persuaded them saying, “He will do a good job!”

Moi accorded Kenyatta a befitting State Funeral; it was Jomo’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta to accord Moi a befitting State Funeral.

Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service Radio