Like any one else born into this world, President Jomo Kenyatta was at some point going to succumb to mortality. Yet, up to the moment of his final breath, the people he ruled were led to believe that this was never going to happen. They had not even been allowed to contemplate such an event. His Attorney-General had once warned Kenyans that it was a treasonable offence, punishable by death, no less, for anybody to imagine the death of the Head of State.
Even before he assumed the presidency of the new republic, the seeds of a larger-than-life figure were already being sown in the minds of the Kenyan people. In declining to take up the leadership of the country from colonial authorities until Kenyatta was freed from detention, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had described him as “a second God”.
As President, Kenyatta became founding father of the nation and a sustained and artfully crafted campaign of social, political and psychological engineering instilled in the minds of awed Kenyans the image of a figure that was beyond such mundane mortal afflictions as retirement and death.
The State could not countenance any open discussion about his state of health. Neither could it tolerate any public debate about Kenya after Kenyatta. The President of Kenya was not an ordinary man. It was ruled by a legend, a mythical figure, long since transformed from the human Johnstone Kamau wa Ngengi to Jomo Kenyatta, the Burning Spear. His name fused with that of his country. It was unique and seemed reserved for family members only.
But in the early hours of August 22, 1978, the myth became the man again. He died.
How did Kenya deal with this event? Who were the people directly involved in the management of something that was not supposed to happen?
True to the mythical nature of his character – but common for Africans of his generation – the President’s age was unknown. It was put variously at between 85 and 90. What was not in dispute is that Mzee Kenyatta worked until the last day of his life. He presided over a series of public and private engagements right up to the day he went to bed never to wake up again.
Until 2008, this served the custodians of his official memory well because it fed into his image as a leader wholly devoted to public service. But shortly after the 30th anniversary of his death, Lee Njiru, who worked for Kenyatta during the last two years of his life as an official press officer, came forward with the story that the President’s death was hastened by neglect from his minders.
Njiru’s allegations were received with an astonishingly mute reaction – if at all – from the living members of the President’s court. The only person who offered a somewhat robust denial was Charles Njonjo, Kenyatta’s long-serving Attorney- General who accused the retired press officer of trying to re-invent history. Njonjo denied Kenyatta was ever neglected.
Be that as it may, what happened in the small hours of August 22, 1978, at State House, Mombasa, became the single most significant political event since Independence. Kenya would not be the same again.
Having retired to his private quarters after his long day, the President couldn’t get to sleep. There were four people with him at that time – his wife Mama Ngina, his two sons Peter Muigai and Peter Magana, and Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu. When Kenyatta’s condition progressively took a turn for the worse, they summoned Dr Mngola who, in addition to being his personal physician, was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, and Director of Medical Services.
There was nothing Dr Mngola could do to save his patient. After long moments of shock and disorientation, the group assembled around the departed President decided to call up people – following the rule that only those who needed to know at that time should be informed. Everybody else – meaning the country – would be told only when the situation was under control. The first person to be called was Dr Munyua Waiyaki, the Foreign Minister. He headed the delegation of Kenya’s ambassadors to other countries, which had called on the President at State House and accompanied him on a tour of Msambweni in the South Coast in what turned out to be Kenyatta’s last official function.
Dr Waiyaki was staying at the Nyali Beach Hotel when he was awoken by a telephone call. The man at the other end of the line identified himself as a police officer. He said he was calling on behalf of Peter Muigai Kenyatta, who incidentally happened to be the Assistant Health Minister.
As Waiyaki would relate later, the officer simply told him: “Come quickly to State House. Things are very bad.”
“As I entered State House,” Waiyaki said, “I sensed something was seriously wrong when I saw Mzee’s guards and the GSU. Peter Kenyatta was waiting for me downstairs. Together with him were Mahihu and three doctors, including Dr Mngola and one of Mzee’s personal nurses. She was in uniform. I asked Dr Mngola what the position was and he told me Mzee had died at 3.30 in the morning. I stood there dumbfounded, with the PC and Peter behind me.”
