There were two celebrated professors in President Daniel arap Moi’s administration: Moi, the self-proclaimed “Professor of Politics”, and his long-serving Vice President, George Muthengi Saitoti, a Professor of Mathematics.
Saitoti acquired his Master of Science in Mathematics degree from the University of Sussex and later, in 1972, a PhD from the University of Warwick. He started teaching at the University of Nairobi in the same year and went on to become an Associate Professor and head of the Mathematics Department, a position he held until 1983. During his teaching career, the professor was also appointed Chairman of Mumias Sugar Company and later, Chairman of Kenya Commercial Bank. Before these appointments, he was a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) between 1974 and 1977 at the behest of President Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President.
Moi would nominate Saitoti to the National Assembly in October 1983, signalling the beginning of sweeping changes in the hierarchy of the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and the government. According to political observers, Saitoti’s nomination was orchestrated by Nicholas Biwott, an influential Cabinet minister at the time. Saitoti would subsequently be appointed to the Cabinet as the Minister for Finance, a docket hitherto occupied by Mwai Kibaki, who was relegated to head the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The bestowal of such a great responsibility on a nominated Member of Parliament spoke volumes and was an indication of bigger things coming his way. In the 1988 General Election, Philip Odupoy, the incumbent Kajiado North MP, was prevailed upon not to seek re-election, which enabled Saitoti to be elected as the new MP. He would recapture the seat in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007.
Following the 1988 elections, Moi chose political novice and former University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor, Josephat Karanja, to replace Kibaki as Vice President. Karanja was, however, seen as a passing cloud. Following accusations of intent to overthrow Moi’s regime, he was forced out of office a year later, paving the way for Saitoti’s appointment as VP in May 1989. Saitoti would remain the country’s second in command until December 1997.
After the1997 General Election, Moi held off picking a VP despite insistence from opposition parties that the position must be filled to avert the possibility of a constitutional crisis should anything happen to the President. But he continued to ignore them until April 1999, when he re-appointed Saitoti via a roadside announcement in Limuru Town.
To his credit, Saitoti made major developmental strides in Kajiado North, a constituency that accommodates people from many Kenyan communities and that was by 2009 ranked one of the richest constituencies in the country. While many parts of what was then Rift Valley Province were hit by sporadic tribal clashes from 1991 to 2008, Kajiado North remained mostly unscathed. However, Saitoti himself was at one time accused of complicity in these clashes by Human Rights Watch, a non-government organisation.
While he was VP and Minister for Finance, Saitoti also served as Executive Chairman of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 1990 to 1991. And from 1999 to 2000, he was President of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of States. However, during his tenure as the Finance boss, the Kenyan economy performed poorly and inflation soared, mainly due to a misunderstanding between the Kenyan government and foreign aid donors over perceived poor governance.
From 1991 to 1993, a series of financial scandals implicating senior government officials rocked the country and resulted in the suspension of donor aid. The most infamous of these, in which Saitoti was implicated, was the Goldenberg scam. Goldenberg involved millions of dollars in fake gold exports paid to Goldenberg International. In 1999 Raila Odinga, an opposition politician, sued the VP and others for their alleged involvement in the scandal. A mere three months after Saitoti’s re-appointment, Otieno Kajwang’, the MP for Mbita, and an ally of Odinga, moved a private member’s Motion in Parliament seeking a no-confidence declaration against the VP on account of his alleged role in Goldenberg.
Saitoti fought gallantly to clear his name in Parliament and in the courts, but although he won these battles, the political stench of the Goldenberg scandal would never be too far from him.
On 3 February 2006, a report by the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair chaired by Justice Samuel Bosire, recommended that Saitoti should face criminal charges for his involvement in the scandal. Ten days later, the VP voluntarily stepped down from his ministerial position to make way for investigations into the allegations. On 31 July 2006, a three-judge bench headed by Justice Joseph Nyamu issued an order that would clear Saitoti of any wrongdoing, expunge his name from the Commission’s report and put in place a permanent stay of prosecution against him.
Following riots by multipartism proponents in July 1990, Moi announced the formation of the KANU Review Committee under the chairmanship of Saitoti. The committee was mandated to investigate the party’s internal electoral and disciplinary conduct, and traversed the country collecting people’s opinions on these issues.
In January 1991, the KANU Executive Committee adopted the recommendation by Saitoti that party critics should stop being expelled and instead be suspended for one or two years. The recommendations made by the report got the backing of Moi during the National Delegates Conference held in Kasarani in 1991, paving the way for reforms and setting the stage for the repealing of Section 2A of the Constitution of Kenya. This effectively returned Kenya to a multiparty system of government.
