My encounter with ‘the system’: From Ouko murder to Goldenberg scandal

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Deputy President William Ruto says ‘the system’, also called ‘Deep State’, is working to stop him from becoming the next President of Kenya. Because of that he is a very angry man and charging like a bull in a China shop. But what is ‘the system’ and how has it worked in deciding who becomes Head of State in Kenya?

Since it is Deputy President William Samoei Ruto who has talked about “the system”, it is pertinent that I start by describing the man.

I don’t know what substance he adds to his cup of tea in the morning. But if you toss him into a blender, this is likely what would fill your glass: A man in a stampede to get what he wants, and one who goes about it with a strong sense of entitlement. He talks to, not with, the people. He is religious in the ways he knows best – and never shies away from publicly shedding tears about it. He is very generous, but irritable if you ask where his money comes from.


Where leadership in Kenya is concerned, I first heard about “the system” from Michael Blundell, the leader of the British settlers in Kenya in the years leading-up to independence. He told me the colonial governor, Malcolm MacDonald, had sent him to visit Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, then in colonial imprisonment, to assess him because “the system” felt he was in pole position to be leader of the soon-to-be independent country, and a “working relationship” had to be cultivated with him early enough. Africans had just formed two political parties, Kanu and Kadu, and Mzee Kenyatta elected Kanu president in absentia.

Blundell told me his brief from the governor was to impress upon Mzee Kenyatta to work towards rapprochement with the white settlers, who dreaded the idea of a Kenyatta presidency. He was a man the previous governor of Kenya, Patrick Renison, had described as a “leader unto darkness and death”. Secondly, the British wanted Kenyatta, who was acceptable to both sides, Kanu and Kadu, to prevail on the two to forge a common front on the road to independence.

Arrangements were made for Kenyatta to meet representatives from both sides. But at the meeting held in Lodwar, Kadu flatly rejected any idea of working with Kanu. A middle ground was reached that the two parties formed a coalition government to work towards independence for the colony. This was done, but Kadu still remained uncooperative.

In a report to the Colonial Secretary in London, Blundell wrote: “Kadu leaders are in a highly emotional and non-constructive mood. It is almost impossible to have them see reason on anything.”

The most belligerent of the Kadu leaders was Eldoret politician William Murgor, who had been nicknamed Bwana Firimbi (Mr Whistle) because he literally carried a whistle to highly charged political rallies and even to the Lancaster House talks in London. He threatened to “blow the whistle” – meaning declare war, should “aliens” be allowed to settle in Rift Valley Province.

Blundell told me at that point, “the system” decided that Mzee Kenyatta and Kadu chairman and de facto Rift Valley leader Daniel Moi be persuaded to “make a deal” with Mzee Kenyatta. Bruce McKenzie, the settler leader and spy agent, was tasked to bring the two together. Courtesy of McKenzie’s behind-the-scene efforts, Governor MacDonald cabled the Colonial Secretary in London to say: “Moi and the old man (Kenyatta) now are working very well, and rarely do they disagree”.


The same “system” that got Mzee Kenyatta and Moi working together would make sure that Kenyatta appointed Moi his deputy, and eventually succeeded him as Head of the State.

An assistant minister in Kenyatta’s government, George Mwicigi, told me that Moi’s appointment as Kenyatta’s deputy was preceded by a series of secret meetings at the Muthaiga home of a Briton called Sir Marlin Sorsbie, who was chair of a British lobby in the country that went by the name East African Association.

Among those who attended the secret consultations in Muthaiga were McKenzie and Charles Njonjo. The latter was assigned the role of convincing President Kenyatta to tap Moi for the Number 2 slot after Joseph Murumbi resigned.

Clergyman Rev John Gatu was also to tell me that “the system” had made up its mind that Moi would succeed Mzee Kenyatta, even though some in the President’s circle had other ideas.