Waiyaki described the image before him thus: “His face looked so peaceful in death. He could have been asleep.” As for himself: “I got gripped by a feeling of being all alone. I remember saying over and over again, ‘how terrible. What are we going to do?’ I felt absolutely helpless.”
While the Foreign Minister was consumed in grief, the PC was busy working the phone. He knew the Government system like the back of his hand and was precise and methodical as he took charge of the crisis management at State House. The nerve centre of the most confidential communications in government was the Operations Room of Vigilance House, the Police Headquarters in Nairobi.
Mahihu called. The officer on duty at that time was 26-year-old Inspector Simmone Wambugu, who lucidly recalls the minutest details of his conversations with Mahihu.
“Mahihu did not tell me the President had died,” Wambugu remembers. “He just asked me to connect him to Hinga.” Bernard Hinga was the Commissioner of Police. Wambugu connected Mahihu and Hinga by way of radio telephone.
“As soon as they finished talking,” says Wambugu, “Hinga called me and ordered me to make a police plane available for him to travel to Mombasa immediately.” There was no problem with that, the inspector told his Commissioner, except that, “Sir, Wilson Airport does not operate at night.”
“You do what it takes,” the boss thundered. “I am on my way and I will be at Wilson Airport at exactly 4am.”
Even before he could call the duty pilot to find out where he was at that hour, Wambugu got another call from Mahihu. This time he wanted to speak to Mr James Kanyotu, chief of the Special Branch of the police. He connected them. And, as soon as Kanyotu finished speaking to Mahihu, he called Wambugu and ordered him to arrange for him to fly to Mombasa immediately.
“In fact, Sir,” he informed Kanyotu, “you’re lucky. I am looking for the duty pilot and the Commissioner of Police is also going to Mombasa. You can fly in the same plane.”
Wambugu, not being privy to the telephone conversations he was facilitating, had precisely no clue about the purpose of these urgent pre-dawn travel arrangements to the coastal city.
And before he could trace the duty pilot, State House Mombasa was on the line again. Now they wanted to speak to Mr Geoffrey Kariithi, the Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.
The call was very brief. According to later accounts, it amounted to two words: “Come down!” And when Kariithi seemed to hesitate, Mahihu said again: “Come down!” and hung up. The tone of the PC’s voice made Kariithi have a pretty good guess about what had happened in Mombasa.
Wambugu has fond recollections of Kariithi. “We used to talk almost every day because, as Head of the Civil Service, there were many things to do between his office and ours. As soon as Kariithi finished talking to Mahihu, he called me and asked me ‘what is going on in Mombasa?’
“I told him, ‘Sir, I don’t know. But you can fly in the same plane with the Director of Intelligence and the Commissioner of Police because they are also flying to Mombasa. Do you have a car or can I send you one?’” Kariithi said he had one.
At about this time, Wambugu was able to raise Senior Superintendent of Police Osiemo, the duty pilot at that time. He was the seniormost pilot after Mr Mathenge, the Police Flying Wing Commandant. Osiemo was also Wambugu’s old schoolmate at the Kenya Air Force Flying School. As duty pilot, he was allocated living quarters at Wilson Airport so that he could fly at short notice. If he did, a stand-by pilot would be called from home and become the duty pilot.
And today, he surely would be needed because Mahihu was on the line again. Now he wished to speak to Margaret Kenyatta, Mzee’s eldest daughter. She was not in the security sector and the conversation with Mombasa was via an ordinary telephone, not the radio one. Next, Mombasa spoke to Udi Gecaga, the husband of Jane Kenyatta, who would travel with his wife. Wambugu now realised his plane was full.
“It was a Cessna 210,” he recalls. “With one pilot, it could carry five passengers but with two, it could carry only four.” That meant he needed another plane. “I immediately started looking for the standby pilot,” he recalls.
