Lazarus Kipkurui Sumbeiywo, an army commander and a decorated military leader, was an integral part of President Daniel arap Moi’s administration and the chief mediator of the Sudan peace negotiations that led to the secession of South Sudan from Sudan.
For 35 years Sumbeiywo was Military Assistant to the Chief of General Staff, as Head of Military Intelligence and as Army Commander in the two years leading to Moi’s exit from power in 2002 after 24 years. His brother Elijah was at one time the Presidential Escort Commander while his father had worked with King’s African Rifles Battalion 5, and as a warrant officer in the tribal police before he became a chief and Chairman of the African Tribunal Court in Keiyo District. His father’s long stint in the disciplined forces inspired the career choices of his two sons.
During his three-and-a-half decades in the military, Sumbeiywo witnessed some of the most epochal events in the country and was often at the centre of the action. These events include the 1982 attempted coup d’état, the transfer of power from Moi to Mwai Kibaki and acting as key mediator of the South Sudan peace process.
In his 2006 biography penned by veteran journalist Waithaka Waihenya, Sumbeiywo documented his journey that started quite innocently when his elder brother gave him KES 200 to travel to Nakuru District to enlist, encouraged by his father.
Sumbeiywo was born in 1947 in present-day Elgeyo Marakwet County to Sumbeiywo arap Limo (born Kiplagat arap Kipkatam) and Sarah Jesang’. His mother was one of the earliest converts to Christianity and would impart Christian virtues that stayed with the young Sumbeiywo for a lifetime. He is famously prayerful, starting and closing every meeting with a prayer.
He attended Yokot Primary School, where he sat for his Common Entrance Examination before joining the Government African School, Tambach for his intermediate schooling. Having sat his Kenya African Primary Education examination, he went to Tambach to begin his secondary school education, only to realise that while the school had been upgraded, they had retained the same books and teachers from the primary school. Naturally athletic and a leader, Sumbeiywo was selected to be a games captain and would later go on to lead a revolt against the school administration, leading to a term-long suspension for him and other students. When they returned, there were new teachers and new books.
One of the new teachers going by the name Lee, a member of the American Peace Corps and a trained military officer, introduced the students to the discipline of marching. Sumbeiywo was highly impressed by the marching theatrics. After his Form Four examinations, while attending to his father’s shop near Yokot Primary School, his brother Elijah, then a district intelligence officer, would one morning give him KES 200 to join the army stationed in Nakuru.
He complied and joined 2,000 recruits who were shortlisted to 100 and further trimmed down to 60 cadets, among them Sumbeiywo. He was sent to train at the world famous Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom for 44 weeks. One of his vivid early memories at the Academy is of getting punched by a junior white officer. On reporting the incident, he was the one that got punished.
Back home from the UK, Sumbeiywo was posted to the Kenya Army’s 1st Battalion Kenya Rifles in Lanet as Second Lieutenant. He would later become the Military Assistant to the Chief of General Staff.
One of the watershed moments of Moi’s presidency was the 1982 attempted coup d’état. Rumours about a coup attempt had started to circulate in June. Occupying the rank of Major at the time, Sumbeiywo had tried unsuccessfully to verify the rumours with Director of Special Branch, James Kanyotu. On 1 August the mutiny took place. His brother broke the news of the coup attempt via a telephone call at 5 am. The President was at his home in Kabarak. Sumbeiywo was instructed to drive to State House Nakuru with some soldiers, guns cocked, ready to shoot anyone who tried to stop them.
Together with his brother Elijah and Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Hezekiah Oyugi, they were able to convince the reluctant President to leave his house, just in case it was ambushed or bombed. They wanted Moi to travel to the capital, but his Aide-de-Camp (ADC) advised against the idea, as two aircraft were unaccounted for at the Nanyuki Air Base. It wasn’t until the planes had been located and secured that they started for Nairobi, where Moi would address enthusiastic, cheering crowds in Rironi, 15 kilometres before reaching Nairobi.
When he arrived in the capital, Moi wanted to address the crowds as he drove along Moi Avenue, but his ADC was aware that the coup plotters were holed up somewhere near Kenya Cinema. Indeed, they would be flushed out the following day, from the very point where Moi had wanted to stop and address the country. Moi did address the nation later, and confidently so, according to Sumbeiywo, even though other eyewitnesses said he was visibly shaken.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Sumbeiywo would be entrusted with the responsibility of writing instructions on how to deal with arrested coup plotters. In appreciation of his efforts, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in charge of personnel at the Air Force. His job was to draft all court martial proceedings as well as jail and reform procedures, and completely overhaul the Kenya Air Force wing of the military. Major Peter Kariuki, the Air Force Commander, was jailed for failing to suppress the mutiny while Hezekiah Ochuka, mastermind of the attempted coup, was executed.
General Jackson Mulinge, who is credited with quashing the coup, retired in 1986 and was succeeded by General Mahmoud Mohammed. Sumbeiywo left the Air Force and joined Mohammed as Director of Military Intelligence, a unit he built from scratch. Its work was to collect and collate intelligence from within and outside the country and advise military commanders. His official title was Director of the Liaison Department based in the Office of the President. From here, his career was on an upward trajectory.
