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Gems from days when ‘Sir’ Njonjo wielded power and influence

By Kamau Ngotho | Jan 9th 2022 | 9 min read
By Kamau Ngotho | January 9th 2022

Complete life: Charles Njonjo. [File]

Writing and drawing conclusions on the life of Napoleon, American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said was an easy task because the latter went the full trajectory. Napoleon inhabited his life. He completed it. One could know, for better and for worse, who the man was, did and could do.

The same could be said of Charles Njonjo who died on Sunday three weeks short of his 102 birthday.

Local media outlets have been flooded with features on the man, what he did, and didn’t. But three questions have not been answered – at least in flowing prose.

I will make an attempt. The noted gaps are one, what made Njonjo wield so much clout during his days in power? Two, why his fallout with second President Daniel arap Moi when it was Njonjo who had pulled out all the stops and stepped on as many toes to make sure Moi became president?

Three, how did Njonjo patch up things with Moi and stay dignified and relevant in political Siberia?

I never met Njonjo but we spoke twice on the telephone. The first time was in the early 1990s. I was a young writer with a magazine called ECHO, a sister publication of the more known political journal, The Weekly Review, published by veteran journalist Hilary Ng’weno who passed away last year.

British espionage writer Chapman Pincher had for the first time exposed a Cabinet minister in the first post-independence Kenya government, Bruce Mckenzie, to have been an agent of Britain's MI6 and Israel's MOSSAD respectively.

Since Mckenzie had been a close friend of Njonjo, my editor Joseph Odindo asked me to try and get an interview with him. It was only a few years after the latter had fallen from grace and he was still in self-imposed quarantine as far as media was concerned.

There were no mobile phones yet and what journalists did was to check whether the telephone number of the person you wanted to speak to was listed in the postal directory. If not, you called the telephone exchange and said the person you wanted to speak to. You would only be put through if the person accepted to take your call.

In this case, Njonjo was contacted by the telephone exchange and came on the line: “Yes Kamau. I am told you’re from the newspapers and want to talk to me. What is it about?”

I gave him the reason for contacting him. He told me he had never heard about the publication I wrote for and asked who was its’ publisher.

When he heard it was Hilary Ng’weno he told me to ask him to call him. I was in my early 20s and thought Njonjo might have felt slighted to have been sent a rookie.

In the second instance three years later, it is him who called. I was then News Editor with People Weekly (now People Daily), an opposition leaning publication launched by  Kenneth Matiba that had taken the local media scene by storm.

It happened that another of Njonjo great friends, Dr Richard Leakey, then director of the Kenya Wildlife Services, was under attack from a section of politicians led by then bombastic Cabinet minister William ole Ntimama.

We had written about it and hinted that Leakey was contemplating resigning. Njonjo wrote a press statement in support of his friend and had his driver deliver it to our office.

A few hours later he called and was put through to me. I told him I had received his statement and given it to a reporter to process a story. He asked me the name of the reporter. “Does he write good English?” he asked and I assured him as much. 

So what made Njonjo have so much clout? Granted, we have had seven occupiers of the office of the Attorney General, one who even outlived Njonjo in the number of years he held the fort. But none came close to having the influence Njonjo did.

Edgar Hoover

In the US they say there are heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and there was THE head of FBI the legendary J. Edgar Hoover.

In Kenya, Njonjo was THE Attorney General. Like Hoover, Njonjo thrived on secretly gathering dossiers on potential rivals and leveraging on them when need be.

For instance, when a radical politician Mark Mwithaga was elected MP for Nakuru Town, an assault complaint reported by his estranged wife months earlier was retrieved from the archives and the MP was prosecuted and jailed without the option of a fine which meant the loss of his parliamentary seat.

This is how Njonjo came to wield so much power. At independence British government wanted to have their man in the inner circle of power in the former colony, more so because at first, they were not overly trustful of President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta because of his association with the freedom movement.

They prevailed on the old man to appoint Njonjo AG. He perfectly fitted the bill. He was the ultimate Anglophile in upbringing, taste and style, and son of a colonial chief to boot.

In the early days of independence, the Kenyan security apparatus was controlled by British officers who held posts of armed forces and police chiefs. They were all Njonjo men. That plus the absolute trust Mzee Kenyatta had in him made the AG de-facto prefect of the cabinet.

