Suave, witty and distinguished even into his sunset years, over the course of his colourful life Frederick Lawrence Munyua Waiyaki cultivated an enduring international reputation as a man who could hold his own in the highest echelons of power; one who demonstrated uncommon courage in a sycophantic era and could be trusted to think on his feet. It is no wonder, then, that his service to the nation spanned the administrations of both founding President Jomo Kenyatta and the man who succeeded him as Head of State, Daniel arap Moi.
As a qualified medical doctor of impeccable repute, Waiyaki was part of the Cabinet first in the key docket of Foreign Affairs under Kenyatta and then in Agriculture under Moi.
A trusted confidant of the elderly Kenyatta, Waiyaki went down in history as the first person to be sent for by State House Mombasa in the early hours of 22 August 1978 when the President breathed his last. Celebrated as Kenya’s top diplomat, Waiyaki was awakened from his bed at the Nyali Beach Hotel where he was hosting an annual retreat for Kenyan diplomats – a delegation that had paid a courtesy call on the President a mere few hours prior to his demise.
The Minister was telephoned by Kenyatta’s son Peter Muigai and was among the first people to see the President’s lifeless body when he arrived at 3am. Together with Kenyatta’s personal physician Dr Eric Jumwa Mngola, who doubled as the Permanent Secretary for Health and Director of Medical Services, the trusted medic issued the official confirmation that Kenyatta was indeed dead.
Also present at that moment in addition to Muigai were the President’s wife, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, and Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu. Waiyaki had been one of the few people privy to the details concerning Kenyatta’s failing health, along with Mngola and Minister for Defence Njoroge Mungai, also a medical doctor.
But not having been fully briefed about the reason for the call, it came as an immense shock to learn what had happened. “When I entered State House, I sensed that something was seriously wrong,” recounted Waiyaki in a press interview. “His face looked so peaceful in death. He could have been asleep.”
Waiyaki and Kenyatta were such close friends that the Minister visited Kenyatta at his residence in Gatundu regularly, so it was no accident that he was one of the first to be informed when the old man died. “I got on very well with Mzee and had free access to his home,” he said.
Waiyaki first met Kenyatta at the Green Hotel Restaurant on Latema Road, Nairobi, in 1951 when he was a fresh university graduate. His father had taken him to the restaurant for lunch and they found Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange in one of the cubicles. Waiyaki suspects his father knew Kenyatta would be there and purposely took him there to meet him.
“I knew Mbiyu as he was my father’s age-mate. I was introduced to Kenyatta, a man who was interested in young educated men as the struggle for independence intensified,” Waiyaki remarked.
Later, when Kenyatta was detained in Maralal by the colonial government, which then began spreading propaganda that he was not medically fit to lead the country, Waiyaki would volunteer along with medical colleagues Njoroge Mungai, John Nesbitt and Jason Likimani to visit him in detention to ascertain the contention by the mzungu that he was not in good shape. “We found a jolly, intelligent and fantastic man who not only was fit medically but had a very sharp brain,” Waiyaki recalled.
Waiyaki commanded great respect in Kenya and internationally as Kenya’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. He became Kenya’s unequivocal voice on the local and international scene in the 1970s. He clearly articulated the country’s position, especially on two contentious international issues: apartheid and colonialism. Credited with bringing pride and recognition to the ministry, Waiyaki valiantly fought the apartheid regime in South Africa, of which he had first-hand experience.
Career diplomat Ochieng’ Adala, who headed the African Division in the ministry, often travelled to international and continental meetings with Waiyaki. According to Adala, Waiyaki was a man who developed ideas and initiatives. “He was able to handle situations that arose outside the prepared text and make impromptu decisions,” he revealed.
In 2007 Bethuel Kiplagat, a former diplomat and Chairman of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, described Waiyaki as “a committed Pan-African, a great and outstanding Foreign Affairs Minister and a pleasant individual. He provided no-nonsense leadership, was courageous and spoke his mind. He was brilliant, wise and did not throw his weight around.”
