As is the case with most governments globally, intrigue was the mainstay of the administration of President Daniel arap Moi. The higher one’s position, the more vicious the game became. During the delicate months surrounding the transition from the regime of founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to that of Moi, the intrigues that played out in the hallowed corridors of power required that those in high office have skins tougher than that of an elephant.
The trauma of realising that there was a faction conspiring to block him from taking office led Moi to embark on an exercise to shed Kenyatta-era officers and replace them with those he perceived to be well inclined towards his new administration.
Geoffrey Karekia Kariithi spent 13 uninterrupted years as Head of the Civil Service during the Kenyatta years. He called the shots, maintaining a hardworking, efficient and largely honest civil service. He kept Kenyatta’s dairy, granting or denying visitors access to the President. He held wheeler dealers at bay and is unquestionably credited, together with Attorney General Charles Njonjo, with organising a smooth transition between the two administrations when Kenyatta died in August 1978. It was Kariithi who drafted the media statement announcing the passing of the Head of State, an unprecedented event in the young nation, and personally delivered it to the Voice of Kenya (VOK) offices in Broadcasting House.
There was no mistaking the breadth of experience and grasp of the intricacies of government operations which Kariithi brought to bear upon his job
Ironically, both Njonjo and Kariithi would be removed from their high offices in the Moi era after false allegations were levelled against them. Moi did not lift a finger to defend them. If anything, some saw the President’s hand in the intrigues that caused their ouster.
A landmark autobiography entitled A Daunting Journey by Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini, a similarly high-ranking government official of the day, describes some of the incidents that aptly depict the insensitivity that was rampant during the Moi regime.
Kiereini writes about how on the morning of 25 September 1979, Moi called to inform him that he (the President) had arranged to announce Kiereini’s appointment to the position of Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet during the 1 pm VOK news bulletin. Kiereini was serving as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, and was Kariithi’s deputy at the Office of the President.
Kiereini, caught squarely in the middle of a highly awkward situation, was unable to forewarn Kariithi of the impending announcement in spite of holding him in extremely high regard.
“Kariithi was a level-headed and decent man and had been my mentor in school, in the university and in the civil service, but for some time Moi had been under pressure (he doesn’t say from who) to appoint his own Head of Civil Service and everyone, including Kariithi himself, knew it was just a matter of time before he was shown the door,” narrated Kiereini in his autobiography.
In anxious anticipation of the impending announcement, Kiereini decided to go for an early lunch at the Red Bull restaurant in the city centre.
He parked at Sheria House where he met with his friend, the recently appointed Attorney General James Karugu, and together they walked to the restaurant. There they were joined by the Principal of Kenyatta College (later renamed Kenyatta University), Joe Koinange.
Quite coincidentally Kariithi, the man Kiereini wanted to avoid at all costs, decided to join the group.
“He normally did not have lunch with us so it was purely coincidental that he changed his routine that day. He looked quite happy and relaxed as he joined us,” Kiereini wrote.
As they left the restaurant after lunch, people who knew Kiereini approached to offer their congratulations, but Kiereini pretended not to know what they were celebrating him for. When they told him about the 1 o’clock presidential announcement, he feigned as much shock and surprise as did his boss, Kariithi.
“The news seemed to stun Kariithi, who stood not more than a foot away, and I knew what he must have felt. Having served diligently for all those years, he had not even been made aware that he was about to be retrenched and replaced by his former deputy,” wrote Kiereini.
Back in the office, Kariithi summoned his successor and congratulated him as well. “Do not worry Jerry. These things can happen to anybody,” he said graciously.
Although Kiereini writes that Kariithi had sent Moi a retirement request letter which the President declined to acknowledge, an unprepared Kariithi still received the news with shock. The media were informed that Kariithi had gracefully retired after serving the government for 28 years.
What Kiereini writes in his book and the version of his media interview immediately after his appointment, is contradictory. “The news was a big surprise to me. I was told by a friend who telephoned me in my office and congratulated me. It was then that I learned that the President had appointment me to that post,” he told the Daily Nation on 26 September 1979.
That’s how intriguing the Nyayo era was.
Kariithi, who the Weekly Review of 28 September 1979 described as having “…left a personal stamp on the machinery of government which is going to take quite some time to write down,” served the Moi government for only one year. During that short period, he did not have much opportunity to leave a significant mark for, as Kiereini wrote, Moi started shopping for his own Head of Civil Service almost immediately he came into power in August 1978.
The sensitive position and its workings was a discussion Kiereini had with Moi on several occasions. According to Kiereini, Moi had asked Kariithi to provide him with names of possible qualified replacements and Kiereini had not made the list. All the same, he was Moi’s choice.
