Nicholas Kipyator arap Biwott was at the epicentre of power during the 24 years that President Daniel arap Moi was in office. Referred to by many nicknames (Total Man, the Bull of Auckland, Mr Fix It, Karnet (steel), the man behind the throne, or simply the king in waiting), Biwott was widely acknowledged as the man not to cross in the Moi government. Anyone who did was sacked. He was also mysterious and, some felt, paranoid. It was not unusual for him to change vehicles up to 10 times in one day. For instance, he would take a ramshackle of a taxi on a mission to the Hilton Hotel, then another vehicle to the Norfolk Hotel to meet a colleague, another to Lavington, yet another to Muthaiga, and so on throughout the day.
Biwott’s mysterious ways extended to meetings and eating habits. In the restaurant at the National Assembly or whichever hotel he went to for a meal, he preferred not to be served by the wait staff, typically opting to have his meal from the buffet. At his office at Nyayo House as Minister for Energy, he never allowed his visitors to sit facing him. He would give a brief tap on the hand in greeting, then talk to the person in his waiting room while standing.
This treatment was extended even to foreign dignitaries. An Assistant Secretary of State from the United States was quite shocked when, after waiting for hours in the office lobby to meet the minister, Biwott finally arrived and proceeded to conduct the meeting with the dignitary right there in the lobby. Members of the press, who had set up their cameras inside his office, scrambled to dismantle their equipment in a vain attempt to catch up. But Biwott concluded the meeting and dismissed the American guest before the cameras could be repositioned.
Biwott had various telephones on his desk: one green, another red and the third black. Red was reserved for calls from Moi. Green was for ministers and prominent members of the business community, while the black phone was kept for calls from his secretary, who would typically be putting calls through from ordinary people requesting authorisation for various issues.
Biwott’s name was synonymous with power in an African State whose President was at one time listed by the Western media among the so-called ‘Big Men’ of Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the wind of pluralism swept across the continent. Although short of stature akin to the bibli cal Zacchaeus, Kenya’s entire Cabinet, every Member of Parliament, politician and the general Who’s Who paid court to him. He was what is known in political parlance as the power behind the throne. He made things happen.
Just to demonstrate his power, he was famous for making diplomats from powerful nations and wealthy business people wait for him for long hours, either in his office or at five-star hotels, only to end up having brief three-minute sessions with them. Usually all they wanted was to convey a message to the President.
In his Keiyo South Constituency, he held an annual fund-raiser in support of various development projects, including a school named after his mother, Mama Soti. Ministers would troop to these events, including vice-presidents and businessmen, who would compete in contributing huge sums. Biwott became one of the third longest-serving MPs, retaining his seat for an uninterrupted 28 years.
As Minister of Energy, Biwott was behind the signing of oil exploration agreements with various international companies
Biwott started his phenomenal climb to power from the position of District Officer in pre-independence Kenya and rose through the ranks of public administration to become a District Commissioner in the area that included present-day Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties in 1960. This is where he learned the ropes of colonial government and he was to make good use of that knowledge in later years as a politician in the Moi regime. British colonialists all over Africa were masters of the ‘divide and rule’ policy, and the Kenya Colony was no exception. Borrowing a leaf from his teachers in his area of jurisdiction in Meru, the young DC helped settle some of the Mau Mau freedom fighters and left out others, thereby creating an everlasting divide in the community.
Moi noticed the young civil servant and appointed him as his personal assistant in 1977, when he was serving as Vice President under President Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first Head of State. Then Biwott vied for and won a seat in the 1979 General Election, the first in the Moi era. This paved the way for his elevation to the Cabinet in the plum position of Minister in the Office of the President.
Under Moi, Biwott masterminded the perpetual divide in the Opposition. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and later his son Raila Odinga, moonlighted with the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), under the guise of ‘co-operation’ to stave off Mwai Kibaki (Democratic Party) and Kenneth Matiba (FORD-Asili) and thereby destabilise the Opposition.
During the Moi era, Biwott’s reputation as a colossus of Kenyan politics was comparable to that of Substone Budamba Mudavadi (father of Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi, who later became a co-principal of the opposition’s National Super Alliance, NASA), Charles Njonjo, the most powerful Attorney General Kenya has ever had, and Godfrey Gitahi (‘GG’) Kariuki, the influential Minister for Lands.
Not even Jaramogi, Kenya’s first Vice President, Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta’s blue-eyed boy, or Mbiyu Koinange, Kenyatta’s buddy, were as powerful as Biwott during their time in Government. It was widely accepted that he called the shots and that his word was tantamount to a proclamation.
He left his indelible mark in every docket he served in under Moi. In 1979, as Minister in the Office of the President, he reportedly teamed up with GG Kariuki to dish out State land under the jurisdiction of the Agricultural Development Corporation to various civil service and defence forces officers, apparently with the aim of buying loyalty to the new regime. The Agricultural Finance Corporation was also approached to advance loans to help the new owners develop their farms.