In 1993 he formed the External Military Intelligence at Moi’s request. In 1999 he was appointed Commandant of the Defence Staff College and the following year he was assigned to the post of Army Commander on a four-year contract. He became Commander at a time when the military was going down a precipice, according to his biography; he had to introduce new regulations that restored discipline in the forces. Servicemen were not permitted to leave the forces without serving for a set period. In addition, he clamped down on officers taking allowances for work they had not done. He also put a stop to the misappropriation of funds, restored the mess hall where officers could assemble, and reinstated written and practical examinations for those seeking promotions. He also stopped the practice of soldiers who had been court-martialled challenging their cases in civilian courts, and ensured that soldiers were given better quality uniforms.
Sumbeiywo also disclosed in his biography, perhaps controversially, how he approved a different approach to military training called the Manoeuvristic Doctrine where soldiers are taught tactical ways of combat while seeking and exploiting the weakness of the enemy. He would earn the nickname Zero Tolerance as he considered disorderliness unacceptable; he further devised the ‘guillotine model’ through which those who could not toe the line were shown the door.
His stint as the army boss was short-lived as Moi’s regime careened to an end. When Moi left office and Kibaki took over, the transition necessitated changes in many Government departments, including the military. He was retired mid-way through his contract and was succeeded by his deputy, General Jeremiah Kianga. The handover ceremony was televised, a first in the country since independence.
The handover of power from Moi to Kibaki in 2002 was a tense moment for the nation. African leaders are known to be reluctant to hand over power once they lose an election. In Kenya, some civil servants were very concerned about the change of government. But the military is meant to be an impartial body and Sumbeiywo worked on the transition, going the extra mile to build the ramp on which President-elect Kibaki’s wheelchair would be wheeled to the dais. Unsure if Moi would readily step down, the Ministry of Public Works had declined to procure funds for the ramp, forcing the military to hire a private supplier. Nobody wanted to be seen as having written off KANU because that would have had serious repercussions if KANU won, yet the military could not afford to be caught unprepared.
The power transfer proceeded with minimal glitches, and two months later Sumbeiywo would be retired after 35 years in the military, “… not because of inefficiency, but because of politics,” he explained. His close ties with Moi were perceived as a danger by some members of the new Government, and some even wanted him dropped from the mediation process. But Kalonzo Musyoka put in a good word for him with President Kibaki.
Out of all the other things that he achieved, the job that would define Sumbeiywo’s career was the brokering of peace between Sudan and the soon-to-be-established youngest nation on earth, South Sudan. The north and south of Sudan, which at the time were one country referred to as Sudan, had been engaged in a civil war for more than four decades, claiming over four million lives and displacing millions, with the south remaining underdeveloped.
Two major wars, dubbed Anyanya I and Anyanya II after the name of the rebels, pitted the black Christian south against the Arab Islamic north. Sumbeiywo first encountered Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir moments after he had taken power through a coup d’état in 1989. He had come to Kenya and was meeting Moi and John Garang, head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) who was then waging guerrilla warfare, in early attempts at mediation. The first encounter did not go well. Sumbeiywo was Head of Military Intelligence at the time. That first encounter would set the stage for the key role he would play in the mediation process.
When Kibaki came to power and he was retired from the military, Sumbeiywo requested that he be permitted to retain his job as mediator; a wish that Kibaki granted. He would go on to work with Kalonzo, who was reappointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, having occupied the same position in the 1990s.
Moi had wholeheartedly supported the mediation talks and even after retirement had remained actively involved, especially in the formative days of Kibaki’s presidency. The South Sudan mission was nearly imperilled for a time. The negotiations were tough, always heated, with some parties moving too fast and others dragging their feet. Many diplomats in Nairobi were not interested. There were uncomfortable incidents such as the time American ambassador William Bellamy tried to bulldoze his way into a meeting Sumbeiywo was chairing, which irked Sumbeiywo; or when Sumbeiywo nearly kicked an American, Jeff Millington, who wanted to force a truce between the two warring Sudanese factions.
At some point al-Bashir wanted South Africa to take charge of the mediation process. It took Kalonzo talking South Africa’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, out of it since Kenya was already too deeply involved to abandon ship midstream.
The negotiation would lead to the formation of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Machakos in 2005, which made South Sudan semi-autonomous and Garang the de facto leader of the south and the overall Vice President of the larger Sudan. The arrangement was to last for six years until 2011, when the South of Sudan went to a referendum and decided to secede. Garang did not live to see this moment; he died in a plane crash in northern Uganda in 2005 and was replaced by Salva Kiir.
The young nation would have a relatively good start, but soon ran into the inevitable headwinds of inter-ethnic civil strife in 2013 and the subsequent sacking of Riek Machar, the Deputy President. Once again Sumbeiywo was called upon by President Uhuru Kenyatta to help broker the peace.
Sumbeiywo is now retired and reportedly lives on his farm in Trans Nzoia County.