He is presumed to know the late President Daniel Moi’s top secrets, having remained close to him until his death on Tuesday morning.
When he spoke to the Nation, Lee Njiru, who has been President Moi’s personal assistant and press secretary for 42 years, declared: “Mr Moi was like a father to me.”
After President Mwai Kibaki took over the presidency, Njiru continued to work for Moi, growing even closer to the former Head of State who became “lonely and quiet”.
“We moved from the employer-servant relationship to more of a father-son one. He mentored me. He believed in hard work and did not like high-sounding ideologies,” Mr Njiru said at his Cherrynam Resort in Nakuru.
Mr Njiru was born in Runyenjes in 1949. He went to Kangaru School, where he completed his ‘O’ levels in 1968 and then joined the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication from where he graduated with a Diploma in Journalism and Print Media.
He was then posted to Kakamega in 1975, where he worked as an information officer. He was only 28 years old when he joined State House as an information officer in the Presidential Press Unit (PPU) in 1976.
He recalls his first encounter with President Jomo Kenyatta.
“Kenyatta asked if I was ready to do his work and I replied, ‘I will try’. He sounded very angry when he told me, ‘My work is done, not attempted’,” Mr Njiru said.
By the time he joined the PPU, Kenyatta’s health had started to deteriorate and so then Vice-President Moi attended most functions and travelled for international conferences on his behalf.
“I travelled with him frequently and my dedication earned me his trust. He confided in me and we became very close. I followed all his instructions,” he said.
When President Kenyatta died in 1978, Mr Njiru remained in the PPU as Moi assumed the presidency. Two years later, he went on a study tour in the United Kingdom.
Coincidentally, his first ever trip with President Moi was to London. The longest trip they made together, Njiru says, was in 1981, when they moved from state to state and town to town — London, Washington, Honolulu, Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Karachi and others in a span of 21 days.
Over time, Njiru gained a reputation as the most powerful individual around Moi outside of the Rift Valley, which did not go down well with some regional leaders who wanted him replaced.
“Mzee stood by me and would not listen to any of them because they were being tribalistic,” Mr Njiru said, adding that Moi was not a tribal leader.
Mr Njiru noted that since he started working for the former President, his phone was always on.
“As a PA and press secretary, I was also in charge of his public relations and corporate affairs. My job was not to say what the president said, but what he meant. I would formulate the information to the public, bearing in mind that it was from the presidency and not just from Moi,” he said.
Even after Moi’s retirement in 2002, Njiru continued to take care of his image. He even moved to Nakuru so that he could continue working for Mr Moi, who moved to his Kabarak home. The media continued to rely on him for information pertaining to the former President and his family. He was, for instance, the go-to person when Moi’s eldest son, Jonathan, died.
“I still hold the position of Moi’s press secretary, my contract ends on September 11, 2021,” he said.
The last time he spoke to the former president was late last year, before his health deteriorated.
“After that, he was unable to speak much but I would, once in a while, visit him in hospital and just see how he was doing,” he said.
Arap Moi in brief
Born into the Tugen sub-group of the Kalenjin people in the Kenyan Rift Valley, Moi studied as a boy at the Africa Inland Mission school before training as a teacher, working in that profession until 1955. He then entered politics and was elected a member of the Legislative Council for Rift Valley.
As independence approached, Moi joined the Kenyan delegation which travelled to London for the Lancaster House Conferences, where the country’s first post-independence constitution was drafted. In 1960 he founded the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) as a rival party to Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union (KANU).
Following independence in 1963 Kenyatta, who became Prime Minister and later President of the new nation, convinced Moi to merge the two parties. Kenyatta appointed Moi to his government in 1964 and then promoted him to Vice-President in 1967. Despite opposition from a Kikuyu elite known as the Kiambu Mafia, Kenyatta groomed Moi as his successor, and he took over as president when Kenyatta died in 1978.