Njonjo, the man who shaped Kenyan history

From right to left: Kenya's first President Jomo Kenyatta, his successor Daniel arap Moi and Charles Njonjo. To the extreme right is Chief Justice Sir James Wicks. [Archives, Standard]

Charles Njonjo turns 100 years today. The former hugely feared Attorney General, and later Minister for Home and Constitutional Affairs, hardly needs an introduction. His fingerprints are virtually everywhere, on every major legal and political decision and happening in Kenya’s first 23 years of independence.

 His influence in the direction that the country took after Uhuru in 1963 began well before independence. He worked then, as a young lawyer, in the colonial State Law Office. His legacy both before and after independence endures. He remains quiet himself, watching from the shadows. Only occasionally does he come out to passively associate himself with one side or the other in national discourses.

 If those who began the journey with him were to come back, they would be surprised to see him sitting with ODM leader Raila Odinga, eating fish with his bare hands at an ordinary eatery in downtown Nairobi. For, the entire scene is the antithesis of everything that he stood for in an age in which the Kenyan press jocularly called him the Duke of Kabeteshire. In 1977, during a cholera outbreak in Kisumu, he declared that he would never shake hands with anybody from the Lakeside, lest they should infect him with cholera toxins.

 Charles Mugane was born to Chief Josiah Njonjo on January 23, 1920. Throughout his overwhelming presence in the public space, little was known about his family, away from the people of Kiambu and the wider Kikuyu community. For these people understood what it meant for someone to belong to a royal chiefly Kikuyu family in the colonial age.

 It was an age when the Kikuyu were split into two mutually hostile camps. There were those who resisted alienation of their land by an invading White settler community, on the one hand. On the other one was an African community that worked with the settlers. The chiefly families, where Njonjo belonged, worked with the visitors.

 While not much has been said about his family, the towering figure of Josiah Njonjo remains legendary. In an environment that was only beginning to open up to the rest of the world, his son – on his own affirmation later in life – attended school on horseback. It was a family apart from the rest from the very outset. Put together with his studies at the prestigious Alliance High School in his adolescent years, Charles Njonjo was prepared to always be a man apart. For, even at Alliance he stood out as a member of the new African elite in the colonial age. The distinction would get further affirmation when, after leaving Alliance, he went to study Law at Fort Hare University in South Africa.

 It would be of interest to know about the Anglophilic Njonjo’s experience in racist South Africa at the time. Did he feel any less attracted to the White world because of the official racist policy and practice in South Africa? How did he gel with the rest of the Black community? Who were his friends? What are the most enduring memories of Fort Hare? This is information only he could give.

Charles Njonjo and President Uhuru Kenyatta's mother Mama Ngina.  [Archives, Standard] 

Chief player

 In a brief conversation with this writer in 2004, during the launch of Annabel Maule’s semi-autobiographical book Theatre Near the Equator, Njonjo was very categorical when it was suggested to him that his own story should be told.

“No, never,” he said, “I will go to the grave with everything. Not a word.”

 His 100 years and beyond, therefore, make exciting space for researchers in history, law and politics, without the benefit of testimony from the chief player. We must continue to grope for the shades of light in dark spaces in his life, to tell the story of one of Kenya’s most remarkable personalities and political mavericks.

 Also studying in South Africa at about the same time were former Cabinet ministers Munyua Waiyaki and Masinde Muliro, both now departed. Like Njonjo, Waiyaki (six years Njonjo’s junior) also attended Fort Hare. Muliro studied at the University of Cape Town. When they came back to Kenya, Njonjo was pro-establishment while Waiyaki and Muliro remained on the radical left. Waiyaki thawed and went into private life while Muliro was actively radical to the very end of his life.

 Charles Njonjo, however, could hardly have been expected to shape out any differently than he did. His father, Josiah, was more at home hobnobbing with the White settlers than with his fellow Kikuyu in Kibichiku village. Among the closest family friends were the Harry Leakey family. African historians are not agreed on the role played in the colonial age by pioneer African families like Chief Josiah’s. Were they collaborators and adversaries of the African cause, or were they just pragmatists who recognised their relative weakness and refused to engage in futile battles against the White people? 

