The place of Gikonyo in Kenya's journey towards independence

When then Labour Minister Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano was pictured dancing with his wife Jane at the Rahimtula Hall on September 26, 1966. [File, Standard]

In 1963, Julius Gikonyo Kiano was one of the prima donnas, led by Jomo Kenyatta, who straddled the anti-colonial stage inspiring others. He was one of the young men in the 1940s that Kenyatta and Peter Mbiyu Koinange, son of Senior Chief Koinange, inspired. At times called Ka-Wanjiru, Kiano became a major anti-colonial player on the eve of independence.

Born in 1926 to Jonathan Kiano and Damaris Wanjiru at Githiga, Murang’a, Kiano exhibited brilliance all around. In primary school, fellow pupils remembered him receiving a kamukanda, or medallion, to commemorate the 1936 coronation of King George VI. At Alliance High School he met other boys including Munyua Waiyaki, Njoroge Mungai, and later Mau Mau General Karari Njama. Their teacher, besides headmaster Carrey Francis, was Eliud Mathu, the first African to be nominated to the Legislative Council in 1944. Mathu’s nomination overlooked Mbiyu, the founder of Githunguri Teachers College which was to train teachers in preparation for Kenya’s eventual independence.

Mathu’s nomination spurred the African elite to create a study body, Kenya African Study Union (Kasu) to empower their man with research and information. The body dropped the ‘S’ and became Kenya African Union or KAU. Among the officials was Mucohi Gikonyo, Kiano’s older cousin, who once said that he drunk njohi because his name was Mucohi.


When Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1946 and assumed KAU leadership in 1947, he became the colony’s political rallying point, recruiting diverse people into KAU, including Kisumu businessman Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Thereafter, Odinga became Kenyatta’s disciple in nationalism. Kenyatta was the national anti-colonial inspiration for people meeting secretly at Kiburi House. Kiano was one of them and took Karari to Kiburi House.

Kiano was a source of inspiration for students. At Githunguri Teachers College, students nicknamed him ‘Mr Simultaneous Equation’ because of his Mathematical prowess. He became another KCA project, Kenyatta having been the first in 1929 and 1931. The people of Murang’a made Kiano the first ‘Harambee’ student by collecting pennies to educate ‘the son of Jonathan’. When Mucohi asked Kenyatta for KAU financial help, Kenyatta reportedly rebuked him over the inability of Metumi people to educate a child. The rebuke angered one Metumi man, Lewis Waciuma, enough for him to produce Sh3,000 to enable a Metumi boy to go study. Karari, who had donated Sh5, escorted Kiano to the airport.

Tension intensified in Kenya culminating in the Mau Mau War. Such militants as Jesse Kariuki, or Charang’a administered oaths and helped to commission Stanley Mathenge wa Mirugi as overall commander of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army while Dedan Kimathi was to be secretary. Besides commissioning fighters, the militants targeted ‘softies’ like Mucohi whose mistake was to sign for Nairobi to receive a city charter. He appealed to Kenyatta for help and Kenyatta told the militants that he had repented and should be left alone. The militants, however, killed Chief Waruhiu wa Kungu for being a colonial official. Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency which exploded into the Mau Mau War.

Cold War

The Mau Mau War in the 1950s exploded amid raging Soviet-American Cold War. The initial American response was to support Britain because, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told India’s Jawahalal Nehru in 1953, of the Cold War. Nehru had warned Dulles that supporting Britain might spread Mau Mau activities throughout Africa. The US also entered an MOU with Britain to ensure that the United Nations would not discuss the Mau Mau War. It created the African Committee on African Affairs and the African American Institute, and even tried to deport R. Mugo Gatheru back to Kenya because he had worked with Kenyatta and Mbiyu in KAU as an editor of Sauti Ya Mwafrika. The attempted deportation acquired national dimension as African Americans condemned colonial atrocities in Kenya and turned Gatheru into an anti-colonial celebrity.

