28 January 2002

Kenya: A Choice of Seven Grand Homes: Which Will Moi Opt for?

President Moi addresses a delegation at his Kabarak home. In the background is his house.

Which of President Moi's scattered homes will form his retirement abode when he leaves State House in January next year? The President has seven private residences - one in the capital, Nairobi, and six in Rift Valley Province. Of the seven, only two - Kabarnet Gardens in the neighbourhood of Nairobi's Kibera slums and Kabarak farm, at Rongai near Nakuru town - are well known.

The rest are ideal getaway resorts. They are the Duke of Gloucester farmhouse at the foot of Cherangany Hills in Trans Nzoia District, Rumuruti Gardens in Rumuruti, Laikipia District, Kambi-Moi at Eldama Ravine in Koibatek District, his Sacho ancestral home in Baringo District and a farmhouse at his 3,500-hectare farm at Ziwa near Eldoret town.

The President has a special attachment to each of his seven homes. He could, for different reasons, retain a presence at each of them after leaving State House.

The city home that came to be known as Kabarnet Gardens was constructed on a half-acre plot by the colonial government in the late 1940s. It was for the deputy governor of the Kenya colony, who lived at Government House, later renamed State House, Nairobi, at independence.

When Kenya became a republic on December 12, 1964, the deputy governor's house became the official residence of the vice-president. Its first occupant was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had to be persuaded to leave his humble house in Jerusalem Estate, a working class suburb of Nairobi, when he became Kenyatta's number two.

The Odinga family lived at Kibera until the veteran politician fell out with Kenyatta in 1966 and resigned.

Kabarnet Gardens remained unoccupied for about a year as Mr Odinga's successor, Mr Joseph Murumbi, preferred to live in his house on Limuru Road next to Muthaiga.

On his appointment as vice-president in January 1967, Mr Moi, to everybody's surprise, shifted to Kabarnet Gardens in the neighbourhood of Nairobi's Kibera slum.

So impressed was Mzee Kenyatta by Mr Moi's decision - when his other ministers scampered to the exclusive suburbs of the city - that he decreed the Kabarnet Gardens be given to Mr Moi for good.

"Mzee was touched by Moi's humility, his readiness to share a neighbourhood with ordinary wananchi," a former State House worker told the Nation.

Old house stands

It is a sign of President Moi's attachment to the original Kibera house that he lived in it for over 10 years - long after he had become President - before a new one was put up. The house he occupies today was built by Mugoya Construction and Engineering in the late 1980s. He ordered that the old house should not be demolished, even as he moved into the new one.

The President routinely begins his working day at Kabarnet Gardens before 5am and returns by 7pm. A workaholic, the President often retires to bed after 10pm, says a former aide.

Not even his private home offers the Head of State privacy. In fact, close associates say it is at Kabarnet Gardens - which is more accessible to his personal friends than State House - that political scheming takes place.

Philip Mbithi, who was head of the Civil Service between 1991 and 1996, came to regard Kabarnet Gardens as the "house of coups" during his years at the Office of the President.

Decisions taken by the Cabinet would sometimes be subverted by meetings of political operatives held at Kabarnet Gardens.

"We would meet as government and make decisions, only later to learn they had been overturned at an informal meeting held at the Kabarnet Gardens," says the one-time Nairobi University Vice-Chancellor.

Some time in 1995, the chairman of a farming institution in which the government had a stake wanted a Sh1 billion debt paid by the Exchequer.

Prof Mbithi advised him to prepare a Cabinet paper through the Permanent Secretary of his parent ministry. The paper was tabled before ministers and rejected.

"The Cabinet under the chairmanship of the President was unanimous that the government had no business bailing out semi-private institutions that failed to post profit," recalls Prof Mbithi.

Who chaired the meeting?

Two days later, the head of the Civil Service received a phone call from the same man with a fresh request that his institution be bailed out.

"I am sorry, but it can't just happen," Prof Mbithi said, "the Cabinet has already said No!"

"Fine, but who chaired the Cabinet meeting?"

"His Excellency the President, of course," Prof Mbithi retorted.

"Now, listen Bwana Professor," the executive said, "Right now I'm calling from Kabarnet Gardens. The President says you should do something about the matter."

Prof Mbithi understood the veiled threat and agonised over it through the night. He contacted the then permanent secretary in charge of internal security, Mr Wilfred Kimalat, whom he believed was closer to the President.

Mr Kimalat told him: "You will have to understand how this place works. As long as the President has not personally spoken to you, just stay put and do nothing. You have the Cabinet resolution."

Prof Mbithi heeded Mr Kimalat's advice and nothing happened.

"You won't get to know Moi the person until you have a session with him at Kabarnet Gardens," said a security officer who has worked at State House.

Many are the nights that the President sits up late by the fireside chatting with his security staff and others at Kabarnet Gardens.

"He would ask about our families and what progress we were making in life. He would pick on an officer and ask whether he has a house in the rural area. If the answer was to the contrary, he would sometimes offer to help," says the man, who for years had a ringside view of life at the top.

President Moi, he says, has a soft spot for his personal staff - until they are caught in serious misconduct. The story is told of a security officer who would sneak into the President's bedroom and pull out currency notes from his jacket. Foolishly, he believed no-one noticed.

Then one evening, as the President chatted with his men by a log fire at Kabarnet Gardens, the cat leapt out of the bag.

"So-and-so (name withheld), you think you are clever," he remarked. "You have been pinching my money and you think I don't notice. I forgive you. Don't do it again."

The grand seven

In retirement, President Moi is likely to retain Kabarnet Gardens as his operation base when in the capital. He must keep his hand on the pulse of the country's politics.

