Charles Njonjo, Jomo Kenyatta’s powerful Attorney-General
Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board
| Jan 2nd 2022 | 12 min read
The son of the Senior Chief Josiah Njonjo, Charles Mugane Njonjo was born at Kabete, Kiambu, on January 23, 1920, in a family of four brothers and four sisters. Three of the sisters are alive. While his detractors have always spoken of Njonjo as the man with the colonial hangover and hates everything African, the former Attorney-General dismisses such views.
He recounts: “My cousins and I loved spending evenings at our grandmother’s hut to listen to her folk stories. At times, I even spent nights at her smoky hut with the strong smell of goats. She pampered us, gave us what we thought was the greatest food. In her place, we enjoyed the freedom that only a grandmother can allow. I occupied a special place in her heart. Being my father’s eldest son, I was named after her husband (my maternal grandfather) and she often addressed me as such.”
Partly because he was the son of a colonial era chief, Njonjo did not have many playmates among the village boys. But his many cousins adequately filled that gap. Njonjo started school at Gwa Giteru (the big bearded man’s place) in Lower Kabete. It was so-called because it was associated with the bearded Canon Leakey, the pastor in charge of the nearby Protestant church, now the ACK Mother Church, Kabete.
In those days, Njonjo explains, it was unusual to see men with thick beards, especially white men of the church, and hence the nickname for Canon Leakey, Richard Leakey’s grandfather. At Alliance High School, Njonjo was in the same class with later Cabinet colleague Jeremiah Nyagah. For a boy used to the comforts of a colonial chief’s home, Alliance, though an eye opener, was quite tough. “Students did not wear shoes and we showered with cold water. This is where I ate ugali for the first time,” he remembers.
For the son of a chief, eating meat only twice a week was not good enough. He dreaded the June-July cold season when the boys would go to the parade ground and stand on the wet grass bare feet every morning. “I do not know how we survived with only khaki shirts and shorts, but I guess those with jiggers on their feet suffered even more,” he says. And Njonjo was a true royalty. He rode to school and back on a horse. He explains: “My father had a horse and on weekends, when we were given off days, he would send a servant to bring it to Alliance early in the morning. I would ride it home and back to school in the evening. The servant would then take it back home.”
Njonjo went home during the weekend to spend some time with his parents, eat “kuku (chicken) and chapati” to his fill and carry some back to school. On occasion, he would take a group of boys to his Kibichiku home to sample his mother’s kitchen delight.
In 1939, he joined King’s College, Budo, Uganda, for a two-year pre-university course. He was in the same class with Frederick Mutesa, who later became the Kabaka (King) of the Baganda. After Budo, his father wanted him to go to the UK for further studies. But this was not possible. Instead, he went to Fort Hare University in South Africa.
Apart from courses in administration, sociology and “some South African criminal law”, he studied Latin that, he says, helped him later when he pursued a law degree.
Life in South Africa was “terrible”, says Njonjo, because of the apartheid: “I would travel from Durban to Fort Hare and in the whole train there would be only one uncomfortable compartment for natives (blacks).
“We even carried our own food as we were not allowed into the dining car. At the railway station, you could not cross the path of the whites and one had to go round and round to exit or enter the station.”
But while there were places into which the blacks could not venture in apartheid South Africa, Fort Hare was a college for blacks and Cape Town was more liberal than other parts of the country. The man who later became Kenya’s AG was at Fort Hare for three years. He returned to Kenya for one month before joining Exeter University in England for a postgraduate course in public administration.
Says he: “This was a month of celebrations. Several parties were held in our home and scores of visitors came to be introduced to the degree holder.”He adds that graduates were not common in those days.
Njonjo completed his studies at Exeter in 1947 and attended the London School of Economics up to 1950. He studied law for four years before he was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn. Njonjo reports he stayed for long in the UK because “my father could not afford my college fees and I had to do manual work, including washing dishes, to see myself through college”. But life in the UK was much better than in South Africa: “Except for accommodation because some people did not want to house people of colour, we moved and mingled freely and we even had (white) girlfriends,” — a possibility that was forbidden by law in colonial Kenya.
A later colleague of Njonjo in the Kenyatta Government has disclosed that, in the 1950s, a bearded Njonjo was photographed holding a white girl closely and the picture was published on the front page of the East African Standard, which was at that time a white settler newspaper. “When his father saw the picture, he was more infuriated by the beard than by the white girlfriend. He urged his friends in the UK to prevail upon his son to trim the beard. But so stubborn was Njonjo that he kept the beard for another six months,” the former minister says.
