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JM Kariuki: Millionaire who stood up for the poor

KENYA @ 50
By KENNETH KWAMA | November 14th 2013
Happy giver: JM Kariuki (left) presenting a cheque to the Chairman of Orera Nursery School Kabando Kadhoch Association, Mr Jacob Osee, in 1974. [PHOTO: File/STANDARD]


The late JM Kariuki was known for his oratorical skills. During his time, he coined the phrase “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” But what most people don’t know is that Mr Kariuki was amongst the wealthiest Kenyans of his time.

His popularity was fuelled by his wealth, whose origin Charles Hornsby in his book, Kenya: A history since independence, says was not clear. It was believed that Kariuki was a frontman for a syndicate of unnamed investors, including some very wealthy Europeans. His benefactors gave him substantial shares in their business concerns.

According to the author, Kariuki had shares or interests in Kenya Breweries, Block Hotels, The Nairobi International Casino, Caltex, CMC Motors, Lonrho, British American Tobacco and Standard Chartered Bank, among others.

“He owned ‘race horses’, a tour company, mines and several farms. He was extremely well connected, and knew much more than his position entitled him to know. He also, inevitably, had large state loans,” wrote Hornsby.

By all accounts, he was wealthy and fell within the cluster of the ten millionaires that he used to castigate, but his agenda seemed more nationalist. The fact that he was always willing to risk Kenyatta’s fury for advocating populist ideas that resonated well with the poor endeared him to the masses.

Within Parliament, he was the only politician capable of marshalling cross-ethnic support besides Kanu’s then Secretary General Thomas Mboya who was assassinated in 1969, and this made him a thorn in the flesh of the Government that was said to be wary of his presidential ambitions.

“Around him gathered a coalition of representatives of the poor and landless, critics of Kiambu dominance and those opposed to Kikuyu settlement in the Rift and Coast. His allies in the Cabinet included James Nyamweya, Dr Zachary T Onyonka and Shako,” wrote Hornsby.

But Kariuki also gave the impression that he was a double-edged sword slicing both sides of the divide. He had worked as Kenyatta’s private secretary for some time and because of this, seemed to have developed an uncanny closeness with the founding President, which saw him pay several private visits to Gatundu.

birthday party

By mid-1970s, his woes began to multiply as his enemies began to close in. In June 1970, he was almost jailed for non-payment of a debt. In October the same year, a reshuffle stripped him of responsibilities for Hotels.

The following year, 1971, he was informally barred from speaking at any public meetings. In March 1971, police turned 130 guests including Members of Parliament and army officers away from a birthday party at then Kariuki’s house in Nairobi.

The incident aroused international attention and triggered remarkable fallout within Government.

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