F orty-five years ago on March 2, an assassination shook Kenya to the core. The only other political killing to have threatened the Kenyatta State was that of the young charismatic Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Tom Mboya, on July 5, 1969. JM’s assassination was, in a way, a macabre reenactment of political murder its foulest form, writes KTN’s DUNCAN KHAEMBA
It was on Sunday, March 2, 1975, when then firebrand Nyandarua North MP Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, popularly known as JM, was reported missing only for his body to be discovered 10 days later at Nairobi City Mortuary.
Later it was concluded his death was a brazen political assassination. Forty-five years later we piece together his last 48 hours on earth.
It is reported that JM knew too well that he was living on borrowed time and that any minute, he would be killed by government operatives.
Sources say that as they were playing darts over a drink at Nakuru’s Stag’s Head Hotel together with his bosom buddy former Nakuru town MP Mark Mwithaga, the town’s Mayor Mburu Gichua and his associate stormed the hotel, went straight to JM and Mwithaga and uttered these chilling words; “You want to cause trouble in Nakuru. Just be warned. Your days are numbered. We are going to finish you.”
Mwithaga died in August 2016.
The threat got JM sweating because earlier on, while in Nairobi, an assistant minister, Godfrey Gitahi better known as GG Kariuki (who died in June 2017) had whispered to him that a secret meeting had taken place in Nakuru and decision made to eliminate him by all means. The plan KTN was told, was to stage a political and security scare then blame it on him.
Mwithaga would say GG had further revealed to JM that those plotting his assassination had been hosted at State House, Nairobi, and pieced together some excerpts of JM’s fiery speeches as concrete evidence that the firebrand lawmaker was setting a stage for a revolution against the government.
For instance, they banked heavily on JM’s slogan that it was morally unacceptable to have a Kenya of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars.
As a concerned friend, GG implored JM to meet the then President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and explain himself since he was considered a threat to the aging president’s regime.
James Lando Khwatenge is a former member of the dreaded Special Branch (the precursor of today’s National Intelligence Service, NIS).
He says, from his knowledge as a Special Branch officer, JM Kariuki was not supposed to be killed on that fateful Sunday of March 2, 1975.
“When we joined the Special Branch as form sixes [A’ Level graduates], we were treated as elites and handed access to all government secrets because were replacing the illiterate group,” recalls Khwatenge.
After Mburu Gichua’s threat in Nakuru and the GG disclosure, JM is said to have approached the late Njenga Karume seeking his assistance in setting up a date with President Jomo Kenyatta. Karume died in February 2012.
Before the appointment could be secured, JM was asked by his doctor to go to a warm place like Mombasa and relax since one of his legs had a problem occasioned by the beatings he received while in detention during the Mau struggle.
JM is said to have planned to travel to Mombasa by bus on March 1 but was quickly tipped that he was being trailed and advised to cancel the trip.
Since the besieged leader knew he was living on borrowed time, he aborted the journey without informing anyone.
A few minutes before the OTC bus he would have boarded would leave Nairobi for Mombasa, a bomb exploded and killed at least 27 passengers.
JM could have been among the casualties. He had escaped death by a whisker but the cloud of death still hovered over him.
In less than 24 hours he was assassinated.
On the second day of March 1975, JM is said to have been lured into an emergency meeting by then GSU Commandant and his childhood friend, the late Ben Gethi, where he was to be interrogated by Special Branch officers.
Knowing what was at stake, JM is said to have been hesitant because earlier on, his pistol had been withdrawn by the Nyandarua District Commissioner Joseph Thuo leaving him defenseless. However, Gethi prevailed upon JM to honor the summons, promising to cover him by accompanying him to the meeting at the then Special Branch headquarters on Kingsway House along University Way, Nairobi.
Says Khwatenge: “JM had a sixth sense telling him all was not well…he told Gethi he was reluctant since he was not armed… Gethi gave him a loaded service pistol…so he went for the meeting armed and only Gethi knew about it.”
He continues. “From Ole Dume Road, they drove to the meeting where he found a hostile interrogation panel. Mean looking men who appeared impatient.
It was at this juncture, says Khwatenge that the life of the Nyandarua North MP was brutally brought to an end by none other than his childhood friend and GSU Commandant Ben Gethi who had walked him to the gallows.
Explains Khwatenge: JM’s last minutes on earth were as follows……there was somebody called Wanyoike Thungu who argued with JM…he struck him and his teeth came out… JM went for his gun…before he could pull the trigger, Ben Gethi who was seated behind him shot him and fractured his hand….”
Athur Wanyoike Thungu was a lethal civilian who was part of President Jomo Kenyatta’s security detail and that is the reason Gethi decided to sacrifice JM by shooting him to save his job.
Thungu was not a police officer but held titles of Inspector of Police and Senior Superintendent of Police on various occasions because of the ties he had with Mzee Kenyatta. Thungu was a youth winger in KAU party (Kenya African Union, later Kanu) whose duty was to provide escort and security to luminaries in the pre-independence party. It is during this period that he earned Jomo Kenyatta’s trust since it is, said, he was a tough nut, ready to die or kill for the boss. He hailed from Gatundu as well.
After independence, Mzee Kenyatta demanded that Thungu and his ilk be included in the presidential security detail even though they had never had any police training.
Owing to the fact that they did not qualify for training in VIP protection abroad, the gang was taken to Czechoslovakia for basic training in gun handling.
It is this squad that is reported to have shot dead a madman in Nakuru who once rushed to the main dais at a presidential event.
According to Khwatenge, “JM shooting Thungu using a GSU pistol would have landed Gethi in trouble… a decision was made to silence JM forever to avoid him telling the whole country that he had been shot inside Kingsway House] They knew that JM with a plastered hand would not keep quiet... that is when a decision was made to kill him.”
