Obituary: The life and times of Jeremiah Kiereini

CMC Holdings chairman, Jeremiah Kiereini, handing over keys of one of the newest Land Rover models to Miss Andy Robertson who was accompanied by Dr Richard Leakey in this 1988 picture.. [File/Standard]

The death of Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini at 90 has brought to an end the remarkable life of the former technocrat with a penchant for black pinstriped suits; a billionaire business magnate with interests sweeping across insurance, real estate, property, large scale agriculture, banking, milling and hospitality.

The last born of four children, Kiereini’s life was a study in how being at the right place, at the right time works wonders in rising from a village boy in colonial Kenya to the helm of the civil service.

 Through politics, loyalty and education, he became part of the Central Kenya Oligarchy which joined boards of blue-chip companies hitherto the preserve of whites and along the way, rode to stupendous wealth, power and prestige in post-independent Kenya.

For a man born during the Stock Market Crash of 1929, he would ironically be a big-time player as a high roller investor at the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

Was this also the man Mau Mau detainees accused of having been so brutal, crushing their teeth with blows using hand-held metal spikes?

In American historian Caroline Elkins tome, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya published in 2005, the ‘notorious Jeremiah Kiereini’ is portrayed as a vicious rehabilitation officer,  part of the Mau Mau screening team that tortured fellow Africans in detention camps.

Jeremiah Kiereini autographs his autobiography, A Daunting Journey, for IEBC Commissioner Connie Maina in 2014. [File/Standard] (1)

In his 2015 biography, A Daunting Journey, Kiereini admits he was a rehabilitation Officer-hot headed at the time- when the State of Emergency was declared in October 1952 when Kenyans with a “Mau Mau look” manifested in ”aura of evil” were sought after.

But he denies being among the screening team consisting of British soldiers, Kenya Police Force, district officers, the Home Guards and other loyalists including Private Vigilance Committees who carried their own screenings.  

Lamenting that Elkins never sought his side of the story in the nine years she spent researching Britain’s Gulag, Kiereini writes in A Daunting Journey: “It should be kept in mind that detainees felt that anyone working for the enemy was also their enemy. In this respect, rehabilitation staff were indiscriminately lumped together with the prison staff, who were known to regularly use violence.”

From rehab officer he rose to District Assistant and of Kenya’s 12 Heads of Civil Service since independence, Kiereini was the third holder of the position when it also included Secretary to the Cabinet as part of the job but which has since been halved into Head of Civil Service.

Before him were  Duncan Ndegwa and Geoffrey Kariithi- from whom he took over in November 1979 from the Ministry of Defense where he was Permanent Secretary.

At the time, the Constitution was changed bestowing more powers for the Head of the Civil Service that reverted to Chief Secretary, for the first time in post-independent Kenya.

Kiereini retired in 1984 and, instead of politics, took to business besides doubling as a mandarin of the corporate world.

Indeed, the man known as ‘Jerry’ to his friends, was a corporate titan and was the long-serving chair of East African Breweries and CMC Motors.

A keen coffee farmer, Kiereini bought his Karen home from proceeds of the 1970s coffee boom and aptly named it Gitamuri Gardens. Gitamuri, Kikuyu for whipping was, he later explained, a form of ‘whipping a thank you’ to himself and his second wife Muringo Kiereini, then Kenya’s Chief Nursing Officer whom he married at Gitamuri with Nairobi PC John Mburu presiding over the civil wedding on November 13, 1971.

Kiereini’s powers as Chief Secretary lay in being the closest Kikuyu to the presidency when the regime of the day was cracking its whip against the Central Kenya mafia.

Kiereini used his position to build vast business contacts which would come in handy after his retirement in 1984 at the height of the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry set up by retired President Daniel arap Moi.  Charles Njonjo was then the former Attorney General, Minister for Constitutional Affairs and MP for Kikuyu Constituency.

It is instructive that, Kiereini, alongside the late Bruce McKenzie, were the Best Men during  Njonjo’s wedding to Margaret Bryson in November 1972 and the two wore pinstriped suits throughout their lives.

On retirement, Kiereini bestrode the corporate sector like a colossus sitting in the boards of blue-chip companies like Kenya Breweries, CMC Holdings, African Liaison & Consultant Services Limited, all as chairman.

Jeremiah Kiereini eas also the chairman of East African Breweries.
Others were Gambit Holdings Limited (where Njonjo also has interests), CFC Life Assurance Limited, CFC Financial Services Limited, Heritage A.I.I. Insurance Company Limited, Heritage A.I.I. Insurance Company (Tanzania) Limited, Norfolk Towers Limited, Longonot Place Limited and Unga Group Limited among others.

When in government, his milestones included training of civil servants especially District Commissioners. He also banned government vehicles from being used at night besides tightening rules of entry into State House after the abortive 1982 coup against the Moi Administration.

Kiereini’s lows include declining integrity in the civil service.  

Kiereini’s long public service suffered a blemish after he was accused in media reports of complicity in fleecing CMC using a foreign account in 2011. He denied the claims and explained the account in question- to his knowledge was in the best interest of CMC employees.

“My ultimate vindication is my record of diligent and honourable service in both the public and private sectors. That record speaks for itself and will not be tainted by unproven, unsubstantiated and malicious allegations made against me,” he said.

Such was the life of the man born in Kibichoi Village, Kiambu County in 1929 and attended Kiamwangi and Government African School, Kagumo between 1939 and 1945 before proceeding to Alliance High School in 1945 and graduating from Makerere University Uganda Class of ’50.

He joined the colonial Civil Service and left for Magdalene College, Oxford to study Public Administration in 1961.

On his return, Kiereini was appointed District Commissioner Embu in 1962 and Provincial Commissioner, Eastern in ’63 and on to Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Provincial Administration.

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