The untold story of the Kenyattas' wealth

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and daughter Margaret. (Photo: File/Standard)

The vast wealth of the Kenyatta family was considered such a crucial factor in Kenya’s internal security that the CIA, America’s spy agency, issued a special report on it the day Kenya’s founding father was buried in 1978.

The report, which was made public last week, talked of thousands of acres of land owned by Mzee Kenyatta and his wife Mama Ngina, high-powered wrangles over gemstones mines, a colossal stake in the charcoal trade, secret exports of ivory and an unspoken fear that Kenyans would revolt and seize back land from the First Family.

Stamped ‘secret’, the Economic Intelligence Weekly Review dated  August 31, 1978 is part of nearly 800,000 declassified files that the CIA was forced to publish online just ten days ago. It gives an insight into the explosive mix of power and business in the post-independence Kenya and might explain why the Kenyatta family has always appeared to be indebted to President Daniel arap Moi, who took over on Mzee Kenyatta’s death, amid a wave of resentment against the country’s ruling class.

The CIA, in the report, equates the Kenyatta family to royalty and expresses fear that it might be the target of “wealth redistribution” following the change of government.

Contrary to its analysis, however, Moi not only vowed to protect Kenyatta’s legacy in the Nyayo philosophy — following in Mzee’s footsteps — but anointed a scion of the Kenyatta clan, now President Uhuru Kenyatta, as his successor when he stepped down in 2002 after ruling Kenya for 24 years. Uhuru’s first stab at the presidency was thwarted by the candidature of Moi’s former Vice-President Mwai Kibaki, who rode to victory on a national coalition and a last-minute backing of Raila Odinga.

According to the CIA’s assessment in 1978, the Kenyatta family was “resented”, perhaps because of a public perception that their wealth had been acquired through dubious means. The CIA wrongly speculated that that Moi and the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo were likely to “capitalise on the widespread dislike of Mama Ngina and on public discontent over corruption to take over large shares of the family’s holdings.” Such a move would lead to conflict, it warned. “Whether attempted as a first step toward widespread income redistribution or merely as a shift of resources in favour of the new rulers, such a move would almost certainly provoke a strong political response from the Kenyatta family,” the report says.

Mama Ngina Kenyatta. (Photo: John Muchucha/Standard)

That “strong political response” is undefined, but part of the 13-million page document shows America was worried that the ministers who had been loyal to Kenyatta were likely to overthrow Moi or ensure that he did not succeed Kenyatta after acting as President for 90 days as the Constitution then prescribed.

That did not happen. After being sworn in as Acting President, Moi neutralised ministers considered closest to Kenyatta, such as Paul Ngei and Mbiyu Koinange, and outmaneuvered his opponents with the support of Njonjo and the Laikipia politician G.G Kariuki, deftly establishing his own rule

The Kenyatta family was already rich, and the CIA was able to find what it describes as “extensive holdings of farms, plantations, hotels, casino and insurance, shipping and real estate companies” as part of the wealth portfolio.

Vast farms

It reported: “Kenyatta himself owned only about a half-dozen properties covering roughly 4,000 hectares, mainly farms in the Rift Valley and in the district of Kiambu where he was born. His wife, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, however, owns at least 115,000 hectares including a 13,000 hectare ranch in the Kiambu district, two tea plantations at Matu and Mangu, and three sisal farms near the Tanzanian border. She also has considerable holdings in the resort areas around Mombasa and is involved in coffee plantations and in the Kenyan ruby mines.”

The Standard on Sunday has been unable to establish the veracity of this assertions, which were cabled to Washington by the agency’s Nairobi operatives. Mama Ngina, who is distinctly private and whose public appearances are rare, and Uhuru’s half-sister Margaret, now in her eighties and ailing, are depicted as very wealthy at that time. Margaret, the second African Mayor of Nairobi, was the daughter of Kenyatta’s first wife Wahu.

One of the CIA’s memos says: “Mama Ngina and Margaret Kenyatta are probably the country’s two largest charcoal and ivory traders – particularly lucrative businesses. Although the export of these items is banned because depletion of Kenya’s forests and wildlife threaten the underpinning of the Kenyan economy, both women have been able to obtain special licenses. For instance, shortly after a ban on ivory exports (except for tusks from elephants that died of natural causes or shot for control purposes), went into effect, the United Africa Corporation, whose chairman and chief stockholder is Margaret Kenyatta received an export licence for 1,250 baby elephant tusks.”