But then, the Sunday afternoon assassination was abrupt both the scene and the time. There was panic and confusion reigned. The killers didn’t know what to do next. What to tell President Kenyatta and the biggest predicament was where to take JM’s lifeless body.
Says Khwatenge: “Here was somebody who was not supposed to be killed … they went down and carjacked a pickup transporting meat…”
JM’s body was discreetly taken to Ngong Forest and dumped there, hoping that he would not be traced but surprisingly, wild animals simply refused to eat the body of the former Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife.
“Funny people killed around the area had their bodies eaten by hyenas…but JM’s wasn’t eaten.” JM Kariuki was reported missing that very Sunday after he failed to return home. A frantic search by his family and friends started.
Journalist Victor Riitho and a friend of JM's recalls “there was a small report … a filler stating a smartly dressed African male body [had ben] found in Ngong Forest and taken to City Mortuary ...we concealed a camera and entered the morgue … we lied to the attendant that we wanted to identify OTC explosion casualties.”
In parliament, JM’s colleagues were breathing fire and brimstone following his disappearance as Mark Mwithaga and late Martin Shikuku once stated. The government was hard-pressed to explain.
Shikuku would later say “when parliament was discussing his disappearance, we heard a woman yelling, yelling.”
In a dated footage Mwithaga says: “When Moi heard this, he took out his handkerchief and wiped tears and said if that is true and he had been made to tell Kenyans lies, then he is very sorry about it.”
[After the disappearance of JM, Moi in his capacity as the Minister for Home Affairs was misled into reading a statement that indicated JM was in Zambia on business]
It was about 6.30 pm when JM Kariuki’s first wife Doris Nyambura together with other family members stormed the chambers wailing…..the session abruptly came to an end as furious MPs rushed to the city mortuary to confirm what JM’s wife had reported. Already the security apparatus was making plans to sneak the body out that evening and didn’t know JM’s family would return that very evening accompanied by MPs.”
In the footage, Shikuku says: “…we surrounded the morgue, we found a Special Branch officer who worked at Bunge wearing a “mortuary attendant” tag... We had not figured out…it was MP Grace Onyango who noticed him and spoke to him.
Recalls Shikuku: “We looked around and couldn’t find him (JM)…he had been defaced….” The special branch agent was supervising the process of releasing JM’s body to a group that was waiting outside the mortuary late in the evening, a matter that is unusual. JM’s body had a tag on his toe labeled LUO GANGSTER. His killers had knocked off three of his lower incisors to justify that indeed he was a Luo.
Footage obtained by KTN has Mwithaga saying: “On the legs, there was a label...” unclaimed body of a Luo gangster…. Luos were out already waiting to carry the body.
“I was very angry,” recalls Riitho.
Rosemary Kariuki Machua is the second born child of JM. She was in primary school when their father was assassinated.
“Every March 2nd is always a painful reminder to us…there are some of my family members who prefer being out of the country,” she says. Ten days later on March 12, Police Commissioner Benard Hinga finally confirmed to an anxious nation that JM was dead and he had been killed by two bullets.
The assassination raised tension across the country, a situation that made the government uneasy amid riots staged by Nairobi University students, even as the government denied involvement.
“The songs and slogans were basically to defy the system,” recalls former Chief Justice Willie Mutunga.
“If the government was not involved, why the cover-up? Why did Kenyatta bring out the military and inspected a guard of honour all the way from Ronald Ngala Street to Moi Avenue outside Kenya Cinema?
Says Pheroze Nowrojee a High court advocate and former lecturer at the University of Nairobi: “As Kenyatta wanted it to be, the Kanu dictatorship was really to scare any revolution by ordinary people”.
Vernon Mwaanga, is Zambia’s former foreign affairs minister and was JM’s friend whom he had paid a visit when the Kenyan went missing. He met JM’s family many years later.
“The death took place under highly suspicious circumstances,” he says.
As anticipated, on the day of the burial, an already shaken government machinery made sure that it instilled fear among the mourners.
Recalls Wanyiri Kihoro a former student leader and later an MP... “Heavily armed police officers were planted from the Gilgal junction and they spread all over a 16-kilometre stretch and the mounted roadblocks, searching all vehicles.” Infuriated mourners refused to have a message of condolence from the government read by then area Provincial Commissioner Simeon Nyachae.
“Nyachae who was the representative from the government was helpless…..he changed tune and also started singing along…” recalls Kihoro.
Mwai Kibaki, the man who, three-and-a-half decades later became Kenya’s third president, was the only serving as a cabinet minister to attend the burial and when he was given a chance to address the mourners, he made a promise which has never been fulfilled
“He said we will have to get to the bottom, however long it takes even if its 100 years,” recalls Kihoro.
A report by the parliamentary select committee that was chaired by the late Elijah Mwangale was manipulated by the executive. When the committee chair tabled the report, Kisumu Town MP Grace Onyango pointed out that it had been doctored at State House.
Unknown to many, Onyango and Shikuku had hidden a copy of the original report in Committee Room 7 in parliament which contained the names that President Kenyatta had removed. Mwithaga was the committee’s vice-chair.
Says Mwithaga in archive footage: “When the time came for us to table the report, we were called to State House. We found Kenyatta in a special room. His color hand changed from black to chocolate. He removed three names from the report.
Khwatenge maintains the unplanned execution caught the perpetrators by surprise in that they didn’t have an elaborate cover-up plan which exposed the government. “His killing was haphazard, they didn’t do a good job like in other previous assignments,” says Khwatenge. Mwithaga is in the record as telling Kenyans: “Whoever tries to absolve the government from blame is just playing with Kenyans’ intelligence. Every successive regime bears responsibility”.