Forty years ago, founding Father of the Nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta breathed his last, sending anxiety, sadness and disbelief across the country
The words of then Minister of State in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security summed it up all: “Kenya has lost its eyes”.
This is how Mbiyu Koinange, a close confidante and brother-in-law of the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, broke the shocking news. Kenya’s charismatic leader had just died. That was 40 years ago on a Tuesday.
Mbiyu had called Vice-President Daniel arap Moi at 3 am on August 22, 1978, to convey the sad message that Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President, fondly described as the Founding Father of the Nation, had died.
Total silence gripped the country thereafter. What followed was a a long week characterised by grief, apprehension, fear and muteness. Kenya came to a standstill.
For a whole 12 hours, Kenya did not have a President. It was not until 3 pm, following a spirited push by the then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and Chief of General Staff General Jackson Kimeu Mulinge that Arap Moi was sworn in by Chief Justice, Sir James Wicks, as President in an acting capacity for 90 days.
One week of national mourning was declared and the national flag hoisted at half-mast for the entire period. The rest of the world descended on Nairobi where dignitaries of all shades trooped to join bereaved Kenyans bid their revered President farewell.
The then Voice of Kenya (VOK) — now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) — radio and television were the only source of news which was entirely dedicated on Kenyatta’s demise. Religious and patriotic songs rent the air on the national broadcaster during the whole week of mourning Mzee.
Kenyans were to encounter for the first time — through the media — rarely used Swahili vocabulary like ‘Hayati’ (the late) which to many had initially been perceived as another title of the cult-like figure that was Kenyatta, especially to those who had all along assumed that Kenyatta and President were synonyms.
Eye-catching scenes were witnessed with some of Kenyatta’s erstwhile local and foreign political foes like Uganda’s authoritarian President Idi Amin Dada and Kenya’s Opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (then under house-arrest) caming to pay their last respects as Mzee’s body lay in state.
During the 15 years of his reign, Kenyatta had been molded to assume a larger-than-life figure across the country. His death was unimaginable and the few would fathom it dared not say it in public.
Even after his passing away, those in his circles held the view that Mzee had simply closed his eyes to sleep and would soon wake up. It was not until one week later on August 31, when his body was interred at a mausoleum in the precincts of Parliament in the glare of global still and television cameras that reality started dawning on close aides and the population that indeed, Kenyatta, had died.
Life starts at 40
So much can happen in 40 years. Indeed it has. Life — so they say — starts at 40. Kenya may as well be starting a new page today, at a time when Kenyatta’s own son, Uhuru Muigai, is the fourth President serving his second and last term in office.
Moi occupied the Head of State’s saddle for 24 years, after Jomo’s demise.
Mwai Kibaki, Mzee’s Finance minister, took over the reins from Moi in 2002 and completed his 10 years’ tenure before handing over to Uhuru in 2013.
The Kenya Kenyatta left behind has transformed tremendously in all spheres of life. Today, Kenya boasts of 74 universities as compared to only one, the University of Nairobi, that existed in 1978.
Kenya now has a new constitutional dispensation with 47 devolved governance units known as counties administered by elected governors, unlike the eight provinces headed by provincial commissioner appointed by the President.
Unlike the case four decades ago, Kenya has embraced modern technology that ensures instant communication through internet and mobile phones.
On the infrastructural front, the country has expanded its road, air and rail transport systems with the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway; Thika Super Highway as well as Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa’s Moi international airports standing out as the defining epitomes of the strides Kenya has made in the last 40 years ago.
Four decades ago, the economy grew at an average rate of seven per cent, despite various challenges including the oil crisis of 1974 which marginally slowed growth.
This year Central bank expects growth to expand by 6.2 per cent as knock-on effects last’s General Election wear off. The economy’s performance will mainly be agriculture sector and a jump in tourists’ bookings.
Back then the key drivers of growth were not very different as the economic mainstay included the agricultural sector, manufacturing, tourism, transportation and the public sector.