 The respected Jacob Ade Ajayi of Ghana called people like Chief Josiah, “African manipulators and adaptors”. They were, in their own way, “visionaries” who saw far. They adjusted and aligned themselves differently for the changing times ahead. They manipulated the situation to benefit them.

 Regardless of whether they were collaborators, adaptors or manipulators when independence came, it brought good things into their lap. And the Njonjo family had its fair share. For the paramount chief’s son returned to Kenya in 1955, after taking a further law degree in the UK and being admitted at the Lincoln’s Inn, to take up a job in the colonial law office.

State of Emergency

 The year 1955 was not good for Kenya. The country was in the third year of the State of Emergency. Working in the colonial law office, therefore, meant that Njonjo had to help the colonial authorities in their engagement against the Mau Mau. But the Mau Mau was not just a struggle against the settlers. There is a sense in which it was a ‘civil war’ among the Kikuyu, with one strand fighting for the stolen lands while the other one, the home guard community, fought for the settlers.

 Apocryphal narratives have it that Njonjo distinguished himself as a brilliant lawyer with a sharp mind. He was a stickler for legal detail. He was earmarked for greater things when it became clear that independence was coming. When the Madaraka Government was named in June 1963, he was appointed the first Attorney General. It was the start of an exceptionally powerful and remarkable phase of his life. 

He straddled official circles with polished poise, decorum and a keen eye on the finer nuances of the law. Under his watch, nothing formal and official was done outside the framework of the established law. That became the hallmark of the Kenyatta and Moi governments, in which Njonjo served as Attorney General. You would not catch those two regimes in the kind of embarrassing legal fiasco that the Kibaki and Uhuru governments have been caught several times, for doing things outside the legal framework.

 Under Njonjo’s watch, if the law did not exist to support what the government wanted to do, one would be made overnight. That was, for example, the case when, after the 1974 elections, a law was quickly crafted allowing the president to pardon an election offender so that he could participate in an election, in case the courts barred him from an election due to such an offence. The objective was to save Kenyatta’s friend, Paul Ngei, whose election for the Kang’undo Parliamentary seat had been nullified on grounds of breach of election laws.

 From the very outset, Njonjo walked a conservative elitist path. Like Tom Mboya, the first minister for Constitutional Affairs, Njonjo admired things in the conservative Western mould. Both were disturbed by the leftist socialist radicalism of Oginga Odinga and his acolytes, like Joseph Murumbi and Pio Gama Pinto. He worked very closely with Mboya to dismantle their networks and to paralyse them politically.

 It was under his watch as AG that Odinga went through the political frustrations that saw him humiliated at the infamous Limuru conference in March 1966. And after Odinga resigned from Kanu to form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) soon after, Njonjo and Mboya bullied Parliament into amending the law to send them back to the electorate to seek fresh mandate. His amity with Mboya in the early years was such that Njonjo was the best man when Mboya wed Pamela Odede in 1962. Yet that amity would seem to have slowly faded away after the taming of Odinga and his radical team.

President Jomo Kenyatta and Charles Njonjo walking together in a past event.

Kiambu Mafia

From then on, Njonjo became one of the three closest power brokers to President Kenyatta. The other two were Njoroge Mungai and Kenyatta’s brother-in-law, Mbiyu Koinange. You were sure to see them everywhere the president went. Many times, they were the only three people at the president’s side whenever he had a major public announcement to make. The three became extremely powerful to the extent of being labelled ‘the Kiambu Mafia’.

 When in May 1968 there was a scare of the president having had a heart attack in Mombasa, Njonjo was the only other person allowed near the head of State, besides Mama Ngina and Vice President Daniel arap Moi.

Even within Central Kenyan circles, one approached Njonjo extremely tentatively. When Njenga Karume formed the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA), Njonjo banned it for promoting “an archaic and primitive agenda”. Kenyatta restored it. But Njonjo would have the last word in the post-Kenyatta era.

Njonjo’s distaste for ethnic formations led to the banning of many other ‘tribal associations’ and other formations in the early years of the Moi regime. Apart from GEMA, other associations that were banned included the Abaluhya East Africa Association, Luo Union and New Akamba Union.

