Four years on, Saitoti’s life remains mysterious in death
Four years after his death, former vice-president George Saitoti remains a mysterious man.
His life, just like the helicopter crash tin which he died on a day like today, remains shrouded in secrecy. Although he was a public figure, his family has opted to remain tight-lipped on their private investigations into his death.
Pathologists who carried out investigations into his death pointed out that Saitoti, who was Internal Security minister at the time of his death, could have been poisoned together with assistant minister Orwa Ojode, their two pilots and the two bodyguards who had accompanied them.
Before his death, the professor of mathematics had indicated he would seek election as President in the 2013 election.
“Only George Saitoti knew who George Saitoti was,” a close family friend said of the enigmatic politician. “He was an introvert.”
Saitoti never spoke either Maasai or Kikuyu languages – at least not in public. While addressing political meetings in his rural Kajiado North constituency, he would normally hire a translator.
Notably, he was born of Kikuyu parents, Zacharia Kiarie and Zipporah Gathoni, and grew up as George Kinuthia Kiarie in Olkeri, Lower Matasia. He went through the Maasai initiation rites as his father had by then become a Maasai by assimilation.
Kiarie had moved to Maasailand from Dagoretti at the height of the State of Emergency in the 1950s with many other Kikuyus escaping the colonial crackdown against the Embu, Meru and Kikuyus in Nairobi and Central Kenya.
He was hosted by his Maasai relatives and adopted the name Musengi, taken from the Kikuyu word Muthengi which means an immigrant. All his children born after the emergency had Maasai names. In all, he had 11 children.
“We used to wear tattered clothes,” Saitoti once told a political rally, the closest he ever came to discussing his poor background.
“Saitoti grew up as a Maasai boy. He went through all the cultural rites,” says Nairobi County Speaker Alex ole Magero, a long-time ally of Prof Saitoti.
As a the mathematics professor at the University of Nairobi, Saitoti was among the most learned members of his adopted ethnic group. Chances are that he would have remained in academia were it not for Stanley Oloitipitip, who introduced him to politics.
While still in his thirties, Saitoti was nominated to the East African Legislature as an MP, an appointment that gave him both social and political mileage. He had also been appointed as executive chairman of Mumias Sugar and later Kenya Commercial Bank.
Despite his growing public stature, the double cultural heritage appeared to bother Saitoti, gradually turning him into an introvert, according to friends.
“Saitoti rarely shared his problems,” a close associate remembers. “Even when among the Maasai or the Kikuyu, you wouldn’t catch him speaking any of the tongues. He was like a man with no cultural identity.”
Those who attended Ololua Primary School have told the Nation in previous interviews that Saitoti was by then known as Kinuthia wa Kiarie, a name he proudly used in his PhD thesis at the University of Warwick in 1972.
Upon his return, however, and after being hired as a lecturer by University of Nairobi’s Department of Mathematics, he simply became George Saitoti. That was the name that had been given to him so that he could secure an the undergraduate scholarship at Brandeis University in the US.
Saitoti first received a scholarship for Cambridge, Western Massachusets in the US, after a brilliant performance at Mang’u High School. He entered Brandeis in September 1963 through the Wien international scholarships to study economics and maths. Brandeis was only 13 years old by the time Saitoti arrived there.
At Brandeis, Saitoti immersed himself into the university life and was one of the best in high jump. He would also spend time at the Usen Castle’s Cholmondeley’s Coffee House, ran by the students.
After graduating from Brandeis, he moved to Sussex University in the UK to pursue an advanced degree in maths, earning a master’s degree and winning another scholarship to study for a doctorate at the University of Warwick.
In the 1971 PhD thesis, Saitoti used the name George Kinuthia Kiarie Saitoti. His thesis was titled: Mod-2 K-theory of the second iterated loop space on a sphere. It was one of the first doctorates in mathematics in Kenya.
Prof Saitoti later became chairman of the Department of Mathematics but his tenure would not last long because Rift Valley political leaders started luring him with positions.
Former Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott was among those who picked out Saitoti for a role in political leadership.
Through such influence, Prof Saitoti was eventually appointed Finance minister after the 1983 election, taking over from Mr Mwai Kibaki who could not be easily manipulated by the new Nyayo power players. Mr Kibaki was moved to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
To his credit, even when parts of Rift Valley were rocked by ethnic clashes, Saitoti’s Kajiado North Constituency never experienced the violence.
“Also, there was no violence during the 2007 post-election violence in his backyard,” says Magero.