James Kanyotu who was the intelligence chief during Kenyatta’s regime and part of Moi’s rule.  [Photo: File/Standard]

By Kenneth Kwama

Kenya: The man who served as founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s spy chief became an integral part of Daniel arap Moi’s security apparatus.

This was after the latter took over the reins following Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

James Kanyotu, who broke records of sorts when he became Kenya’s intelligence chief at 28, was intensely private.

Not much was known about his private life until three years after his funeral, when his two wives went to court to settle a squabble over property. The ensuing court battle laid bare the immense wealth that the late intelligence chief had managed to amass in the course of his work.

The inventory included huge tracts of land in a place called Kabuoch in Homa Bay County, giving rise to questions on just how Kanyotu managed to acquire so many acres in rural parts of the former South Nyanza District.

Kanyotu ascended to the influential position of intelligence chief in January 1965, to succeed Bernard Hinga who had been named commissioner of police. He led the police wing referred to as Special Branch from 1965 to 1991.


Interestingly, he was dismissed by Moi in 1991, shortly after the Health minister at the time resigned. Mwai Kibaki announced his resignation from Government in Mombasa on Christmas Day 1991.

There was speculation that his dismissal had something to do with Kibaki’s resignation from the Government.

Hinga, who became the first African police boss in independent Kenya when he took over from colonial police chief, Richard Cartling, also had his own little history that illustrated the intricacies of being a top security officer.

At the height of politics to replace the ageing founding President, Hinga aligned himself with a group of politicians from Kiambu, largely viewed as unsympathetic to a Moi presidency.

Three months after Kenyatta’s death, Moi summoned Hinga to State House and reprimanded him over a security issue.

When he left State House and headed for his office at Vigilante House, he found another police officer, Bernard Gethi, seated in the police commissioner’s chair. Hinga had been replaced.

But Kanyotu never experienced any of the nifty schemes that some of his colleagues went through.

He was said to be very smart and in keeping with the character of the spy that he was, the tall and heavily built man remained secretive and shadowy.

But his cover was blown during the inquiry into Kenya’s worst financial scandal – the Goldenberg affair – where he was named as one of the co-founders of the two companies at the centre of the multi-billion shilling scam. The inquiry started in 2003 and lasted two years.

It emerged that he had co-founded Goldenberg International in 1990 and Exchange Bank in 1991 alongside businessman Kamlesh Pattni.

But he opted to stay aloof, leaving the running of the companies, which were found to have siphoned billions of taxpayers’ money in fictitious gold, diamond and foreign exchange dealings, to proxies. At the close of the inquiry in 2005, Kanyotu said he regretted the Goldenberg affair.

Apart from his exploits in the world of intelligence, the former spy chief was a wealthy businessman with expansive interests in the hotel industry, banking, aviation, real estate and large-scale farming.