Godfrey Gitahi Kariuki is a man for all seasons. From a white settler’s ‘kitchen boy’ to a minister and legislator in the four post-independence administrations, he has seen it all.
When we sought out the Laikipia senator this week, we found a man who has defied his age and is a repository of Kenya’s history. Sitting through the interview with the self-effacing man, we couldn’t help feeling we were drinking from a well of wisdom.
The 1982 attempted coup-era Internal Security minister thinks the current managers of Kenya’s security have lost the plot and that terrorists have won the moral war.
The celebrated Taekwondo combatant would not tell us the books he is reading, saying even at 76, he cannot be boxed into a template interview. He told us why he believes former President Kibaki is a child of chance and why he is back to school for his PhD.
In the 1961 pre-independence General Election, you were picked by Kanu to run for the Lodwar seat. Why did you chicken out?
I did not chicken out. I travelled for three months but had not covered the constituency by the time I dropped out. The constituency comprised the present Turkana, Samburu and Isiolo and Marsabit counties. The campaigns were going on well as I spoke Turkana and Samburu fluently. But at some point we were able to convince a local politician, Mr Peter Areman, to join Kanu.
Our mission fulfilled, I returned home. On the campaign trail, I met Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who supported me. He had finished his seven-year jail term, but his movements were restricted to Lodwar.
He was able to do a few things given that he knew quite a number of people there. The first time I saw him he was so emaciated. I shed tears.
Yet after he became President you differed so bitterly that you told him even if he were to detain you for 30 years you were still a young man and that you would complete your sentence in time to eat bananas growing on his grave. What had changed?
These are mistakes that young people make. To be frank, I regretted a bit that I made such a serious statement but I passed the message, that we were not ready for a dictatorship. It was very painful to him but the statesman and the elder in him took me as a small boy, which I really was.
I was 22, 23 years. He used to call me a communist and I would say “Mzee, I don’t know those things.” Then he would say: “You know I have been in Europe for 15 years and I have interacted with the proponents of both capitalism and communism. I advise you to forget these isms and serve your people.” I found him very intelligent.
But Jomo has also been accused of entrenching tribal hegemony and encouraging land grabbing.
If grabbing of land is by buying, then we are all grabbers. There is no day Kenyatta collected Kikuyus and gave them money or jobs. He did not form any land-buying society.
He just opened the gates for the people to look at the things they wanted and these people were not selected from any particular tribe. Land was available to those who knew it was an important commodity for production.
Others saw what was happening but they did not turn up. I still see many lazy people even in Parliament… many vocal MPs who speak buttoning up their suits as if they know anything yet they have not invested.
Your critics charge that you opposed the Change-the-Constitution movement, which sought to bar Vice-President Moi from succeeding Kenyatta, because you believed he was only a passing cloud.
Moi was never declared by anybody a passing cloud, these are total lies. It is the creation of politicians trying to have their case heard. Moi was never seen in those terms.
He took over power from President Kenyatta as stipulated by the Constitution.
If that did not happen, Kenya would have gone military. Those of us around Kenyatta argued that he should be given 90 days so he could prove himself.
But you and Moi would soon differ so sharply that you were ejected from his rally in your backyard, put under house arrest and forced to watch the proceedings with binoculars from your house.
Moi only wanted to demonstrate his power, showing people in my backyard that I was nothing. I have forgiven him.
But I was so much annoyed then. He humiliated me in my backyard. I remember one of the officers telling me that I could use an alternative route to escape but I had an instinct they could follow and kill me. You know politics is a very bad thing.
What of Kibaki?
Kibaki is not a fighter. He is not an organiser. He is just a guy who has enjoyed events. Situations have favoured him all the way, just like the death of Kenyatta made Moi President. Only Uhuru Kenyatta has really fought very hard to become president.
Talking of Uhuru, the guy is trying. He does not owe allegiance to anybody, and he does not need your money. But he is swimming in troubled waters because his predecessors did not make good bridges for true nationalism.
What are your thoughts on women empowerment?
