Cyprian Fernandes: Njonjo seldom hid his contempt for his fellow blacks

Charles Njonjo

The late Charles Njonjo.

Photo credit: File

The late “Sir” Charles Njonjo was something of an enigma, other times a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, but he would have preferred to have been born a Briton. He was, after all, a sort of secret British envoy.

There is no doubting his close connection with successive British governments. He also revelled in “being” a European on his holidays or official visits.

There are those, mainly whites and Asians, who loved him, even venerated him somewhat, and there are those who hated, mainly black-skinned people around East Africa. However, even among these, some are inconsolable with his passing.

Among them is a Goan lady in Nairobi who is alive today because of Njonjo. She required cardiac surgery in South Africa and Njonjo made all the arrangements. She will never forget him. Nor will his longtime neighbours in Kiambu, John and Maura Lobo, who now live in Canada.

There are other sentiments online.

Jan Wallace: A true statesman, gentleman and family man. Remember him and his wife Maggie at Hillcrest. Patricia Carrington: A true gentleman in every sense of the word. He will be sorely missed. John Whitfield: The best president who never was. RIP. Bhavna Trivedi: A great personality and fine gentleman! RIP.

Robin Stobbs: RIP Mzee - one of a kind and an African icon - for all the right reasons.

Many others mourn Njonjo’s passing. Among them, John Githongo. who wrote: The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.

Njonjo liked Bruce Mackenzie (the British, Israeli, South African spy). But he did not like JM Kariuki, Pio Gama Pinto, Joe Murumbi, Njoroge Mungai — and eventually Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki. He generally had a low opinion of ordinary people from various Kenyan communities — including his own — because they were not sophisticated enough.

He had a love affair with South Africa’s apartheid regimes (he studied there).

The war between Mungai and Njonjo was atrocious, to say the least. The unconfirmed legend was that Mungai once made a sexual pass at Njonjo's white wife Margaret Bryson, and that a furious Njonjo responded by shooting Mungai in the hip.

As a result, the story went, Mungai walked with a limp for the rest of his life. And not just that, Mungai had to take cover in Australia for a while because Njonjo had vowed to kill him. Njonjo and Mungai were never quite on talking terms for a long time.

Things got even more ferocious when (kingmaker) Njonjo smashed Mungai’s attempts to stop Daniel arap Moi from becoming president in 1978. Moi dethroned the kingmaker in a few months.

Glenn Frankel, in the Washington Post, put it more succinctly.

Frankel wrote on September 29, 1984: “Before he fell from grace, Charles Njonjo was an imperious symbol of modern Africa's elite. He wore pin-stripe suits with white carnations and he rode in Mercedes limousines. He disdained the history of his continent and admired all things British. He destroyed his political enemies and he ‘made’ Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi.

"Charles liked to brag how he had made Moi, which was more or less true," a Njonjo admirer said recently. "But Moi figured quite rightly that if Charles had made him, he might also seek to someday break him."

The president decided to break Charles Njonjo. While the 64-year-old London-trained lawyer was off in May 1983 on one of his frequent European trips, Moi charged that an unnamed "traitor" in his Cabinet was being groomed by foreign powers to take over Kenya.

Although the president never accused Njonjo by name, Moi's supporters in Parliament did. Njonjo, once the nation's top legal officer, underwent an extraordinary public trial by accusation and innuendo. He was forced to resign his Cabinet post as minister of constitutional affairs.

After a seven-month inquiry that became Kenya's equivalent of the Watergate hearings, Njonjo - along with 14 political associates - was expelled from Kanu. In the then one-party state, Njonjo was rendered politically extinct.

The rise and fall of Njonjo is a case study in the rewards and risks of membership in a class of African leaders that combines the arrogant exercise of political power with haughty continental tastes and an unbridled hunger for money.

Butt of bitter jokes

Despite his power, wealth and European polish, Njonjo was undone, in the end, because he committed the worst offence possible for a Kenyan. He was judged personally disloyal to a man more powerful than he - President Moi.

Before his eclipse, Njonjo practised a strikingly public form of revenge against his enemies. At the same time, he seldom hid his contempt for his fellow blacks.

So when Njonjo fell from favour, the man who for more than a decade was considered Kenya's most important power broker became the butt of bitter jokes. Blacks here called him the "Afro-Saxon" or the "coconut - black on the outside but white on the inside."

I was a young Nation reporter when I first met Njonjo. Like everyone else, I was quite impressed with his pinstripes, buttonhole roses and his somewhat clean-cut style. I did not have very much to do with Njonjo, except while reporting Parliament or other political stories. Mungai told me to “be careful” of Njonjo. “Don’t trust him,” he said.

I saw both sides of the two men front and up close while covering the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Singapore. I accompanied the Kenya delegation.

I spent quite a lot of time with Moi, Njonjo and Mungai’s brother Ngethe and the team from Foreign Affairs. Njonjo and Moi appeared quite friendly. One night at dinner, Njonjo and I ordered escargot (snails) for starters and Moi fell over laughing his head off as he told us in Swahili: “You are eating insects (dudu).” Njonjo tried to explain the French delicacy but failed miserably.

I had always been an admirer of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home. From various reports, I had learnt he was a very astute politician and a very fine strategist. I had watched while Mungai travelled the world selling his anti-arms sales to South Africa campaign to the Commonwealth. The British were all for the sale as it was a commercial deal.

However, the South Africans had sworn they needed the arms to protect the Indian Ocean sea lanes. Everyone knew that was a load of hogwash. Everything pointed to a Mungai victory. However, Douglas-Home short-circuited that by suggesting only the heads of delegations meet to discuss the matter as a family.

It was agreed that Mungai would represent Kenya because he had all the facts and figures at his fingertips. The same day, we all met at the hotel poolside. Njonjo broke the somewhat happy atmosphere by loudly declaring words to the effect: “I don’t know why we are wasting our time on this arms sale rubbish. If it was up to me I would open a Kenyan embassy in Pretoria and open diplomatic relations.” Everyone was shocked.

The next morning (the day of the meeting of the big chiefs) the Foreign Affairs guys were all glum as if someone had died. It may have even looked as if Mungai had died because during the night he was told that Moi would represent Kenya at the big meeting of the Commonwealth chiefs.

Many months later, Mungai told me that he suspected Njonjo had prodded Moi into the role. He also suspected that the British had got Njonjo to do the dirty deed. From that day on, from that pool in Singapore, war was declared between Mungai and Njonjo.

Mungai was going to “get” Njonjo but he was never going to be any match for the AG and his British friends. You see, Mungai had a huge appetite for women.

That is why I believe the story that Njonjo shot him in the hip or somewhere in the leg.

Following accusations of treason, some would say the resultant inquiry was something of a stitch-up job since the 4,000 pages of testimony was largely based on hearsay, rumour and gossip. The usual rules of evidence were not adhered to.

The end has come, let sleeping dogs lie. But, as President Mwai Kibaki once said, “be vigilant, be wary”.

One of the reasons I was forced to leave the Nation was that Editor in Chief George Githii, in one of his first executive decisions, took me off my foreign reporting role. It did not matter, because I was leaving anyway but I could imagine the hand of Njonjo in there …

Cyprian Fernandes was one of the first locals employed by the Nation. He finished as chief reporter and now lives in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at and continues to write at the age 78.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.