Even the sporting fraternity was not spared. Abaluhya Football Club (AFC) had to go into disguise as AFC Leopards. They proposed to form an All Footballers Cooperative (AFC) that never saw daylight. Maragoli United Football Club became Imara, while Abeingo became Nakuru Wanderers. Gor Mahia were exceptionally allowed to keep their name after Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko broke down at a public event where he led Luo notables to plead with President Moi to allow the club to keep the name.

In his heyday at the centre of things, Njonjo’s style was decidedly elitist, royal and modernist. You saw it in his manner of dress and carriage. The dark blue, or black, pinstriped suits did not bear ordinary stripes. They were alternations of the letters ‘C’ and ‘N’ for Charles Njonjo. The outfit did not come complete without his immaculate white shirts, royal gold chains, a black necktie and a fresh red rose at the lapel of the coat.

Just like in the childhood years, his close friends in adulthood were members of the resident White and Asian communities. Agriculture Minister Bruce McKenzie was a close crony, who worked with him to facilitate the Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport in July 1976 to free mostly Israeli hostages in that year’s drama of an Air France plane hijack by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). McKenzie was killed in an air crash in May 1978, in what looked like an assassination. There was a galore of other exotic cronies in the country and beyond. Their alleged alliances with Njonjo would be laid bare during the 1983-84 Miller Commission into Njonjo’s conduct. But all this would be futuristic.

For now, Njonjo had been on the national landscape protecting Asian interests in the country against assault by politicians like Butere MP Martin Shikuku, who liked to deride them as “paper citizens”. Shikuku lamented that Kenya’s economy was Asian dominated. Njonjo came out solidly in their defence. He was also the legal mind behind the protection of settler land rights, and Kenyatta’s famous refrain that there were no free things in Kenya.

If the people of Central Kenya thought that they would get free land after independence, this philosophy stood squarely in the way. Instead, the million-acre land fund that Kenya negotiated with the British at independence went largely to a dominant elite class from Central Kenya. Members of this class had been largely of the home guard fraternity. Just like in the colonial era, they were far-sighted to adapt to the changing times. They took most of the top jobs in government and the largesse that came with them – among them land in the White Highlands. The office of Attorney General was key in facilitation of these happenings.

The AG’s office was also instrumental to the collapse of the East African Community in 1975-1977. Njonjo first proposed in Parliament in 1975 that the community should be disbanded for “failing in its work”. When in June 1977 the community eventually collapsed, Njonjo was reported to have tossed with Mackenzie in celebration of the demise. They thought that the community was dragging Kenya’s economic growth behind. They relentlessly worked for the collapse, bringing to an end the common services of East African Railways and Habours Corporation, East African Postal and Telecommunications Corporation, East African Airways, East African Literature Bureau, a common tax authority, among many other areas and sectors of common interest. 

It was also within this season that the populist and popular Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki was killed and his body left in Ngong Forest, in March 1975. There was nothing to link Njonjo to this tragedy. Still, the discomfiture of the moment is useful to note. For relations between the two were openly bad. Kariuki was a radical nationalist. Njonjo was a conservative capitalist Anglophile. They clashed ever so frequently, with Njonjo using his office to put Kariuki down.

In June 1970, Kariuki narrowly escaped being jailed for non-payment of a debt. In the same year, Caltex zeroed in on him to take away two petrol stations, with impetus coming from the AG’s office. In 1971, Kariuki was officially banned from “talking in public”. The same year, over 100 guests who had come to attend a party at his house were turned away by the police. The speaking-ban against Kariuki was extended to Shikuku and Tinderet MP Jean-Marie Seroney. The Attorney General “banned them from speaking to the public anywhere in the country”.

The matter about Kariuki reared its head again after his death in 1975. A Parliamentary Select Committee probing into the matter returned a harsh report against the government. Senior persons in the government were suspected to have been involved in the murder. The report recommended that they should face criminal investigation and possibly prosecution. The AG’s office expunged some names from the report. And when the report was discussed in Parliament, Njonjo moved an amendment that Parliament should “note” instead of “adopt” the report.

The government was narrowly defeated when the amendment motion was put to vote. It emerged that three members from the government side – Masinde Muliro (a Cabinet minister and Kitale East MP), Peter Kibisu (assistant minister and Vihiga MP) and Mark Mwithaga (assistant minister and Nakuru Town MP) – had voted with the back bench. They were dismissed. Kibisu and Mwithaga went on to be jailed in circumstances that looked like a vendetta.