When Moi took over the reins of power following Kenyatta’s death, he retained Waiyaki in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the 1979 General Election, after which the doctor was moved to the robust Ministry of Agriculture. As was his nature, Waiyaki plunged into his new job with zeal and integrity, immersing himself in the issues affecting local farmers. He was conscientious in finding solutions aimed at removing various hurdles exacerbated by the transition period from the overbearing colonial approach to land ownership and agricultural practice, to the newly instituted Government policies aimed at prospering the indigenous farmers.
It was an uphill battle, as was to be expected. Erroneous perceptions among the largely unschooled farming fraternity at times sabotaged efforts to boost crop production in post-colonial Kenya. As reported in a 28 July 1983 New Scientist magazine article on soil conservation in eastern Africa, under British rule Kenyan labourers had been habitually forced to dig terraces in addition to other back-breaking work on coffee and tobacco farms to protect the soils. As a result, by 1960 virtually all arable lands had been terraced. This practice, however, produced a substantial and widespread resentment among farmers, who equated the ‘slave’ labour with the colonial master.
According to the article, the resentment proved to be useful fodder for the independence movement, which promised the farmers freedom from the heavy toil. The result was that the terraces inevitably deteriorated once independence came.
Quoted by the magazine, the Minister commented, “It took a long time to persuade people that (soil) conservation was not part and parcel of colonialism.”
The former diplomat faced other obstacles in the agricultural sector head on, determined to secure cohesion in its management systems. At a time when coffee was the country’s main foreign exchange earner, Waiyaki campaigned diligently for harmonious working relations among the local coffee industry players, who included the Coffee Board, the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, the Kenya Coffee Growers Association as well as commission agents and brokers. In his customary forthright manner, he reprimanded them for the unnecessary controversies and personality clashes that were bedevilling the lucrative sector.
The Minister was diligent in driving an agenda that could lead to coffee producers and workers earning a fair wage through subsidies for inputs, as well as keep operating costs at a minimum level consistent with efficiency. He encouraged growers to soldier on with determination to succeed in spite of inflation and other major challenges. He employed his considerable diplomacy skills in lobbying at the international level for recognition of African coffee growers as a bloc.
Waiyaki is on record as berating Government authorities for short-sightedness in their dealings with coffee producers. Responding to a concern expressed in 1982 by the CBK about exorbitant taxation the Minister said, “I required local authorities to justify the use of that money but so far they have not bothered to give details of how they had aided the coffee farmer. I hope they will not blame anyone except themselves when the hammer falls.”
His words, it turned out, were prophetic and Kenyan coffee growers would later abandon the crop in favour of less labour-intensive and expensive agricultural pursuits.
Waiyaki descended from colonial resistance figure Waiyaki wa Hinga, who was killed in 1891 by a British soldier for protesting the harassment of his people and takeover of land in Dagoretti by employees of the Imperial British East Africa Company. He was also a brother of the controversial freedom fighter Wambui Otieno, remembered for participating actively in the struggle for independence and later striking a blow for women when she resisted the traditions of the clansmen of her late husband, S.M. Otieno, who insisted that his body be shipped for burial to his ancestral home in Nyanza in contravention of her wishes.
Waiyaki was born in 1926 in Kiawariua (place of the hot sun) in Muthiga, Kikuyu, to Tirus Waiyaki and Elizabeth Wairimu. His father was the first African police chief inspector. He was stationed at Nairobi’s Central Police Station and among Muslims at Pumwani, near the mosque.
“Over the holidays, my brother Kimani and I would be shipped from our rural home to the city where my father would tutor us especially in English. I was, therefore, a child of two worlds – at home I was born among, went to school with and was surrounded by Christians of the Church of Scotland Mission, but in the city most of my playmates were Muslim youths,” he said.
