Photo: Raphael Njoroge/Nation
Major General, retired, Joseph Nkaissery’s widow, Hellen, and sons during his burial in Kajiado County on July 15, 2017.
By Kamau Ngotho
I first met Maj-Gen (rtd) Joseph Nkaissery at the Bomas of Kenya restaurant in Nairobi not long after he was elected Kajiado Central MP in the 2002 elections.
At the dawn of last Saturday, my wife woke me to tell me there was a WhatsApp item circulating to the effect that CS Nkaissery had suddenly died.
I told her in this mad season of politics, it was advisable not to believe everything on the social media, and that she better switch on the television to confirm. Too sad, the television confirmed as much.
Like me, he was a regular patron at the restaurant.
Indeed it was the last place he was publicly seen a few hours to his death last weekend.
On the first day of our meeting, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend, Colonel (rtd) Kinoti Gatobu, with whom he served in the military for many years.
In the course of our conversation, I told the retired major-general that, like him, I am an old student of Olkejuado High School in Kajiado County.
I also happened to stay in the same dormitory – Elgon House – where he stayed.
The old boys’ story made us hit it off at once. He told me how the school was in his days.
“Those days Olkejuado High was more of a manyatta than a learning institution,” he said.
“Boys would come to school with swords and rungus in their wooden and metal boxes. In the event of a scuffle, there would be a real war and police had to be called in.”
The other difficult thing, he told me, was to bring the boys and girls to school and make sure they stayed on to complete their studies.
In most cases, government chiefs and headmen had to be used to bring the students to school.
But hardly half of the class would stay to complete their studies up to fourth Form, he recalled.
“Half the boys would run back to the manyattas while half the girls would be married off before Form Four,” he said.
After that first meeting, we met many other times at the same venue.
Whenever he came, he would sit at the public counter at the far left corner where a seat was reserved for him.
We called it “the General’s corner”, and there was an unwritten rule that whenever Nkaissery came, whoever was seated there would vacate the seat.
When he was just an MP and later assistant minister, he was very much at ease mingling with other patrons.
He would be dropped by his driver and be picked up later. Sometimes he would come driving himself and without a bodyguard.
One night I remember somebody asking him how come he had no bodyguards with him.
“What for?” he replied. “I am a soldier and a General. Why should I have other soldiers following me all over the place?”
Up to the time of his death, his age-mates and contemporaries who came to Bomas used to call him “Askari”, a name he didn’t seem to mind.
He was a disciplined drinker, only taking three bottles of beer and taking off.
He was also quick at throwing as many rounds to the people seated with him at the counter.
Until he was appointed Interior Cabinet Secretary in December 2014, he was also freely discussing sensitive issues of the day without a care.
“I am a General and have seen it all”, he would say.
In particular, I remember the day Illinois Senator Barack Obama — later elected US President in 2008 — gave a public address at the University of Nairobi in 2006 and said corruption had attained crisis status in Kenya.
Nkaissery, then an opposition MP, came to the Bomas very excited and disclosed to us that it was him who had asked Senator Obama to say something about corruption in his public address, and during his meetings with government officials.
The morning before he spoke at the University of Nairobi, Mr Obama had held a closed-door meeting with Nkaissery and other opposition MPs.
The same evening when Government Spokesman Alfred Mutua came on television to dismiss Mr Obama as a “junior senator”, the retired military officer shook his head and said: “The Government Spokesman is an excited young man. How can he deny corruption is a crisis in this country?”
Whenever we met at Bomas, Nkaissery would say “Ero, Bwana journalist, what is the big story tomorrow?”
He was also very respectful. Once he came to a wedding reception at the Namanga River Hotel and came to where I was seated with politician John Keen.
Out of respect for an elder, I made to offer him my seat but he firmly declined. “Ero, just sit.
They will bring me another chair”. He remained standing until a chair was brought for him.
He would also not ignore you if he knew you.
We had not met for several years until his appointment to the Cabinet.
But when two years ago our mutual friend, the Kajiado County Commissioner Kello Harsama, came with the idea that Nkaissery have his biography written and suggested me as the person to do the book, the CS quickly remembered me and asked that I go to see him at Harambee House. I did so.
He was very excited about the idea of a biography but was of the opinion that time wasn’t ripe yet for the project because of his hectic schedule. Too bad, now we shall never do it.
However, early this year, I happened to be editor of a regional publication where he had an interest.
Many will find it hard to believe this, but he fully believed in independence and freedom of the media.
In the four months I was editor of the magazine where he had invested, not a single day did he call to direct what we should or shouldn’t publish.
At times we carried write-ups where he was portrayed somehow negatively, but he never complained.
Other times we gave lavish positive coverage to people he didn’t politically see eye to eye with. But for him, it was all fair game — print whatever you wish.
RIP Bwana General, old student of my high school, and ex-resident of Elgon dormitory.