He told me he got to know about it when a group of church leaders sought audience with President Kenyatta at the height of the acrimonious change-the-constitution movement in 1975 that sought to stop Moi from ascending to the presidency when Mzee Kenyatta died (eventually in August 1978).

In a meeting with the President and where close aides were asked to leave the room, President Kenyatta said he had full trust in Moi and asked the men of collar to “ignore the noisemakers out there”.


The other account told to me about “the system” was in regard to Cabinet minister Tom Mboya. His Cabinet colleague, Odero-Jowi, told me that a month before Mboya was assassinated in July 1969, he had confided in him that he feared “the system” was out to physically harm him, and was seriously contemplating resigning from government and seeking a job, most likely with the United Nations in New York.

Their conversation took place on the sidelines of an East African Community meeting in Arusha. A few days earlier, a sentry at Mboya’s Nairobi home had fired shots at the minister’s unoccupied vehicle. The minister reported the matter to the police, who brushed it aside, saying that the guard involved was mentally ill. Mboya didn’t believe the police version and thought the shooting incident was a warning from “the system” that his days were numbered.

On the day he was shot dead on a Nairobi street, he had just mailed a letter to his American friend to tell him he really feared his life was in danger, as his enemies in “the system” were getting desperate.


A similar story was told to me by politician GG Kariuki in regard to slain Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki. A few weeks before he was murdered, the two had lunch at the Norfolk Hotel, where GG advised his namesake to “go slow on the system” as it could hurt him. He advised him that if there were issues, he could seek audience with the Head of State to talk about it. He further told him that the Head of State may not personally wish to harm him, but that “the system is more than just the Head of State”, who sometimes could be “captive to the system”. JM agreed to seek audience with the President, but had not yet succeeded to do so by the time his dead body was found in Ngong’ Forest.


The commission of inquiry into the murder of Cabinet minister Robert Ouko was also to be told that he was in the process of compiling a report about corruption in “the system” when he went missing, only to be found dead in a bush near his home.


One may hold a big title in the government, but still not be privy to the workings of “the system” in the very government they serve.

I heard it from the mouth of one-time assistant minister in the Office of the President Mirugi Kariuki. I had asked him how it was for a former political detainee to hold the “powerful” post at the Office of the President. He laughed and told me “powerful” is a relative word. Then he paused and told me that what people see and call government is “just the lid” and that the “real government is deep inside and invisible”. I learnt the same one late evening when I went to see then PS Bitange Ndemo in his office. As we came out, we met at the lift two highly placed individuals going to see his minister, Mr Mutahi Kagwe. I told him, with a light touch, that I didn’t know Cabinet ministers held night meetings. He laughed and said: “Actually these are the hours when ‘the system’ starts working; as the rest of us go home!”


A senior counsel in the commission of inquiry into the Goldenberg scandal told me that Cabinet minister George Saitoti goofed in trying to drop names and apportioning blame when he should just have said Goldenberg happened on instructions from “the system and leave it at that”.

Actually, Saitoti should have known better. I was in the office of a retired senior civil servant one afternoon when the then Vice-President Saitoti came in a panicky mood, saying “the system” suspected he owned, through proxies, a vernacular radio station that had just been established.

Such is the working of “the system” that the right hand hardly knows what the left is up to.


Sometime back, I had a conversation with a senior member of “the system”. He gave me an interesting account of the situation in Eldoret in the weeks preceding the 2007 elections. This was the pattern of events. A section of politicians “sold fear”, warning there would be bloodshed if one of the presidential candidates didn’t win the election.

Then members of communities not “entitled” to live in the area were told to keep off social joints. Next they were told to move “their” women and children back to wherever they came from because very soon men and men would be “facing” each other. Then petrol was bought by “unusual” customers two days to the election. I asked him whether the material evidence was given to Moreno Ocampo (the ICC chief prosecutor at the time).

He replied: “Moreno Ocampo? The man spent his time in Kenya only visiting games parks!”

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