Story by JOHN KIHURIA
Publication Date: 5/18/2008
Charles Njonjo speaks to journalists recently at his Nairobi residence about the protocol mix up witnessed during the visits to the Rift Valley by leaders.
For a man who has consistently been reluctant to have his memoirs recorded on pen and paper, it was rather ironical to hear ‘Sir Charles’ lament what a pity it was that one time provincial commissioner, Eliud Mahihu, had died without telling the world the events that surrounded and followed the death of Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
“He was the only man who was with Mzee when he died and so the only man who knew exactly the circumstances under which the former president died.
“He was also the man who secretly arranged for the body of the late president to be flown to Nairobi and one shudders to imagine what might have happened if some people found out about the death before the body was ferried to the capital from where we announced the death. What a pity he had to die before he told this story,” pensively wondered one time attorney general, Charles Mugane Njonjo in a recent interview.
Our journey through memory lane with Mr Njonjo had started with a kingly ride in Mzee Kenyatta’s presidential limousine one day in the late 1960s following the abrupt resignation of then vice president Joseph Murumbi.
“I think we were coming from Kericho and Mzee was agonising loudly who he would appoint the VP to replace Murumbi.
‘Whom do I have?’ the old man worried as we sat in the back seat of the presidential limousine,” Njonjo recalled last week, in the spacious confines of his CFC Bank office on Chiromo Road.
And when the current chairman of CFC Bank quipped, “What about Moi?” it was according to him like a revelation to the late president.
“He was so pleased with the suggestion that he appointed Moi the vice president the very next day”.
The former AG says he recommended Moi because he believed the man who would survive the rough and tumble of Kenyan politics to rise to the presidency in 1978 and later have the country in his grips for more than two decades would be loyal to the president and would also cooperate with others.
“Mzee all long felt Kenya being made up of many tribes, it would have been unwise for a Kikuyu to succeed him, “unless he had exceptional leadership qualities, but the Kikuyu who were poised to succeed him were mostly from among the so called Kiambu Mafia and he would gather us together and loudly wonder who among us could “cross the Chania River.
“By this Mzee who was a national figure, meant that none of us senior politicians and civil servants were known outside our home district Kiambu and so we could never hope to lead this country”.
That despite the much hyped real or imaginary line associated with Kiambu politicians at that time, ‘itigakira Chania’ (the motorcycle outriders will never cross Chania River).
But the man who would stand by Moi and by “following the constitutional route” ensure the man from Sacho became president, would years later suffer untold humiliation under Moi’s rule; branded traitor, teased by lesser mortals, made to undergo harsh rebukes by judges and lawyers who were his juniors just a few months before, only for Moi to show ‘his magnanimity’ and pardon him when the show was all over.
“I had no intention of overthrowing the government of President Moi, and the whole thing was made up by people who thought I was too strong and wanted to get out of the power equation. They claimed that I had the direct support of the American and British with the express mission of forcibly installing me as president which was not the case at all,”he said.
“It was very sad that Moi was misled by some people and instead of checking out the facts, he accepted what he was told as the gospel truth. If you are told something and you do not investigate to find out the truth, you can make a very serious mistake,” a pensive Mr Njonjo told the Sunday Nation.
What Mr Moi did, he said, was quite contrary to what Mzee Kenyatta would have done.
“If you told Mzee something about one of your colleagues, he would note ‘how interesting’ what you were telling him was, then confront you with it in the presence of the person you had accused”.
He recalled an incident when a senior Kikuyu politician had accused him of planning to overthrow the Kenyatta government.
“When Mzee confronted him with the accusation in my presence, the man could only hide behind alcohol, weakly claiming that he had been tipsy when he made the accusation,” Njonjo said, laughing.
He said there is “no truth and no foundation” to the allegations that he was a traitor in Moi’s government, and though “these were truly trying times” (the inquiry period), he at times “enjoyed their singing” for he believed their (his accusers) lies would eventually put them to shame.
He lost quite a few friends, but there are those who steadfastly stood by him, led by business partner Jeremiah Kiereini, former cabinet colleague GG Kariuki and the late spymaster Joseph Kanyotu.
For more than a decade following the conclusion of the inquiry into his conduct and the subsequent pardon by Mr Moi, Mr Njonjo disappeared from public view during which time he says he spent restoring his family farm in Kibichiku in Kikuyu.
“I was also kept busy by my three young children whom I used to take out (abroad) and teach how to ski. I also had my banking and insurance businesses to take care of”. Mr Njonjo married rather late in life, on November 20, 1972.
“I liked my work very much and for many years I was married to it, and the idea of marriage did not feature much in my mind. I also worked odd hours and believed there would be a clash of interests if someone else entered my life. When not working, I was either swimming, at the sauna or the theatre, and that was enough for me”.
But there was a lot of pressure from Mzee Kenyatta for Mr Njonjo to get married as “he could not understand how a bachelor could advise him! My parents, especially my mother Wairimu, would also insist that I was getting old and must be married”.
But he said with a smile that he could not get anybody suitable from the backyard “Kikuyu or Luo communities” but was lucky to get one (of British extraction) from among the Kalenjin (his wife was born in the Rift Valley).
