On a sunny weekday in early 2016, we were headed to Namanga border town in politician John Keen’s Toyota Land Cruiser — a very comfortable machine that gives you the feeling you’re cruising the skies on autopilot — when his phone rang.
On the line was his personal assistant, a saucy, eye-arresting Samburu girl called Vanilla (yes, the name of the chocolate brand).
She was calling to inform the aged politician that Deputy President William Ruto would be coming for dinner at his Nairobi home that evening.
About a month earlier, an MP from the Rift Valley had casually told Mzee Keen that one of these days he’d have the DP drop in for a meal. But without a definite date, the old man had let it slip off his mind and went about his business.
“We have to turn back to Nairobi,” the old man ordered his driver on receiving the call just as we had passed Isinya township on Namanga Road.
On the way back Mzee Keen asked me: “What is one supposed to serve a DP if he comes to your home for dinner?”
Before I could respond — in any case I had no answer because no DP has ever come to my house for supper — the old man said: “The DP knows he is coming to a Maasai home so he must expect lots of meat.
“We’ll give him that but I’ll also ask my wife to order some mursik (traditionally fermented milk popular with the Kalenjin)”. And that was it.
In Nairobi I retrieved my car from the old man’s compound to give him and his wife No. 3 space to prepare for their VIP guest. (The old man had four wives and he once told me it is bad manners for an African man to have just one wife!)
In contrast, his guest for the evening, like retired President Kibaki, has only one “dear wife” who he met when they were members of the college Christian Union.
A week later, we were back on the road to Namanga to make up for the aborted trip.
On the way, the journalist’s curiosity had me asking Mzee Keen how the dinner with his VIP guest had gone. “It went on very well,” he told me.
“He (the DP) really enjoyed our meal of ugali, goat meat, and mursik. He particularly liked the sour milk and said next time he will come with his wife Rachel for my wife to tell her where she gets the mursik.”
Expectedly, I asked the old man whether he discussed politics with Dr Ruto.
“That’s just about all we talked about in the almost three hours he stayed with us,” replied the old man.
Dr Ruto wanted the veteran politician to give him an analysis of politics and the key players in the larger Maasai land — Kajiado, Narok and Samburu.
The three counties have a million-plus votes, a mouth-watering pool nobody with an eye on State House can ignore.
Dr Ruto was particularly eager to be informed about the complex Maasai clan system which plays out big during elections.
“I found him to be a very keen listener and one who asks penetrating questions”, Mzee Keen said of the DP.
But the veteran politician, too, couldn’t let his visitor go without firing at him his own probing questions. He told me he had looked at the DP straight in the face and asked:
“The President has publicly stated he’ll go for 10 years; then support you to go for your 10 years: Is the promise binding? And if so, do you see the Mount Kenya bloc voting for you just because Uhuru will tell them to do so?”
Mzee Keen told me that after a pause, the DP answered also eyeball to eyeball:
“I have no reason to think the President will renege on his promise. As for Mount Kenya vote, I won’t sit back to wait for automatic endorsement.
When the time comes, I will go there myself and talk to the people. Of course, I will request and really appreciate that the President be with me when seeking support in his backyard.”
The straight-shooting veteran didn’t it leave at that. He asked Dr Ruto what his fallback plan would be should Mount Kenya region decline to vote for him, with or without Uhuru’s endorsement.
He told me Dr Ruto replied that he wouldn’t just be relying on Mount Kenya vote, and joked: “Mzee, I actually came here so that I can ask you to help me get the Maa vote when the time comes!”
Before he left, and as is expected of a relatively youthful politician visiting a veteran, Dr Ruto asked Mzee Keen what advice he had to give as one who had been there, seen this, and done that.
Drawing from a personal experience in a presidential election, and having watched at close quarters the twists and turns of succession politics, Mzee Keen told me he gave the DP two pieces of advice.
The first one is that in politics, one should plan for and expect the best, but at the same time be prepared to live with the worst-case scenario.
Here Mzee Keen drew from a personal experience in the 1992 first multiparty presidential election in the country.
A few months to the polling day, the Democratic Party (DP) candidate, Mwai Kibaki, was the candidate to beat.
Kibaki and Keen were the co-founders of the party and the older man was its secretary-general.
The incumbent, Kanu’s Daniel arap Moi, was all but a besieged man. The erstwhile formidable opposition FORD had splintered into three, with its most promising candidate Kenneth Matiba still recuperating from a stroke.
To the contrary, Kibaki was roaring high. In the absence of Matiba, he had the entire Mount Kenya bloc and the huge Kikuyu “diaspora” vote in Rift Valley and elsewhere under wraps.
He could count on over half of the Nairobi vote, and most importantly, he had managed to penetrate the assumed Kanu zones of Ukambani where Charity Ngilu led the charge for the DP as well as the Coast. He could count on a substantive vote harvest in Kisii, Bungoma, and Trans Nzoia.
Mzee Keen recalled that even diplomats based in Nairobi had begun to seek out Mr Kibaki who, barring massive rigging, they saw as the next occupant of State House.
Then Matiba made a late entry into the fray and Kibaki’s goose was cooked — and eaten overnight.
In a matter of weeks, the latter had lost to Matiba a huge chunk of Mount Kenya except Nyeri, Kirinyaga, and Meru.
The entire Nairobi was gone, as was the Kikuyu diaspora vote in the Rift Valley. “In a matter of days, we had crumbled like a house of cards,” Mzee Keen told me.
He said that illustrated to his visitor the fluid nature of politics, and why it is important to expect the worst even as one hopes for the best.
Mzee Keen told me he cautioned his dinner guest that it may not even be that President Kenyatta will conspire to renege on his pledge, or that Mount Kenya region has anything against him.
The fluid nature of politics, he told him, is just that when the moment comes in 2022, circumstances may have changed.
He told me he reminded his visitor of the case in 2013 when Mount Kenya region wasn’t about to accept outgoing President Kibaki’s choice of Musalia Mudavadi as his successor even if he had insisted as was the wish of his kitchen cabinet.
The other piece of advice to the DP, Mzee Keen recalled, was that he should not keep too near to the centre as to suggest entitlement, nor stay too far from the centre as to be thrown under the bus.
He told me he gave Dr Ruto the analogy of roasting meat where, if it is too close, the meat is consumed by too much fire, but if it is too far it will be eaten raw.
Here he gave examples of the vice-presidents in the reign of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. The first one, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, came too near and the fire burnt him.
Because of his past history with his boss — when they first met the older Kenyatta would borrow money from Jaramogi who would later fight for his release from colonial prison, and help him to be elected first President — Jaramogi saw himself as equal to his boss.
In those early and friendly days, they would publicly appear in similar Luo-beaded caps, walking sticks, and fly-whisks.
Often they would also refer to the other as “my brother”. Sounds familiar? Apparently, the cosiness with the boss gave Jaramogi a sense of entitlement which, Mzee Keen said, isn’t a healthy thing in high-stakes power play.
As for the second VP, Joseph Murumbi, Mzee Keen said he kept too far away from the centre until he was forgotten, and had to resign and quietly disappear from the political charts.
For a winning balance, the third VP, Daniel arap Moi, faked weakness and lack of ambition, but quietly kept in good books of the wielders of power who eventually paved his way to the top.
Unfortunately, Mzee Keen died on the Christmas day of 2016. Were he around today, the DP may have wanted another evening together to review developments such as the Thursday bombshell by Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe — a man not very far from the centre of power — that Mount Kenya region has no MoU to vote for anybody in 2022, and that if there was any such agreement between President Kenyatta and his deputy, “then that is their own personal arrangement!”
By Daily Nation