As Minister of Energy, Biwott was behind the signing of oil exploration agreements with various international companies, including American Oil Company Amoco, to search for oil in Turkana and in the Indian Ocean.
Biwott was also behind the Turkwel Gorge Power project, which opposition politicians for a long time denounced as a white elephant. It was not until Jaramogi, during his 1993 co-operation phase with KANU, visited the project and described it as “… one of the wonders of the world” that the white elephant tag was laid to rest.
During his stint in the Trade and Commerce docket, Biwott revolutionised licensing laws in such a way that they favoured local and international business regimes. For instance, import and export licences were restricted to a fixed time period rather than being open-ended as had been the case previously. And while Biwott headed the Ministry of East African and Regional Co-operation, the East Africa Treaty was successfully negotiated to establish the second East African Community (EAC) after the collapse of the first in 1977. He was, however, criticised for having influenced the nomination of one of his wives, Margaret Kamar (who would later become the Senator for Uasin Gishu County), to the first EAC Parliament.
In the 1980s, when total loyalty to the ruling party was symbolically measured by thermometer, Biwott was the gauge of who was or was not loyal to Moi. It is believed that even the vice presidents who served under Moi feared Biwott, except for one: Kibaki.
The party introduced a badge bearing Moi’s insignia; every politician and anyone looking to do business with the government displayed it on his lapel. Word would then reach Biwott and other KANU ‘cockerels’ announcing who was ‘KANU damu’ (KANU by blood) and the person would be appointed either to the Cabinet or approved to do business with the government. Kibaki simply refused to wear that particular badge and instead chose to wear one bearing the image of the KANU cockerel, the official party symbol.
Having thus ‘failed’ the loyalty test, Kibaki was, as a result, allegedly demoted from the post of VP after the discredited 1988 mlolongo (queue-voting) General Election to the position of Minister for Health.
In Parliament, ministers seeking a favour from the President would position themselves in the lobby, eyes fixed on the swing doors of the Chamber. Biwott would emerge and stride along the walkway through the Churchill Arch (an architectural feature of Commonwealth Parliaments), head for the kitchen table for a cup of tea then settle at a table where one after another his Cabinet colleagues would approach and whisper their message. Each would leave Biwott’s side wearing a big smile, perhaps congratulating himself for bringing his issue closer to the President’s ear.
Essentially, politicians and members of the business community regarded Biwott as the de facto deputy to the presidency or better still, the Swiss-style Big Man in a collegial presidency – which did not exist in the Constitution of that era. Politician James Orengo summed up the situation in Parliament by saying, “President Moi is a prisoner of people like Biwott.”
The same Orengo nicknamed Biwott the ‘Bull of Auckland’ when information filtered through that the Cabinet minister had been thrown out of a VIP hotel in New Zealand during a presidential visit after allegedly making indecent advances towards a female worker. In his own defence in Parliament, Biwott reportedly remarked dismissively, “I am a real man, a total man!”
Biwott was married to women from across the world; one hailed from Israel, another from Australia and a third from Kenya. His funeral in 2017 showcased the diversity of a powerful man whose family tentacles spread across the globe. One politician remarked that a family photograph should be taken on that occasion to show that Biwott was not a Kenyan but a global figure with roots all over the world.
As technology advanced and mobile phones arrived in Kenya, Biwott refused to embrace it and never carried one. He knew too much about technology to trust it wholly. His philosophy was that one should never answer a telephone call because that was a sure way of facilitating tapping. He invariably instructed his personal assistant or secretary to answer all phone calls and report who the caller was and what they wanted – and for good reason. All fixed telephone lines, including mobiles, incorporate technological devices to trace one’s location. That is how Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were captured by American forces using the old and new technology, respectively.
Biwott did not want to be traced – hence his cloak-and-dagger methods of changing taxis to move from one point to another. When it came to communication, he would let his men do the talking.
Even international banks with headquarters overseas were reputed to dance to his tune. He would reportedly order them to fly money in any currency to any destination in Kenya. Sums of KES 5 million would be flown from Nairobi to Mombasa, Narok, Eldoret or Kisumu, in 50-shilling denominations. A man or woman would be waiting to receive the ‘cargo’ for distribution to waiting supporters. Biwott never carried any money on his person.
Reputed to be a billionaire, his wealth ranged from expansive tracts of land locally, real estate including Nairobi’s iconic shopping mall, Yaya Centre, shares in Kenol/Kobil and unit trusts. He was also said to own ranches in Australia, where he attained part of his education. His power accorded him both wealth and influence locally and abroad. For instance, government ministers in some of the countries he visited would make greater efforts to schedule meetings with Biwott than with Kenya’s Foreign Affairs minister.
Born in 1940 in Chebyor, Keiyo District, Biwott attended Tambach Intermediate School between 1951 and 1954 before joining the colonial government as a District Officer. He travelled to Australia to pursue a Master’s degree in Economics in 1969 before returning to join the newly independent government of Kenya.
He died in July 2017 with his reputation as a mysterious Moi-era power broker firmly intact.