Kirubi: Staunch individualist who amassed wealth but never gave small favours

Chris Kirubi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

“I only believe in one person: Chris Kirubi.”

The fallen billionaire said those words in an interview with a local daily in January last year. If God created Kirubi in his own likeness, the industrialist wanted to carve the entire of Kenya’s landmass in his own image.

“Chris was a force of nature and he bent reality to his will,” said James Mworia, Kirubi’s protégé and the Chief Executive Officer of Centum Investments, where the entrepreneur was a significant shareholder.

Just for his love of music, Chris bought a whole radio station and made himself one of Capital FM’s in-house disc jockeys. DJ CK. From the Bic Pen and the Longhorn books students use for their studies to the Isuzu bus that ferries them to and from school; from the Drostdy-Hof wines taken by those in an ecstatic mood to the Amiline Tablets popped by those under the mood, Chris’ fingerprints were all over.

By the time of his demise, the flamboyant businessman’s estate was valued at over Sh30 billion. And he unabashedly flaunted his wealth.

His critics reckon that he was obsessed with self-aggrandizement; that he would go to any lengths just to massage his ego. They called it greed. Kirubi called it ambition.

The late Russia-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand would have loved Chris. A staunch individualist, Ms Rand would have celebrated Kirubi as a heroic being whose moral purpose of his life was his own happiness; his productive achievement his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute.

Naysayers saw in Kirubi a classical example of a depraved egotist whose greed was like a bottomless pit that he struggled to vainly fill up to his last day.

Chris Kirubi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

A business dealer par excellence, he knew when to snap up a penny stock and when to dispense with a blue-chip.

But not all his deals had the Midas touch. His dalliance with Uchumi Supermarkets earned him a discomfiting spot in the docks. The case was dropped for lack of evidence.
Uchumi, Kenatco, and Rift Valley Railways are just a few of the companies that turned into ashes on Kirubi’s touch.

But it was the manner in which Kirubi hived off of ICDC Investments - now Centum Investments - from the government-owned Industrial Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) that defined Chris.

To his proponents, this was a masterstroke from a suave business strategist. His opponents saw a schemer who was quick to exploit cracks in government to enrich himself at the expense of the public.

As tenacious and focused as Kirubi was, boasting of how he raised himself by his own bootstraps, he was also largely a beneficiary of state capitalism.

Private business

The post-independence process of Africanisation, the decision in 1971 to allow public servants to engage in private business and the wave of privatisation that started in early 1990s combined to help Kirubi and many other pioneer Kenyan capitalists to make their first billion.

Thus, most of the companies in Kirubi’s stable were once government-owned.

A natural bon vivant, in the words of John Ngumi, the chairperson of ICDC where he also worked with Kirubi, the mogul was boisterous.

He dismissed journalists as people who were paid to write “rubbish” about their country.

Chris Kirubi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Politics, he reckoned, was a breeding ground for parasites. Politicians owned what they had not worked for. “I own what I worked for,” he told TV host Jeff Koinange. And if he ate life with a big spoon, it is because he earned it.

But in last year’s interview, his words were somber. Kirubi seemed to lift the veil to long-hidden cogs that had been turning the wheels of his life for the past 79 years.

Resigned to the inevitability of death which he innocuously described as “rest” Kirubi revealed that, driven by ambition, he was building his dream house. “The day you have no ambition you die inside,” he said.

Kirubi’s paper wealth at NSE was valued at Sh5 billion by end of 2020. He seemed to think, as Rand would, that put into good use, money would buy you happiness.

“His personal sense of style was extravagant and brash, he always wore suits from the world’s best designers, had lovely cars and the finest watches,” remembered Kiprono Kittony, the chairperson of the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE), in a commentary in The Standard.

Money was also the surest measure of value. Everything seemed to have a monetary value to Kirubi. A man either had an expensive or cheap girlfriend, he suggested in a past interview.

Chris was a “hard-nosed capitalist” who had no soft touch for a donation, said Ngumi. “Quid pro quo” (a favour for a favour) was his creed.

Even small favours had to be paid back somehow, remembered the Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja who realised that for a cheque of Sh50,000 that Kirubi gave him, the billionaire was able to extract more from him.

Everything, including marriage, had to fall within the dictates of his desire to be free.  A free spirit, he thought marriage was enslavement.

He is among the few Kenyan billionaires who never had a foundation to their names. His name never featured in the Covid-19 Fund.

Chris Kirubi. [Courtesy]

When he tried to push an ideology, he only succeeded in vouching for himself. In one interview, Kirubi would sound like a market fundamentalist, with the entrepreneur putting a strong case for importation of cheap sugar to free consumers from the chains of inefficient factories and “lazy” sugar cane farmers.

Then he would dramatically slide into protectionism railing against secondhand cars and mitumba clothes and “dead people’s hair” which he regretted never created jobs.

A man who boasted of how he lifted himself by his own bootstraps would keep berating the government to ban mitumba because they were killing his textile factory, East African Fine Spinners where Centum has an 18 per cent stake.

Secondhand cars were also bad news for vehicle manufacturers Car and General and Isuzu East Africa, where Kirubi was a shareholder.

He also clashed with environmentalists, making remarks that painted him as a profiteer whose bottomline had no space for People and Planet.

Chris would find himself at loggerheads with tree huggers when Centum and Gulf Energy won a multi-billion contract to build a coal plant in Lamu County. Amu Power, it was feared, would desecrate the cultural heritage of Lamu Island.

Rich countries, said Kirubi in an interview with African Business Magazine, industrialised using dirty coal, why couldn’t poor countries be allowed to do the same?

As cancer sawed through Kirubi’s once stocky body leaving him frail and fatigued, he spoke of his newfound relationship with God.

It appeared as though finally, Kirubi was seeing the vanity of materialism.