Sometime at the end of April, 1968, President Jomo Kenyatta suffered a heart attack at his Bamburi home in Mombasa.
The President, who fell into a coma for three days, had been driven to the Coast for what was described as a “busy working holiday.”
This incident sparked off a fierce jostling for power within government and the ruling party Kanu. It involved politicians Mbiyu Koinange, Njoroge Mungai, Tom Mboya, and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo.
At the Coast, part of the planned activities for the President was a Labour Day rally on May 1, where, according to the itinerary, he was to arrive at 10 am.
Everything was set for the function.
At 10 am there was no President Kenyatta. Instead, Dr Njoroge Mungai, then Minister for Defence and Kenyatta’s personal physician, arrived at the stadium with the President’s official speech. Although the Minister for Labour, Ngala Mwendwa, was there, Dr Mungai insisted that he was representing Kenyatta.
There was no mention of Kenyatta’s whereabouts. The next day, May 2, at State House Mombasa, Attorney-General Charles Njonjo arrived with puisne judge Justice Dennis Farrell. He wanted him sworn in as the new Chief Justice to replace Sir John Ainley, who had retired.
The picture taken during the swearing in showed Kenyatta sitting on a sofa-set, while everyone else stood.
The head of Presidential Press Unit, Mr Kenyanjui Kariuki, guarded the leaks. But on the afternoon of May 4, British journalist David Carlsberg, who was a sub-editor at the Daily Nation, was given a cryptic teleprinter message from a Mombasa correspondent that some medical equipment had been rushed to the residence of a “certain person.”
George Githii, a former private secretary to the President, was Nation’s Editor-in-Chief. He had also got wind of the rumour from his many State House sources. He confirmed the obvious: Kenyatta was in a coma after suffering another stroke.
Within an hour, Githii had flown to Mombasa and two journalists. Carlsberg and Philip Ochieng were taken off their normal duties to prepare a 16-page supplement on the death of the President.
Mr Ochieng wrote the stories capturing the life of the President and they were all laid and encased with a heavy black border. As Mr Carlberg would recall to the Reading Chronicle in 1978, that was the night of the long wait:
“By nightfall, there was no news yet. It became the longest night I have ever known. Nearly everyone stayed at the office, journalists and the printing workers. People just sat around, hardly saying a word, expecting the telephone to ring any second. At 3 am, I was told to go home and be at work at 7.30 am. The paper was sent to press without the supplement.”
Kenyatta never died. But the story was kept in safe custody and would be used in 1978, just hours after Kenyatta’s death.
As rumours persisted, on May 7, Dr Mungai broke the silence and admitted that the President had been “indisposed for the last three days.” He added a rider which was an obvious lie: with “fever”.
Every day, for the next two days, Dr Mungai, who had taken charge, would release a “Medical Bulletin” on the President’s health. The most classic was the May 8 edition, which simply said that Kenyatta had “normal meals and had been out of bed for a walk”. The reality was that Kenyatta had almost died.
Former Central Bank governor, Duncan Ndegwa, who was one of the first people to visit Kenyatta after he regained consciousness, would later write that the President had been in a coma for three days at his Bamburi home.
“Mzee wanted the state of his health kept secret… (Those) were three days of uncertainty …and when he came out, I asked him what had happened. He replied that he had visited weru wa mukaaga (expansive plain),” wrote Mr Ndegwa in his book, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles.
Unknown to many, the May 1968 incident kick-started what would become a ruthless Kenyatta succession struggle. For the first time, associates of Kenyatta realised that anytime soon, the President would die.
By law, Daniel arap Moi would have automatically succeeded Kenyatta, but he was hardly a year in office as Vice-President.
On May 10, three days after Kenyatta woke up from the coma, he was driven to the nearby Bamburi Lodge, where he made his first public appearance accompanied by his wife, Mama Ngina. That morning, Dr Mungai had issued a bulletin saying Kenyatta was “in good health” and was able to walk.
