He was powerful. In his own words, he once saved Jomo Kenyatta from receiving a thrashing while in the prison.
But Paul Ngei could not save himself from bankruptcy.
The Makerere university-trained drama king who boasted to have nine political lives punched his way into jail, detention and international fame.
But unknown to many, poor financial management was always next to him.
“Was it not me who saved him (Jomo Kenyatta) from being killed by his fellow Kikuyu tribesman who wanted to throw him into the fire?” Ngei, a former detainee alongside Kenyatta once asked.
Working as the Minister for Cooperatives and Marketing in 1965, Ngei had cut a name for himself in bringing reforms in the cooperative movement.
He once told farmers that it was better to die working for the development of one’s country than to die a poor man. In a gathering of enthusiastic farmers in Kisii, Ngei told farmers that he wanted to see a serious agricultural revolution through cooperative farming.
During another meeting with a delegation of African Cooperative Savings and Credit Association, he even warned members against taking loans to spend on luxuries, instead of acquiring important assets such as land.
Yet again, in another meeting with farmers’ groups, he hit out at them for spending beyond their means. He advised them against lavish expenditures.
“I am convinced that many societies could do with a cut in expenditure. I, therefore, once again appeal to delegates to look into it. Where societies wish to have capital expenditure, they should first examine their position carefully,” he said.
Even when Mr Kenyatta appointed him as the Minister for Social Services and Housing, he brought a lot of reforms to improve housing conditions and reduce the cost of rent.
In February 1966, Kenyatta suspended him as he was planning to attend a fundraising function, but Ngei, the man said to have had nine political lives soldiered on as though nothing had happened.
Despite having won many political battles for 30 years on political podiums, the blow of being declared bankrupt proved to finish his 9th life.
“Should an appeal filed by the minister with the Court of Appeal on Tuesday this week fail to go through, the minister will not only lose both his parliamentary seat and cabinet post, he will also lose his right to vote,” wrote The Weekly Review on July 17, 1981.
But how did he get there? Soon after 1979 elections, Standard Bank Ltd served him with a bankruptcy note after it failed to locate Ngei’s assets to auction so as to recover Sh2 million debt.
The bank had filed a suit against Ngei in November 1971 claiming Sh1.1 million.
Later on, he was summoned to appear in court within 10 days. But he never appeared.
He even swore an affidavit saying he was not aware of the debt and that his lawyers never received the summons. Eight years later, the minister who continued to advise farmers on how best to organise their financial affairs, was hit with the bankruptcy note and a petition at High Court to declare him bankrupt.
His estate was put under receivership in March 1980 in a brief court session where neither Ngei nor his lawyers turned up, giving the bank’s lawyers a field day. As his case moved from courtroom to boardroom of the State Law offices at Sheria House, a total of 35 creditors made up of banks, private and public corporations emerged, claiming a total of Sh5.6 million against the minister’s estate. While Standard Bank was claiming Sh2 million, National Bank of Kenya was on his neck for Sh1.8 million.
Through his lawyers, Ngei agreed to sign a deed of composition under which he was to clear all his debts within one year.
But he was asked to pay the first installment of Sh1.4 million in September. He paid an initial sum of Sh250,000 and moved to the court to remove his estate from receivership status.
Once he succeeded, he never paid any other sum to clear the initial installment of Sh1.4 million. As a result, the official receiver applied to the court to nullify the agreement and bring the matter to court again.
But the grandson of Paramount Chief Masaku did not take it lying down. His lawyers convinced the court that he had paid Sh750,000 to the registrar’s office and Sh250,000 to the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC).
The judge said he had complied with the law and gave him another year to clear his other debts.
Ngei was relieved but his joy never lasted. The judge discovered that the lawyers who were appearing on behalf of the official receiver had lied to him yet Ngei had not paid AFC any money.
He quashed his earlier direction and ordered a fresh case.
Ngei convinced the court that he could sell some of his property and clear all his debts if only he was given enough time. But creditors had lost patience.
“Given the fact that the minister was always aware of the high probability of the court reaching such a decision when he defaulted in meeting the terms of the deed composition, it seems logical that the minister’s assets did not exceed his liabilities,” wrote The Weekly Review.
Ngei had to find a way out. He, later on, raised the money in an unexplained way and by December, he had cleared his debt.
However, when he moved to court seeking to be removed from bankruptcy status, the court did not grant him his wishes.
Instead, it said that for a man who had struggled for eight years with a Sh1 million debt to Standard Bank suddenly coming into possession of millions of money was not convincing to declare him out of bankruptcy.
“The official receiver says he has not been informed how the Minister raised this sum of money or whether he incurred any further liabilities in doing so,” the court noted. With bankruptcy, trappings of power disappeared and his business ventures failed.
The man with nine lives found the going tough. He had both his legs amputated due to diabetes forcing him to spend his last years in a wheelchair until when he passed on in 2004.