The date was December 29, 2002 and the venue Nairobi Serena Hotel.
The event was the historic concession by Kanu presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta to the opposition National Rainbow Alliance’s Mwai Kibaki.
Among those standing with the scion of Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta were Cabinet ministers William Ruto and Chris Okemo, as well as MPs-elect Musa Sirma, Njenga Karume, Patrick Muiruri and former National Social Security Fund Managing Trustee Jos Konzolo.
Conspicuously missing was the younger Kenyatta’s running mate and immediate former Vice-President Musalia Mudavadi, who had just lost his Sabatia parliamentary seat to newcomer Moses Akaranga.
“I take this opportunity to thank… President (Daniel arap) Moi for his unfailing support, and… his monumental role in this smooth and peaceful transition,” Mr Kenyatta told the nation.
This event, 16 years ago, set the stage for a dramatic end to President Moi’s 24-year stranglehold on Kenya’s politics.
It also opened doors for the Kibaki and Raila Odinga-led Narc.
But, unknown to many, the event marked the beginning of tribulations for Mr Moi whose rule had come to a dramatic end at the hands of Mr Kibaki, his one-time vice-president.
Two days earlier, on December 27, Kenyans had gone to the polls in one of the most keenly watched elections of the new millennium.
By the afternoon of December 28, it was clear Mr Kibaki was headed for a landslide victory.
In the early afternoon the following day, Dec 29, Mr Kenyatta conceded.
That evening, the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared Mr Kibaki president-elect.
Opposition leaders called for the immediate inauguration of Mr Kibaki the following day, leading to one of the most chaotic presidential functions witnessed in Kenya.
What transpired on December 30, when Mr Kibaki was sworn in as Kenya’s third President, is still the subject of bitter debate between the Moi and Kibaki camps.
According to Mr Moi’s long-serving press secretary Lee Njiru, the president was forced to drive to Uhuru Park and hand over power to Mr Kibaki in order to avert a political crisis.
Mr Njiru, who marks 40 years of service to the former president this year, said the Kibaki transition team deliberately kept Moi in the dark over the swearing-in ceremony for an ulterior motive.
“There was a conspiracy to create a false impression that Mzee Moi had refused to vacate office,” said Mr Njiru during an interview at his Geranium Resort in Ngata, Nakuru County, recently.
Mr Njiru said on the material day, Mr Kibaki’s team kept telling Moi that they were not yet ready for the handover ceremony and so he should stay at State House and await instructions.
He claimed Mr Moi had intelligence that a section of the opposition leaders wanted to deliberately use the President’s absence as an excuse to storm State House and evict him.
“They meant to humiliate Mzee and then proclaim the incident as a heroic act of a popular uprising,” said Mr Njiru, who declined to name the leaders behind the alleged plot because some of them are still active in politics or serving in government.
About 3pm on that sunny December afternoon, Mr Moi ran out of patience and ordered his security team to drive him to Uhuru Park to hand over the instruments of power to his successor.
“He told us that whether they (Kibaki’s team) was ready or not, protocol or no protocol, he had to attend the ceremony to save the country from bloodshed,” he recounted.
Mr Moi’s motorcade had to cut through a humongous, murderously charged crowd chanting in Kiswahili: “Yote yawezekana bila Moi” (all is possible without Moi) to access the dais where dignitaries were seated.
All along the crowd shouted “mwizi” (thief) at Moi and pelted him with clods of mud as he mounted the steps of the dais to greet Mr Kibaki.
Head of Public Service Sally Kosgei left the chaotic ceremony without a shoe.
During the ceremony, Mr Moi was not allowed to say farewell to a people he had led from 1978.
Throughout Mr Kibaki’s inauguration speech, in which he said he was inheriting a country “ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude,” he never acknowledged his predecessor who was seated next to him with a look of resignation.
“His previous experiences when people around Mzee Jomo Kenyatta started scheming against him from becoming president in 1970s had prepared him adequately for those events at Uhuru Park,” Mr Njiru said.
But, according to Mr Joseph Munyao, a minister during Mr Kibaki’s first term, the embarrassing disorganisation that was witnessed on that day was due to lack of coordination by the Kibaki and Moi teams.
“Moi never saw defeat coming,” said Mr Munyao, a former Mbooni MP and founding member of President Kibaki’s former party, DP.
