Kiereini: The oath breaker who never let a good fight slip away

Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi (from left) Jeremiah Kiereini and his wife Mrs Muringo Kiereini, during Jeremiah Kiereini's book launch titled ' A daunting Journey' held at the Best Western Hotel,Nairobi. October 7th,2014. [Photo/Elvis Ogina]

A man’s character and destiny is determined by circumstances of his birth and the environment he grows into.

This perhaps explains the twists and turns in the life of former Secretary to the Cabinet Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini.

Until his remains were cremated at the Lang’ata cemetery at a private ceremony on Thursday, Kiereini had lived through a number of controversies and tumultuous periods which shaped his life.

Born in 1929, just before the great depression shook the world, Kiereini’s teenage years were dominated by the outbreak of the Second World War and would live through the outbreak of the Mau Mau.

Unconvinced but buckling from peer pressure, the young man who considered himself a Christian betrayed his faith and allowed his closest friend Waira Kamau to administer a Mau Mau oath.

His protests that he was a Christian and a graduate from Makerere University who was insulated against adverse effects of curses and oaths fell on deaf ears. The resolute Waira gave him no peace until he took the oath.

Like many of his peers, he had to make difficult choices whose consequences he had to live with for the rest of his life. When he fell in love with Esther Njeri, a Presbyterian, he learnt he was not Christian enough because he belonged to the African Independent Pentecostal Church.

An outraged Presbyterian church minister told him he had to undergo catechism classes and baptism even though he had been confirmed as a Christian.

And when an impatient Kierieni complained that the catechism classes were taking too long, his in-laws informed him that he had to give the minster some sugar to soften his heart.

Kiereini was on occasions forced to steer the priest’s bicycle up a hill in Komothai as he accompanied the minster to church. What a spectacle it was for the young man to push two bicycles as the clergyman whistled his way to church?

Although all those who had taken the Mau Mau oath were supposed to guard its secret with their lives, Kiereini narrates in his memoirs, A Daunting Journey, how he confessed to a colonial chief in Komothai and later to a colonial administrator so that he could be admitted as a Community Development Officer.

Mau Mau survivor

Instead of a catastrophe befalling him as Waira had warned, his confession opened new doors and he transited from a clerical job at the Indian High Commission into a civil servant. His core mandate would be to rehabilitate Mau Mau detainees who confessed their oaths so that they could be allowed to rejoin their families.

Kiereini has been accused of brutalising Mau Mau detainees in a bid to break their resistance to the white man’s domination and oppression. 

The accusations earned him the tag ‘notorious Jeremiah Kiereini’ which was used by Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya which chronicles the brutality meted out to Mau Mau by the British during the 1950s.

A Mau Mau survivor, John Njigoya Kagwe, who had filed a reparations case against the British blamed Kiereini for his suffering.

“I was taken to Mwea Camp where we were asked to tear off our prison clothes and change into others. If someone refused, mud was stuffed in his mouth and a stick used to push it in. This is the torture that was inflicted on me by Jeremiah Kiereini, leading to the loss of all my teeth (I wear dentures today). All the while, a white British officer watched as this happened,” Kagwe narrated.

Kiereini offered a different version of his role in detention camps, denying any involvement in the torture of prisoners. He said he abhorred violence, arguing that that was why he had differed with Mau Mau freedom fighters.

In his memoirs, he defended himself from accusations of betraying the Mau Mau or the Kikuyu in their quest to break the shackles of colonialism, but acknowledged how his name and career had been tarnished because of his perceived role in the detention camps.

So soiled was his image by his chief detractor Waira that Jomo Kenyatta kept him at an arm’s length.

“The stigma remained with me. There might be people who regarded me a collaborator. It took a long time to be promoted to the position of Permanent Secretary. Initially, Kenyatta would not even shake my hand despite the fact that I was head of Provincial Administration,” he wrote.

At one time, Waira led a delegation to Kenyatta demanding that he sack Kiereini because he was a bad man and a home guard, but his pleas were turned down.

Kiereini’s hot headed nature and the fact that he was among the few Africans who had university education saw him cross swords with his contemporaries and bosses as he was never a man to run way from a battle if he thought his rights were being trampled.

Ironically, he was promoted and placed in charge of the country’s defence forces after triumphing over Waira’s schemes.

Intelligence reports to London by the African Bureau in Nairobi described Kiereini, who in 1971 was coordinating a 300 million Sterling pound modernisation of the military, as “highly effective in exercising civilian control over the military”.

He was ready to fight any body who cast aspersions on his integrity. On January 30, 1969, Kiereini was involved in an accident along Limuru Road which was reported by The East African Standard. He later sued the newspaper for insinuating that he had  been drunk and had run away from the scene.

He was ultimately paid Sh24,000 for defamation, although the award was reduced to Sh8,000 when the newspaper appealed.

When he ultimately left the civil service, Kiereini made billions as an investor in various sectors and became a household name as the chairman of East African Breweries.\

Nasty wars

But in his sunset years, controversy haunted him and he was caught in nasty board wars after it emerged that while at the helm of CMC motors, he had been involved in shady deals.

He was accused of operating three secret offshore trust accounts which banked proceeds generated from adding half a percentage point to the invoiced cost of every car purchased from Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan UD.

Investigation by Capital Markets Authority would show he and some other insiders had earned more than Sh200 million over the scam’s 20-year period and was consequently kicked out of the CMC board. But he fought back, and regained his seat after a spirited legal battle.

Neighbours in Karen knew better than cross his path. One of his neighbours sank a borehole which Kiereini felt would drain his supply.

This soured their relations to a point that they were not on talking terms.

Things cooled down a bit after the government sank an extra borehole for Kiereini to placate for breaching regulations which limited the number which could be sank in one location.

Just as he lived, never shying away from controversy, Kiereini was cremated at Lang’ata three days after his death against societal expectations that his remains would be interred on his land.

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Lang’ata cemeteryJeremiah Gitau KiereiniMakerere University