How Ex-VP Murumbi’s dalliance with Kenyatta guzzled his potential political legacy

From left : Jaramogi Oginga, Joseph Murumbi, Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya at JKIA, Nairobi in Oct 1965. The late Joseph Murumbi was the second Vice President of Kenya and he served for barely seven months. [Photo: Courtesy]


Author Karen Rothmyer is unapologetic about the resignation of the late second Vice President of Kenya Joseph Murumbi, who served for barely seven months.

Ms Rothmyer’s description of the leader’s exit from office is akin to a passing shadow as suggested in the last chapter of Murumbi’s autobiography.

“Murumbi’s departure from the government at the end of 1966 passed without much comment.”

It appears the powerful shadow of the founding father Jomo Kenyatta stalked him and destroyed the dreams of the once ambitious champion of freedom. In the end, he remained a shell of himself, having failed to usher Kenya into the path of socio-economic liberation as he aspired.

Rothmyer in the recently launched biography, Joseph Murumbi: a Legacy of Integrity, weaves a narrative of the former VP who replaced Jaramogi Odinga after he fell out with the President in 1966.

The book portrays Murumbi as a desperate but relatively reluctant politician, adept at strategising in paper but the coward in him drove him into licking the feet of his boss whom he referred to as “Old Man” or “Mzee.”

He first met Kenyatta at Paul Ngei’s Kenya African Union (KAU) offices in River Road, Nairobi where the founding president convinced him to play active role in the party, during a meeting in 1952. It became a kind of love at first sight.

Murumbi started with great vigour in unrelenting push against colonialism but it seems all his strength had been sapped upon independence leaving only thirsty vigour tank that only Kenyatta could refill, hence, his unwavering loyalty to him. In the biography, Murumbi is quoted saying he joined politics by accident after the founding president pushed him to take an active role.

He served as KAU acting Secretary General before Kenyatta sent him to England to seek external support in the fight for independence. Overseas, he joined the Movement for Colonial Freedom.

But perhaps to elevate himself to the club of the best leaders Kenya had in the past, Murumbi is unsympathetic towards such leaders. Kenyatta’s presumed enemies also targeted him. He became one with the president and in the end, he ended up building Kenyatta’s legacy while demolishing his.

At one point, he was lashing at his supposed rivals and diluting the heroism of others while lightly speaking well of them, akin to slapping one’s cheek and soothing it at the same time.

In the book, Murumbi says former Cabinet minister Mbiyu Koinange he had no respect for Mzee. This was after Koinange spoke ill of the president. He resented the former minister and severed relations with him.

Regarding James Gichuru, Kenya’s first Finance minister, Murumbi dismisses him as a man who had chances of replacing Mzee but “allowed himself to become the victim of drinking.”

For independence activist Tom Mboya, who was assassinated in 1969, the former VP accuses him of working in cohorts with his enemies to bring him down.  “…I used to feel pinpricks now and again, and I saw the hand of Mboya,” reads the book in parts.

Cultural dilemma

He dismisses Mboya’s concept of African socialism saying there was nothing of the sort. Murumbi describes J M Kariuki as big-mouthed and claims that his loud ambitions may have led to his assassination in 1975.

In the end, he remains the anthill of the savannah, a clean man and an astute leader that Kenya ever had. The former VP says he never engaged in corruption or stashed money in banks. Murumbi would rather use them to buy books and artefacts.

Murumbi had an exception though in the name of Pio Gama Pinto, another freedom agitator, whom he smothers with praises. In a tribute after his killing, he says that he made many sacrifices for his country, people and Kanu.

Nevertheless, when a bullet brought down Pinto, he took sides with the government that was suspected to have had a hand in the killing. In a tribute to Pinto, Murumbi urged leaders to follow the example set by “our president” by avoiding use of violence.

But it is not entirely Kenyatta to blame, the book also illustrates how the quest for identity, his long struggle of trying to shed off his Asian-associated identity barred him from the opportunity to clip corruption and negative ethnicity that were slowly devouring Kenya after independence.

Born of a Goan father and a Maasai mother, Murumbi found himself in identity crisis, a cultural dilemma.

Neither the Maasai community nor the Indians who saw him more inclined to being African accepted him fully.

It follows that in his political journey, he devised an escapist plan. He metamorphosed into an art fanatic and extreme anesthetist who selectively focused on the beautiful elements while acting indifferent towards actual socio-economic change that post-independence Kenyans craved after unexpected betrayal by leaders led to disillusionment.

Many Kenyans needed land that colonial settlers had occupied but Kenyatta regime was not willing to offer it easily. Rather than advocate for people’s right to land and free education as Mau Mau freedom fighters had demanded, Murumbi denied knowledge of such pledges and treated them as propaganda.

Rothmyer questions how Murumbi who admired Odinga, went ahead and replaced him when Kenyatta kicked out the first VP.

She further comments, “(Murumbi) made no protest when in 1964 with the collapse of Kadu, Kenya effectively became a one-party state- a situation that was to continue for the rest of Murumbi’s life.”

She says for considerable period of time, he remained a supporter of Kenyatta and Kanu and prepared to mute his disagreements and swallow his disappointments.

“And even when he decided to leave government, he went quietly into retirement rather than make public declaration of his differences,” noted Rothmyer.

In Kenyatta’s letter dated September 23, 1966 accepting Murumbi’s resignation from VP office, he praised him as wise, true counsellor, warm and loyal friend.

Yet even after the letter, he stayed in office until December when he had verbally confirmed with the president that all was well for him to leave.

When he left office, among the reasons for exit included his failing health.

However, he later, claimed he was protesting against corruption that had infiltrated the government.