Why Charles Njonjo towered above the pack in the Moi Cabinets

Moi (then the Vice President), Attorney -General Charles Njonjo and President Jomo Kenyatta. [Archives, Standard]

Historians will forever debate on who between Charles Njonjo and Nicholas Biwott wielded the greatest clout.

In both the Kenyatta and Moi Cabinets only the foolhardy stepped on Njonjo’s toes.

 Both Presidents took the man, who had a penchant for pin-striped Savile Row three-piece suits invariably accessorised with a fresh carnation on the lapel, micro-dotted shirts and ornate timepieces, seriously.

In our continuing excerpts from Moi Cabinets: Drama, Intrigues and Triumphs, we look at the Kenyan high society would describe as a man of considerable culture and cultivation.

During his colourful and often controversial career as Attorney General and Cabinet Minister, he often rode in the limousines of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, and participated in the selection of ministers, ambassadors and other key members of Government.

 At the pinnacle of his political career in 1983, the man nicknamed ‘Duke of Kabeteshire’ due to his English mannerisms was second only to Moi – despite not being the Vice President.

During his 17-year stint at Sheria House as the Attorney General, Njonjo occasionally shocked the nation by expressing views that were diametrically opposed to the country’s foreign policy or even that of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), not to mention prevailing local sentiments.

 For instance, he was widely known to be a proponent of continued white rule in Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and Mozambique; he wanted Kenya to maintain diplomatic ties with the pariah apartheid South African regime; he negotiated the Israeli military raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to free Israeli hostages held by terrorist aeroplane hijackers; and he was strongly opposed to the existence of the tribal grouping known as the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA), which he had registered in 1971 and thereafter sought to proscribe in 1976.

To his credit, Njonjo initiated many of the laws that transformed Kenya from a colony to a free and independent country and established the many institutions that became the bedrock of democracy and good governance in Kenya under Kenyatta’s 15-year leadership.

When he hit 60, Njonjo felt it was time to move on. In an orchestrated and well-choreographed move, he called a press conference to announce his resignation as AG and intention to contest the Kikuyu parliamentary seat, only a day after the incumbent MP resigned to allow Njonjo to vie for the seat.

Exactly as expected, he easily won the seat and transformed himself into a politician overnight. He was appointed Cabinet Minister in the specially-minted Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, a position he held until 1983.

 The ministry strategically roped in the Judiciary and, as it was during his days as AG, Njonjo worked closely with the national security apparatus – making him the single most powerful person after the President.

Come the August 1, 1982, attempted coup by elements within the Kenya Air Force and Njonjo’s massive political edifice started slowly crumbling. After the putsch failed and as the suspected soldiers were court-martialled and politicians taken to court, Moi decided to purge the ruling party, KANU, and the Cabinet of those he believed wanted him out of power.

Among them was Njonjo, who was eventually labelled ‘traitor’ by fellow Cabinet Minister Elijah Mwangale.

What followed was a protracted Judicial commission of inquiry that concluded Njonjo was guilty of abuse of office and that he had tried to take over power from President Moi.

He was forced to resign from Government, effectively destroying his political career.

Moi and Njonjo would, years later, patch up things together.

And, it wasn’t only Njonjo who experienced the devastating effect of Moi’s backhand.

Charles Rubia the minister who would be detained. [Archives Standard]


In September 1986, Charles Rubia was among a handful of MPs who defended clergymen when they were condemned by politicians for criticising the mlolongo (queue) system of voting.

President Daniel arap Moi and other senior Kanu party officials had expressed a desire to replace the secret ballot system with mlolongo in nominating candidates for national elections.

Rubia argued that those criticising the clergy were violating the Constitution, which upheld freedom of speech as a right.

In December of that year, he was the lone MP to vote against the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which sought to abolish the office of Chief Secretary and remove security of tenure for the Attorney General, the Controller and the Auditor General.

 He later defended the Law Society of Kenya and the National Council of Churches of Kenya following attacks by politicians for opposing the bill.

On May 3, 1990, Rubia and Kenneth Matiba called a press conference to urge for the return of multiparty democracy.

At the same time Smith Hempstone, the outspoken US ambassador to Kenya, made similar calls, saying the US favoured countries that nourished democratic institutions, defended human rights and practised multiparty politics.

So when Rubia, Matiba, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his son, Raila Odinga, met in early June 1990 to organise a public rally set for July in Nairobi’s Kamukunji Constituency to advocate for multipartism, they were marked men.

On July 4, Rubia, Matiba and Raila were arrested and detained. That notwithstanding, the rally went on and, although violently dispersed by police, it marked the beginning of the public push for the opening of greater political space in Kenya.

-Moi Cabinets is published in two volumes by the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board