One of the most closely guarded secrets in Kenya was the state of the health of Kenya’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
However, this did not stop rumours about his struggle with angina and dementia, as old age began to take a toll on him.
Nobody knew exactly when he was born. Kenyatta himself, during his trial in 1952 on allegations of managing the Mau Mau, told the judge: “I do not know when I was born, what date, what month, or what year — but I think I am over 50.”
Thirteen years later, in a letter to the Royal Mint, he said his 75th birthday would be in 1966, meaning he was born in 1891.
But still, at that age, it would have been quite optimistic for one to expect his physical and mental state to enable him to retain power for so long.
To the British however, it was the other way round. For the sake of their interests, they were ready to prop up Kenyatta by whatever means.
Sir Malcolm MacDonald, who served as the Governor of Kenya and the British High Commissioner, went to the extent of advising ministers to take up some of Kenyatta’s responsibilities so that he was not worn out and forced to leave power.
Their only worry was that he was relying too much on bad advice from Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
It was quite ironical that they were now relying on a man they once described as the “leader to darkness and death”.
One telegram read: “That Kenyatta has established his supremacy even more clearly than before seems to us to add force to the potential danger that might arise with his departure if it is unexpected and sudden.”
Their fear was compounded in August 1965 when the British Foreign Relations Office received a confidential telegram from Nairobi about Kenyatta’s impending resignation.
According to the telegram, he had already informed Dr Apollo Milton Obote of Uganda and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania about his intentions on August 20, 1965, and the matter was to be discussed further at a meeting that was to be held on August 31 of the same year.
After this meeting, Kenyatta was to issue a statement saying that in view of his age, he would be retiring to Gatundu, leaving the work of the Presidency to be handled by his nephew, the Minister for Internal Security and Defence, Dr Njoroge Mungai, assisted by Mr Ronald Ngala and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as joint vice presidents.
The source of the information was later revealed as Mr Tom Mboya, the then Minister for Economic Planning and Development.
Although the authenticity of the information could not be verified, the claims did cause great anxiety in the British government and among local politicians.
In London, a meeting was held between the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Sir Malcolm McDonald, and senior officials at the Commonwealth Relations Office to discuss the situation.
Despite MacDonald giving a reassuring report that Kenyatta was in robust physical health and showed no signs of relinquishing power, the CRO went on to commission a study which it hoped would help it foresee and analyse the position that was likely to arise if Kenyatta resigned or died.
Part of a paper titled “After Kenyatta Who?” which was produced as a result of the study, read: “The removal of Kenyatta’s control over the Kenya Government poses dangers to the British and the Western positions. There may be a reduction of British influence, the reduction of British expatriates and the growth of communism.”
It went on: “It is worth noting that both Odinga and Kaggia are not 100 per cent fit. Odinga suffers from diabetes, Kaggia from ulcers.”
According to the paper, the only way out of the quagmire was by Kenyatta grooming a successor who could be courted in advance.
But Kenyatta was not in a hurry to do so. His silence over his successor was highly criticised by many, for it had not only caused anxiety of a possible crisis in case of his death, but was also to blame for the cracks within Kanu.
Initially, Finance Minister James Gichuru had been thought of as the most probable successor but his poor health made him a nonstarter.
Although a vice president had no automatic right to succession, according to the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment Bill) of 1964, the position did put its holder in a vantage position in the succession race.
Following the resignation of Odinga in 1966, Kenyatta appointed the Minister for State, Joseph Murumbi, who was seen as a less divisive figure, as the new vice president.
So subtle was the succession issue that when Murumbi also expressed his intentions to resign just months into his new job, President Kenyatta requested him to stay on for a few months to allow him time to find his replacement.
Among the frontrunners for the vice presidency were Gichuru, Ngala, and Daniel arap Moi. A report compiled by the East African Department on the suitability of the three stated: “Gichuru, though still the favourite Kikuyu son, is rather lacking fire.
Moi, though lacking in intelligence and savoir faire, enjoys a reputation as a man of action even if misdirected; while Ngala, though an old opponent, is currying favour and now comes more into the running.” Kenyatta eventually settled on Moi following Njonjo’s advice.
Despite being the vice president, Moi was less and less mentioned as even a compromise successor until later on.
Kenyatta however respected him for his honesty and loyalty.
Sir Erick Norris, who took over as the British High Commissioner, also noted his honesty but greatly doubted his suitability as a successor, stating: “But we know from our own observation as well as from the authoritative word of expatriate advisers who have seen him acting as chairman of various committees that he is mentally very slow and at the same time prone to intractable stubbornness.”
To many educated Kenyans, and forward-looking politicians, Mboya was the ablest politician to take over from Kenyatta.
Among those who held this view was Kenyatta’s niece Beth Mugo (now senator and former MP for Dagoretti South).
In a documented conversation she had with John Lings, the First Secretary at the British High Commission, who described her as a very intelligent lady, she said Mboya was the only politician who had the ability to succeed her uncle, observing that Kenya could not afford to waste such a brilliant mind.
However, this was her personal opinion, which had no influence on the members of the Gatundu group, led by Njonjo, who had side-lined Mboya.
At one point Mboya complained to an American businessman how he was restricted from meeting Kenyatta unless Njonjo was present, the papers reveal.
Instead, the Gatundu group had settled on Moi as a compromise candidate with a misguided assumption that they would one day use him as a stepping stone to the presidency.
The only member of the group whose loyalty was highly doubted, especially by Moi, was Mungai.
He had his own ambitions, which were underlaid by his own belief that he was entitled to succeed Kenyatta by virtue of being his nephew.
The Americans were discreetly working hard to convince him to work with Mboya, and had even undertaken to “subsidise the education of his non-marital teenage daughter who was studying in America”, according to the confidential papers.
On August 8, 1968, Wendell Coote’, the American Charge d’ Affaires, informed Lings that Mungai, with whom he had just held discussions, was now ready to work with Mboya.
Mungai later on informed Major General Bernard Penford, the Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, that he was not backing Moi as a long-term presidential successor but only as an interim president for the 90 days.
So bad was the distrust between Moi and Mungai that when a meeting of a secret committee formed to make contingency arrangements for a state funeral and security in case of Kenyatta’s death was convened on June 19, 1968, Njonjo intentionally stayed away to enable Moi develop confidence in Mungai.
Njonjo’s plan seemed to have worked out well because, after the meeting, Moi allowed Mungai to sit in the National Security Council.
After the passing of constitutional amendments of 1968, and the assassination of Mboya, who was his main rival, very few hurdles stood on Moi’s way to become Kenyatta’s successor.