When Eliud Mahihu died in 2013, Charles Mugane Njonjo ironically lamented what a pity it was that the former powerful provincial commissioner had gone without telling the world about the events that had occurred immediately following the death of the first president of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
“He was the only man who was with Mzee when he died and so the only one who knew exactly the circumstances under which the president died. He was also the man who secretly arranged for the body to be flown to Nairobi," Njonjo would say of Mahihu in an interview years later. Mzee died in Mombasa in August 1978.
But while the former powerful Attorney General may just have some memoirs tucked somewhere in a safe deposit in London or here in Nairobi, I and I believe others, requested him numerous times to write his life story, but he firmly declined. At one time, he declared he was not “that vain” as to sing his own praises.
Yet it was the same Njonjo who concluded that it was “such a pity that he (Mahihu) had to die before he told this story”. Well, it is really a pity that Njonjo (may he RIP) had to go before telling us his story.
The former attorney General passed away without any published memoirs. Maybe the story of his life will be told in his own words posthumously.
The reason why a Njonjo book would have been a fascinating record of history is that he was the first Kenyan AG at independence in 1963.
These were interesting times as the country transited from colonial rule to self-rule and various national, tribal and individual interests came to play.
It was a time to slice the cake between all Kenyans and a time to reward the most deserving, especially the freedom fighters most of who had just served an average seven years in jail. This, however, did not happen and Njonjo and his ilk who took over running of government from colonialists, would have been good respondents to the question; why?
For 14 years, Njonjo was a close confidant of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and a powerful man. You tested him or his powers at your own peril and many lived to regret ever crossing him. Others practically owe their lives to him. As Mzee grew older and frail, Njonjo stood by his vice president Daniel arap Moi, the man whose anointment he had a hand in and ruthlessly he dealt with those who imagined anyone else would succeed Mzee Kenyatta.
He almost single-handedly ensured Moi became president and soon thereafter plunged into active politics, bundling the then Kikuyu MP Moses Ng’ang’a to political Siberia under unclear circumstances. Njonjo easily became the MP for Kikuyu in the ensuing by-election. Maybe Njonjo would have dedicated half a chapter to unravel this mystery of a sitting MP casually stepping down to allow his (Njonjo’s) stress-free entry to Parliament. A few chapters here would have made interesting reading.
Subsequently, Moi appointed him the constitutional affairs minister but a short time later, he stepped on hot coal that put him from grace to grass within days. As to how many chapters this debacle would have deserved in his book, your guess is as good as mine.
Njonjo, son of Josiah Njonjo a colonial senior chief, was born to privilege and in an era when Africans did not even wear shoes, the former AG was taken to and from school on horseback. “My father had a horse and during weekends, he would send a servant to bring it to Alliance (High School). I would ride it home and back to school in the evening”. The servant would then take the horse back home.
In one of the few interviews he granted me, he narrated how the man he propped to the presidency and who would later dump him in the scrapyard, became the vice president in the late 1960s following the abrupt resignation of second vice president Joseph Murumbi. I suspect had Njonjo written a book, he would have told us more about the resignation of Murumbi.
“I think we were coming from Kericho and Mzee was agonising on who to appoint the VP to replace Murumbi. ‘Whom do I have?’ the old man worried as we sat in the back seat of the presidential limousine,” Njonjo recalled in an interview we had some years back at his CFC Bank office on Chiromo Road. He was at that time, the chairman of the bank.
“What about Moi?”, the then AG suggested. According to Sir Charles, Mzee was so pleased with the suggestion that he appointed Moi the vice president the very next day.
The former AG said he recommended Moi because he believed the man who would later have the country in his grip for more than two decades, would be loyal to the president and would also cooperate with others. If he had ulterior motives as has been suggested in other quarters, only Njonjo could elaborate.
He despised the so-called Kiambu Mafia, a group also close to Kenyatta but was wary of Moi succeeding the latter. He opposed the group’s bid to change the Constitution in 1976 to bar Moi from ascending to the presidency in the event of Mzee’s death. Was he just protecting Moi and the Constitution or did he harbour the ambition of one day replacing the ‘passing cloud’?
But the man he stood with so firmly during such turbulent times, would years later make him suffer untold humiliation, mental and physical torture; he was branded a traitor, teased by people who would hitherto lay down their garments for him to walk on and made to undergo harsh rebukes by judges and lawyers who were at his beck and call only a few months before. After months of public humiliation sanctified as a judicial commission of inquiry, Moi would show ‘his magnanimity’ by pardoning the Duke of Kabeteshire.
“I had no intention of overthrowing the government of President Moi and the whole thing was made up by people who thought I was too strong and wanted to get me out of the power equation. They claimed I had the direct support of the American and British who intended to forcibly install me as president which was not the case at all”, he would emphasize in an interview years later.