“We had no problem with him. It was him who was scared of us.”
Mr Kibaki’s decisive victory over Moi’s hand-picked successor brought to an end Kanu’s 39-year rule and set off euphoric celebrations in most parts of the country.
Before the Uhuru Park ceremony, no one seemed sure whether Mr Moi would actually hand over power to the opposition as the Constitution demanded, a situation which led to the hastily convened swearing-in of his successor, just three days after the polls.
Mr Munyao said this week that they had to convene the handing over ceremony at such a short notice because “nobody was sure what Moi was up to”.
“We knew what he had done to us (DP) in 1997,” he said, alluding to the outcome of the previous General Election which was won by Mr Moi amid claims by the Kibaki camp that its victory had been stolen.
“We were determined not to have a repeat of that,” said Mr Munyao.
“We were going to swear Mr Kibaki in no matter what. But it is not true that we had no arrangements for Moi’s appearance at Uhuru Park on that day.”
Mr Moi’s spokesman has a dim view of the events of that day.
“It was supposed to be a day and an event to celebrate democracy, but it turned out to be a day of shame and humiliation,” said Mr Njiru, 77.
Since leaving office, Mr Moi has not given a media interview on his succession.
His spokesman’s views are perhaps the closest we will come to knowing his sentiments about the events of that afternoon.
Mr Njiru prefers to be exact about the length of his service to Mr Moi: 24 years, four months and 8 days as head of the Presidential Press Service, the same length the former president was in power.
For four decades, he has had a ringside view of intrigues in Mr Moi’s court as president and in retirement.
Some remark that he understands the retired president better than some of his children.
The clean-shaven septuagenarian bears an uncanny resemblance to his boss.
“Structurally, I am a hyper person. I thank Mzee for forcing me to manage my life through the working hours I had to put in. I had no time or space to misbehave. Were it not for him, I would have died long ago,” said Mr Njiru, alluding to his love for the bottle in his younger days.
Mr Njiru opted to retire from the public service with Mr Moi but continued being his spokesman when the former President was allowed to hire staff with the passing of the Presidential Retirement Benefits Act, 2003.
Recently, when Mr Moi was admitted to an Israeli hospital for a knee ailment, Mr Njiru was the one updating the country on his progress.
During our interview, Mr Njiru also spoke of Mr Moi’s pain at being betrayed by some of his closest associates in the drama that characterised the closing act of his 24-year reign.
According to Mr Njiru, President Moi had no designs of extending his rule beyond the two-term constitutional limit.
“He called in February 2002 and told me to prepare for retirement. He never wanted to stay a day longer in State House,” Mr Njiru said.
Despite Mr Moi’s several public declarations that he would retire at the end of that year, rumours that he was scheming to stay on persisted.
And the doubts were not without a reason.
At the height of his power, Mr Moi was lumped in the group of African strongmen who generally thought ruling was their birthright.
Members of this group included Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, all of whom were swept away by popular uprisings.
Secondly, in the early 2000, a section of Mr Moi’s own cabinet, in particular the outspoken Coast politician Shariff Nassir who was known for his dismissive Kiswahili phrase “wapende wasipende” (whether they like it or not), started making public pronouncements to the effect that the President would stay on in defiance of the constitutional term limits.
Such statements, though they may have been personal, gave the impression that Moi had a secret card and was using Mr Nassir to gauge the public mood.
This made the opposition and civil society jittery.
The United States of America and the United Kingdom, which had joined hands with the opposition and the civil society to push Mr Moi to re-introduce multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, piled pressure on him to abide by the Constitution.
“At one point, Mzee really harangued Powell (US Secretary of State Colin Powell) when he called to remind him to step down,” said Mr Njiru.
The economy had collapsed under Moi’s watch, partly due to corruption and partly because of shifts in the international economic order that left most African nations deeply indebted.
The street wave in December 2002 was, therefore, against him.
What’s more, Mr Moi had caused a mortal rift in the ruling party Kanu by anointing a political greenhorn as his successor over other seasoned politicians.
His actions, undoubtedly, bruised the egos of many Kanu leaders who broke away to join the opposition.
Most, if not all, of the rebels must have gleefully embraced the chance to exact some sort of revenge on the President.
