When editors lived in perpetual fear of Daniel Moi’s phone calls

In his days in power, president Daniel arap Moi was a real hands-on man with his finger on the pulse – aware of things happening in every corner of the country.
By 6.30 in the morning, he would have gone through the day’s newspapers and got on the phones.

A provincial commissioner would call to brief him on some event in a remote corner of the country only to discover the president already knew about it.
Moreover, Moi would have subordinates spying on their superiors and vice-versa. Even the head of the Security Intelligence was never sure a cleaner in his office wasn’t reporting on him! Another thing: The president wanted information given to him unfiltered — the raw data, half-truths, and outright gossip.

Direct telephone lines
Back to the story. The president had direct telephone lines of all senior editors in the country and would fire a call at the slightest provocation.
At the Kenya Times newspaper where I worked, the Head of State had direct lines of editor-in-chief Philip Ochieng, news editor Chris Musyoka, and Kanu news editor Charles Kulundu. The latter was a curious specimen. He was Kanu damu — ndani,ndani,ndani kabisa (staunch supporter) and would come to the office dressed in the ruling party’s colours of a red shirt, Jogoo tie depicting its cockerel symbol and a badge.

One day I happened to be alone in the newsroom a few minutes past six in the morning. Those days I was a bachelor and never had to care about such “silly” things as having breakfast in the house.
Suddenly the direct newsroom line rang. It’s a rule of the newsroom that you don’t ignore any in-coming call lest you miss on a big story.
“Wapi huyu Musyoka? (Where is this Musyoka?)” the agitated caller demanded.

Call Moi
“He isn’t yet in, sir. Can I take your number and ask him to call you?”
“What time do you people come to the office? I cannot get Musyoka, I can’t get Ochieng and I can’t get Kulundu!,” the caller fumed. “When they come, ask them to call Moi,” he commanded and banged the phone. I was left frozen. I had just been talking to the president!
I would later learn that senior editors in all newsrooms had designed a survival tactic to avoid the Big Man’s call, especially when they suspected there would be trouble. Luckily, there were no mobile phones those days and editors could easily play hide-and-seek until the Big Man’s tempers cooled down.
George Mbugguss, a long-serving group managing editor at the Nation, once told me how he managed to play mind games with State House whenever he smelled trouble.
He would lock himself in his office at the Old Nation House, unhook his direct line, and instruct his secretary to tell everybody that he was out for a meeting away from office.

Vanish
In the meantime, he would be communicating with the secretary through hand-written notes sneaked under the door. When the time came to leave the office, he would quietly vanish through the back-door and off to Karangi Bar in Nairobi’s Ngara area where his driver would monitor the goings-on in the office though a public telephone booth outside the watering joint.
He specifically remembered one “hot” day when the Nation splashed a sermon by the Rev Timothy Njoya calling for a multi-party system of government at a time it was political taboo to do so.
Come Monday morning, and expecting State House would come out with all guns blazing, Mbugguss didn’t show up in the office and disappeared from his residence as well. In the meantime, he instructed his editors to give full play to Kanu’s rejoinder to Rev Njoya’s sermon.

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