A happy early family picture taken of Mr Moi, his wife Lena and some of their children. The family has fond memories of its Kambi-Moi home in Koibatek District.

Kabarak: Built on an expansive farm at Rongai, about 20 kilometres from Nakuru, the President's Kabarak home was equipped with an eye on the future. It has an airstrip, complete with a radar manned by the Kenya Airports Authority.

Kabarak would be a suitable spring board for diplomatic shuttles should a retired President Moi plunge into regional politics. The first foreign leader to land at Kabarak airport was Mr Nelson Mandela, when he visited Kenya shortly before his country's independence in April 1994. It is here that Moi the elder statesman would receive foreign leaders seeking his wise counsel or intervention.

Kabarak neighbours Gicheha Farm, owned by the Kenyatta family. Mzee Kenyatta was known to spend a lot of time at Gicheha, inspecting his herd of cattle.

President Moi's other neighbours at Kabarak are former Cabinet Minister George Muhoho, Kenya Power and Lighting Company Managing Director Samuel Gichuru and former Kenya Airports Authority boss Peter Langat. Other nearby landmarks are Kabarak University and Kabarak High School, both built on land provided by the President.

It was at Kabarak that he technically became President. He was winding up a weekend in the countryside when he heard a faint click on his faulty telephone. He picked up the receiver, although the phone had not rang. In came the now famous message that changed the country's history.

"Kenya has lost its eyes," whispered the Coast Provincial Commissioner, Mr Eliud Mahihu, on the crackling line. Kenyatta had died on the night of August 22, 1978, and Vice-President Moi was required urgently at State House, Mombasa.

It was also at Kabarak where Moi received news that rebel Airforce soldiers had overthrown his government on August 1, 1982.

Fearing that the house might be bombed by the mutineers, bodyguard Elijah Sumbeiywo decided that they should leave the compound for a place of hiding.

"No, I'm not moving from this house," the President replied. "Do you think I'm a coward?"

His other aides finally persuaded the Head of State to be driven away in a nondescript Peugeot to a safe location, according to his biographer, Andrew Morton. Many agree that had he been in the capital, the President's personal security would have been greatly at risk.

For many years, Kabarak was little more than a modest house President Moi had built when he was vice-president. The palatial structure he occupies now was constructed in the 1980s.

Much of the 1992 election plotting took place at Kabarak, says a member of the Youth for Kanu '92 campaign group. The group, which was pivotal to Kanu's performance in the fiercely fought polls, would line up delegations to meet the head of state at Kabarak from 3am and others as late as midnight.

As Kanu national chairman, the retired President will find Kabarak useful for receiving delegations from all corners of the country.

Ziwa Farm, Eldoret

Widespread speculation that President Moi was building a retirement home on his 3,500-hectare farm in Eldoret have been disproved by the Nation. Ziwa farm was previously owned by Lonrho, through its subsidiary, East African Tanning Extract Company.

The only sign of habitation is a simple farm-house occupied by a small contingent of GSU officers guarding the farm. The President has leased part of the farm to the Kenya Seed Company. He rears dairy cattle on the remaining portion.

Duke of Gloucester house: An old colonial house heavily guarded by the GSU stands at the foot of Cherangany Hills in Trans Nzoia District. It is here that the President has sometimes been seen with his grandchildren and long-standing friends.

Gloucester House has been the venue of discreet meetings the President considers politically necessary. It is at the remote farm house that he met Leader of the Official Opposition Mwai Kibaki in the company of an Ol-Kalou councillor during the Easter of 1999.

"They just drove in with only a chauffeur in a small Nissan Sunny. The President, who they found waiting at the door, had personally given orders that the gate be opened for them without questions. After about an hour, a beaming Moi came out with his guests and escorted them right to the driveway. You could see it was a very private meeting."

Friends say Cherangany is too distant from the political hotbeds of Nairobi and Nakuru to be a regular retreat for the hyperactive Kanu chairman.

Kambi-Moi farm, Koibatek District: It was the President's rural home long before he shifted to Kabarak farm. It is at Kambi-Moi that he brought up all his children. Their mother, Lena Moi, still lives on the farm. The President's children are fond of Kambi-Moi, which carries memories of their childhood.

The eldest son, Mr Jonathan Toroitich, a rally driver, likes to practise for races on the Kambi-Moi dirt tracks.

Sacho: Not many know that President Moi has a modern house at his birthplace in Sacho, Baringo District. It is an imposing sight as one drives down the escarpment on the Eldoret-Kabarnet road.

Moi had it built when he was vice-president and gave it a face-lift later in his presidency. He only uses it when visiting his Baringo Central constituency. Associates says the President values the Sacho house as a symbol of his ancestral roots.

His only brother, William Tuitoek, who died in 1995, lived nearby. Mr Tuitoek is the man who brought up young Moi after their parents died when the future President was only four years old.

As a tribute to the African Inland Church missionaries who looked after him in his youth, President Moi has built a magnificent AIC church next door to his Sacho home.

Rumuruti: Some of the presidential associates believe that what is regarded as the Rumuruti State Lodge is actually President Moi's personal house. The Nation could not confirm this, however.

It stands on the banks of the Gale-Narok River and was built in the early 1980s, when Mr G.G. Kariuki was a key Moi confidant.

The President lodges there when visiting Mount Kenya region. In the multi-party era, it has been useful as staging point for campaigns in the Opposition-dominated Central Province.

If Mr Moi remains Kanu's national chairman and if indeed the Rumuruti home belongs to him, then he will have definite use for it on leaving State House.

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