Lee Njiru has written a memoir sprinkled with humour, full of personal insights into the Kenyan presidency and the people who have worked closely with Kenya’s first two presidents.
Njiru should have an idea about the Kenyan presidency because he worked for the Presidential Press Service (PPS) for about 25 years, from 1977 to 2002. For 24 of those 25 years, he served as the director of PPS, making him the service’s longest serving director.
In his memoir, Presidents’ Pressman that was published in July this year, Njiru offers a look into the inner workings of State House Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa covering about a quarter of century’s worth of history. Presidents’ Pressman does not, however, stop at 2002 when Daniel arap Moi exited State House after he was constitutionally bound to leave office. Njiru continued to work for Moi when he went into retirement and the memoir covers what happened from that period until the day Moi died on 4 February 2020.
In total, Presidents’ Pressman covers a period spanning more than four decades, giving Njiru the difficult task of deciding what to include in the book. He rarely refers to global issues such as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that dominated world politics and whether it had any impact on State House. Njiru does, however, write about some of the events and people in African politics as they applied to Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and Moi, his successor.
What he does narrate in some detail are the goings-on in the last year or so of Kenyatta’s presidency. Alcoholism among some of the senior staff is a theme. Njiru makes allegations of sexual assault involving people who organised school choirs to sing for Kenyatta. He also writes about the challenges of taking care of someone in their sunset years. This is a theme he returns to in the latter part of President’s Pressman while he shares insights into Moi’s retirement years.
Njiru is candid about the personalities of the two presidents he served under. He shares quite a bit, too much for some, so I will focus on his observations of Moi, Kenya’s longest serving president and whom Njiru served as PPS Director for the entire duration of his presidency.
In Presidents’ Pressman, Njiru presents a Moi different from his public image of an autocratic, ever-in-control leader: Moi the insecure man. Njiru describes how different leaders played on Moi’s fear of being deposed to extort money from him. The leaders would, either directly or through an intermediary Moi trusted, present young men they claimed were disgruntled military men or being trained as militiamen. The leaders presented these men as repentant people who had planned to overthrow Moi.
Njiru says he and the commandant of the Presidential Escort at the time, Stanley Kiptum Manyinya, devised a way to challenge those who came up with such schemes. They got Moi to accept that the next time he was asked to meet such a group he would have them first meet with Njiru and Manyinya, who would test their knowledge of small arms.
Sometime after the test was agreed to, Njiru says a Cabinet minister went to Moi with five young men and claimed they had been trained to overthrow him. Njiru says that Moi did as they had agreed and he and Manyinya tested the young men before their scheduled meeting with the president. The young men were taken to a building away from the main State House building where Njiru said he and Manyinya had placed various rifles and pistols on a long table. Njiru said Manyinya took charge and called the young men one by one.
“Pick the gun you are comfortable with, strip it and reassemble, and explain how it is used,” Njiru quotes Manyinya in Presidents’ Pressman telling each young man. Njiru says none of them knew anything about guns.
“One said he had been a cook, another had worked in a laundry. They all received Manyinya’s punches. One of them was floored. Another spat blood. They could not run away as they were surrounded by presidential security officers. Later they were allowed to leave, their heads hanging in shame. The politician who had brought them also left State House terribly embarrassed,” Njiru writes.
“This measure by Manyinya reduced the incidents of politicians and gullible friends of Moi bringing conmen to instill fear and fleece the President,” says Njiru.
There is much much more than can be said about Njiru’s Presidents’ Pressman. For one, Njiru could have offered some introspection about the Presidential Press Service and his role in it, especially since he was its longest serving director. Why was it started and how would he compare it to its counterpart services around the world? Was he conflicted as a pressman, by implication being an advocate for free expression, and the work he did for a dictator whose default position was to stifle expression?
As I said there is much much more that can be said about Njiru’s Presidents’ Pressman.