Recounting the inimitable Charles Njonjo, self proclaimed Sir

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo gestures during a past press conference at his Kibichuku farm in Kabete, Kiambu county in this photo taken on April 8, 2019. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Njonjo was also famously known as the ‘Duke of Kabeteshire’, Kabete being where he was born and later represented.

May I start this piece by wishing a happy 2022 to all The Citizen readers. My thoughts turn immediately to neighbouring Kenya, where the new year has begun with a death that marks in a true sense the end of the independence era.

None other than its first Attorney General and later Constitutional Affairs Minister under President Moi, ‘Sir’ Charles Mugane Njonjo, the son of a colonial chief, passed away at the ripe old age of 101, a few days short of his 102nd birthday. To say that he was like a colossus that bestrode the landscape is most fitting.

‘Sir’ Njonjo was also famously known as the ‘Duke of Kabeteshire’, Kabete being where he was born and later represented. That unofficial title was as a result of him being regarded as an Anglophile par excellence.

Indeed, a street in London called Savile Row is where he had his tailor whom he shared with Moi in their best of days.

To try and get to grips with Njonjo, a useful reference point is Moi’s official biography written by the British journalist Andrew Morton, that was first published in 1998.

“In many respects, the fallout from the 1982 coup masked the explosive political forces which had been building up before the rebellion had even been contemplated. Since he had come to power, Moi had never been master in his own house. Not only had Moi inherited a predominantly Kikuyu establishment in the civil service, police and judiciary, he had in the urbane figure of Charles Njonjo, acquired an individual whose connections and standing in the international and government communities rivalled, and at some points exceeded, those of the President. His role as ‘Grand Vizier’ during Kenyatta’s long reign had enabled him to establish a powerful machinery with which to serve his interests in the civil service, the international business community and the diplomatic corps. Njonjo was more than a man, he was a system.”

He adds, “his contempt towards fellow Kenyans combined with his enmity towards President Julius Nyerere’s socialist Tanzania and the East African Community, his friendships with South African businessmen and favouritism towards expatriates, made him the darling of the West but an object of loathing to radicals and pan-African nationalists.”

On socialist Tanzania, few will recall that following the remark by Nyerere that “Kenya is a man-eat-man society,” Njonjo made a jibe in return that “Tanzania is a man-eat-nothing society.”

Njonjo was to all intents and purposes the bogeyman for Tanzania on matters East Africa.

Specifically on EAC, Morton reveals that “the fall of Njonjo sent out a powerful signal about Moi’s style of government both at home and abroad, enabling the President to conduct a vigorous exercise in fence-mending. There was a distinct thaw in relations in the whole of the East African region as emissaries from Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and other countries travelled to Nairobi to test the political temperature. After years of mutual suspicion, Tanzania and Kenya agreed to the reopening of their joint border, which had been closed since 1977 following the collapse of the East African Community - a collapse which had caused Njonjo to drink five celebratory glasses of champagne. When President Nyerere played host to President Moi and Uganda’s President Obote at an historic meeting in Arusha in November 1983, which saw the signing by the three Presidents of the agreement to wind up the assets held by the now defunct community, it seemed to mark the beginning of a new era.”

It is absolutely fair to say that even on the revived EAC, Njonjo was unreconstructed. I personally had my few up-close moments with him, courtesy of my late father, who not only had a working association with Njonjo by virtue of being Tanzania’s first indigenous AG, but even at the time of his wedding, it just so happened that Njonjo was his best man.

The one encounter I had with Njonjo in Dar was about 15 years ago. He had visited on Heritage Insurance business together with another prominent Kenyan, ex-Chief Secretary, the late Jeremiah Kiereini. Kiereini was Njonjo’s dear friend and in fact once frightfully came close to shooting someone in a fit of rage for mocking their camaraderie.

Njonjo for his Dar visit would send an sms well in advance to announce his day and hour of arrival as well as the time for dinner. So together with my father, the four of us sat down for a sumptuous meal. Interestingly, Kiereini at some point in the conversation alluded to the pluses of the EAC but Njonjo was doubtful.

I recall him also writing to me enthusiastically to convey a message to the new Tanzanian SG of the EAC, Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, that he should visit him in Nairobi at the earliest opportunity. My expectation was that maybe he had a change of heart following the appointment of a distinguished Tanzanian - but quite the contrary it was proved with time.

On my only visit to his Nairobi home he was very hospitable and even served drinks himself to my Tanzanian friend and I. I recall vividly that day his twin messages on how his hope of a better tomorrow for Kenya lay with the youth and his detestation of the calibre of the-then councillors of Kenya.

Quite significantly, for all the much-publicized stories about Njonjo’s prejudices regarding indigenous Africans, another perspective of him comes out in the autobiography of the late highly-respected Kenyan businessman and pioneer for the restoration of multi-democracy, Kenneth Matiba, where it is revealed of their aborted business venture of 1967: “Consequently, I registered a company in the name of African International Airways. I invited John Michuki and Charles Njonjo to join me in the venture. At that time things were pretty difficult in the East African Community.

There were strains and stresses and the Civil Aviation Board was not working properly. Kenya felt that East African Airways was hindering its progress because of its inefficiency which arose out of lack of support from Tanzania and Uganda. The problem was that, while Uganda would not remit its earned revenues to Kenya, the airline in Tanzania was made to operate a lot of uneconomic routes. Kenya was then ready to authorize a private air company to compete with EAA. In fact while the Civil Aviation Board turned down my application for a licence, the Kenyan Government gave me a letter allowing my aircraft to land at the Nairobi Airport as a cargo charter company.

With that authority we started looking for an aircraft and eventually we got one, a Britannia. We had it flown to Nairobi Embakasi Airport for inspection. John Michuki and I went to the airport to inspect it.

