Editor Kipkoech Tanui’s unnerving encounters with Charles Njonjo and the story that never was

A lot has been said and written about Mr Charles Mugane Njonjo. A lot more will come. When the taps of memory of those who encountered or heard about him dry up, the final opinion of what kind of person he actually was will be left to you. But even more, the bigger judge will be his maker, whom he may have already encountered in life after this turbulent earth.

You can be sure he would if he has had the chance, have given a good account of himself. It would not be complete without the fact that having been a member of the All Saints Cathedral for seven decades, he ended up with a reserved place in the frontal pews. And true to the nature of the man his church of choice is the former Church Province of Kenya (CPK), before the name was changed because of the derisive Kanu era reference as Church Politics of Kenya.

The CPK title stood for the fact that it was an appendix of the Church of England. It is here that Njonjo not only wedded the English way, but where he also wielded powers of influencing who was to be appointed the new Archbishop as the church began to chart its own course to semi-autonomy, culminating in the current name – Anglican Church of Kenya.

Ironically, the church on whose pedestal Njonjo rode to reflect the mwafrika mzungu (Black white man, the oxymoron is intended), veered off its conservatism and Englishman traits. Thus it began to champion the clerical rebellion against the institutions that nurtured church-state relations once the white man was booted out. This was brought out by the lead roles the likes of ACK clerics Henry Okullu, Alexander Kipsang Muge, Manasses Kuria (cremated like Njonjo), David Gitari and Benjamin Nzimbi.

In later years, it must have been torturous for Njonjo to sit in those cold pews only to listen to provosts Peter Njenga and Peter Njoka lambast the stubborn memories and mannerisms of colonialism, and of course the new independent government and its constrictive doling out of state-sanctioned freedoms to Kenyans.

Many of us would have wished, if given the chance, to pick Njonjo’s mind when pro-reform rallies of the 1990s with remarkable leaders like Oginga Odinga, Raila Odinga, Kijana Wamalwa and Mwai Kibaki, ended up in the sanctum of his favourite church complete with clouds of teargas and police batons.

To add to the story of Njonjo, I would also give my own four encounters with the man whose drooping, squinty but searing eyes, scared off many. It is interesting that when I joined journalism, Njonjo had long sunk into the abyss of politics, having just joined high school when he dramatically fell out with Mzee Daniel arap Moi.

As a journalist, I would later watch as he rose from the ruin and ashes of ostracisation to get back to his bosom friend Moi as their sunset approached.

But you have to first remember the reputation spewing from the air around where Njonjo was, told by those who had the fortune or misfortune of meeting him in his heyday. The meeting would end either in a good or bad way for you, sometimes just depending on how you dressed or how much baggage of mother-tongue your English pronunciation bore. It did not matter how educated you were, where you came from or who sent you.

Just a quick run of those perennial issues that would weigh our minds as we went to see him – as told during the Njonjo Judicial Commission of Inquiry. This is the man who snapped his golden cigarette lighter during the commission’s tea break and used the flame to sear the bushy beard of one of the MPs he had called the ‘seven sisters’, Mr Mwamzadi wa Mwachofi. In response to the MP’s protestation, he retorted: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” And that was the dictum of his life.

Why the hot flame? The man was ‘unclean’ because he bore a shrubby beard, unkempt hair, safari suits and safari shoes. In Njonjo’s mind, the commission was set up to humiliate him. But by dressing in his usual spectacular and glamourous style as if in each day he had a date with the Queen of England for knighting (which never came!), he had shown more respect and deference to the commission than its witnesses.

This was a man who also had been reputed to have golden gong bells in his house to be rang by his retinue of high-class chefs when it was meal time and already served. The fruits and water on the table would be from France, his fridges replenished every week via diplomatic bag from Paris, specially a spring in Lyons.

This is a man who when he forgot his beer mug in late Njenga Karume’s home after a rare occasion of carousing, the Office of the President mobilised government staff to ensure it was found and delivered sparkling clean to the man. There were many revelations about him, including the fact that the weaving of his material for suits were custom-made, and the threading would finally bear the initials of his name under close scrutiny. You of course know that his wrist watch was just an ornament to him, to tell time he used the ancient and more classical watch sprouting from the buttons of his coat, and hanging on a golden chain.

So one day at Nation Centre, with the trepidation of the heart, and long before Njonjo returned to public life thanks to tokenism appointments by Mzee Moi, I was told I was to cover him during one of his philanthropic visits to Starehe Boys Centre. We were only two journalists when he turned to speak to us after a picture session of him donating a cheque. He asked how we were and what was happening in the media.

Cesspool of politics

Before we parted I asked him one question: “Are you planning to return to politics?” His answer gave me straight page-one story which was no mean feat then: “Who me? Who wants to get into the cesspool of politics? It is a dirty game, very dirty!”

Together with the editors who dispatched me and used the story, the next day it was fireworks at Nation. Apparently, we had broken a silent code in the country decreed by State House – never to let Njonjo be heard and to which the top executives had given their word. Now, as Moi would say, like the pig we were frying ourselves in our own fat.

A few years later I was sent to cover Mzee Moi in a tour of Laikipia following tribal clashes. One of the cantankerous speakers claimed the attackers were hiding in a nearby ranch. I made the silly mistake of young journalists to name the ranch and point out it was associated with Njonjo and the billionaire arms dealer he had been linked to the judicial hearing; Adan Khasshogi.

The next day, Njonjo called our office, in the era that there were no mobile phones. He told the News Editor off. In the words of my editor he would not sue. Why? Njonjo answer was: “I don’t throw my clean money after bad money.” That tells you succinctly what Njonjo thought of journalists and their profession.