Saitoti remained fiercely loyal to Moi despite facing some hostility from senior KANU officials, and sometimes even from the President himself. The fact that he did not speak the Maa language fluently did not help matters, as leaders from the Maasai community, among them William ole Ntimama of Narok, went all out to try and depict the VP as a Kikuyu and, therefore, unqualified to lead the Maasai. Indeed, so fragile was Saitoti’s position that when Robert Ouko, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was murdered in February 1990, the VP claimed there were plans to kill him as well.
When the report by the Committee investigating Ouko’s murder was being debated, an angry Saitoti queried: “How come the Committee never deemed it fit to investigate why the Vice President was almost dying at the same time? At the time Ouko was killed, I had been poisoned. I was unconscious. Saitoti was on his deathbed. This is not my original skin,” he raged, while displaying his hands.
Years later, in 2003, at a public rally in Kikuyu Constituency, he would declare, “Kama kuna mtu ambaye amefanyiwa majaribio, ni mimi Prof Saitoti. Hata walijaribu siku moja kunipatia poison.” (If there is anyone who has been subjected to tribulations, it is I, Prof Saitoti. At one time they even tried to poison me.)
At a KANU National Delegates Conference in Kasarani in 2002, the party changed its Constitution to allow for a merger with Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP), and also created four new Vice Chairman positions. This effectively watered down Saitoti’s position and, consequently, his chances of succeeding Moi. Following his vocal complaint to the President that his name was missing from the leaders’ line-up, Moi told him to his face that he was not “presidential material”. In response to the snub, Saitoti famously told the conference, “There comes a time when the nation is much more important than an individual.”
The height of his humiliation came during a meeting in his own constituency, where Moi explained his reasons for overlooking the VP in his succession plans. Speaking in Kiswahili, the President said: “Huyu makamu wa rais ni rafiki yangu. Lakini urafiki na siasa ni tofauti…” (The Vice President is my friend. But politics and friendship are two different things.)
Later, on arrival from an official trip to America, Saitoti expressed his intention to vie for the presidency on a KANU ticket despite Moi’s endorsement of Uhuru Kenyatta.
“My service to this country has prepared me to handle the challenges of leadership. It is therefore only proper that I respond affirmatively to calls from the Kenyan people that I should offer myself for nomination,” the VP told reporters at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. “After seeking guidance abroad from sections of Kenyans, I hereby announce that I itend to seek the KANU ticket at Kasarani and run for President of this great nation when elections are called.”
This announcement led to his sacking in August 2002 for “spearheading a mutiny in the Cabinet”. Saitoti responded by accusing Moi of undermining democracy. “Kenyans have come to value democracy,” he told The Telegraph newspaper, and further asserted, “we should be strengthening democracy, not eroding it. Moi wants to suppress the growth of the democratisation process”.
When Moi declared Uhuru his successor, the marriage between KANU and NDP was dissolved, and Odinga left to form the Rainbow Alliance that later transformed into the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The party was made up of opposition leaders and KANU ‘rebels’, including Saitoti. When LDP joined the Kibaki-led National Alliance of Kenya (NAK), the union became the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and Saitoti was made a member of the NARC Summit, the coalition’s highest organ.
When Kibaki won the presidential election in 2002, he appointed Saitoti Minister for Education in charge of implementing NARC’s free primary education programme. When the union between Kibaki and Odinga crumbled, Saitoti aligned himself with the President and actively campaigned for the government’s ‘Yes’ vote in the lead-up to the 2005 referendum on a Draft Constitution. Unfortunately, the ‘Yes’ side lost to the combined team of LDP and KANU.
In 2007, Saitoti recaptured his Kajiado North parliamentary seat through the Party of National Unity (PNU) and was appointed Minister of State in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration. After the formation of the Government of National Unity following a power-sharing deal brokered to stop the election-related violence of 2008, Saitoti retained his Cabinet position. Between late 2010 and August 2011, he was appointed in an acting capacity as the Minister for Foreign Affairs after Moses Wetangula stepped down to allow for investigations into alleged corruption in the ministry.
In November 2011, as Chairman of PNU, Saitoti announced his intention to vie for the presidency upon the retirement of President Kibaki in 2013. However, on 10 June 2012, while en route to a church service and fund raising event in Ndhiwa Constituency in Nyanza Province, he was killed when the police helicopter ferrying him and his Assistant Minister, Orwa Ojode, crashed in Ngong Forest. Also killed were their bodyguards, Police Inspector Joshua Tonkei and Thomas Murimi, along with their pilots Nancy Gituanja and Luke Oyugi.
Saitoti, born in Oloolua Village in Ngong Town, was 66 years old when he died. He was married to Margaret Saitoti and they had a son, Zachary Musengi.