“Our visit to the airport created a lot of sensation. The Uganda and Tanzania staff of EAA were of course not able to keep quiet. They reported the goings-on in Nairobi to their countries, and in Tanzania all hell broke loose. The Tanzania Standard newspaper decided to carry a series of front page articles ‘on a plot that had been hatched in Nairobi with the assistance of the government to overthrow EAA’. We were mentioned by name - Michuki, Njonjo and I - as the capitalists identified to do the execution. Despite our determination and good intentions, we decided to shelve the idea in the interest of peace and unity. Michuki and I were PS’s and Njonjo was the AG. We did not want our private transaction to be interpreted as detrimental to our government’s participation in the EAC. We, therefore, did not sign the purchase contract; the aircraft was flown back to England and the attempt ended there.”

Turning now to probably the most controversial episode in Njonjo’s public life - namely the ultra- weighty succession of Kenyatta. In all fairness, this is applicable to many African countries until today. I personally believe had Kenyatta retired say after 10 years, a lot of problems may have been averted. To the germane matter, the Constitution of Kenya stated then if the president died in office that the VP would take over in an acting capacity for 90 days. To some political forces, this was as good as home and dry for the VP.

A “Change the Constitution Movement” was thereby established in 1976 that held countrywide rallies to gather support. Njonjo and Moi were alarmed at the response.

In the words of the late business mogul and politician, Njenga Karume: “After careful deliberation, Njonjo came up with a fairly simple, yet totally devastating solution which surprised the rest of us. As the AG, he called a press conference and announced that all those who addressed the Nakuru rally would be arrested and charged with treason. The Penal Code had an interesting little section which stated that it was an offense for anyone to imagine the death of the sitting President. The offense amounted to treason, whose sentence, according to the same document, was death...No doubt Njonjo was congratulating himself as he spoke. His counter-attack was ingenious.”

Njonjo would in future defend his threat without reservations as one coming from a defender of the supreme law. Not long after the ascendancy of Moi to the top, Njonjo resigned as AG abruptly to stand for parliament. The decision according to Morton was “influenced by his friend Stanley Githunguri, the owner of Nairobi Safari Club - which Njonjo would for ever regret.”

He was practically parachuted into the Kabete seat and then made minister.

Morton posits “if indeed Njonjo had harboured no presidential ambitions, it seems curiously maladroit that this consummate player should have thrown away an ace in the poker game of high politics.” This somewhat is in tune with a quote of Moi elsewhere in Morton’s book: “One of the President’s favourite saying is: ‘you can never tell what is in the back of an African’s mind,’ and it is a phrase that might apply equally well to him.”

Njonjo’s few years as minister did not escape controversy. This was the time that Kenya became officially a one-party state in 1982. The former Central Bank of Kenya Governor, Duncan Ndegwa, shared an anecdote of Njonjo: “Meanwhile, Njonjo did not make things better for himself. In a confrontation with a group of the President’s friends he uttered words to the effect that herdsmen had their place and soon they should retire to their natural habit to leave State House to those who rightly belong there. Elsewhere, this interpreted to mean that the Agikuyu were indispensable in Kenya’s power matrix.”

It wouldn’t take long before Njonjo would begin to face heavy accusations of being groomed by Britain to take over Kenya and in the process was labelled as a msaliti or ‘traitor’. Njonjo saw it all as “mere witch-hunting”.

He also asserts that after reading the mood in parliament, he wrote a letter of resignation that was never revealed to the public. A Judicial Commission of Inquiry was established that found him guilty and would in 1984 be issued with a presidential pardon that would also mark the end of Njonjo’s formal political career.

In Morton’s book, Njonjo would express the candid view that the difference between Kenyatta and Moi is that “Kenyatta would check out things, Moi doesn’t. I have said it to Moi, verify the information you get. It is one thing that Moi is bad at doing.”

Towards though the sunset years of Moi’s reign, Njonjo would be thrust back into the national limelight with certain tasks. And during the Kibaki presidency, Njonjo made a comeback to frontline politics. There was no love lost between these two gentlemen. Njonjo at the first constitutional referendum in 2005, openly backed the ‘No’ campaign and later gave his full blessing to Raila Odinga of ODM to contest the presidency, saying he sees no reason why a Luo cannot be elected.

This all coming from the man who was on record saying ‘I would never shake hands with Luo people - they are prone to cholera.’

And it didn’t end there. With Uhuru Kenyatta still then in ODM, he urged him to lead the Kikuyu community to back Odinga. Given the current goings-on, Njonjo’s words sound like the stuff of prophesy!

Proudly indeed his own man Njonjo.

With all the highs and lows of Njonjo’s long life, one can only imagine the impact of his memoirs had he chosen to compile them. At the launching of Odinga’s own memoirs, Njonjo disclosed that many people had asked him about writing but he ruled it out categorically on the grounds that it would be an act of conceit to do so.

It was indeed a mark of the man that the new lady CJ, Martha Koome, paid glowing tribute to him. Not untypical of Kenyan outspokenness, she was accused her of trying to rewrite history.

As a word of tribute to Njonjo, on a visit to the corridors of justice after many years, he was reproachful at the level of corruption and reiterated sternly how law officials must have clean hands. Tellingly, he was through and through in support of the 2010 Constitution.

On a closing note, I do recall very well an incident of Njonjo campaigning in 2013 for his old friend Githunguri, who was vying to become the senator of Kiambu County.

It was my first time hearing Njonjo flowing in Kiswahili. A member of the public abruptly asked him to speak in his native language. Njonjo politely listened to him and retorted that Kenya is not a country that belongs to Kikuyus - and carried on in Kiswahili. What a moment! Surely something to chew over on the man’s principles...