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First African Chief Justice who got into bad company and fell from grace



 Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa when he took oath of office as Mzee Kenyatta witnessed in 968.  [File, Standard]

Kenya had the first indigenous citizen appointed Chief Justice 55 years ago on July 3, 1968. He was 39-year-old Kitili Maluki Mwendwa.

Kitili was from a dynasty of sorts: Pedigree from a good stock that made several Kenyan Firsts. He was born to a colonial Paramount Chief Mwendwa wa Kitavi. The brother who followed him, Eliud Ngala Mwendwa, was in the independent Kenya’s first Cabinet formed in 1963. The next brother, Kyale Mwendwa, was Kenya’s first Director of Education. His spouse, Winfred Nyiva Mwendwa, made history as first Kenyan woman to be appointed full Cabinet Minister in 1992.

Kitili was alumni of prestigious learning institutions locally and abroad. He was at Alliance High School; then Makerere University before proceeding to University of London for a Bachelors degree in Law and Oxford University for Masters in Political Science and Economics.

 On returning home, he was in the cohort of first Permanent Secretaries appointed at independence. He was 34. A year later, he was appointed the first African Solicitor-General and four years down the line the Chief Justice.

Good boy

Kitili started off well. He loved his job and did it well. He had style, elegance and loved the fine things in life. In the early days, he would pin an inscription on his desk that read: ‘The Learned Kitili’……just in case you forgot or didn’t know who he was!

First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta liked Kitili: Foremost because he delivered on his job but also for his sparkle. The first President, who had lived in England for many years, liked Kitili’s English mannerisms and would say with a light touch that he was the only African who spoke English like the Englishmen.

Bad company

Despite the good breeding, the desire to be good and to do the right thing, Kitili allowed himself to follow and fall in the ways of the wicked.

This is how it came about: In 1971, a plot was hatched to overthrow Kenyatta’s government.  The conspirators confided in the CJ and he agreed he would swear in as President whoever they picked the new Head of State in the event the coup succeeded.

The D-Day was set for April 8, 1971. On that day, President Kenyatta was scheduled to flag off then East African Safari Rally at KICC grounds.

The plotters intended to first storm and capture the State broadcaster where they would switch off live transmission of the presidential function. Next, they would announce takeover of the government and declare the country was henceforth under martial law until further notice.

Meanwhile, a separate squad would storm KICC grounds where the President was, tackle the presidential guard and arrest Kenyatta and place him in custody.

Kitili, who would be on stand-by at his chambers in the nearby High Court building (now Supreme Court building), would be escorted next door to Harambee House to immediately swear-in the new Head of State.

Well planned mission yes, but, as usual, even the best laid plans flop. The plot aborted after a military officer privy to it inadvertently let the cat out of the bag during a binge where he had imbibed one too many.       

The conspirators

According to a leaked CIA document published online in January 2017, the key masterminds of the coup were Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who had fallen foul of Kenyatta, resigned as Vice President and formed an opposition party which was subsequently banned.

Left with no legitimate forum to pursue his agenda, Jaramogi had resolved to try the forbidden route. Like Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping, he thought it didn’t matter if the cat was black or white as long as it caught the mouse.

Jaramogi’s partner in the plot was then Uganda President Milton Obote. Jaramogi and Obote were ideological soulmates. They leaned to the Left in those days of global East-West ideological slugfest.

In contrast, Mzee Kenyatta was a baked in the oven capitalist despite having flirted with communism in his youthful days when he briefly lived in Moscow.

By coincidence, Obote was great personal friend of Kitili, a friendship their families maintain to this day. The two buddies first met as students at Makerere College where they shared a room and lived together in London when they went for further studies.

Indeed, at independence for Kenya and Uganda, which came at about the same time, President Obote had offered to appoint his friend, Kitili, Uganda’s Chief Justice but President Kenyatta made a counter offer.  

Execution squad

The Obote-Jaramogi linkman in the coup plot was Prof Ouma Muga, a Kenyan professor of environmental studies who was teaching at Makerere University. He would also coordinate between the masterminds and the executers on the ground.

 According to the leaked CIA files, Major General Joseph Ndolo was “a disgruntled officer longing for an opportunity to vent out in a rebellion.” His main beef, according to the CIA dossier, was tribalism in the recruitment and promotions in the armed forces which, according to him, greatly favoured President Kenyatta’s ‘tribesmen’.  

He also didn’t take it kindly that the State was dragging its feet in equipping the Kenya Armed Forces to a modern fighting machine. Instead, he grumbled, the government favoured the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) which was a “home-squad almost entirely recruited from the President’s community.”

Independent sources indeed hint to the possibility that Kenya government wasn’t so keen to build a strong army in the early 1970s.

According to a report by the African Strategic Studies Group published in 1976, the Kenya Army was the weakest and no match for any in the East and Central Africa region.

Idi Amin’s successful military coup that toppled President Obote inspired the schemers in the 1971 Kenya’s abortive one. After the coup in Uganda, ousted President Obote who was on a flight back home from Singapore had to land in Nairobi on an emergency. During his brief stay in Kenya before he was granted asylum in Zambia, he lived with the Kitili’s at their family home then on Ngong’ Road. That’s what friends are for; they never betray even in adversity!

Anyway, the intended coup in Kenya was dead before arrival. Prof Muga was arrested and banished to cool porridge at Kamiti Prisons for 10 years.

Gen Ndolo was fired but spared the humiliation of a jail term. So was Chief Justice Kitili.

On being fired, Kitili took it all in his stride. He embarked on what he knew best – making money and ‘eating’ life with the big spoon. 

He ventured into big-time farming, real-estate and transport industry. He grew coffee at a 1,000 acre farm near Thika and did ranching at a 4,400-plus acre ranch in Laikipia. In Kwale, he had another 400 acre piece where he did mixed farming. He developed vast real estate portfolio in Nairobi and Kitui, owned a bus company, and still had time to run a big and busy law firm in the city.

Always on the fast lane, Kitili lived it and had 22 fast and expensive cars (he called them toys) parked in his garage. In a single day, he would change cars even four times which was more than he changed jackets!

After 13 years away from public glare, Kitili made a grand return when he won a by-election in then Kitui West seat in 1984. 

The end

On Friday, the afternoon of September 27, 1985, Kitili left his Nairobi office with a briefcase loaded with cash to pay workers at his coffee farm in Thika.He was driving an Alfa Romeo car. He passed by his home in Gigiri area where he changed cars to a Lancia and headed to Thika at top speed. He never arrived. Just past Kenyatta University as he negotiated a bend, his car rolled five times landing into a ditch bottoms-up. He died on the spot.

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