“I used to attend church services at the All Saints Cathedral, and there was this girl who was in the choir but also sat in my pew. I would look at her and think to myself, ‘now there’s a nice girl’”.
Maybe his pastor also thought the girl was good enough for Sir Charles, and he would invite the two among other faithful to his house for supper; gradually the two got to know each other and were eventually married.
In the middle of the interview, an SMS news alert about President Kibaki warning his Cabinet against discussing affairs of government in the media appeared on Mr Njonjo’s cell phone, and he promptly switched to matters of collective responsibility and the media.
“The press is the worst enemy of government, and matters discussed in government should never be brought to the attention of the press. In my opinion, ministers should not make press statements; these should be left to a qualified and professional government spokesman as is the case in established democracies.
"He said under Kenyatta the government was very well organized and efficient. There were, of course, allegations of favouritism towards the Kikuyu, but only highly qualified people were employed by the Kenyatta government. If this favoured the Kikuyu, it was rather by accident and not design,” he said with a straight face.
Mr Njonjo called the so-called ‘change the constitution’ move meant to prevent Mr Moi from succeeding Kenyatta ünconstitutional.”
“You do not change the constitution in the bush, and I told them (the ‘Kiambu mafia’) to bring the necessary amendment to Parliament, but they instead chose to seek public sympathy.
“They were playing the tribal card, warning the Kikuyu that the community stood to lose everything they had acquired under a Moi presidency; the excuse they used was that Mzee was ageing. and it was only through the constitutional change that Moi would be barred from ascending to the most powerful seat in the land.”
But Mr Njonjo went to Kenyatta and told him the mafia was going round the country saying he was sick and even imagining his death.
Kenyatta, a man who could not tolerate talk about death, especially his own, immediately called a Cabinet meeting and brought the ‘change the constitution’ debate to a close.
Hence the famous Njonjo statement that, “it is a capital offence to even imagine the death of the president”.
On the Kenyatta succession, Mr Njonjo insists he followed the constitutional path - the king is dead, long live the king.
“The president was dead, and under the Constitution, the vice president had to take over for a period of 90 days before fresh elections could take place. In an effort to subvert this clause, there were people who did not want Mzee’s death to be 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.”
On this score and his recent real or perceived support of ODM leader Raila Odinga, Mr Njonjo says he is not popular with his fellow Kikuyus “some of whom think I should not have done what I did and that someone else should have succeeded Kenyatta.
“In the recent past I have been accused of supporting Raila at the expense of fellow tribesmen, but we (Kikuyu) must realize we are not the only tribe in Kenya and learn to live and cooperate with others”.
However Sir Charles is quick to qualify that there is no personal rivalry or vendetta between him and President Kibaki.
“We have never quarreled, but I suppose he (at one time or the other), was told I do not support him, and he believed it”.
How politicians bungled Mboya, JM murder
Perhaps in appreciation of the unwavering support his Attorney-General had given him to the extent of alienating himself from his community, former President Daniel arap Moi offered Charles Njonjo the vice-presidency.
But Mr Njonjo, the chief government legal officer, was a civil servant who could not become the Number Two in government.
He would later join politics, as the Member of Parliament for Kikuyu. Did he do that so that Mr Moi could make good on his offer?
“As the Attorney-General I had done what I could do and more and I had a ready successor. By going into politics, I felt it was time I helped the people of my native Kikuyu constituency develop, especially by providing clean tap water to women who would trek long distances in search of the precious commodity.
“Today, I feel ever so happy when I go to far-flung villages in the constituency and find women fetching water from taps outside or inside their houses.”
The former AG readily admits he was one of the most powerful people in the Kenyatta government.
“Perhaps I was powerful because Kenyatta was a powerful president and I was working for him. As the Attorney-General, I headed a powerful ministry as, apart from prosecutions, I was also in charge of investigations.”
One of the high profile cases he investigated during his tenure was that of MPs Jesse Gachago and Muhuri Muchiri, who were charged with smuggling coffee in from Uganda at the height of the magendo (illegal) coffee trade in the 1980s.
“The two politicians were among the people who were involved in the scam and despite their plea to the President, I maintained they had to face the full force of the law so that we could set an example. We could not afford to be selective in dispensing justice and, on their conviction, the magendo coffee business came to an end.”
Njonjo says he was traumatised by the death of Tom Mboya in 1969 and deeply shocked by that of JM Kariuki in 1975, but he regrets that politicians led by Elijah Mwangale meddled in the investigations.
“I told them to let the CID that was under my docket conduct the investigations but they instead insisted on leading the investigations. Can you imagine these people (the inquiry committee) interrogating Moi (then Vice-President) and myself at a time when I was Attorney-General and the CID was under me? Were the CID allowed to conduct proper investigations, we would have got to the bottom of this matter,” he says.
As AG, some of Mr Njonjo’s greatest moments were with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and he enjoyed working for him, travelling with him, listening to him and watching him as he transformed the country from a British colony to independent prosperity.
He says Kenya’s biggest problem is that it has “been eaten up by corruption” and those supposed to fight the vice are unable or unwilling to do their work.
He hits out at the Ninth Parliament for increasing their salaries and allowances instead of addressing the issue of poverty, which is partly to blame for the prevalence of corruption.
He hopes the 10th Parliament will serve the people first.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Story by JOHN KIHURIA
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