‘It was pettiness’

Stanley Munga Githunguri

Stanley Munga Githunguri has gone through the rough and tumble of Kenya’s politics and big business, bruising his nose in the process. STEPHEN MBURU has been talking to the one-time coffee picker who had a great future.

Stanley Munga Githunguri

When the Lilian Towers became the latest addition to the Nairobi skyline in the mid-1980s, its owner Stanley Munga Githunguri became the man of the moment.

Barely in his 40s, Githunguri was the epitome of success but he would soon run into problems when businessmen with powerful political connections started offering him ridiculous amounts for the property.

After decades of silence, this week Githunguri talked to Weekend about his life and some of the high-octane speculations that engulfed the country as he fought attempts to have him jailed and later, efforts to yank the prestigious Nairobi Safari Club from his possession. 

His problems had started when he was the executive chairman of the National Bank of Kenya, specifically after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.

“I met Kenyatta in 1972. He had an account with NBK and always summoned me to State House when he wanted to make any transactions. Moi (Daniel arap) was also our customer,” Githunguri told us at his lavishly furnished Agip House office in Nairobi. Moi was then the Vice President.

But soon after Kenyatta died in August 1978, Githunguri found himself in trouble.

“There was always pressure on me to resign. You know how politicians operate. They started accusing me of arrogance, claiming that I had no time for them.”

The pressure on the banker reached its peak on August 24, 1979 when CID officers stormed his  National Bank office and searched it. They found foreign currency and accused him of holding it illegally. He was made to record a statement and cautioned it would be used against him.  Somebody somewhere was using crude ways to force him out of office so, he resigned.

But resigning did not save his skin. He would be arraigned in court accused of contravening the Foreign Exchange Act, the case ending in the late 1980s with Justice (later Chief Justice) CB Madan and others acquitting him. 

In those days, contravening the Foreign Exchange Act was one of the fastest ways of landing in prison. Planting it on your enemies was also the surest way of, as they say in Kenyan political parlance, of finishing them.

But Githunguri is best known for the fight he launched against the now defunct Jimba Credit Finance Corporation, in 1986. The corporation had threatened to sell his Lilian Towers building, which houses Nairobi Safari Club, unless he settled an alleged debt of Sh93 million in 14 days.

He now says his problems started one evening in 1986, when he and a patron had drinks at the prestigious 146-all suite Nairobi Safari Club — also his own.

And as the two chatted, the patron — a businessman better known for his controversial business deals and stints in Kamiti Prison —   casually offered to buy the hotel Githunguri had built two years earlier, from a Sh24 million loan he had secured from Jimba.

Wanted to sell my hotel

Githunguri hoped the business would fetch him at least Sh500 million. After all, he was dealing not only with a young billionaire but a politically well connected entrepreneur, who also owned tourist hotels.  But he was dead wrong.

“He came to my hotel one time and offered to buy the hotel. I said I would sell it to him if he offered me a fair price. But his price was ridiculous and I refused,” recalls Githunguri.

“After that, Jimba came in. All of a sudden, they told me they wanted all their money and started advertising the sell my property. Why? I don’t know. But in the end, they lost.” 

The battle to save Lilian Towers from the auctioneer’s hammer lasted three years but not until the Court of Appeal came to his rescue. But before the hearing of a civil suit he had filed against Jimba, the financial institution was closed and taken over by Consolidated Bank.

“The new management called me and decided we settle the case outside court. They had realised it was all fitina (malice),” says Githunguri who once worked as a coffee picker in what is now Nyari and New Muthaiga up-scale housing estates, Nairobi. 

It was during the Lilian Towers saga that word had it that some Kanu politicians were harassing him over old intrigues dating back to the days when his girlfriend Elizabeth Karungari, now his wife and mother of his six children, was Mzee Kenyatta’s secretary. 

“Those were just rumours… the usual Nairobi rumours. My wife was secretary to Kenyatta. Our people are full of rumours,” he says. And it also turns out that, contrary the rumours Lilian, after which the hotel is named, is his mother but not wife.

“My father died when I was 14. My mother Lilian Nyagaki raised my two younger sisters and I single-handedly. She struggled to feed and educate us. I was born in poverty, raised in poverty and gone through it. So when I came out of poverty, I had to honour my mother. That is why I named the building Lilian.”

And Lilian, who died in 1985, was certainly a mother to be proud of.

Githunguri remembers the many times his mother would send him on errands to beg food from relatives across ridges in Kiambu District.

That happened when his father, an enterprising man who had moved to Tanzania with his family.

Munga wa Thara and his wives had left his 10-acre farm in Kihara village in Kiambaa and settled Arusha, Tanzania in 1940s. There, his 20 children, who included the young Githunguri — his only son with the youngest wife — would not go to school but look after livestock.

But as fate would have it, the family, as well as other Kenyans who had settled at Kamwanga, were deported in 1952 on suspicions that they were Mau Mau sympathisers. Githunguri’s father, who was detained for six years at Manyani and Lamu, died only a month after he was released in 1958.  

The deportation was blessing in disguise to Githunguri who could now go to school. But the hotelier, now 62, had no hope of ever going to school. “I don’t think I could have gone to school if we remained in Tanzania. My parents were semi-illiterate and our daily responsibilities were only to look after goats and cattle.”

