Charles Njonjo: The Dapper Machiavelli
| Jan 2nd 2022 | 6 min read
There is power. Charm. Ruthlessness. An exquisite sense of style. King-whisperer and kingmaker. Greed. Eloquence. Velvety smoothness while wielding a vicious rapier. Blue blood and blue chips. No one combined this in one person quite so successfully as Charles Njonjo.
Charles Mugane Njonjo is sui generis in Kenya’s history, who died just three weeks before his hundred and second birthday. He reached the apex of his power more than 40 years ago, but remains a figure of fascination for many today. His passing is more than (as the cliche says) the passing of an era. It is about the demise of the last of a particular kind of Kenyan leader.
Few obituaries will do justice to one of the most complex figures in our history. Simultaneously cosmopolitan and deeply tribalist. Worldly but immersed in the church.
The one-line obituary is that Charles Njonjo served as Attorney General from 1963 to 1980, and then MP for Kikuyu (and Constitutional Affairs Minister) between 1980 and 1983. He singlehandedly protected the Presidency in the last years of Mzee Kenyatta, before being defenestrated by Moi in 1983. He sought the top seat for himself, and his removal was the final act in Moi’s consolidation of power.
But first, ecce homo. Behold the man. Lots of it has accreted into myth and legend, but the facts remain. He was born into immense privilege, as the son of Paramount Chief Josiah Njonjo (one of only four ‘Paramount Chiefs’ appointed by the colonialists in Gikuyuland).
Privilege? He first tasted ugali at Alliance (the normal diet at home was chapati and chicken - in the 1930s!). He went back and forth to school on horseback, a horse that was delivered by a servant every Friday. Classmate of the future Kabaka Freddie Mutesa at King’s College Budo. Allegedly a collegemate of Robert Mugabe at Fort Hare.
Power? The dress, the mannerisms and the eccentricities (importing his eggs from England, again allegedly), the affinity for English aristocratic behaviour, were not just an affectation. Njonjo wove a fine tapestry, becoming the link between British corporate interests and Kenya. From independence, he was a valued bureaucrat and advisor. He was an administrator par excellence, knowing how everything fits together and how it worked (and helping design the systems in the first place), and supremely disciplined, and he was thus able to acquire and retain an immense amount of administrative and political power. He recommended people to jobs (supposedly including Moi to the Vice Presidency in 1967, after Murumbi’s exit). The British angle is important to understanding him. Njonjo served on the boards of traditionally British institutions (the Safari Rally, Barnardo’s Homes, the Automobile Association, KSPCA, EA Wildlife Society, St. John’s Ambulance and, of course, the Anglican Church).
In the wielding of his power, he used a potent mix of traditional bureaucratic responsibilities (variously responsible for the judiciary, the CID, the Special Branch, the electoral bureaucracy and more). Because he was said to have ‘files’ on everyone, and occasionally snapped the whip on them (jailing and pardoning, choosing when and when not to prosecute), his reputation often did the job for him, and he ended up wielding power simply by not wielding it overtly. His opportunities for patronage were immense, and he used them.
Economically, as we’ve seen, he represented external interests, and his role (plus his birthright) saw him accumulate immense wealth. He also built up resources of his own, partnering with the political elite of the day to accumulate stakes in banks, vehicle distributors and more.
You’ll read elsewhere about the change-the-constitution movement and Njonjo’s role in the Kenyatta Succession. You’re free to explore rumours of coups and counter-coups there as well. What is of interest to us is what happened when he was finally defenestrated. The Njonjo Commission in 1983, as limited as it was, drew back the curtain on other, less savoury aspects of the dapper prince.
First, the South African connection. Remember, this was post-1976, when P.W. Botha, die groot krokodil, was a snarling, incorrigible racist. But Njonjo retained strong links to the country, at the pinnacle of its isolation. He issued a large number of visas to South Africans (many of whom were on dubious missions, such as big game hunting when that had been banned in 1977), and gave the benighted country a veneer of legitimacy when it was desperately needed.
On foreign policy. You may have heard about the legendary clashes between Njonjo and Kibaki, but maybe not much about those between Njonjo and Robert Ouko. Ouko was Minister in the EAC from 1971 to 179, and then Foreign Minister between 1979 and 1983. Ouko was thus in the catbird seat when Njonjo engineered the death of the EAC. The Njonjo Commission recounted a meeting in Arusha in 1976, and a conversation during a coffee break between Njonjo and Ouko. The dripping disdain Njonjo had for the EAC comes across even in the dry bureaucratic recounting, and Njonjo’s confession in Parliament later that he drank five glasses of champagne to celebrate the EAC’s demise completes the picture.
There is also a side to Njonjo that contemporaries said was one of his ugliest. He would go after people until he destroyed them, even for the most innocuous of ‘errors’. It may have seemed petty, but there may have been a method to the madness. An example will suffice. In January 1981, Njonjo boarded a Kenya Airways flight from London to Nairobi, with two hundred and seventy kilogrammes of luggage in excess of the allowed limits. But that’s not even the biggest excess of this story.
Kenya Airways sent Esau Kioni, then in charge of security, to give Njonjo an invoice for the excess luggage. Kioni was met by Njonjo, the airline’s CEO, and the Transport PS. When Kioni was done serving Njonjo with the invoice (with due trepidation), Njonjo hinted that the matter was resolved. Only for Kioni to be sacked a week later.
The point of this brutal ruthlessness was not just about punishing a diligent employee for doing his job correctly. It wasn’t also just about impunity on Njonjo’s part. No, it was about the exercise and projection of power. Crushing someone pour encourager les autres.
Eventually, these and many other examples (especially the open disdain shown to his compatriots - lawyers are still bitter to this day about his supposed opinion on the capabilities of African lawyers) led to his downfall. When the time for the final push came, friends were few and schadenfreude was to be found in excess. Yes, he had reached for the sun and come up short. But, uncharacteristically, President Moi pushed him out, put him through the ritual humiliation and stripping that was the Njonjo Commission, then left him alone.
Njonjo died yesterday, in a country that changed immeasurably in his lifetime. He was born before Kenya even existed (it was a Protectorate then, becoming a colony when he was 5 months old). He lived through the entire colonial period, and then independence. Can there ever be another Charles Njonjo? I do not think so.
The political, social and economic environment have changed far too much to allow someone to wield power, and behave, in that manner, or to be very successful at it if they tried. What is certain, though, is that men will always exist to seek power and wealth and influence, as will women. But will we see one who combines Machiavelli, Robespierre, Svengali and James Bond in one suave, cruel, eloquent, greedy, smooth, sophisticated and inimitable African figure? I have my doubts.
Wallace Kantai writes on history; published from his blog.
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