This turned out to be Superintendent Orata. He lived at the Kariokor flats. As a Superintendent, he was Wambugu’s boss. Yet the inspector literally ordered him to rush to Wilson Airport using the shortest route possible. Wambugu told Orata: “Sorry, Sir, I am unable to answer any question. I am sending a Land-Rover to pick you up and you have to go and arrange for another plane to fly to Mombasa.”
He did just that and the next he heard was Orata calling him from Wilson Airport telling him that the control tower was not operational. “Sir,” Wambugu told his boss, “you are better placed there at the airport than I am here. But I am sending a controller to come to the airport on duty. However, if you must leave before he arrives, you can line up some vehicles to light up the runway.”
As a matter of fact, that was what happened. With Osiemo first, closely followed by Orata, the pilots used the headlights of the Land-Rovers for takeoff and the tower of Jomo Kenyatta Airport to guide them out of Nairobi.
The first takeoff was at around 4.15am. This was approximately one hour since Mahihu had called asking for Hinga. It makes Wambugu guess that the President might have died earlier than the official time eventually given.
But so much for the police flights and their VIP passengers; Mahihu was not through with the harassed inspector yet. Vigilance House Operations Room, no stranger to high-tension activities, had become a theatre of ceaselessly ringing telephones, many to do with routine police work, which had to be dropped the moment the telephone accompanied by the lone red light above the door rang.
That light indicated that the call could be coming from only one place – State House. And not everybody in State House used it; it had to be the President himself, the State House Comptroller or, in those days, Mr Mbiyu Koinange, Kenyatta’s all-powerful Minister of State. Today, this light flashed with a frequency never seen before at Vigilance.
“As I was confirming the Wilson Airport departures,” Wambugu says, “Mahihu called again and ordered me to send a Kenya Air Force Caribou transport plane to Mombasa and that it should be flown by none other than the Air Force Commander himself.” The Air Force Commander at that time was Col Dedan Gichuru.
It obviously did not occur to Mahihu that he was making an exorbitant demand – Air Force Commanders are in the business of doing administration work, not flying, meaning Gichuru’s certificate of airworthiness might not have been current. By air navigation rules, he could not fly a plane alone. He had to be accompanied by another pilot who was current.
Yet again, armed forces culture is replete with rigid hierarchy. The call Kenya Police Inspector Wambugu was now about to place to Kenya Air Force Colonel Gichuru, the Commander, no less, with the message he had to pass was going to be tricky. And it was.
“State House had a telephone link to him but for whatever reason they didn’t use it,” recalls Wambugu. “They asked me to call him.” Wambugu had been an Air Force pilot for two years before leaving to join the police and Gichuru could vaguely remember him.
Now Wambugu phoned the Air Force Commander at his Tigoni residence and transmitted Mombasa’s orders. “You told me you are what rank?” Gichuru asked him.
“Since when did inspectors give orders to colonels?” Gichuru demanded.
“Sir, I am not ordering you,” a hapless and frantic Wambugu pleaded with the Air Force boss, his voice rising above the cacophony of ringing telephones. “I am only conveying the instructions from State House Mombasa.”
The Operations Room now resembled a mad house and protocol wasn’t exactly of essence.
Gichuru told him to call the duty officer at Nairobi’s Eastleigh Air Base and tell him to get a pilot who was of the rank of Captain or above ready. The plane was also to be prepared for flight. He wanted its engines running by the time he arrived there.
“The duty officer at Eastleigh was a guy called Wanyoike with whom I had attended ground school there,” says Wambugu. “We knew each other very well. I told him what the Commander had told me and he got cracking doing the needful.”
After a while, Mombasa called again and ordered Wambugu to send them another Caribou.
He called Wanyoike back and told him the same. Wanyoike protested, saying he had sent the only Caribou he had. “I was a former Air Force man and I knew there were five of them,” Wambugu says. “So I told Wanyoike, my old classmate, ‘Captain Wanyoike, I am not requesting you. You don’t want to send a plane to Mombasa? Then tell that to State House Mombasa!’ I then disconnected the phone. I was working under extreme pressure.”
Whatever Wanyoike did Wambugu didn’t care but he later learnt that the second Caribou did go to Mombasa as ordered.
