Noah Cheploen @cheploennoah
After the guns fell silent and the August 1, 1982 coup plotters neutralised, President Daniel arap Moi was a different person. According to his long-serving press secretary Lee Njiru, Moi became more cautious about his security and tightened his grip on power.
And the symbol of that power and authority was Fimbo ya Nyayo, his trademark baton. Njiru recalls that while in the United States en route to Australia for a Commonwealth meeting, the President’s baton fell and broke into two as Moi walked down the stairs at the residence of the then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
He says it was a terrible situation because the baton was a symbol of power and authority and Moi couldn’t operate without it. A solution had to be found — fast.
A personal assistant named Peter Rotich was asked to collect another baton at State House, Nairobi and fly it to Sydney, Australia.
“By the time we got there Rotich had arrived with the baton,” he says. Speaking on a local television station on Wednesday night about his long experience at the centre of power, Njiru said the coup by junior Kenya Air Force soldiers, changed Moi and his way of doing things.
“How can you remain the same when you know people are betraying you? You must do some adjustments and be more careful,” said Njiru.
He said he was in Nakuru with Moi on the fateful day when news of the coup filtered through after the plotters stormed the Voice of Kenya and forced Leonard Mambo Mbotela to announce the takeover.
There was mayhem in Nairobi as gunfire rent the air, panic and uncertainty gripped the country as Kenyans, particularly in the capital, scampered for safety.
Describing in detail about events of the day, Njiru discounted claims that Moi hid in a maize plantation in his Kabarak farm describing them as lies.
“Anybody saying that is a liar. In fact we were restraining him (Moi) because he wanted to go to Nairobi immediately,” he said, adding that Brigadier John Musomba, who later became Major-General and later ambassador, was instructed to take armoured vehicles to Kabarak.
The Presidential Escort Commander was Elijah Sumbeiywo and his younger brother Lazarus was— coincidentally— a Major and a Military Assistant to Chief of General Staff Jackson Mulinge, he said. “Elijah called his brother Lazarus and told him, hey, the government is gone! The military has taken over,” recalls Njiru.
Njiru says the younger Sumbeiywo dismissed the fears saying the Kenya Army, which provides the bulk of the country’s military, was training in Turkana some 600 kilometres away from Nairobi.
“Nobody believed that a small outfit like the air force could take over the government,” Njiru said. He said that it was at this point that Lazarus drove to Kabarak with a few soldiers and with Major Peter Ngungi Ngenye. “These are the people who worked very fast,” Njiru added.
Upon reaching Kabarak, Njiru recalled, Moi refused to board the armored vehicle they had brought with them saying he was not a coward and boarded his official car and the convoy left for Nairobi.
Wave of coups
Njiru adds that Moi drove around Nairobi to witness firsthand the extent of destruction.
By then Brigadier James Lenges had crashed the coup and taken over Laikipia Air Base while Brigadier Jack Tuwei and Brigadier Mohamud Mohamed, who rose to the position of Chief of General Staff, had taken over Moi Air Force in Eastleigh and Voice of Kenya respectively. At the time, a wave of coups was sweeping across Africa and a couple of high-profile leaders like Egypt’s Mohammed Anwar el Sadat and Liberia’s William Tolbert had been assassinated in 1981 and 1980 respectively.
The fact that two MPs had already sent letters to General Mulinge seeking space in “his new government” lends credence to the fact that Moi changed after the coup.
“By the time the coup was defeated, the letters were in Gen. Mulinge’s hands and he presented them to Moi saying look at this… one said don’t forget me in your government thinking that it was him (Mulinge) who was going to head the government,” said Njiru.
Njiru, who is the longest serving Moi aide — he worked for him at the Presidential Press Service for the 24 years that he was in power and remained with him for the 16 years that he has been in retirement — describes Moi as an early riser who always got to the office at 6.30am.