A muffled story about Njonjo was his management of the Kenyatta succession. His subsequent fallout with President Moi has often not allowed the country to acknowledge loudly enough his astute management of the situation.

Two years ahead of President Kenyatta’s death, he had silenced individuals who were beginning to throw hurdles in Moi’s way to succeeding the ailing Mzee Kenyatta. And when Jomo died in August 1978, the Attorney General ensured that the country remained stable, under the established constitutional law.

Dismantle networks

For the next three years, Njonjo was very close to the President, working closely to dismantle networks that had been built in the Kenyatta years. They replaced them with people who were thought to be Nyayo loyalists – Nyayo being the new President’s leadership and national philosophy. In the process, though, was Njonjo’s own placing of his own loyalists in place – perhaps for a future Moi succession, some say. But it would not come to pass. After the 1982 foiled coup, things turned decidedly bad for Njonjo. It was thought that Njonjo was in a rush to take over from President Moi. Those in the know whispered that his ageing father, Josiah, was keen that his son should become the President before he (the elder Njonjo) died.

Njonjo, therefore, resigned from his position as AG, to become MP for Kikuyu in a by-election in 1980. It was not clear why he should leave the powerful office of AG for the mud of politics. And to get here, a lot of maneuvering had to be done behind the scenes. Some  confirmed their thought that he was eyeing greater things. The only greater thing was the presidency. Some said it had been agreed that Moi would only rule for five years and step aside for Njonjo. Was he now preparing to take over?

Whatever the case, this marked the beginning of the political end for Njonjo and his legendary power. It would appear that Moi welcomed the opportunity for Njonjo to step down from the powerful AG’s office, because it would be easier to dismantle him without the trappings of that office. His Home and Constitutional Affairs Ministry did not have any clout. Hence, Moi began a systematic dismantling of Njonjo. 

The years 1983-84 represent a period that Njonjo would perhaps never want to remember. Friends deserted him as if he had leprosy. In the Cabinet, only Stanley Oloitiptip, Charles Rubia and Robert Matano held on around him. Deputy Speaker Moses Keino also stood with him. Everybody else took off. In the end, Moi sacked him and appointed the Cecil Miller Commission to probe into his conduct. All manner of appalling allegations were levelled against a lonely and powerless Njonjo. It was a strange zone indeed for him. The commission found him guilty of the accusations made against him. In character with what was often a show of magnanimity inn those days, President Moi pardoned him.

Things would never be the same again for the high flying Duke of Kabeteshire. His biggest mistake was, perhaps, an attempt to fight back in 1983, when he should have sensed defeat and succumbed. Instead, he commissioned a church service that was broadcast live on the Voice of Kenya radio. The preacher referred to Moi as “a limping sheep.” It was claimed that this sheep was causing the rest to be starved. It was time for a new sheep to take over. Njonjo, who was in the congregation near at his rural place of birth, was the new sheep.

It did not help matters that two years earlier, a certain Andrew Muthemba, who claimed to be his cousin, had been tried for trying to overthrow Moi’s government. Muthemba was accused of attempting to smuggle arms from the Nanyuki Armed Forces Airbase in 1981, “to eliminate the big man.” Njonjo had been mentioned at the trial as Muthemba’s first cousin. He denied any relations with Muthemba, however.

The aftermath of all this has left him eating the bread of sorrow and drinking from the pot of affliction for the intervening 37 years. But Njonjo has lived a long and – no doubt – rewarding life. Not many have been privileged to live to that age. When his sun sets, he is likely to be remembered as one more of Kenya’s great men who did great things – including making great mistakes sometimes. He was opposed to multiparty democracy and changed the Constitution to make Kenya a one party state. He did not like an African Judiciary. In particular he did not believe in African judges. His philosophy was that the Judiciary should remain White.

On the family front, he got married at 57, when most people would be beginning to stare into sunset. Did he have a hunch that he was going to live this long? Regardless, he has lived long and well. He could only pray for more years and good health. One thing which he still owes Kenyans is his story, as told by himself.