At around daybreak, telephone activity at Operations Room reached fever pitch. The duty man, who still had no clue that he was frenetically shifting VIP traffic to attend to the issue of a dead President, started getting calls from all sorts of government heavyweights.
“I started receiving calls from my Director of Operations, from the Director of CID and from several ministers such that by the time it was 7am, when I should have been leaving for home, I still had not recorded anything in the Occurrence Book.
“Everything was in pieces of rough paper in note form. The rules required that you record in the OB the instructions you received, from whom you received them and the action you took. One of the senior police officers who called me at that time was Z.H. Litt, who at that time held the position equivalent to Deputy Director of Operations.
“Litt was the best of bosses and was well liked by all of us because he was very helpful to subordinates. When he called, I told him the crisis I was in and he came. He got down to helping me fill up the OB so that, by the time the officer to relieve me showed up, we were so engrossed in the task that that guy could only sit down and read the newspaper.”
Then Commissioner Hinga called from Mombasa. He ordered Wambugu to have the flags at Police Headquarters lowered to half mast. Wambugu promptly sent out the order. Next, Hinga said not just at Police Headquarters but at all police premises countrywide.
“Imagine the number of telephone calls I had to make,” remarks Wambugu, “including to Mombasa where Hinga himself was.”
The next big shot to call Wambugu was Njonjo. “He was with Kariithi at State House, Nairobi. This was at about 9 o’clock. ‘There will be a Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi, at 11 o’clock’,” Njonjo informed Wambugu. “Can you convene it!”
Strange as this may sound, seeing as it is an inspector of police being asked to convene a Cabinet meeting, there was a precedent.
It happened in 1977. An Egypt Air cargo plane made an unauthorised entry into Kenyan airspace. Requested by air traffic controllers at Jomo Kenyatta Airport to identify itself, the crew demurred. After repeated requests followed by the same defiance, the controllers passed on the information to their bosses. This information most probably went up to President Kenyatta’s desk with a certain recommendation. For, soon after, Kenya Air Force Hawker Hunter jets were in the air.
They intercepted the plane and forced it to land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Kenya’s authorities inspected the plane’s cargo and found a large consignment of arms which, it emerged, was destined for Somalia. At that time, Somalia was a viable state, but with territorial designs on Kenya.
“That was the first time I convened a Cabinet meeting,” says Wambugu. “I don’t recall specifically who gave me the order, but it was the red telephone of State House. I was asked to convene an emergency Cabinet meeting, which took place at 1 a.m. in our Operations Room. The ministers didn’t go to State House.”
Whatever the Cabinet decided was probably influenced by what had immediately taken place in Cairo after the Egyptians learnt of the fate of their plane. They seized a fully packed Kenya Airways passenger plane and kept it on the ground. In the end, Kenya released the Egyptian plane and Egypt released the Kenyan plane and the two countries moved on.
On receiving Njonjo’s order, the first thing that crossed Wambugu’s mind was that the President was in Mombasa.
He told Njonjo as much. “But, Sir, the President is in Mombasa.”
“Do as you are told,” Njonjo replied. “Questions later.”
“Thank you, Sir!” Wambugu said.
It was fairly easy to track the ministers and convene the Cabinet. But three people proved especially difficult to mobilise. One was Dr Zachary Onyonka, the Minister for Housing and Social Services. “He was,” says Wambugu, “very drunk and very rude.”
The other one was Stanley Oloitipitip, the Minister for Natural Resources. “He had many wives and therefore many homes. I booked his number with the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. It was one of those numbers which read something like 3y2. You booked and KPTC called you later when they got through.”
Oloitipitip was finally tracked somewhere very remote near the Tanzanian border. “I wanted to send him a plane but there wasn’t an airstrip nearby. ‘Sir,’ I told him, ‘Come from where you are and join the meeting at whatever stage you find it.’”
But the difficulties about getting these two ministers were exactly nothing against the gruelling task of getting Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, whom millions of Kenyans, including Wambugu, did not know was constitutionally already the President. It was the stuff of which films are made. It is a full story by itself.
