Lee Njiru joined State House in 1976 aged 28 as President Jomo Kenyatta’s information officer, thanks to the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia by Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974.
Burning Spear, as Kenyatta was fondly referred to by his supporters, particularly held two world leaders of his time in high esteem: Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Emperor Selassie, with whom they had a defence pact.
Kenyatta was so fascinated with the Selassie that he ensured the emperor was Kenya’s first foreign dignitary when he invited him to the Madaraka Day celebrations in June, 1964.
During his 15-year rule, Kenyatta made only two foreign trips: to England in 1964 and to Ethiopia in 1969, where the country’s fighter jets formed the name ‘JOMO’ in the sky.
As a reward for their close friendship, the animal-loving Selassie gifted his counterpart a white Ethiopian poodle called Addis, named after capital, Addis Ababa.
Mzee didn’t like pets but, according to Mr Njiru, the President ordered State House to buy a brand new luxury Mercedes Benz 280S to chauffer his friend’s furry gift.
“Addis had his own driver and normally sat back left whenever he accompanied Mzee during his long working tours around the country,” he said.
But the ouster and eventual killing of Selassie left Mzee perturbed and badly shaken.
Distrustful of Mengistu, he wanted an experienced person to be his eyes and ears in Addis Ababa.
For the job, he dispatched his experienced information officer at State House, Francis Mungai Kamau, to Ethiopia to find out what the military junta was up to.
Mr Njiru, who at the time was an information officer in Kakamega, was called to replace Kamau at State House.
Thus began his long career at the Presidential Press Unit.
His first meeting at State House, Nakuru, with the mysterious Kenyatta left him in awe and shaken.
“I arrived in the evening and met him with Mbiyu Koinange (a powerful Cabinet minister and Kenyatta’s brother-in-law). Mzee asked me, “Will you do my work?” I replied, “I will try.” Mzee roared back ‘Whose work are you going to attempt? Kenyatta’s work is done, not attempted!’” remembers Mr Njiru.
Kenyatta flavoured his admonition of the young Njiru with a few sexually explicit insults he was well known for before cutting the trembling young man before him some slack.
“I did not know I was trembling until Mzee drew the attention of Mbiyu to the fact,” recalls Mr Njiru.
“Mbiyu told him ‘It is only proper for a servant to tremble in front of his master,’ to which Mzee remarked, ‘Mbiyu, so you are clever sometimes.’”
By the time Mr Njiru joined PPU, Kenyatta had started suffering health complications related to old age.
He had delegated most of his international travels to his Vice-President Daniel arap Moi.
It is during this time that Mr Njiru met Moi and established a friendship that endures to date.
“He requested that whenever I sent any stories about Mzee to the Voice of Kenya (later renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), I also mention him and tell the country what he was doing as VP,” he said.
When Kenyatta died in 1978 (Njiru has argued in past articles that Mzee was neglected in his last days by his handlers who were more interested in succession schemes), he remained at PPU.
“I worked non-stop for 24 years. Not even for one day did I take leave. I was on call every hour of the day or night for the entire duration of Moi’s presidency,” he said.
Over the years, he gained a reputation as the most powerful individual around Moi outside Rift Valley power brokers, an matter that did not sit well with some members of the President’s kitchen cabinet.
He said some influential people around the President began a whispering campaign hoping to have him kicked out of PPU chiefly on account of his tribe – he is from Embu – but Moi stood his ground.
“My proudest moment during my time in the civil service was when Mzee summoned Phares Kuindwa (Head of Public Service 1996-1999) and Wilson Chepkwony (State House comptroller 1998-1999) and told them them they could touch anyone else in government, but not Lee Njiru. I felt appreciated and protected,” he said.
Besides Moi, he credits Dr Sally Kosgei (Head of Public Service from 2001-2003), Dr Richard Leakey (Head of Public Service from 1999-2001), Mr Abraham Kiptanui (State House comptroller 1999-2002) and Mr Gaylord Avedi (director of personnel management) for shielding him from his detractors within the civil service.
He also thanks Moi’s son Gideon, the Baringo Senator, for defending him.
Although he was part of the circle that had Moi’s ear, Mr Njiru was not associated with the excesses of the Kanu regime, especially the looting of State resources.
Born in Runyenjes in 1949, he studied at Kangaru Boys’ High School where he completed his ‘O’ levels in 1968.
He was briefly employed by the National Cereals and Produce Board in 1969.
Mr Njiru joined Kenya Institute of Mass Communications in 1974 and graduated with a diploma.
He was employed the following year as an information officer in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Nairobi.
In early 1976, he was posted to Kakamega in the same capacity before being posted to State House later that year, where he spent the rest of his professional life until Moi’s retirement in 2002.
Mr Njiru is the longest serving head of the PPU and it is unlikely that any of his successors will ever wield the influence he had on the public and private media.