In addition, the Gatheru saga brought Kiano to official limelight. Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, pointed out that the best way to win potential African leaders is to provide education to such sensible Africans as Gikonyo Kiano who are likely to side with the United States in the Cold War. Kiano had published an article in May 1953 in the Saturday, Review arguing that the Mau Mau War was a consequence of colonial atrocities on the Africans. A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, wrote to the White House in June 1953 urging President Dwight D. Eisenhower to demand that “the British military forces immediately cease dropping bombs upon the Kikuyu. The best way to avoid Africans being “lured into the orbit of world Communism”, he wrote, was for the US to stand fast against colonialism. When Eisenhower wrote to UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggesting a statement about colonial autonomy Churchill dismissed his advice since he was not ready to give votes to “the Hottentots”. In the meanwhile, Kiano excelled at Antioch College in Ohio as well as at Stanford and UC Berkeley in California. On obtaining his doctorate at Berkeley in 1956, the same year as Martin Luther King did, he returned to Kenya by way of Uganda.

Kiano became educationally inspiring. Cousin Mucohi intervened with Governor Baring to have Kiano appointed the first African lecturer at the Royal Technical College. In the 1957 first election for Africans, in which the British rigged out Mathu because he was ‘Kikuyu’ and probably Mau Mau contaminated. Kiano could not vote because of the imposed general disability on the Kikuyu. Baring once again intervened on Kiano’s behalf; he got three votes.

Kiano linked up with another 1956 returnee, trade unionist Tom Mboya. A product of the Mau Mau War and British desire to create alternative leadership to Kenyatta that was not Kikuyu, Mboya was young, energetic, articulate, and charismatic. The government had sent him to Ruskin College, Oxford, to hobnob with colonial policymakers and then he went to the US where ACOA and American trade unions adopted him as their own. They gave him money which he spent to build Solidarity Building at Gikomba and successfully to run for the 1957 election. The American media received Mboya’s victory positively, and ignored such other winners as Odinga. The elected then pressured for additional African members and in 1958, Kiano joined Mboya and Odinga in the LegCo.

Political dynasties

Political dynamics in colonial Kenya changed on three fronts. First, serious political rivalry developed between Mboya and Odinga as to who should inherit Kenyatta’s leadership mantle since Kenyatta was supposedly ailing in prison. With the media portraying Mboya as leader of the Africans and other leaders resenting it, Odinga jumped the gun in June 1958 by declaring in the LegCo that the jailed Kenyatta was the only leader that Africans recognised. Mboya responded by organising mass demonstrations in 1959 in Nairobi on ‘Kenyatta Day.’ Thereafter, all leaders made Kenyatta’s release their national call. Second, there was change in global attitude towards political development in Kenya as revelation of British colonial atrocities such as the Hola Massacre rose. Kiano and Mboya helped in the evolving realignment of attitudes in favour of the anti-colonialists. One of the excuses the settlers used to deny independence was that Africans were not educated and Kiano was tempted to remind Michael Blundell that he, Blundell, did not have a basic degree. 

Third, Kiano helped to make education an inspirational tool of anti-colonialism and generated an Anglo-American rivalry on who should post-colonial Kenyan elite. Angry that Kiano had gone to US universities, Carey Francis warned potential students against going to India or the US. The government also doubled effort to provide British education opportunities for selected students like Bethwell Ogot, Ali Mazrui, and Kitili Mwendwa. This countermove, however, was so limited that it could not slow down the growing demand for American education.

This demand led to the 1959 airlift. It had many players and sideshows. American Cultural Officer Robert Stephens, Hiti Ngeni, bumped Barack Obama who still found his way to Hawaii and sired a future president. Kariuki Njiiri threatened to fight Mboya physically if Mboya removed Evans Gichuhi’s name again; Gichuhi was among the 81 in the flight that included Pamela, Mboya’s future wife. 

American airlift supporters included Senator John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. 

Between 1959 and 1963, the success of the airlift politically boosted the airlift organisers. Kiano was involved in major political developments leading to independence. He was a founder member of Kanu and key player in the subsequent electoral victory over Kadu. He was in the first Cabinet, having stamped his authority.

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