Why I harboured no grudge against Njonjo despite the atrocities I faced when he was AG

Charles Njonjo

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo takes oath of office soon after independence.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

I had not intended to write anything in the newspapers about the late Charles Njonjo, until I read the Sunday Nation article by my friend Salim Lone (‘Metamorphosis of ex-attorney general, from oppressor to believer of change’, January 9, 2022).

Salim makes a point that needs emphasising. Njonjo was a Saul who, after his 1982 experience with the government of President Daniel Moi he had helped put in place, turned into a Paul. The story of Saul, the persecutor of Christians who, on the way to Damascus got a vision to stop persecuting Christians and instead join the crusade for spreading Christianity as a missionary, is very reflective of Njonjo’s life after the traitor “persecution” affair in 1982. I will tell you why.

Salim narrates how, later in life, Njonjo deliberately sought to connect with those he had persecuted as AG. To quote Salim: “More publicly, Njonjo had also been able to develop a close relationship with Mr Raila Odinga and his cohorts Anyang’ Nyong’o and James Orengo, plus Koigi wa Wamwere and a few others– all of whom had earlier been persecuted by him”).

Salim says something which those of us who have been on the progressive side of Kenyan politics have always held as an important political culture in democratic struggles for justice and human rights.

Judases of this world

That is, when a political opponent, nay persecutor, truly changes and abandons the oppressor to join the ranks of the progressives, he or she needs to be embraced with open arms. But we must always be careful not to go to bed with opportunists and charlatans: these are more dangerous than the Judases of this world.

I remember what Raila told me in early 2002 when he was in the Kanu government and I was in the opposition, but we were quietly consulting on how to unite all the progressive forces into a broad based democratic front that could finally get the entrenched Kanu out of power in the then upcoming elections later that year.

He had advised that Farrah Maalim and I approach Simeon Nyachae, the leader of Ford-People, to join hands with the outfit that the opposition was putting together so that the LDP brigade would join us to form a more formidable force. Mzee Nyachae declined and told us that one of us had betrayed him some time in the past. When I told Raila this, he commented with a bit of sarcasm: “But who has not betrayed who in politics?”

I am sure Njonjo, once hounded out of Kanu, genuinely saw the value of the issues and causes we had been fighting for in the opposition and decided to join us quietly in the struggle for democracy in Kenya. Castigating him in retrospect that “he was not genuine” is itself not genuine. Those of us who encountered Njonjo and held discussions with him know that his heart was finally in the right place. Let me illustrate this from my own history with Njonjo.

Sometime in 1980, Prof Walter Rodney was assassinated in his country Guyana and we dons at the University of Nairobi knew this was due to his well-known struggle against imperialism at home and abroad. We had known Rodney as students at Makerere University when he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam and agitated openly against oppressive regimes in the Third World.

We, therefore, decided to hold demonstrations in Nairobi to protest against his assassination. We were also angry at the British government’s sale of arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa and included this protest in our demonstration, which was peaceful and well-organised.

We traversed Kenyatta Avenue and ended up in the present-day Comesa grounds where we howled against imperialists and their running dogs within earshot of Njonjo’s office on Harambe Avenue. The late George Katama Mkangi, Dr Willy Mutunga, myself and other lecturers addressed the demonstrators. We returned peacefully to the university thereafter. The papers the next day editorialised that this was a wonderful example of how demonstrations should be held.

Kanu’s mouthpiece

That weekend, however, the then Nairobi Times, Kanu’s mouthpiece, published an interview with me with the banner headline ‘University lecturer denies plot charge’ by Peter Kariithi. Apparently, rumours were circulating within the corridors of government that the demonstration was just the tip of the iceberg; “Marxist” lecturers like me were supposedly plotting to overthrow the Moi government. The article went further to allege that there was a core of Marxist lecturers who were bent on radicalising the students and that I was at the centre of it all.

Early Monday morning, the Special Branch fetched me from our house on Ndemi Lane for questioning at the CID headquarters, then situated near the present Integrity Centre.

After three days of interviews and harassment, I saw, through the window of my cell, Njonjo strolling in the compound one morning around 10 o’clock.

Soon after that, I was taken to the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr Khan, who informed me that he had consulted with his boss and I would be released that morning. He told me that the government had realised that the students, then on strike demanding my release, could only go back to the lecture rooms after I was freed. Thus it came to pass that I went home that morning.

When my wife and I woke up the next morning, we were surprised to see three blue Peugeot station wagons parked in front of our house with mean-looking Special Branch officers. They said I needed to go back to clarify a few issues at their headquarters. Apparently, they had picked up Mr Kariithi of the Nairobi Times to give more evidence against me, notwithstanding having published fallacious statements against me.

The Special Branch wanted clarifications. The students got wind of my arrest and went on strike again. That was my salvation. I was quickly interviewed and released to go straight to my classroom and teach so that the students could stay calm. I obeyed their order religiously.

No sooner had I finished that morning’s lecture and walked towards the Gandhi Wing than I saw my sister Susan waiting for me downstairs with a face full of melancholy.

Carbon copy

Our brother Charles Anam, 10 years younger than me but almost a carbon copy of myself, had mysteriously disappeared in Mombasa, no doubt a victim of vicarious punishment by state agents as I was to learn 10 years later.

Some people may wonder why, in his article, Salim refers to me as “Anyang’ Nyong’o for whom Njonjo had a great deal of affection” in spite of this tragic experience when my friend Njonjo was the “captain of law and order” in our Republic.

Yes, Njonjo and I became good friends later. And there is plenty to write on this and why we, as progressives, don’t hold our tormentors in perpetual jeopardy when they come sincerely repenting to join us in the struggle for human emancipation from political oppression and socio-economic dehumanisation.

Prof Nyong’o is the Kisumu County Governor


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