If any man outside Mwai Kibaki’s immediate family knows the sound of the third President’s heartbeat, it would be John Matere Keriri, his private secretary and State House comptroller who was by his side throughout the period his life hung by a thread after the freak accident in 2002.
It was only two months to the historic 2002 election that would end Kanu’s 40-year rule and the nation was in an ecstatic mood. All indications were that Mr Kibaki would win after opposition unity – so elusive in the 1992 and 1997 elections – had materialised and rallied the country against outgoing President Moi’s choice Uhuru Kenyatta.
Then the accident at the Machakos Junction on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway happened.
Now, for the first time, details of those tense, anxious moments and the following months can be revealed through Mr Keriri’s first-hand account.
In this two-part series starting today, Mr Keriri, Kibaki’s student at Makerere and lifelong friend, also reveals the secrets of the heady days of Kenya’s third presidency when he and six other ministers and senior civil servants, collectively and derisively referred to as ‘The 7-M Mafia’, came under fire from the opposition for isolating a leader who had risen to power on a popular national wave.
“I never left Kibaki’s side since the day he landed back in the country from London. In fact I had to make State House my permanent residence during the period,” Mr Keriri recalls. Media images of the time show Mr Keriri wheeling the President around State House as the nation prayed.
Now 87 but still physically fit – a ramrod-straight back, no spectacles and the memory of a raven — he spoke to the Saturday Nation from his offices at Hughes Building in Nairobi, from where he runs his impressive and vast business empire ranging from real estate to financial consultancy.
What have you been up to?
There is so much to do so I can’t afford to sit idle. If you gave me a 4am appointment, I would be there. I also run my consultancy firm from Riverside Drive. I am also a farmer. I farm maize, potatoes, coffee, tea, avocado, macadamia and dairy cattle.
You are able to do all that at your age?
Yes. The problem we have in this country today is that young people do not want to work yet they want to be rich. People are paid in this country for doing nothing. It is not the way to grow an economy.
When did your journey to public service begin?
When I came from Makerere, which I joined in 1958, I was appointed a DO (District Officer), that was my first job. It was on April 16, 1962 and I was posted to Kisumu’s Winam division. Kibaki had earlier been persuaded by Jaramogi Oginga to come back to Kenya. I would then be posted to the Treasury where I worked for 10 years. I met Kibaki there again when he was appointed what was those days called parliamentary secretary, which is equivalent to an assistant minister. After the 1969 elections, he was brought back to the Treasury, this time as minister. He and Tom Mboya were some of the most hard-working ministers I have known.
Talking of Mboya, how did you receive news of his assassination?
I was the last officer to see Tom Mboya at the Treasury before he was killed. I had gone to pick something in the office before going home, and I met him coming from the lift. I said ‘Tom what you are doing here?
Everybody thinks you are in Addis Ababa’. He told me he had an urgent matter to attend to in town. I then travelled home, my step-mother had been at Kerugoya Hospital and I needed to see her. While driving there, I heard the announcement over the radio. I had a Peugeot 404. When I heard his three names mentioned, Thomas Joseph Mboya.
Two things crossed my mind, either he had been elevated to another senior position or he had died. Sadly he had died. I had to dash back to Nairobi. The body had been kept at his house in Lavington. No Kikuyu was allowed to go near his place but they let me in. It was a sad day for the country. A brilliant mind had been lost.
What was your experience with the mlolongo (queue voting) system?
Moi called for snap elections after the 1982 attempted coup and I saw a chance to venture into elective politics. I defeated a Kibaki henchman called James Njiru to become MP. Interestingly, Moi appointed me an assistant minister yet his DC couldn’t not allow me to campaign freely. But in the 1988 mlolongo elections, I was removed.
Moi’s men wanted most of Kibaki’s friends voted out. Even Kibaki was initially meant to go but being a vice-president at the time, he bitterly complained. They realised he was too big to be removed through blatant rigging. Courtesy of the noise he made, he survived. That is the day he said even rigging requires intelligence.
I went back to my consultancy. For some reason I didn’t go back to Parliament until 1997 because I had refused to join Kibaki in DP and also refused to join Kenneth Matiba in Ford Asili.
Why didn’t you join them?
I was asked that question many times. People could not understand where I was coming from as the two were my closest friends. We had all studied at Makerere University, but my interaction with Kibaki happened when he taught us. He taught me economics in my second and third years.
Kibaki had gone before us but Matiba left one year before I came to Makerere. But we were not friends because we were in Makerere, it was because we had the same line of thinking for this country.