A brief function was held, more of a public relations exercise, in which Kenyatta handed over a tree seedling to his Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, to go and plant in the Shimba Hills during the national tree planting day.
The news of Kenyatta’s illness had sent everyone in panic. That Sunday, the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK) instructed all the member churches to conduct “special prayers.” Other prayers were said at the Siri Gurdwara Temples, Legio Maria churches and at the Mosques. The official account was that Kenyatta had “an ordinary fever.” That is what North-Eastern Provincial Commissioner, Mr Godhard Mburu, told a prayer meeting in Garissa.
While there was total secrecy on Kenyatta’s health, it was not lost to observers in 1968 that he was unable to travel to the May 13 Summit of East and Central African States, where he was represented by Moi, who told the parley that “Mzee was slightly indisposed and is now well.”
As the western media reported that Kenyatta had suffered a heart attack, Dr Mungai told Parliament that the President did not have a heart attack, coronary thrombosis or any illness of that nature. “This has been said in several overseas papers, but it’s not true,” he said.
Mungai added that “all traces of the President’s indisposition have now disappeared and I am sure the whole country will rejoice in this matter.”
It was KPU member, Mr Tom Okello-Odongo, who had demanded a statement on the health of the President. He wanted to know the origins of the rumours that the President was dead “while actually, he was only slightly indisposed” at his home in Bamburi.
In reply, Dr Mungai said the rumours “must have been started by irresponsible psychotic demagogues”. He sais: “It is not the first time this has been done. I remember that when the President did not go to Mwanza, people said that he was sick, but it was only because his car had broken down.”
It was not the first time that Kenyatta had been indisposed. In July 1966, Dr Mungai had ordered the 75-year old President to take a week-long break. Even then, Dr Mungai refused to disclose the nature of Kenyatta’s illness, apart from the noticeable limping.
When he resurfaced that August, Kenyatta lashed out at the Western media, which had speculated that he was about to retire due to old age.
A state parade was quickly organised in Mombasa and Kenyatta was driven around the coastal town to assuage his supporters.
That Kenyatta was in bad health had been noticed during the April 1962 Lancaster conference, when he went down with “nervous exhaustion” following the marathon talks.
Media reports said then that Kenyatta had an “uneasy night”, and that his personal physician, Dr Mungai, spent the night in the President’s room. Although Kenyatta attended the final meeting on the fate of the coastal strip in the morning, he returned to bed immediately.
After 1968, the battles within Kanu started. That June, some radical changes were made to the Constitution as tensions within the party increased. Kenyatta’s right-hand man, Mr Mbiyu Koinange, and finance minister Mr James Gichuru, started plotting, with Mr Njonjo in tow.
The General Election was months away. A group led by 37-year-old economic planning minister Tom Mboya, was also plotting to control Kanu and get ready to take on the Mungai-Gichuru-Koinange group.
Mr Mboya was not lucky. Just as Kenyatta was recovering from the stroke, the Constitutional amendment Bill (No 2) of May 1968 was passed on June 25. It simply stated that if the Presidency became vacant, the vice-President would take over for three months and with limited powers. Initially, the Koinange group wanted the successor to be elected by Parliament acting as an electoral college.
In March, 1968, another Bill had been taken to Parliament stating that if the President died, the Vice-President would succeed him for the rest of the term. This was amended to six months, and also disqualified independent candidates from running. It was claimed that this was a Moi-Njonjo-Mungai Bill.
When Kenyatta suffered a heart attack in April, 1968 the Bill was still under discussion and a chance to lock out contestants was brought. This time, the minimum age for contesting the Presidency age was increased from 35 to 40. It was clear that the target here was Mboya, who was 37.
From then, Mboya, who could not run as an independent and by virtue of his age, had an ambivalent relationship with the group, which was more worried about losing grip on power. Kanu was also going through a political turmoil and there was fear that Mboya had become a populist for his anti-Asian policies.
On July 6, 1969 Mboya was gunned down on Government Road.
The waiting for Kenyatta to pass on continued until 1978.