The British manner and way of life that have over the decades been associated with Njonjo — his penchant for black striped suits complete with a gold chain watch, bowler hats, a lover of dogs and other pets — can be attributed to his long stay in the UK. Due to these leanings, Njonjo would later be referred to as Sir Charles, the Duke of Kabeteshire.
When he came back from Britain in 1954, the colonial government hired him as a High Court registrar and sent him to the Coast. He was then promoted to Registrar-General and later moved to the Attorney-General’s office as Senior Crown Counsel. One year before independence, he was promoted to the powerful position of Deputy Public Prosecutor, a heartbeat away from the position of Attorney-General.
“When Mzee (Jomo Kenyatta) became Prime Minister, I was appointed Attorney-General and when Kenya became a Republic in 1964, I became an ex-officio Member of Parliament and the Cabinet,” he explains.
Njonjo had President Kenyatta’s ear, often rode in the Head of State’s limousine and was often consulted, making him a very powerful man in and outside the Government. So close a confidant of Kenyatta was Njonjo that he was credited with recommending Moi as Kenya’s third Vice-President when Joseph Murumbi resigned, a proposal Kenyatta gave favourable consideration.
“As we drove one day in the presidential limousine from some town in the Rift Valley after Murumbi had resigned as Vice-President, Mzee wondered loudly whom he would appoint to replace Murumbi. Then Kenyatta asked me: ‘Whom do you have’? To which I replied: ‘How about Moi’?” Njonjo recalls. According to him, Kenyatta was so pleased with this that he appointed Moi VP the next day.
As AG, Njonjo was in charge of public and civil prosecutions, drafting laws and criminal investigation.
Initially, the main challenge was to change discriminatory colonial laws, especially those that forbade Africans from buying land in certain areas and attending the same hospitals and schools with Europeans.
In his time, many constitutional amendments were passed in Parliament, creating what has come to be referred to as the imperial presidency. In moving the changes and implementing tough Government decisions, Njonjo met stiff opposition from Parliament, especially from a group of seven young MPs he nicknamed “Seven Bearded Sisters”, namely Koigi wa Wamwere, Mwashengu wa Mwachofi, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai, Abuya Abuya (later member of the Electoral Commission), Onyango Midika and Lawrence Sifuna.
This is how Njonjo explains his relations with the group: “Parliament was at times amusing and we had people who thought they could get away with anything. But I challenged them head on. There was, for example, this group of seven radicals — very bright young men — and I referred to them jokingly as the “Seven Bearded Sisters”. They were intelligent, but I could not allow them to use their intelligence to push everybody else about.”
The former AG, who says his power emanated from a powerful presidency, could in one day rush a constitutional amendment through Parliament to allow Kenyatta to pardon Paul Ngei when a court of law barred Ngei from contesting a by-election for committing an election offence. Njonjo still stubbornly upholds the prosecution of fellow MPs despite their pleas to the President.
This was the case when his office investigated and prosecuted Jesse Gachago and Muhuri Muchiri for smuggling coffee from Uganda in the 1970s. He explains: “They were involved in smuggling coffee from Uganda at the height of the magendo (black market) coffee trade. Despite their pleas to Mzee, I maintained that they had to face the full force of the law. We could not afford to have a selective system of justice and I set an example by putting the two behind bars.”
To those who followed the law, Njonjo was an armour of protection, but those who broke it trembled at the very mention of his name. He, therefore, did not have many friends among politicians, apart from Moi, Assistant Minister G.G. Kariuki and Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki (with whom he differed during the Moi presidency). However, he worked closely with top civil servants Geoffrey Kareithi and Jeremiah Kiereini and spy chief James Kanyotu, who was also his business partner.
On the Kenyatta succession, Njonjo insists, he followed the constitutional path. The Constitution was clear that the Vice-President had to take over for 90 days before fresh elections.
“In an effort to subvert this, some people did not want Mzee’s death announced. But I resisted this and as soon as the body was flown to Nairobi from Mombasa, we announced the death and Moi was appointed acting President,” he discloses.
