The late Geoffrey Kariithi Karekia; Kenyatta’s ultimate assignee

Since Independence, every subsequent presidential era in Kenya has had its own set of highs and crises. Each of those glorious moments or crises—right through the, thus far, three presidencies—has had its own assignees, arbiters or aficionados.

The more visible of Kibaki’s era umpires have been the Francis duo (Amb Muthaura and Kimemia) in back-to-back succession as Permanent Secretary/Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service. Some merry-andrew recently referred to the Kibaki era assignees as ‘Franciscan’ but whether this is sheer coincidence or something to do with Francis of Assisi is another matter altogether.

Former President Moi had a retinue of oft-shuffled fixers, intercessors and matchmakers littered throughout his 24-year long reign that lasted from 1979 to 2002. Of them all, the most memorable holdouts could well be those associated with the no-nonsense career administrator, Simeon Nyachae, Professor Philip Mbithi, Moi’s 1992 master political landscapist or the astute Dr Sally Kosgei. The rest of the Moi era power barons and anchors (have) lived to tell tales of either extreme woe or adventure—or of a curious mix of both—some of which culminated into thrillers of sassy proportions.

Going by the one-on-one accounts I had in the course of the midwifery of the memoirs of former Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet and later Governor of the Central Bank Mr Duncan Ndegwa’s (“Walking in Kenyatta Struggles”) and the the-yet-to-be-published autobiography of Ndegwa’s successor at the headship of the Civil Service—the late G.K. Kariithi—the Kenyatta era spanning 15 years between 1963 and 1978 had only a handful of real movers and shakers. Many who now lay claim to having been at the centre of action during Mzee’s era, it may seem, are mere gadfly intent on revising history for reasons tied to undeserved self-elevation.

Among the real whips and spark plugs at varying levels, points and intensity throughout Kenyatta’s aeon include Sir Charles Mugane Njonjo, Duncan Ndegwa, Dr Njoroge Mungai and the now late Geoffrey Kariithi Karekia among a few select others. Of them all, Geoffrey Kariithi’s tenure at the very pinnacle of the Civil Service offered him an open cheque to wield immense, even vulgar, power and influence. Instead the late GK seems to have bear-hugged his high moment with unusual sense of grace, duty and loyalty.

Kariithi’s 12-year perch at the peak of the Civil Service was not without its share of drama and crises. But it is not so much the reason or circumstances of the dire straits of his time. Rather, what really stands out about Kariithi is his presence of mind and astuteness with which the he navigated round the numerous landmines of the time.

As Head of the Civil Service, the late G.K. Kariithi had to deal with scores of the pickles, tight spots, dilemmas and predicaments to ensure his boss and the Government did not lose face. Those moments range from the imbroglio visited upon a newly independent Kenya by Somali secessionists, through to political fallouts to assassinations of key personalities in society.

As if to sprinkle chilli dust onto the eyes, all these happenings took place against a backdrop of a persistent cloud of unease overhung the Kenyatta administration following Pio Gama Pinto’s assassination in 1965, the fall-out between Jaramogi and Kenyatta as well as the nuisance caused by the remnants of the Mau Mau guerrilla fighters, some still hiding in the forest, demanding a ‘proper reward’. Yet these were the eerie circumstances, complete with echoes of doubt that Kariithi had to endure.

But of the many misadventures of the Kenyatta era, the 1969 assassination of Tom Mboya and its aftermath became a plague that would polarize the enduring Kikuyu-Luo relations. Shamefully, the right antidote to quash this inter-ethnic irritancy once and for all does not seem to have been found.

As told by the late G.K. Kariithi in his soon-to-be-published memoirs, all security indicators and advice thereof suggested that Kenyatta should not travel to Kisumu to open the Russian-sponsored hospital. And Kariithi faithfully told his boss as much. However an incensed Kenyatta whose gallantry appeared to have been prickled inquired from Kariithi; “Geoffrey, is Kisumu in Kenya?”

The late Kariithi knew too well what his boss’ snooty question implied. So Kenyatta trooped to Kisumu. And as predicted, the scene in Kisumu turned ugly. Kenyatta was livid. He never returned to Kisumu in his lifetime.

The rest of the details of this encounter are well-acknowledged oftentimes in hyperbole and with a tinge of fantasy. Other times the story of Kisumu is told in carefully edited dosages. I am persuaded that the late Kariithi’s upcoming memoir is both fresh and accurate.

Similar accounts from the horse’s own mouth also captured in Kariithi’s memoirs offer first-hand accounts of other Kenyatta era jolts including the 1971 failed coup attempt, the 1975 JM assassination saga and of course, the nerve-raking and intrigue-ridden Kenyatta succession story.

When all is said and done, both from deductions from G.K’s memoirs manuscript and reminiscences of his contemporaries and protégés, the late Geoffrey Kariithi Karekia bows out of the scene as an illustrious and steadfast public servant.