At Njonjo’s insistence, the Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi, could not take place until Moi finally arrived in a helicopter from somewhere in Baringo.
The inspector and his boss, Z.H. Litt, worked feverishly to fill into the Occurence Book (OB) everything that had transpired for the last 15 hours. Then the exhausted bleary-eyed inspector staggered out of the office after handing over to the incoming duty officer. Upon seeing the police flags flying at half mast, he asked the sentries outside who had ordered that to happen?
“It is you, sir,” the bemused sentries told him. Oh, yes, he now remembered having issued those orders.
He lived at Buru Buru estate with his cousin, an assistant city engineer who worked at City Hall. Wambugu linked up with him and together they decided to drive home. As his mind started settling, he was seized with a strong suspicion that the President was dead. At that time, the country still knew nothing of this event.
The most direct route home was Jogoo Road. But his deep foreboding led him to decide otherwise. He said to his cousin. “Let’s pass through Juja Road because there are some Caribous coming from Mombasa and I don’t know how this country will be if this man is dead.’”
Along Juja Road, they and the President’s hearse passed each other. It was unmistakeable and yet unobtrusive. Motorists passed it without suspecting anything. For the inspector, it was a spectacular coincidence. Yet what he strongly suspected and had now witnessed all amounted to no more than a very educated guess.
The vehicle carrying the President’s body was escorted by his Mercedes escorts, which had their ‘President’s Escort’ plates covered. The motorcade travelled as it would when the President was not in it. The cousins raced home and switched on Voice of Kenya and television. The VoK television, again the country’s monopoly, only opened at 5pm and closed down at 11 pm.
What Wambugu had no way of knowing was the gargantuan effort some people were making in deciding how to break to the nation the news of what he suspected. The President’s body was taken straight to State House and soon embalmed. His family made the decision on what clothes to dress him in when the medical personnel were done with this task.
They dressed him in a double striped breasted suit of the kind Kenyans were very familiar with. They placed a rose on the lapel of the jacket and a folded handkerchief in the breast pocket. On his left hand they placed his walking stick and, on his right, the famous flywhisk. His body was placed on a large mahogany table draped in mauve, with its head resting on a soft pillow.
The blue Presidential Standard and the National Coat of Arms were placed above near his head. It would lie thus in state for the next 10 days.
At great length, the Cabinet decided that now the nation could be informed about the death of its President. The order went to Mr Kinyanjui Kariuki, the head of the Presidential Press Unit, to relay this news through Voice of Kenya radio. Kariuki called a senior editor at Broadcasting House by telephone and told him to put the news on air. The editor flatly refused. What if it wasn’t true?
Kariuki then called Mr James Kangwana, the Director of Broadcasting and repeated his request, stressing this was a State House order. Kangwana, who had no reason to doubt his close colleague, was too dazed to put the news on air. He was still fussing about what to do when Geoffrey Kariithi himself called and informed him that it was true. It was then that Kangwana got together with his shell-shocked staff to decide how best to craft the announcement.
When Wambugu got home and switched on his radio, it was playing martial music, heightening his suspicions. One O’clock came and went without the regular news. Only martial music was being played. And then the National Anthem was played. After this came the voice of Nobert Okare.
Okare announced: “It has been announced from State House, Nairobi, that His Excellency the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Father of the Nation, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Armed Forces, died peacefully in his sleep at 3.30am at State House, Mombasa. The Government requests all Kenyans to remain calm at this moment of national shock. All flags are to fly at half mast.”
The national anthem was played again. A Kiswahili announcement of exactly the same words was read out by Ali Hassan Mazoa. It was also followed by the national anthem.
There it was. The President was dead. It was now official. That was when Police Inspector Simmone Wambugu knew the reason for all the trouble he had undergone since Eliud Mahihu’s phone call that morning. That was when Kenyans awoke to the definitive realisation that the event they knew possible but were too afraid to contemplate had come to pass.