When the young man enrolled at Alliance High School in 1942, his classmates included Paul Ngei, Jean-Marie Seroney, Mbiti Mate and Kyale Mwendwa. Unlike many former Alliance students of his generation, he held no fond memories of the legendary school principal and mathematician, Carey Francis. Instead, he remembered him as a “huge, bad-tempered bachelor” who, when angry, menacingly stamped his feet, took repeated long strides and puffed up his cheeks. Waiyaki was not one of the principal’s favourites either and, at the end of the first term the teacher told him bluntly that he would never master algebra.
His deliverance came via another maths teacher, J.M. Ojal, who offered to give Waiyaki extra evening classes in his house five days a week, and thanks to this intervention he eventually became as good as the other students in algebra.
Waiyaki would spend his final year of high school at Adams College, Natal, in South Africa prior to joining Fort Hare University. There he came to know Jonah Kinuthia, a Kenyan who worked in the laboratory at the McCord Zulu Hospital, and through him had the opportunity to do elementary clinical work at the hospital for a year. He read physics, chemistry and botany for three years at Fort Hare where he would meet his future Cabinet colleague Mungai, who was studying physiology.
Waiyaki had sailed on an Indian ship, the SSS Kalagola, through Beira and Lourenço Marques (Maputo) to Durban in 1946.
In April 1951, defying the colonial government which had refused to clear him, Waiyaki boarded a ship for Britain along with others who included Likimani, renowned lawyer Sammy Waruhiu, two Asian boys from Mombasa and a “brilliant” mathematician named Minjo from Luhyaland. “For 28 days, we travelled through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, then through Gibraltar to the English Channel and finally landed at the Albert Docks on the east side of London,” Waiyaki recalled.
But once ashore he faced an uphill battle. The Director of Colonial Scholars had denied him a university place in Britain, insisting that he should instead have taken a course at Makerere. Waiyaki spent a whole year in London seeking admission to a university. Finally, in 1952, he was admitted to St Andrew’s Medical School in Scotland. His joy knew no bounds.
“Even before I set foot on the campus, I felt that I was now a medical doctor,” he said. He graduated in general surgery, neurosurgery and psychiatry in 1957 followed by a year-long internship.
When he returned to Kenya in 1958, the Director of Medical Services offered him a job at the Murang’a District Hospital which he declined because he did not like the house assigned to him. He later took up a surgeon’s job at the Machakos District Hospital where, apart from performing up to seven surgeries a day, he doubled up as a psychiatrist.
Waiyaki left Government employment a year later to set up in private practice. He also began to engage in politics through the Nairobi People’s Convention Party (PCP) fronted by trade unionist Tom Mboya. In 1960, when nationalism was at fever pitch with independence in the air, Waiyaki was elected Chairman of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party which was jostling for position with the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) in a competition to become the independence party.
At independence in 1963, Waiyaki was elected Member of Parliament for Nairobi North-East (Kasarani) on a KANU ticket. With Kenyatta as Prime Minister, Waiyaki was appointed Assistant Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security and Defence. He was subsequently elevated to Minister for Foreign Affairs and re-elected MP in 1969, 1974 and 1979. The constituency was renamed Mathare in 1974, and became Kasarani in 1997.
Waiyaki would abandon 24 years of competitive politics after a snap election called in 1983 by President Moi to consolidate his authority following the attempted coup of 1 August 1982 that was seen to have considerably weakened Moi’s presidency. The election cost Waiyaki his career, as he lost the Mathare parliamentary seat to Nairobi Mayor Andrew Ngumba.
Waiyaki involved himself in real estate development, farming and business after retiring from politics. He lost his wife Naomi early in 2008 after a devastating battle with cancer. “In 2003, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent surgery, and we were convinced that the disease had been controlled. But it spread to her kidney eight weeks later,” Waiyaki recalled. He would later engage in teaching diplomacy at a university in the US and briefly practised medicine.
He died on 25 April 2017 at the age of 91.