Njonjo says he was traumatised by the assassinations of Mboya in 1969 and J.M. Kariuki, 1975. But he regrets that politicians meddled in the investigations. Of the Parliamentary Committee Elijah Mwangale chaired to investigate JM’s murder, Njonjo says: “I told them to let the CID, that was under my docket investigate, but they insisted on leading the investigations. Can you imagine these people interrogating Moi (Vice-President) and myself when I was Attorney-General and the CID was under me? Had the CID been allowed to conduct proper investigations, we would have got to the bottom of this matter.”
Njonjo got married on November 20, 1972, at the age of 52. He says he married late because he was “married to his work”. He explains: “I loved my work as Attorney-General of Kenya, worked odd hours that would have put a spouse off and for a long time I did not entertain the idea of marriage. Outside the office, I had hobbies that I enjoyed thoroughly and I thought this was enough for me.”
But there was no let-up from his parents. President Kenyatta always wondered for how long he would be advised by a bachelor. Njonjo’s mother, Wairimu, wanted grandchildren, too.
The former AG is a firm, if controversial, follower of the Anglican Church of Kenya and it was the church that finally bestowed him with a wife. In the early 1970s, during church services at the All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi, he noticed a girl in the choir.
Sometimes, she sat on the same pew with him. “I would look at her and think to myself: ‘Now, that there is a nice girl’. My pastor also thought she was the right partner for me and would invite us and other faithful to his house for dinner,” Njonjo recalls.
Gradually, they got to know each other well and eventually married.
Njonjo’s wife, Margaret, is Caucasian.
In 1976, a group of politicians from Central, Rift Valley and Eastern provinces began what came to be called the Change-the-Constitution crusade intended to ensure that Moi did not take over as acting President for 90 days should Kenyatta die. But Njonjo took a firm pro-constitution and pro-Moi position.
An ally of Moi, he rejected the group’s proposals and actually accused them of “imagining the death of the President”, which he said was treasonable. “You do not change the Constitution by the roadside. I told the group to stop imagining the death of the President and instead take an amendment to Parliament if they had a genuine cause instead of playing the tribal card,” Njonjo recalls his message to the likes of Njenga Karume, Kihika Kimani, Paul Ngei and Jackson Angaine.
When they did not heed his warning, he went to the President and told him that the group was talking about him as if he was dead. Kenyatta called a meeting and brought the debate to an end. Then Njonjo released a terse statement, warning that it was a capital offence not only to talk about the death of the President, but even to imagine it.
But the man Njonjo fought so hard to take to State House after Kenyatta’s death in 1978, the man for whom he almost singlehandedly managed the transition and for whom he gambled all, including estrangement from his community, would turn against him and destroy his political career five years into his presidency. Having served as Attorney-General from 1963 to 1980, Njonjo felt it was time to move on.
He resigned, contested the Kikuyu parliamentary seat, and easily won. He was appointed Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, a position he held until 1983 when he was accused of trying to illegally take over the presidency from Moi.
In an orchestrated political drama, Njonjo, who had resigned as Attorney General with the promise of “better things”, was humiliated as the alleged “traitor” out to overthrow the Government. He resigned.
Moi appointed a judicial commission of inquiry, chaired by the eccentric Justice Cecil Miller, whose sole purpose appeared to be to humiliate Njonjo, tarnish his name and ensure he was banished to the political backwater.
To date, Njonjo insists he had no intention of overthrowing Moi, saying people who thought he was too powerful and wanted him out of the power equation made up “the whole thing”.
This is how Njonjo recalls the rehearsed calls for his resignation and innuendo: “They claimed that I had the support of America and Britain. This was not the case at all. These people were like wild dogs baying for the blood of a rabbit.”
Njonjo has nothing but contempt for the Miller Commission: “During the inquiry, I was not worried as I knew my conscience was clear and I was not guilty. In any case, had I wanted to ensure Moi did not become President, all I would have done was to join hands with the 1976 Change-the-Constitution group. In the end, it left me with my head held high and nothing but contempt for the three judges who blatantly trampled on the law instead of upholding it.”
Njonjo had many business interests and was the chairman of CFC-Stanbic Bank until recently. He owned other businesses and was a director in several others and travels regularly to the East African region and Europe.
Excerpt from the Kenyatta Cabinets published by Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board.
Leaders mourn former Attorney-General Charles NjonjoNjonjo was appointed to Cabinet in June 1980 by the Late President Daniel Moi
Charles Mugane Njonjo: Moi’s powerful Constitutional Affairs MinisterNjonjo served for 17 years as the first AG of post-independence Kenya, and then for 3 years as Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister.
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