I had warned Kibaki that by forming DP, he was creating the best window for Moi to win this election. That was in 1992. He told me my thoughts were far-fetched. So I told him I am not coming and I did not join DP and so I lost my seat because in Central Province then, you would not be elected unless you joined Kibaki or Matiba. You know how Kenya’s politics are designed.
Matiba formed Ford Asili after splitting with Jaramogi. I asked him why the hell? Kimani Wanyoike, Charles Rubia, Maina Wanjigi, Titus Mbathi and myself pleaded with him not to go that route but he said ‘I cannot work with that old man (Jaramogi)’. He said the old man was leading them nowhere. He went away and I told him ‘I ain’t joining you’. That’s how I lost the Kirinyaga West seat.
At what point did you decide it is Kibaki and not Matiba?
In 1996, I met with Kiraitu Murungi and said it is good to go and help Kibaki win because people who were helping him were making mistakes.
In 1996 Kibaki came to Kirinyaga to have a big rally where I joined him in DP. In 1997, I was heavily involved in his campaigns and he won but he was denied that seat by Moi because Moi extended the elections by a day. In 1997 Matiba was sick so he did not stand.
I won a seat back to Parliament and Kibaki made me his shadow Minister for Economic Planning and Development. We pushed on until 2002 came.
I didn’t defend my seat that year. I asked Kibaki to allow me to manage his campaigns. Remember I was the chairman of his campaign in 2002. That was the best election that Kenya has ever held. There was no violence or cheating.
Do you think Kibaki would have won without Raila’s support, especially his famous ‘Kibaki Tosha’ declaration?
Raila joined us in October when the election was coming in December. They had been humiliated by Moi in Kasarani when he unveiled Uhuru as his preferred successor. The endorsement helped, but in my view, we would have still won but with a slim majority. But by Raila coming we won by landslide.
Before that, Kibaki was involved in an accident. How did you receive the news?
I was waiting for him that evening. He had gone to Machakos and Kitui for campaigns and I was left in Nairobi organising campaign functions. We had a very important meeting. It was regarding that campaign and some of the strategies we were going to deploy to be elected.
He had called to say ‘wait for me at 7 o’clock I will be there’, only to hear that they had had an accident. It came as a shock. It was David Musila who took the old man from the ditch to his car and drove him to Nairobi. I was waiting there and it was terrible.
When he got to the hospital, it was decided that he goes to London and I was left here to organise his campaign with Raila, Kalonzo, Saitoti, Ngilu and Wamalwa. We went on with the campaigns and he came and we won.
Kibaki has just won but cannot run the government because he is sick. How was running the government like, and who was in charge?
It was the biggest challenge I have had in my working life. I was not a minister but his private secretary and Comptroller of State House. I had to learn to get the cooperation of all the ministers. They were loyal to him. I would arrange for ministers to come and see him. Muthaura then became the Secretary to the Cabinet replacing Sally Kosgei.
We had what others called the 7M Mafia, a core team that coordinated the affairs of the State. It comprised Mwai (Kibaki), (David) Mwiraria, (Kiraitu) Murungi, (Francis) Muthaura, (Chris) Murungaru, Martha (Karua) and I Matere. John Michuki joined later. We had to organise for the president to govern the country.
Raila’s LDP wing accused the ‘mafia’ and you in particular of blocking him from accessing the president on a number of occasions. Why did you do that?
Politics is politics my dear friend. How would I stop a minister from coming to see his boss? Such is not out of mere imagination as you wielded so much power beyond that of many ministers.
Kibaki was a very sick president who could hardly address a meeting. He was one of the best orators in Kenya but at that time he had lost that ability. We had to protect him from power wrangles. Do you want to see everybody coming to see him complaining engaging in power play? I was more worried about his health, probably more than his family.
If the fellow is sleeping after a hard days’ work or he is sick, what would you do? Would you tell Raila come in, he is in bed? I planned that place in a way that whenever the president was able to discuss anything with anybody, they would come in but not someone coming for money, a favour or a tip … his ministers were given priority if he was in a position to see them. I made it possible every time, including for Raila and Kalonzo.
Raila has never accused me of that, it is Kalonzo who accuses me. Have you ever had Raila talking about me? Only his brother talks about it. Raila is a politician who has experience, Raila knows when to speak and when not to speak. Raila is my friend even today. His son is my tenant. Raila and I are good friends.
How was the command of communication?
Government has a machinery. There is always someone or other people who must facilitate the continuation and services of the government even if one is incapacitated. We had to facilitate the working of the ministers and make it possible for them to take orders and seek advice from the president, and assist him in governing the country. That had to happen through me and Muthaura, with help from the ministers.