Educated at Alliance High School, Kariithi was one of the first African District Commissioners, having been appointed to head Taita District in 1962. He would rise to the post of Deputy Civil Secretary (Deputy Provincial Commissioner) of Nyeri in 1963, and was promoted to the post of Provincial Commissioner at the same station later that year.
In December 1964 Kariithi was appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and two years later replaced Duncan Ndegwa as Head of Civil Service following Ndegwa’s appointment by Kenyatta as Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya.
“From the moment he took over the top job in the civil service, there was no mistaking the breadth of experience and grasp of the intricacies of government operations which he brought to bear upon his job,” the Weekly Review of 28 September 1979 said of Kariithi. On retiring him, Moi also confirmed that Kariithi had served with devotion and complete loyalty.
Kariithi subsequently involved himself in the politics of the ruling party KANU in Kirinyaga district, associating himself with powerful Kirinyaga KANU branch Chairman James Njiru. Kariithi vied for the Gichugu parliamentary seat in Kirinyaga in the snap elections of 1983 following the failed attempted coup of 1982, but lost to Nahashon Njuno who was subsequently appointed Assistant Minister for Tourism.
During the discredited 1988 mlolongo (queue-voting) election, Kariithi took over the Gichugu seat, having polled over 15,000 votes while Njuno, his closest opponent, managed just over 6,000 votes. Moi would subsequently appoint Kariithi Assistant Minister for Tourism, the position previously held by Njuno.
Then amid loud manoeuvres to remove him from the leadership of Kirinyaga KANU branch, Kariithi was dropped from government unceremoniously in May 1989 after a Member of Parliament claimed he had made a clandestine trip to Uganda in February of that year. Relationships between the two countries were strained during that period.
Characteristic of the Nyayo-era political machinations, the Member for Mbooni, Johnstone Makau, stood up in Parliament accusing some government officials, including Ministers, of clandestinely visiting Uganda without government clearance. He demanded that Burudi Nabwera, the Minister of State in the Office of the President, disclose the name of the Minister and the purpose of the visit.
Nabwera ‘disclosed’ that the Minister in question was Kariithi, who had “…travelled to Uganda on 16 February on Uganda Airlines flight QU 311” with a ticket paid for by the government of Uganda. Kariithi was not in Parliament to defend himself and he was summarily dropped from government on the same day without being given a chance to defend himself. His accuser, Makau, was elevated to the Cabinet. At that time there were differing factions within the Kirinyaga KANU Branch and the group opposed to Kariithi had two weeks previously levelled the same accusation regarding the trip to Uganda. The ‘confirmation’ by the Minister sealed his fate.
Kariithi denied all the allegations made against him and maintained that his dismissal was based on political rivalry in Kirinyaga. He said that the last time he had visited Uganda was in 1974 when he headed a Kenyan delegation to Uganda to mark the country’s independence celebrations. He further said that the week he was supposed to have been in Uganda, he was attending the wedding of a daughter of Jeremiah Nyaga, Environment and Natural Resources Minister, at Embu Anglican Cathedral, followed later by a reception at Kangaru High School on 18 February 1989.
“I know that my political opponents in Kirinyaga have been very wild and were issuing unsubstantiated allegations against me,” the Weekly Review quoted him as stating. He hoped that what Nabwera had said in Parliament was based on mistaken identity, urging the government to conduct thorough investigations to unearth the truth. But the die had been cast; the Nyayo government had no further use for Kariithi.
From the time he was elected MP for Gichugu, Kariithi appeared to be headed for the skies, which must have troubled his ally Njiru. Afraid that Kariithi might have wanted to oust him from the helm of the ruling party’s branch leadership, Njiru joined hands with his arch-rival Njuno to fight Kariithi politically, starting with his removal from the Gichugu Sub-branch chairmanship. Following the grassroots party elections, Njuno became the new Sub-branch Chairman. Kariithi insisted that his election had been stolen during the announcement by the provincial administration at Kerugoya stadium.
At the height of the clamour for more democratic space in the early 1990s, Kariithi defected from the ruling party KANU to the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party, citing such reasons as corruption, rigging of elections, hasty introduction of the 8-4-4 education system and the mysterious deaths of Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko and Bishop Alexander Muge of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK).
“Arising from the above, I have decided to resign from KANU and join my fellow Kenyans in FORD, who are committed to the ideals for which we fought for our independence,” he told the Daily Nation. In 1992, he contested the Gichugu parliamentary seat against lawyer Martha Karua and lost, signalling the end of his political career.
Kariithi died in a Nairobi hospital in June 2012 after suffering from Alzheimer’s for a long time. According to reliable sources his memoirs, which he was in the process of compiling, were completed after his death, but are yet to be published.