I often laugh when I hear about agitation for women empowerment because they are empowering themselves. They have discovered that power is in knowledge and so when many of young men are engaging in vices, they are going to school.
Whenever I stand on Koinange Street in the evening, I see students pouring out of the university. For every 100, perhaps only ten are men. A wind of change is sweeping across the world. Soon there will be no boundary between the East African countries. You can’t stop economic forces.
What are you reading now?
I am reading a number of titles on international affairs. You know I am pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of Nairobi.
But it is not an easy thing because when you submit your assignments, they have to be original work. If you fail to get it right when presenting a problem those professors will tell you that you are the problem yourself.
But at 76 what drove you back to school?
There is no reason really. My life has been about sports. I have been doing vigorous sports like the Korean martial arts starting with the Taekwondo. I train for one hour every day for three to four days a week from 6.00 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. And so after scaling down on this, I have found myself with a lot of time. I don’t drink or smoke and I am still very energetic.
So when do you read?
I read whenever I fail to catch sleep. I usually sleep by 11 p.m. and by 3 a.m. I am awake. This is when I read up to 5 a.m. then I go back to sleep again up to 7 a.m.
I have two libraries: one in the house and another in the office. I have got bookshelves in my bed room, sitting room and living room.
I am a student of philosophy. I find myself reading more of such works. Unfortunately, I do not have time for novels although they are also a rich source of knowledge and creativity.
You wrote The Illusion of Power, but continued fighting for political power all your life. Why?
It depends on the formation of power. Hans Morgenthau (the political science guru who wrote Politics Among Nations) defines power in terms of interest.
You can say I have power but I see it in terms of meeting interests of the people rather than subduing them. Having 10 chase cars for me is decoration of power and not power in itself; pursuing it is like chasing a mirage.
Who have you, over time, looked up to as your role model?
I admired Tom Mboya. He believed in what he did. He must have been killed because of the ideological warfare pitting capitalism and the communism. The other guy I looked up to was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga whom I found to be a fellow working for the poor.
But I kept testing and changing and when Kenyatta came, I made him the focal point of my study.
They were interesting times. Obote was pursuing the Common Man’s Charter, Nyerere his Ujamaa Philosophy while Kenyatta had his African Socialism-a concept which was difficult to define.
I decided to read so much on International sThe country is today restive with runaway insecurity. What are we not doing right?ecurity literature. This is how I ended up taking International studies.
The country is today restive with runaway insecurity. What are we not doing right?
The problem is the politicisation of the security apparatus. Insecurity, though, is not a new phenomenon.
When I was the Internal Security minister in 1982, The Norfolk was attacked by terrorists. 15 people died and 85 others were injured.
We need to know where terrorists get finances. We need to ensure that we apply the most modern technology to counter this hooliganism. It is sad our security managers have adopted a reactionary approach.
If I were in charge, I would have reviewed the security strategy because it is the same people who have been in charge for a while and they have run out of ideas.
The terrorists have won the moral war by making us continuously talk about them and their evil acts.
Have you had to put your Taekwondo skills to use?
I have never gotten into a brawl even as a child because I consider fighting foolish. It shows you don’t use your brains. But that said I am ready anytime for self-defence. As I walk in town, I usually feel very comfortable as the skills give you a lot of confidence. Even if you try me here, you will see.
How did you come to be a fluent speaker of Maa and Turkana?
I interacted with Maasai and Turkana people for three years during the state of emergency as a small boy. This has made me a star among them and it is a great political capital in the multi-ethnic Laikipia. But again, I do not do politics of blood pressure. If I am defeated I admit and focus on other things. I have been elected six times and thrown out three times.
When requesting for this interview, you told us you do not like Kenyan journalists. What do you hold against us?
I have been deliberately misquoted by the press so many times that I no longer care. Most Kenyan journalists are lazy in terms of the questions they ask.
I do not understand why they cannot ask critical questions. They hit below the belt most of the time. They mostly have fixed minds on almost any subject of interview.
What would you urge us to read?
Read the Constitution to know your country and the Bible to know your God.