The chips were down and Njonjo lost many friends some of who were afraid of reprisal from the government if they continued associating with him.
Njonjo got married rather late in life, on November 20, 1972, at the age of 52, following pressure from his parents and President Kenyatta.
“I liked my work very much and for many years I worked odd hours and believed there would be a clash of interests if someone entered my life. When not working, I was either swimming, at the sauna or theatre and that was enough for me”.
But there was a lot of pressure from Mzee Kenyatta for Njonjo to get married as “he could not understand how a bachelor could advise him. My parents especially my mother Wairimu would also insist that I was getting too old”.
During the 1976 ‘change-the-constitution’ campaign, Njonjo told President Kenyatta that its proponents were going around the country claiming he (president) was sick and even imagining his death. Kenyatta, a superstitious man who could not tolerate talk about death especially his own, immediately called a cabinet meeting and brought the debate to a close.
Thereafter in October 1976, Njonjo released a strongly worded statement that famously proclaimed that “it is an offence punishable by death to imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the president”.
And when President Kenyatta died in August 1978, it was a case of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’.
The president was dead and under the Constitution, the vice president had to take over for a period of 90 days before fresh elections could take place.
"As soon as Kenyatta’s body was flown to Nairobi from Mombasa, we announced the death and Moi was appointed acting president.” Were Njonjo to join hands with Mahihu to write on this transition, their memoirs could have formed a big part of Kenya’s history.
Another story that has been a subject of speculation for years and that Sir Charles should have given at least an acre of space in his memoirs is on the perceived sour relationship between him and former President Mwai Kibaki. “We have never quarreled but I suppose he was told I do not support him and he believed it”, is all he would say in a newspaper interview.
Njonjo was a powerful AG in charge of investigation and prosecution of criminal and civil cases, drafting laws and pushing them through Parliament.
Although his main duty at independence would have been to remove oppressive colonial laws that were anti-Kenyans, he kept many Wazungu in government especially in the Judiciary to the chagrin of African lawyers and at the expense of indigenous judicial officers. He also caused several constitutional amendments that went into the creation of the so-called imperial presidency.
In moving these changes, he was strongly opposed by MPs Koigi Wamwere, James Orengo, Mwashengu wa Mwachofi, Chelagat Mutai, Abuya Abuya, Lawrence Sifuna and Onyango Midika. Sir Charles derisively referred to this group as the ‘Seven bearded sisters’.
The all-powerful presidency allowed Njonjo his unfettered influence and many of these radicals and others who dared cross the government suffered either jail terms, detentions or exile. Conversely, many got Njonjo’s protection against such oppressive measures. As the cliché goes, he was loved and loathed in equal measure.
Sir Charles started school at Gwa Giteru, an institution associated with Canon Leakey, Richard Leakey’s grandfather and who was in charge of the protestant church at the current site of ACK Mother Church, Kabete. Later he would join Alliance, where he ate ugali for the first time and bathed with cold water, a scandalous ordeal for the son of a senior chief!
Alliance also served meat only twice a week which was not good enough but Njonjo would horse-ride home every weekend to have his mother’s delicious kuku and chapati. Despite his privileged upbringing, as a young boy he and his cousins enjoyed listening to folk stories as told by their grandmother in her “smoky” hut.
In 1939, he joined King’s College, Budo in Uganda, then went to Fort Hare University in South Africa. Although he once told me in an interview that life in South Africa was terrible because of the apartheid system, he would later as AG clash with then foreign affairs minister Munyua Waiyaki, when he (Njonjo) wanted Kenya to have dealings with the apartheid regime. Munyua categorically told him, “Over my dead body”.
Njonjo would later join Exeter University in England and later the London School of Economics in 1950. He was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in London.
“Life in the UK was much better than in South Africa. We moved and mingled freely and we even had white girlfriends”. At one time late foreign affairs minister Waiyaki told me of a photograph of a bearded Njonjo closely holding a white girl that was published in a local newspaper in the 1950s. His colonial-chief father was not amused.
Sir Charles will always be remembered for his British mannerisms, black striped suits, gold chain, bowler hat and his abhorrence for incompetence and filth. He also loved his afternoon naps and tea. Visitors could be kept at his gate for hours as these British traditions were being performed. He also loved pets especially dogs and at times he even judged the ‘best dogs’ shows.
Whether you like or loathe ‘Sir’ Charles Mugane Njonjo, the privileged child, the Attorney General, the MP, the cabinet minister, the fallen kingmaker, the wealthy property owner or the retired gentleman shuffling between Nairobi and London, Njonjo enjoyed his long, successful life and I guess ultimately that’s all that matters.