Before we were to meet in a dramatic way physically and now at the Standard. Njonjo called on the News Desk line (though we were then in the digital era) and asked the person who picked whether he could get someone who speaks English. Now you know why he asked so even though he was calling an English newspaper newsroom! When I took the call, he was on the line unhappy that we were referring to Mzee Moi as “former President”.

“President is a lifelong title of honour, it cannot be taken away, America has President Nixon, President Carter, President Bush Snr, President Clinton… you can only refer to them as retired without taking their title.”

He added: “You assume people don’t know the title is earned and kept forever. Why are you embarrassing yourselves?”

After that he wished us a good day, but not before a polite reminder that people charged with shameful crimes such as corruption and theft lose the dignifying title of “Mr” until they were cleared. What I forgot to ask was how to go about this stripping of honour if the subject before court was a woman.   

Then the final encounter, in his office at the CFC Bank, on Museum Hill. At the end of the meeting he almost threw me out because unlike his sophistry and emotional attachment to Art and Music (classical ones!), here was a villager who found his way in Nairobi and got some measure of education without proper induction into the hall of civility and how to enjoy the finer things of life beyond Nairobi Matata, Mangelepa, TP OK Jazz, Mbilia Abel and Kakai Kilonzo.

Njonjo himself called on the landline and asked for me. He did not use the mobile phone. Luckily, I was not far from the desk. He told me he had been reminded of me by a friend and there was a favour he needed from me. Could I be in his office the next day at 2:30pm?

That night I scarcely slept, excited Njonjo had chosen me to tell his story. I felt like I may oversleep and miss the afternoon meeting. You of course recall how excited you were on the eve of your first school tour to Nairobi. That was me.

With the heart racing and the mind in the thick-centre of a typhoon, I arrived at his mezzanine parking half-hour early so as not to be late. I knew well his affinity with English, not what we call African time. Of course your guess is right, I had spent about 30 minutes before driving up on the Museum Hill roadside, to ensure I was not in or on time, but ahead of time. That would at least allow me to be at his reception with little sign of sweat, having had time to park and switch on the AC in my cheap ex-Japan car.

Ten minutes to my appointment, and with extra pens and notebook in my inner coat pocket (your guess is right, I was in suit and tie!), I walked through the security checks then was ushered to his secretary. She was a black woman, I took note, because Njonjo in his powerful days, only employed white petite ones. Then she pushed a button to alert him she was opening his door. The next thing, I walked into the Lion’s Den, heart-pounding and having bridled my tongue and let out the mannerisms of civility I was taught when I arrived in Nairobi.

jazz music

Handshake goes with two hands, speak only when spoken to. Sit only when told. Speak with the eye on the elder person. Do not lick the lips, it is awful. Don’t look around like you are a detective or rabbit dazzled by car lights. Watch your accent. Remember the right titles and correct phraseology.

The first shocker I got was the simplicity of the old man as he explained to be how he settled on me and how I spice my weekly column with ‘good English’. I thanked him for that, it only meant he had pre-qualified me for his Big Story, the one Kenyans have always wanted to read.

Then he did something strange; he picked some CFC Bank brochures on its new credit cards. Like a salesman, he asked me to apply for one if I needed. He also spent a few minutes to tell me of his two greatest friends whom he held in high esteem: Mzee Moi and renown businessman Joshua Kulei. He revealed to me these were some of his business partners. He then veered off to that old story of why in Kenyan newsrooms we keep referring to Moi as former President.

Then, he finally came to the issue of the day. He took me on a brief journey on how he loves Jazz music and orchestra, to the extent that every year he attends the best classical orchestras in Europe. He told me about Beethoven and Mozart.

Then he talked of a young Ugandan man, Isaiah Katumwa, a young self-taught saxophonist and rising star in the World jazz arena. He was coming to perform at the Kenya National Theatre. He gave me the requisite brochures and leaflets to go through. “Please put this on your paper so that jazz followers can know and come attend. This is a great boy, a sensation and is going places’’.  

Then the point of departure between my lifestyle and Njonjo came when I was mulling over the fact that this encounter would likely be the precursor to better things. In one moment, I unbridled my Mogotio tongue: “No problem Sir, consider that done. I will also ensure our KTN and Standard newspaper crew will be there on the day of concert to ensure even better coverage.’’

With that response, Njonjo seemed to wince in a mix of pain and consternation. He kept quiet, looked at his empty table, then curtly responded: “Have you heard me ask you to do that? Why would you do what I have not asked for?”

I think on realising my own shock, he went ahead to ask me if I have ever attended a Jazz orchestra. “No Sir, I haven’t,” was the line that probably stopped him from throwing me out.

“During the performance there is no movement, no flashing of lights is allowed. No distraction is needed whatsoever. If you have a cough, you do not go. No getting out until it is over; the notes and the pleasant sound must be absorbed in total silence, to cheering.”

Lesson learnt that we were creatures of God but living in two worlds in-one, I left. But not before after him asking if I had any final question. I almost asked him if this truly was the only story he had for me. Then I remembered the blunder few minutes ago when I unbridled my tongue. I then looked around, and for the umpteenth time noticed there was no paper trays or even computer (or at best typewriter) on his desk, I asked him why. “At my age, why should I own and fidget with cellphones and computers when I have (employed) young people to do that?”

With that question answered, I bade him bye and went to also work for him in the way he liked.

RIP Mzee Charles Mugane Njonjo.