That can be gleaned from a secret personal letter Njonjo wrote to then Foreign Minister Joseph Murumbi who was on an official trip to London. It turned out that Njonjo had spies keeping watch on his cabinet colleagues and reporting to him.

Below are excerpts of the letter from Njonjo to Murumbi dated 18th June 1965:

My dear Jusufu

Thank you for your letter which is headed London and dated 14th June but which appears to have been posted on 16th June as the date stamp is quite clear and the British Postal Authorities cannot be wrong.

I tried on several occasions to telephone you in your hotel as I was aware that you arrived on Sunday night, but all my efforts were abortive.

It is possible that you were not in your hotel but that you left your shoes outside your door to give the impression that you were inside. I have made a full report to Mzee (President Kenyatta) about this and you will hear about it when you return. In fact, you will probably find yourself out of the Government.

Please give my regards to Kitili, Kiano, and the others. I hope you are keeping a close watch on them. I hope Scotland Yard people (detectives) are keeping a close eye on you.

I have already given instructions through our police network and I get regular reports on your movements.

Such was the short leash on which Njonjo held everybody with exception of the President. That comes out in another paragraph in the same letter.

He writes: All is well here. Mzee (the President) is in good spirits. Jaramogi (the Vice President) is subdued and we don’t know what he is up to but we are keeping a close watch. Kangaroo (the code-name Njonjo had given cabinet colleague Tom Mboya) returned yesterday. I have my people watching on him.


Biographer Andrew Morton tells of a ride Njonjo had in President Kenyatta's limousine when he suggested to the old man that he appoint Moi the Vice President.

It wasn’t a happenchance as the narrative suggests. Secret consultations had been held at the Muthaiga home of the Briton Sir Marlin Sorsbie, the chairman of the East African Association, a somewhat clandestine organisation that handled British interests in the region.

The convener of the meeting was cabinet minister Bruce Mckenzie later unveiled as an agent of British intelligence. On his appointment, Mckenzie had his trusted personal assistant Nicholas Biwott transferred to Moi’s office.

Not well known is that Njonjo had worked hard to have Moi become president against great opposition from his own father, Senior Chief Josiah Njonjo.

The senior Njonjo was in the group of elites from Mount Kenya region who feared Moi presidency would be detrimental to their interests.

Former Cabinet minister Munyua Waiyaki told me of a lunch invitation at the Senior Njonjo’s home where he cautioned his son on Moi.

These were recollections from Dr Waiyaki. The senior Njonjo asked his son how sure he was Moi would be a stop-gap president or a passing cloud as many thought. On hearing him out, the senior Njonjo asked the son to get a piece of meat from the fridge and called his cat.

“Give that piece of meat to the cat”, the senior Njonjo instructed. Once the cat had gotten hold of the piece of meat, the senior gave another instruction to the son: “Now take away the piece of meat from the cat.”

“Oh no, can’t try that. The cat will gouge out my eyes!” replied the son. Then the old man said: “That is what will happen between you and Moi. You will put him in power. But the moment you try to take it away, he will do to you what you say the cat will do if you try to snatch the meat from its mouth!”


True to Machiavellianism, the Prince would quickly destroy his maker once on the throne. Njonjo trusted police driver Inspector Kabucho Wakori would tell me years later that he knew Moi didn’t trust Njonjo and would soon get rid of him.

He told me he discovered Njonjo was secretly trailed and that security detail attached to him had instructions to report on his every movement.

The driver recalled: “I told my boss (Njonjo) he was secretly monitored and at first he couldn’t believe it. So we laid a trap.” Njonjo secretly put a private investigator in his convoy and who reported two cars that kept changing number plates had been on his trail and had a radio contact between them.

Graceful parting

And what made Moi not harass Njonjo further once he had pushed him out of power and vanquished his allies?

Dr Leakey, who remained close to both men, told me he sensed a feeling of guilt in Moi that he had humiliated Njonjo after all the hard work he had put in to make sure he became president.

He sensed that when Moi visited Leakey’s mother and asked her to invite Njonjo for dinner and where Moi would make a surprise appearance.

That happened and Moi used the occasion to assure Njonjo that he wouldn’t be harassed as long as he steered clear of politics. He would also be left to take care of his vast businesses interests many of which he jointly owned with Moi.

Moi and Njonjo also shared a great friend and personal doctor, David Silverstein, who with the Leakey family went out of their way to ease the tension between the two.

Eventually, old age calmed everything and Moi and Njonjo were once again friends in word and deed. RIP old buddies.

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