There were powerful men in the Nyayo regime; and then there was Nicholas Biwott.
Mr Biwott, who died on Tuesday aged 77, was part of a political and commercial network that in the 1980s and 90s bestrode the national political landscape like a colossus, creating fear and peddling influence.
By using his State House and international connections, Mr Biwott transformed himself from a simple MP for Keiyo South to a billionaire with an enviable business empire touching almost every sector of the Kenyan economy.
He owned an airline, a bank, an oil company, a construction firm and Nairobi’s Yaya Towers, among others.
In his hey day Mr Biwott, who once described himself as a ‘Total Man’, faced a myriad of corruption allegations but he still gained a reputation for generosity — contributing hundreds of thousands of shillings every week in Harambees.
The diminutive politician once worked as a personal assistant to Jewish Mossad spy in Kenya Bruce Mckenzie, the only white Cabinet minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government until 1969, when he resigned.
Regarded as an intelligent man, Mr Biwott started his career as a junior information officer in Eldoret under Mr Kendagor Bett, the Alliance High School alumnus whose newsletter Kalenjin would help rally the community behind the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu), whose Rift Valley kingpin was Daniel arap Moi. It was during this period that Mr Moi met Mr Biwott.
On Tuesday, Mr Moi described him as an “astute businessman … a philanthropist … and a dependable friend” — tracing their friendship to the 1950s.
But unknown to many, Mr Biwott was a student at Tambach Intermediate School when Mr Moi was its principal.
After Tambach, he joined Kapsabet Government African School, leaving in 1958.
But while Mr Moi has a high opinion of Mr Biwott — his former Minister for Energy — the US government didn’t think much of him and in some of the Wikileaks cables, former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger revealed Mr Biwott had been banned from travelling to the US due to allegations of corruption and a link to the still-unresolved murder of Foreign minister Robert Ouko.
The rise of Nicholas Biwott and how he ended up in Australia on a government scholarship is credited to the intervention of Mr Kenneth Matiba, the Makerere University graduate who was in charge of scholarships at the Ministry of Education.
As Mr Matiba recounted later, Mr Moi approached him and said he had a “bright, young man”, who turned out to be Biwott.
Mr Matiba says in his book Aiming High that he gave Mr Biwott a scholarship.
In 1993, Mr Biwott told Parliament that Mr Matiba was lying.
“When Mr Matiba was touring Banana, he said he gave me a scholarship.
He himself was only a student looking for a part-time job at the Ministry of Education. He said that Moi introduced me to him, something he never did …”
Mr Biwott studied for a Bachelors degree at the University of Melbourne between 1962 and 1964 and during his second sojourn to Australia in 1966, he returned home with a Masters degree in economics and a wife, Hannie — a Dutch of Jewish origin.
It was after his return that Mr Biwott immersed himself into the Jewish circles in Nairobi, earning the confidence of Mr Mackenzie, the politician whose commercial interests in Kenya included shareholding in pivotal companies such as Cooper Motors Corporation (CMC), Wilken Air, and Wilken Telecommunications, which had won the tender to build Kenya’s first satellite earth station in Kenya.
Before 1971, Mr Biwott was Mr Mackenzie’s personal assistant and later became Mr Moi’s until 1974 when he tried his luck in politics but was defeated by Mr Stanley Kurgat.
According to Charles Hornsby, the author of Kenya: A History Since Independence, Mr Biwott “had been intimately involved in Moi’s rise”.
More than anything, it was his discreet nature that endeared him to Mr Moi, who appointed him a senior assistant secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture before transferring him to his docket, the Ministry of Home Affairs, on the recommendation of Mr Duncan Ndegwa, the first African governor of the Central Bank.
Moi was then looking for a person he could trust and Biwott fitted the bill.
The entry into the big league for Biwott would come in 1979, when Moi persuaded Mr Kurgat to give up the Keiyo South seat for him.
He was then elected unopposed and retained the seat for 28 years. It is within that period that he became a billionaire.
Immediately he entered Parliament, Biwott was appointed Minister of State in the Office of the President alongside GG Kariuki – and the two became the most powerful politicians besides Charles Njonjo.
It was here that his big break came and Parliament was told that he earned kickbacks from the construction of Turkwel Hydro-Power Project and the Kisumu Molasses plant.
Every time he was mentioned in bad light, Mr Biwott would rise in Parliament and defend himself.
“Nicholas Biwott is the cleanest man in the Republic,” he once told Parliament after Kikuyu MP Paul Muite asked for investigations into the Turkwel project.
“We will find out when time comes,” Muite replied.
With the help of Jewish and French friends, Mr Biwott set up a huge business empire as he also helped their companies win lucrative tenders in Kenya.
He invested in construction, property development, and the oil importation business and was a shareholder in HZ Company, which monopolised road contracts in Kenya.
His other company, Lima Ltd, would later on try to seize part of Karura Forest, triggering a bitter war with environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Lima had been given 16 acres of the forest and was selling them at Sh60 million each.
His other companies included Air Kenya, Yaya Centre, and a huge stake at the oil company Kenol-Kobil where he has been divesting.
His son in law, Per Nils Jacobsson, who had been a director in the company since 2007 resigned four years ago.
This story was first published on Nation