The death, earlier this week, of Charles Mugane Njonjo, fondly and otherwise referred to as the “Duke of Kabeteshire”, draws the curtains on the first generation of Kenyan leaders who oversaw the transition of Kenya into independence.
Charles Njonjo, Kenya’s first Attorney General held a first-row seat as the country went through its birth pains and as it grew through infancy and teenage. With a docket that included the security services, Njonjo was one of the most powerful members of the first Cabinet.
What made Njonjo even more formidable was that Kenyatta One took the reins when he was already ageing with little energy for day-to-day running of government. It did not help that Kenyatta had vicious fights with his Vice President Oginga Odinga from the get-go.
Consequently, Njonjo, the President’s fellow native from Kiambu, was the natural go-to person. It is said by those in the know that Njonjo literally ran Kenya in its first decade.
Njonjo, who, like Kenyatta before him, refused to write his memoirs, and has died with many secrets of those infant years. How was the first Cabinet put together? How did it function? What was the nature of the power intrigues in Kenyatta’s final years as people struggled to manage his succession?
We will not know from him about the unfortunate deaths of Tom Mboya, of Pio Gama Pinto, of JM Kariuki, of Johnstone Muthiora, and many others who died in mysterious circumstances when Njonjo was the overall in charge of the security and intelligence services.
Njonjo’s power continued into the Moi presidency whose transition he single-handedly managed, including his quirky edict that it was treason to “imagine or compass” the death of President Kenyatta.
The latter advisory put to an end the constitutional amendment proposal that had been intended by what was named the “Kikuyu Mafia” to stop Moi from taking over from Kenyatta.
But being an ambitious man, he did not last long in the Moi government. By 1983, he had been clipped of all his powers and sent to political exile along with many of his supporters.
For those of us that watched the Njonjo inquiry in 1983 and those that now read the report, it was amazing how much a powerful Njonjo underestimated Moi. It is the stuff of legends how Moi outplayed Njonjo and used his exit to consolidate his own power and become the imposing political behemoth he became.
In his only statement at the inquiry, Njonjo, humbled by the proceedings, and realising how he had been outsmarted, sought Moi’s mercy.
In characteristic Moi style, the same was promptly given, even though the inquiry had found Njonjo guilty of all charges. To his credit, Njonjo stayed off the public limelight for the next 40 years, only being seen on the occasional photo-op with people he had spoken of in derogatory terms in his powerful years.
This included Raila Odinga, whose candidacy he supported in 2013 and 2017 against his fellow tribesman and county-man President Uhuru Kenyatta. The Njonjo we saw in these years was a lovable old man far removed from the days his name was only mentioned in whispers.
Those, like Salim Lone whose exile Njonjo had engineered, say he became a changed man, desirous of righting his wrongs.
The saddest part of Njonjo’s exit is that he has denied us a chance to see a critical perspective of Kenya’s history from an insider. In a country where history is so contested, the refusal to write memoirs, firstly by President Kenyatta, and now his most powerful insider, is a loss for Kenya.
Those who lived in those impactful years owe the country their memories. It will help us construct a true history of our great nation including its warts.