Why did Kibaki disregard the MoU with Raila?
No one broke the MoU. The Cabinet slots were shared as agreed. Then there was the matter of Raila being appointed Prime Minister. Those were the two most important components. As for Raila becoming the PM, if you remember someone asked how you can have such a structure of government without first amending the constitution. One of them, either Raila or Kibaki, said we will amend the constitution later in the day.
So what did Kibaki do? The constitution said the appointment of ministers is strictly the job of the president. But the MoU had said Raila will propose his line-up of ministers, Kalonzo his ministers and Kibaki his ministers. Kibaki, Wamalwa and Ngilu were on one side.
Now what kind of a government were we going to end up with? Since I was a mere employee, I was not the one deciding whether to obey the MoU or not. But come to think of it, what kind of a government would it be if all ministers had their loyalty in different people? It would have been anarchy, so Kibaki had to think about what to do.
Didn’t he know about the possibility of anarchy when he was agreeing to the MoU?
Listen, I was not deciding, I was only an advisor. But you see, this was in November and the elections were coming in December. Were you going to sit all day and argue over how to implement the MoU or get out to look for votes and get rid of Moi? We agreed that we will sort this one out when in government. The most important thing was to acquire power first.
So what did you advise?
Don’t ask me what I advised, advisors don’t say what they advise. One day Odinga came to State House to tell Kibaki thank you. He had been made in charge of the infrastructure ministry, which was the biggest in terms of budget and parastatals. It was his henchmen who felt he should have rejected the ministerial appointment to force Kibaki make him PM. It is the same argument I heard the other day of fellows saying that the Chief Justice should have rejected Uhuru’s list of judges who were promoted unless he cleared all of them. I thought to myself, why don’t you go in and fight for your brothers while in there.
Why didn’t Kibaki hand over power to a temporary caretaker for the period he was incapacitated?
Kibaki had a VP who was a very capable man in the name of Michael Wamalwa. Wamalwa was very capable of standing in, but Kibaki had not lost his faculties. Yes he was injured, but mentally he was still Kibaki.
Raila is campaigning to succeed Uhuru. Would you support him for president?
Of all these people who want to be president, none of them can save Kenya the way Raila Amollo Odinga can. He has the longest experience, he has had the toughest time in public service and in politics, and there is not one single issue that Raila cannot produce a possible solution to. He is mature and is not vindictive. I have never known anytime that Raila has been vindictive, even to his own enemies, Raila wants to lead Kenya. He has no grudges with anybody.
Raila has shown no signs of being a ruthless dictator. He has a party that he leads, that he organises and it is the only party in this country that can be called a democratic party. All the others will disintegrate in a few years. It is Raila’s time. For this country to recover from the chaos that it faces today and to start off where Kibaki left and recover this economy, which has been destroyed not merely by Covid-19 but by political disagreement and selfishness.
After fighting Kibaki for so long, why would he come back and say Kibaki Tosha? And again after the disputed presidential polls of 2007 he accepted to join Kibaki again after the chaos we had? Benjamin Mkapa in his book talks of them having to separate hardliners from the rest to be able to hammer out a deal. He is referring to our present deputy president and my sister Karua.
Again, Odinga was the other day sworn in as the people’s president at Uhuru Park, right? So there were two governments so to speak, is it Uhuru who went to join Odinga as people’s president? No. It is Raila who came to join the real government isn’t it?
When he was standing against Kibaki, I fought him so hard because he was opposing my candidate and not for any other reason. It was politics. And when I supported Uhuru against him, I joined Uhuru in calling him ‘kimondo geke’. That is in the past. He has the experience and he loves this country. Raila is an old man, he is 76, why would a 76-year-old man want to destroy this country? How many times has he agreed on other things? He wants to get this country back to what Kenya has always wanted it to be.
Some of those eyeing the same seat are vindictive. They have so much anger. Why would a politician speak with so much anger? Raila has been mistreated so many times, have you ever seen Raila speaking with anger? He is now courting the Kikuyus who have been calling him all sorts of names. The others are giving money to be accepted.
Do you believe he has a chance in Mt Kenya compared to Ruto?
He has, he will have a chance. Even if he has only 20 per cent of the Kikuyus, that will be good enough since he has most of his traditional bases intact. That by-election in Matungu, his candidate came in second, were Moi and Wetang’ula not there? In Kisii, his party won, in Nyanza he has 100 per cent. He has a lot of strength in Coast and even in Nairobi. If Kalonzo and Odinga stood, they would get equal number of votes in Ukambani. That is my view.