The document accuses Kenyatta and his inner circle of having skimmed off part of the money that was to be used to resettle Kenyans on land bought from white settlers. They allegedly used the cash to “accumulate land”. When MPs considered setting a limit on how much land a person could hold, these moves were blocked, it says

“At independence in 1963, the British established a fund to help the Kenyan Government purchase farms from European settlers in this area and redistribute them among land-hungry African farmers. Although hundreds of African farmers were resettled through this scheme, some of the funds allegedly were used by family members and Kenyatta’s ministers to accumulate land. To protect the holdings of its members and the family, the government blocked every parliamentary attempt to limit land ownership,” reads the memo.

“Family members and close associates control a large part of the land in the White Highlands, the homeland of Kenyatta’s tribe, the Kikuyu.”

To explain how seriously the Americans took what they viewed as public resentment of the First Family, the agency quoted parliamentary debates, newspaper reports, and intellectuals who had all expressed displeasure with the regime – just 15 years after independence.

“The Kenyatta family’s hold on the economy is increasingly resented. Public criticism has been fanned by open parliamentary debate about scandals and high-level corruption, which has been widely publicized by the country’s free press. Students and faculty at the University of Nairobi are particularly concerned about the uneven distribution of Kenya’s wealth and income. They and, increasingly, the man on the street are very critical of the family’s involvement in the charcoal and ivory trade, which endangers vital national resources,” the CIA said. In a 1979 diplomatic cable, seen by The Standard on Sunday, which is not part of the CIA cache, the then US ambassador Anthony Marshall said the expectations of a public raid on the Kenyatta’s had been thwarted.

Game over

“Contrary to the expectations of many, the Kenyatta family and the close associates of the former president have not been attacked by the new government on the issue of the corrupt means through which they obtained much of their wealth. On the other hand, we hear that Moi has let it be known that, while he will not stop anyone from enjoying his ill-gotten gains, the game is over for the Kenyatta clique and no more corruption will be tolerated from them,” the cable reads.

“At the time of the president’s death, there were rampant stories that Kenyatta’s wife, Mama Ngina, would seek to flee the country in order to save herself from the wrath of the new government or the populace at large.  This did not, however, happen, and Mama Ngina still enjoys a respected position in Kenyan society. She divides her time between family farm at Gatundu and a residence on the grounds of the State House, which has been set aside for her use,” reads the cable, perhaps referring to the Kenyatta family home adjacent to State House, Nairobi.

The CIA files also mentioned other members of Mzee Kenyatta’s family. “His son by his first wife, Peter Muigai Kenyatta, holds a seat in Parliament and is part owner of Inchcape, a trading company that handles among other things the Ford Motor Concession in Kenya. Peter Kenyatta and his sister Margaret, the former Mayor of Nairobi, also own large tracts of land. The late President’s cousins include the director of Lonrho in Kenya, the chairman of the company that built the Mombasa-to-Nairobi gas pipeline and Kenya’s sole film distributor,” the file said.

The Americans were partly upset with Kenyatta and Mama Ngina, whom they blamed for the deportation of an American citizen, John M. Saul, a mining geologist deported shortly after discovering rich ruby deposits at the Coast. A June 19, 1975 cable by ambassador Marshall, notified the US State Department of the deportation and blamed the “real reason for the expulsion” on “greedy Kenyans in high places”.

Mr Saul had surrendered a 51 per cent  of his precious discovery, to his “African partners” – read top officials in the then Kenyatta government—but the State, through the then Minister of Natural Resources, William Odongo Omamo –  insisted that there was no way he was going to hold 49 per cent of the company.

“Omamo informed Saul that it had been “discovered” that two of four deposits to have been exploited by new corporation had been taken over by companies representing personal interests of Mama Ngina, President Kenyatta’s wife, and Beth Mugo, Kenyatta’s niece, on grounds that Saul’s claims were not properly registered. Omamo moreover told Saul that the original group of Kenyan shareholders now dissatisfied with their shares of shrunken assets of the corporation and had demanded that Saul’s share be decreased from 49 per cent to 20 per cent to give them larger proportions,” reads the cable.

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