Back in Kenya, he would go through untold hardships. 

“I used to accompany my mother to pick coffee. We were paid 50 cents a tin and I would fetch Sh3 in a good day. Mother, who was at time employed at Kalimoni and Gwa Kihoro estates, would be paid Sh20 a month.

“Our breakfast used to be porridge, as well as tea, many times either without sugar or milk. We used to look forward to Christmas when my mother would afford to cook us decent meal or chapati and meat. We used to eat such food only once a year and on Christmas.”

The mother struggled to see her son through Gacharage Primary and Karura Intermediate Schools which he left in 1961.  

Later his mathematics teacher, Humphrey Mwangi, a staunch Christian invited him to a Christian fellowship in Nairobi where he linked him up with an American priest who would change Githunguri’s life for ever.

The boy, was admitted to St Mary’s High in Alaska where he studied for only two years before joining Methodist University, Yampa Valley College, and Kansas Teachers College where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics in 1967.  All this courtesy of his clan that had raised Sh7,000 for his air ticket.

“There was a big harambee — on Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to raise Sh7,000. I am what I am today because of my clan,” he says. 

As he completed studies, a government team was in the US to recruit educated Kenyans so they could take over from the Europeans. Githunguri was made a DO in Meru and Tana River but worked for a few months before joining oil giant Mobil  and shortly thereafter, the National Bank of Kenya. That was in 1968.

“I had applied for a job at the National Bank of Kenya as well as Mobil. But Mobil gave me a job first. My salary was Sh1,300. An appointment letter from NBK came after one month when I was with Mobil. The bank was paying me less — Sh1,200. But I could see prospects. It was also housing me. I left Mobil.”

Githunguri was then taken to Britain for training and returned to become the NBK manager in Mombasa and Nakuru where he was to meet President Kenyatta and become his banker.

Contrary to rumours, he says he enjoyed cordial relationship with then Vice-President Moi, who was also an NBK client at Nakuru.

“When I was transferred to Mombasa, Moi even pleaded with me not to go. I used to help farmers in Nakuru and he did not want me to go.”

What about his relationship with President Moi during the 1980s? “You know Moi is a politician 24 hours. I have no problem with him. We are still friends. I respect him and he respects me,” he says.

“Jimba had given me a loan of Sh24 million to build the hotel and I was paying them regularly. I have never known why I was being harassed. I think it was just politics. People were too petty. I cannot blame it on Moi. If he was behind it, I could not have come out of it. He was very powerful. The fact that I got out of it is a clear indication he was not involved.”

And, responding to speculation that the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo might have helped him, Githunguri says: “There was no need to for him to protect me. He is a very independent-minded person… he followed the law.”

So how much is he worth?

“I have never stopped to think how much I am worth. There is no need for me to stop and think how much I am worth. All I know is that I can afford to get what I want.”

Githunguri wasn’t the business type until an upcoming trader in Mombasa, Kazungu Ngala, approached him with a request for a loan. 

“He wanted a Sh400 bank loan to buy a bicycle. I told him he needed a security. His uncle guaranteed him the loan. I was in Mombasa for 15 months and by the time I left, Kazungu had made it in business. He had bought a car and a plot. I learnt a lot from him and my other customers who would come to borrow loans to start businesses. I said ‘if they can start businesses and succeed, why not me?”  (Kazungu was a nephew of Ronald Ngala, a Cabinet Minister in Kenyatta’s Government and father to politician Noah Katana Ngala.) 

And, perhaps, to thank his community for having made it possible for him to get education, Githunguri has single-handedly built Gachie and Muthurwa High schools.

Githunguri is no longer a pagan as was the case when no missionary school could accept him.

“I belong to no denomination, But my Jerusalem is Anglican.”

‘I was innocent’

Stanley Munga Githunguri you have been beseeching the court for order of prohibition.  Take the order. The court gives it to you.  When you leave here, raise your eyes up to the hills. Utter a prayer of thankfulness that your  fundamental rights are protected under the juridical system of Kenya.”

These were the historic words read by Chief Justice CB Madan in the  1985 Constitutional Court ruling in favour of the businessman who had been accused of being in illegal possession of  foreign currency after successive Attorney Generals had refused to prosecute him.

At the time of the ruling, Githunguri spotted only specks of grey hair. Today, his head is covered with a shiny well-trimmed grey cap, which is a clear indication of a man doing well and aging in style and comfort.

While many men would be running after black dye, the burly businessman who greets you with a disarming smile and warm, strong handshake, is quite comfortable with his looks.

He says of the historic ruling: “I was innocent. I don’t know why I was being persecuted. It was just politics. I always thank my God for getting me out if it. The whole thing was all malice. The Judges were so bold to rule in my favour.”

Githunguri was the NBK boss when President Kibaki was Finance Minister. So what are his views on the President?

“I have a lot of respect for Kibaki. He is the best man to work with in the sense that he does not interfere with your work. He never interfered with me. As long you are performing.”

Back to the case, Justice CB Madan, described the proceedings as “the subject of considerable notoriety” and  dismissed the case as “an abuse of the process of the court, oppressive and vexatious.”

He said partly: “It is our duty to ask ourselves what is the use of having a  Constitution if it is not honoured and respected by the people?”