Kipyator Nicholas Kiprono arap Biwott rose to the dizziest heights of power and influence outside the presidency. He was one of the wealthiest business operatives, with interests in oil, plantations and many other sectors.
The politician and businessman — known as the Total Man — died in Nairobi on Tuesday 11th July, 2017 aged 77.
In his heyday, he held eight senior ministerial positions.
Under the one-party imperial presidency, KNK Biwott was the ultimate eminence grise ( grey eminence), the primus inter pares (first among equals) in the Cabinet. He wielded more power than any other confidant in the history of the Kenyan Presidency.
Long before that, Biwott worked closely with Bruce Mackenzie, later revealed as a British and South African spy, and Tom Mboya, two of the most outstanding ministers of the Independence Cabinet who met violent ends. Mboya was assassinated in Nairobi on July 5, 1969. Mackenzie was killed in an aircraft over the Ngong Hills by a bomb, hidden in a gift from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin on May 24,1978.Though he joined government in 1965, Biwott only came to prominence when Simeon Nyachae resigned as the last Chief Secretary (head of Civil Service) in the mid-1980s.
He soon established himself as the preeminent power player and true successor of Charles Njonjo, Kenya’s first African Attorney General and closest aid to President Daniel Moi.
Biwott ascended when he was appointed Minister of Energy and Regional Development in September 1983, later Minister for Energy.
His 23rd floor offices of Nyayo House became a place of political and patronage pilgrimage from the early 1980s when Njonjo fell from grace in the Msaliti (Traitor) affair of 1982-83.
Power abhors a vacuum. Initially it looked and as if Chief Secretary Nyachae, aka ‘the Prime Minister’, would assume Njonjo’s mantle of most trusted presidential aide.
Biwott had other plans.
On a typical weekday in Nairobi, the corridors and private waiting rooms of Minister Biwott’s Nyayo House eyrie were packed with politicians, ambassadors, bishops (including mainstream Catholic and Presbyterian) and European, Asian and Arab business people armed with procurement proposals, all awaiting a brief word with the minister.
Plainclothes bodyguards managed the surging petitioners. Some found themselves bound for State House to visit President Moi and receive a mega deal.
Two regular visitors were businessmen Ketan Somaia of Delphis Bank and Mohammed Aslam of the Pan-African Bank Group.
Brothers Alnoor Kassam and Iqbal Kassam, who founded Trade Bank years before micro-financing became familiar to most Kenyans, visited frequently.
Both Trade and Delphis banks crashed amid allegations of insider trading, nine years apart. The Central Bank placed Trade in liquidation in 1993 and Delphis on June 22, 2001. The Trade Bank building still stands, property of the Biwott estate — it is Integrity Centre, headquarters of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission.
In November 1992, Aslam died a suspicious death, widely suspected to be of poisoning.
Cabinet ministers also called on Biwott, including Foreign Minister Dr Robert Ouko, who led groups of Luo politicians at times of political tension. From time to time he condemned corruption.
When Ouko was shot dead and set on fire the same week Nelson Mandela left prison in South Africa, the finger of blame soon pointed at Biwott and PS for Internal Security Hezekiah Oyugi, a Luo. Scotland Yard detectives and pathologists, invited by President Moi to probe Ouko’s murder, reported in November 1990 and named Biwott and Oyugi as prime suspects.
The full extent of Biwott’s power and preeminence in the Moi system became explicit.
Both Biwott and Oyugi were arrested on orders of Police Commissioner Philip Kilonzo and held at GSU Headquarters at Ruaraka, Nairobi. This occurred as Kenya was under international pressure to clean up corruption.
Oyugi was allowed no visitors and was fed by the State. Biwott was fed by his wife, Hani, for the two weeks he was held without charge, then released alongside Oyugi.
On July 29, 1997, Kilonzo, long retired, died a suspicious death at his favourite pub in Matuu, Ukambani, after drinking beer he said had a strange taste. His last words.
In August the following year, Oyugi died in a London hospital of a mystery illness. The details were never disclosed.
Biwott was not reinstated to the Cabinet after that year’s return-to-multiparty politics General Election and would remain out for three years. However, he was able to walk into Cabinet meetings and sit in, thoroughly intimidating everyone by remaining behind, apparently to discuss proceedings with the President.
No one wielder of political power and influence had ever exercised such brazen and in-your-face power from the fringes. Biwott’s power over Moi was not easy to explain.
Only Jonah Anguka, a retired Nakuru District Commissioner, was ever charged with Ouko’s murder. He was released.
Biwott returned to the Cabinet in September 1999 with the expanded portfolio of Minister of Trade and Industry, Tourism and East African Cooperation. He established the Tourist Trust Fund with the EU and the Tourist Police.
Biwott coined the Total Man epithet on the floor of the House, saying, “A man is a man, a total man.”
Another nickname also originated from Parliament — “The Bull of Auckland”. James Orengo (now Siaya Senator) coined this after a scandal then unknown to most Kenyans, a sexual harassment assault in a hotel room in New Zealand. Biwott was ejected from Kenya’s delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (by New Zealand). Orengo was asking why GG Kariuki (now deceased) was being allowed to speak from the dispatch box.
Biwott emerged from that scandal unscathed, his reputation and office intact. The Kenyan delegation picked him up at Singapore for the journey home.
Biwott was paranoid about personal security. He often changed cars, even on short journeys. He avoided food prepared specifically for him and instead ate other people’s intercepted food, especially at luncheons. It is doubtful owned or used a mobile phone, preferring to borrow his long-term personal aide William Chepkut’s. He went everywhere with bodyguards, mostly APs, even after Kanu lost power to Narc.
At Nyayo House, Biwott would not share elevators with anyone but bodyguards and invited guests.
Such was the nature of the Total Man who joined his maker yesterday.