“Having lived at State House, we thought everyone loved us, but we found out that we were shunned and hated,” Mr Njiru said.
The final ignominy to the Head of State on December 30, 2002 was when a section of the crowd threw dirt and rocks at him, an act of final humiliation by people who wanted to see his back.
After the nearly one-and-half hour Uhuru Park ceremony, Mr Moi left for State House where he was given his last military salute and boarded a Kenya Airforce helicopter which flew him to his Kabarak home, escorted by two fighter jets.
Overwhelmed by emotions of how badly Mr Moi was being treated by people, some of whose careers he had made, Dr Kosgei openly wept as the now former president boarded the copter.
Besides Moi and his security detail, others aboard were Mr Njiru and Mr John Lokorio, the former president’s private secretary.
The mood on the 40-minute flight was gloomy, Mr Njiru said.
“When you leave a place you have called home for a quarter a century, it is not easy. But I remember Mzee was very calm through it all, although he hardly spoke throughout the journey,” he said.
Mr Moi’s family was at hand to receive him at Kabarak.
After tea, the small party that had accompanied him departed.
“That was the lowest moment in my long public service career and has come to define my relationship with most senior officials around Moi,” said Mr Njiru.
Without power, friends rapidly abandoned the former President.
His former allies sued for peace or sought accommodation and positions in the new government.
Addressing a gathering at State House late last year, Deputy President William Ruto alluded to how quickly Mr Moi was deserted after it became apparent that the self-declared “professor” of Kenyan politics had no more tricks left to save Kanu from the jaws of defeat.
“We were watching TV in this room (at State House) when Moi came in and told me to call Uhuru and instruct him to write his concession speech. We were more than 40 in the room, but by the time we were through with the speech, there were only three of us left,” Mr Ruto said.
“The people who were waiting for a miracle (from Moi) had left.”
Mr Njiru said some of those who abandoned Mr Moi after leaving State House started trooping back by the end of 2003 when they realised that the former president was not “finished” politically, after all.
“I usually ask some of them who come here to praise me for sticking with Mzee during that hard time, ‘Where were you on December 30, 2002?’ They just mumble and leave in shame,” he said.
Of all the cuts of the betrayers, none runs deeper than that of a close Moi aide whom Mr Njiru declined to name, but who he says had been working with the opposition all along.
“Et Tu, Brute” (meaning “Even you, Brutus”), he said, quoting from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, where the Roman leader Julius Caesar is speaking to his friend and protégé Marcus Brutus, who participated in his assassination.
In the early days of Kibaki’s administration, there were fears of mass prosecutions of influential people in the Moi regime including the former President for economic crimes and human rights abuses.
These fears were largely unfounded, but one-by-one the Kibaki regime began a purge of perceived allies of the former regime, casting fears in the civil service.
Top ranking military officers were retired in quick succession. Perceived close association to the former regime became a threat to one’s job.
“Two former provincial administrators in Nakuru who were close to me at the time warned me not to call them any more lest I ruined their jobs,” Mr Njiru said.
“One of them cut links with me while another told me to be writing him hand delivered notes if I wanted anything from him. That was the best he could do in the circumstances.”
Mr Njiru said the retirement experience for most of the Moi team had been “crushing.”
When I asked him about it, he went quiet for a short while as if the question had knocked the breath out of him.
He blinked rapidly as he wrestled with words.
“Retirement is physical and psychological. Translocation from a job you have held for a long time is crushing and humiliating. A feeling of despondency overcomes you, yet you cannot fight it with fists or kill it with a gun,” he said.
“That feeling of dejection and hopelessness takes the best of men to overcome.”
What about Moi, I asked him.
For most part of his 50-year political career, he was known to host large delegations either at State House or at his homes in Nairobi and Nakuru.
How did he take his retirement, loss of power and the trappings that come with it?
Mr Njiru was rather circumspect: “Retirement affects everyone differently. But what helped Mzee is that he is a man of steel. He is a man with a core. He rode out the situation quite well.”
Mr Njiru, a widower since 2005, said the whole process of rising to power and falling from it had taught him important life lessons.
“Beware of the destructive power of fortune. Fortune is capricious. It can sweep away your sobriety and humility. Educate your children while you can. Pamper your wife,” he said.
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