Former President Daniel arap Moi awards architect Harbans Singh Amrit with the honour of the Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS) in 1987. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Architect who called the shots during Moi regime exits stage
Harbans Singh, who died last week, was famous and powerful during the Moi era as the President’s architect.
He began as a mere draftsman and rose to become the envy of many architects in Kenya.
He is known to have designed hostels for schools and institutions where former President Daniel arap Moi had interests. He also doubled as a developer and contractor.
For the two decades Mr Moi ruled the State House gates were wide open for Singh, making him one of the most powerful persons in the Asian community.
Due to his influence, he was assigned to design the Nyayo Wards, Moi’s pet project to increase bed capacity in public hospitals.
Unlike other influential members of the Asian community, who preferred operating behind the scenes, Singh was highly visible.
He would conduct the President around the many projects he undertook and would get compliments from the Head of State.
Politicians, top civil servants and others who strode the corridors of power would listen keenly whenever he talked, hoping the President’s architect would put in a good word for them.
However, I remember two incidents about Singh. First was in late 1980s, when he was unable to access State House.
Singh had designed and built Pangani Girls High School’s hostels on Juja Road, Nairobi.
President Moi conducted a harambee to pay for the works, including the architect’s fees, an event I covered.
Fred Waiganjo, then the Nairobi Provincial Commissioner, was the chairman of the school board.
After the harambee, the President wanted the bills settled immediately.
He called Singh and asked how much he was owed, which ran into millions. Singh whispered it to the President.
He then summoned Waiganjo and instructed him to issue a cheque on the spot.
Waiganjo went at the back of the presidential dais and returned with a sealed white envelope and gave the President to hand over.
He gave Singh the envelope and said: “Sasa tumemalizana na wewe (we are done now).”
“THE MAN WAS FINISHED”
Apparently, the cheque was unsigned, which Singh only discovered later.
It was not clear whether there were insufficient funds in the school’s account and only Waiganjo knew why the cheque was not signed.
Singh could not reach the President to complain and every time he tried to, no appointment was made by State House technocrats.
Even when he tried to reach the President at his many public functions, he could not reach the dais.
His enemies in the architectural world celebrated quietly that “the man was finished”, a common phrase used whenever one fell out of favour with the President.
To the President, Singh had already been paid his millions, but only the school board knew the secret behind the pending bill.
One day, the President asked to see Singh for another project. The technocrats panicked as they feared the prospect of the secret being revealed.
Waiganjo is said to have called him to his office, issued him with a banker’s cheque and asked him not to mention anything about the delay to the president.
Singh had to oblige as reprisals would have been heavy, he risked another prospect of having no access to the President.
The second was an episode with then powerful Permanent Secretary Hezekiah Oyugi.
His influence was such that even ministers stood at attention whenever they went to see him in his Harambee House office in Nairobi.
So powerful was Oyugi that I saw Francis Lekolool, then Western PC, salute him on phone when he called him.
Harbans Singh walked into Oyugi’s office as I was taking notes.
He is the only person I saw Oyugi stand up for other than the President.
I was ushered out momentarily but Singh was very brief. He hardly stayed with Oyugi for five minutes before I was recalled.
That was Harbans Singh, who moved mountains in the Moi era. In his designs he had a taste for the Roman high pillars that became his trademark.
He never missed the annual Baringo goat auction organised by former nominated MP Ezekiel Bargentuny.
Mr Moi would buy the goats and give them to the poor and use the proceeds for development in his home district.
Singh was decorated with the Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS), one of the highest State honours. He is survived by his wife Kamal Prakash and three children.