Why Vice President Murumbi was uneasy sitting at Kenyatta's desk

Jaramogi Oginga, Joseph Murumbi, Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya at JKIA in OCT 1965. [File, Standard]

For nine years leading up to the Lancaster House Conference where Kenya’s independence was negotiated, Joseph Murumbi lived in exile in Britain. While in detention, Jomo Kenyatta had sent Murumbi on a world tour to present Kenya’s grievances to foreign powers.

He had planned to tour India, Britain, Cairo, US and West Africa. However, by the time he got to London, the Kenya African Union, the party at the forefront of agitating for independence, had been banned. That meant countries like the US could not admit him. He had also become a ‘wanted’ man in Kenya, hence his nine-year sojourn in Britain.

While in London, Kenyatta had his travel ban lifted. A week later, Murumbi returned to a rousing welcome. Kenyatta had even arranged for traditional dancers to meet him at the airport. Kenyatta had such affinity for Murumbi that he wanted him in Gatundu every day, a proposition Murumbi changed to “every other day”.

After lunch with ‘Mzee’ at Parliament Buildings, Kenyatta took Murumbi to his private office, then located at Solar House, near International House. “Joe, this is my desk,” Kenyatta told him.

“I want you to sit at my desk, deal with all my correspondence. Many people want to see me. If you can solve their problems, you solve them. If you think they should see me, you bring them to me. I leave that entirely to you.”

Murumbi had difficulties following the orders. He could not imagine himself sitting at Kenyatta’s desk. Then he turned to Achieng Oneko, who was in the office at the time: “Look here, Oneko, you are senior to me and I shouldn’t sit at Mzee’s desk. You should sit here.” But Oneko refused, insisting Murumbi occupies the hot seat.

The friendship between Kenyatta and his personal assistant blossomed, culminating in Murumbi being named first minister for Foreign Affairs after independence. He would become the second vice president but would resign in December 1966. Though he cited poor health as the reason, the assassination of his friend Pio Gama Pinto was said to be the main contributor.

Kenyatta, though, was still not ready to see his friend go. On the last day of December 1966, Murumbi walked into Kenyatta’s holiday home in Mombasa with a terse announcement: “Mzee, I wanted to hear from you whether it is okay for me to leave. Today is my last day.” According to Murumbi, “He (Kenyatta) just turned his back on me and walked away. He didn’t answer my question. I think he didn’t want me to leave. I think he was hurt.” Murumbi died in June 1990, aged 79.