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When Njonjo almost resigned over coffee smugglers

MPs Jesse Gachago (left) and Muhuri Muchiri when they were charged with smuggling coffee, October 1977. [File, Standard]

Attorney General Charles Njonjo threatened to resign if action was not taken against known coffee smugglers.

Njonjo’s threat put the brakes on thriving black coffee market in the late 1970s.

So lucrative was the smuggling of coffee from Uganda that politicians and government officials were involved.

Known as the era of black gold, it began in 1976 when Ugandan farmers decided to sell their coffee in the private market because the Uganda Coffee Marketing Board was not paying them.

And Kenya was the preferred market. Smuggling markets were established along the Kenya-Uganda border, notable at Chepkube, Lwahaha and Sio Port

Since the Kenyan economy was vibrant, many Kenyan traders trooped to the border to buy the ‘black gold’.

“The Kenyan smugglers of Ugandan coffee made a killing, and a number of them, blinded by the new riches, became reckless. The nouveau riche led artificial lifestyles and generally misused their money, with most of them running fleets of vehicles and keeping chains of girlfriends and mistresses,” wrote Joseph Kibati in Memoirs of a Kenyan Spymaster.

According to Kibati who was then deputy Provincial Special Branch Officer in Coast, were it not for Njonjo, the black gold bug would have consumed powerful individuals in Government.

To put an end to this mad rush for quick riches, Njonjo ordered the arrest of Assistant Minister Jesse Gachago and Embakasi MP Muhuri Muchiri for stealing coffee worth Sh1.2 million while it was on transit from Malaba to Mombasa.

“It took the courageous and firm action by then Attorney General to have Muhuri and Gachago brought to book despite strong opposition from the cartels and the then powerful GEMA led by Njega Karume and Kihika Kimani,” wrote Kibati.

In fact, Karume led a GEMA delegation to meet President Jomo Kenyatta to have the Head of State pardon Gachago and Muhuri, but Njonjo put his foot down and threatened to resign if no action was taken against the duo, according to Kibati.

Gachago and Muhuri were jailed.

At around the time, world prices of coffee dropped, making it less profitable to engage in smuggling and stealing.

“Although the coffee boom bought a lot of foreign currency to the country and increased employment, it created long lasting negative side effects, chief amongst which was corruption.”

Further in February 1977, the Cabinet announced that all export and marketing of coffee, tea, cotton and horticultural products must be done through statutory bodies.