Traitor tag that brought down Charles Njonjo and other stories

President Daniel arap Moi confers with Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and Cabinet ministers Charles Rubia and Robert Matano during the October 1978 elections.  PHOTO | NATION LIBRARY

What you need to know:

  • Njonjo’s powers were still being felt in the country’s Judiciary.
  • MPs began referring to an unnamed ‘msaliti’ (traitor) in their house speeches.
  • President Moi dissolved Parliament and declared what came to be known as a snap election in 1983.

In the third instalment of our continuing serialisation of ‘Honourble Deeds: The James Osogo Story’, we take a look at the fall from grace of Kenya’s first Attorney-General, and the ‘crack method’ deployed by Kanu to get rid of unwanted politicians during elections

Kenya’s first African Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, who took over from the colonial Attorney-General at independence announced his retirement from the civil service in 1980.

In his official statement, he also indicated that he was going into politics.

Apparently, arrangements had been made between Njonjo and the sitting MP for Kikuyu Constituency, Amos Ng’ang’a, for the latter to hand over his resignation from the National Assembly. The next day, the local press carried screaming banner headlines about the simultaneous retirement of Njonjo and resignation of Ng’ang’a.

By afternoon, election posters and T-shirts of the new candidate for the Kikuyu seat flooded the city. The following day, the local press carried news of the declaration of the Kikuyu parliamentary seat as vacant and the election timetable for the seat was also published by the Supervisor of Elections.

Things happened very fast and Ng’ang’a was appointed by the President to be the executive chairman of one of the State corporations.

On nomination day, the former Attorney-General was declared the MP for Kikuyu unopposed. He was subsequently appointed to a newly created Ministry of Constitutional Affairs. Meanwhile, James Karugu, the Deputy Public Prosecutor – a highly learned person and a dedicated legal professional -- was appointed the new Attorney-General to replace Njonjo.


A well furnished constituency office was established and goodwill missions of people started paying visits bringing with them goodies for developing the constituency.

The constituency activities enjoyed lavish press coverage practically every day. It also received lots of material donations from the Asian community in Kenya.

Njonjo’s powers were still being felt in the country’s Judiciary. One of his close confidants, who was also a senior trade unionist and a back bencher at the time, was informed long before the ruling of election petition No. 26 of 1979 how the petition would succeed. Truly it did. Grounds were being laid for ‘usaliti’.

 As this scheming was going on, the new Attorney-General, James Karugu, felt very uncomfortable and he resigned. The reasons for Karugu’s move are not very clear to me, but I think the President had summoned the Attorney-General twice at State House Nairobi and requested him to tender his resignation, but he declined. In any case, the position had security of tenure according to the Constitution. He could not just be sacked like that.

After much consideration, Karugu scribbled his resignation on a piece of paper and delivered it to the President at Nairobi State House. That was the end of his career. He had made many friends among MPs, but he decided to hang his wig at his well-developed farm in Kiambu . By the time of writing this book, Karugu was a farmer with few equals in Kenya.

For some reasons not very well known to many Kenyans, Njonjo soon fell out with the President.

At a public rally in Kisii town, the President shocked everybody when he announced that there was a leader in the country who wanted to take over the presidency with the help of foreign powers.


The country was shocked and wananchi were left speculating. MPs began referring to an unnamed ‘msaliti’ (traitor) in their house speeches. After two weeks, Elijah Mwangale named Charles Njonjo as the traitor being talked about and as the one the President had earlier referred to in his speech in Kisii.

Before this startling revelation, Njonjo had arrived at JKIA from an overseas trip and denied being the traitor everybody was talking about. Several Members of Parliament, including those we assumed were his friends, began pressing for his immediate resignation from both the Cabinet and Parliament.

It was also alleged that he had engineered the passing of a constitutional amendment making Kenya a dejure one party state.

By doing this, he had ironically sealed his fate and was left partyless.

In one chorus, MPs took the cue in denouncing their fallen colleague. Even his trusted lieutenants were involved in throwing mud at him. In the Moi days, one was doomed when heard talking and equally damned when caught out keeping quiet over an issue. It all depended on which side of your bread was buttered.

One had to do a very delicate balancing act before taking sides on anything involving the president. Taking too long to take sides was also a bigger sin. Timing was important in that respect.

These tough conditions kept us on toes and we always knew when to jump in or out of a situation.

President Moi promptly set up a commission of inquiry to look into the affairs of Charles Njonjo. The team, composed of three judges, two of them Court of Appeal judges, heard all evidence in public.

Allies of the fallen minister were named during the commission hearing and one would have thought the country was tearing apart. There were allegations of how the fallen minister bought Members of Parliament to his side with an aim of toppling the Moi government through a motion of no confidence.

After about 100 days of sitting, the commission found the fallen minister guilty of scheming to take over the presidency of the country through unlawful means.


The normal steps which should have followed the commission’s findings would have been for the fallen minister to be arraigned before a court of law and charged with treason. President Moi surprised everybody when he declared forgiveness to Njonjo apparently due to his advanced age and distinguished civil service to Kenya. That was 1983. The ‘msaliti’ chapter was closed and Njonjo is alive and kicking thirty seven years down the road. He recently celebrated his one century of being in this beloved world.

Before moving away from the ‘msaliti’ chapter, we should mention the treason trial of one Andrew Muthemba in 1980.

He was believed to be related to Charles Njonjo. His treason trial took place when Njonjo was still the Attorney-General. Although it had a lot of interesting allegations the accused was acquitted.

Whatever was laid bare by the trial in terms of evidence adduced during the judiciary commission hearing, one can read a lot between the lines and draw own conclusions about their apparent relationship.


After the ruling of the Judiciary Commission, Kanu branches started the usual chorus recommending the expulsion of Charles Njonjo and his alleged collaborators from the party branches. Indeed many were sacked or simply hounded out of the ruling party. The purge claimed some very highly placed individuals in Parliament.

President Moi dissolved Parliament and declared what came to be known as a snap election in 1983. After the 1979 elections, Kenyans looked forward to the next one after five years, which ideally was to fall sometime in December 1984.

The 1983 election would be used as a rehearsal for rigging out those perceived not to have fully embraced the new President. According to Moi, it was time true ‘Nyayo’ followers were brought on board. The purge called for sieving of candidates. Some were straight away not cleared to contest yet others were adjudged to have failed the Kiswahili language test.

This was strange because illiterate whim-whams, who could not even read the Kiswahili language, were allowed to become honourable MPs.  In Eldoret North, Chelagat Mutai was stopped from contesting under allegations that she failed the Kiswahili test. A close friend of the President was elected unopposed in that constituency.

This was the birth and beginning of election rigging as we shall see in the later elections and by-elections. The 1983 election actually left the whole country dissatisfied and full of bitterness.


Members of Parliament and ministers tried as much as they could to be close to President Moi. After the 1983 fall of Charles Njonjo and his allies, the loyalists who were returned in the 1983 election found a way of getting even closer to the President or becoming “more Nyayo” as they called it. These individuals survived by telling the President all sorts of lies about other leaders and about non-existent threats to his Presidency.

It was said that they were rewarded using cash, land or other goodies to enhance and supplement their normal earnings. Some of these would be used to finish unwanted elements that were in the system. They called it “siasa ya kumalizana”. These sycophants did not survive for long because sooner than later, they became victims of the cracking method. After they thought they had finished the perceived victims, ways and means were found to get rid of them from the system because they already knew too much.

When cracked, this lot could not get any sympathies from people in their areas and would simply melt away into the political wilderness.

Some ended in penury and what followed was a slow death. They had been conditioned to praise the system that when they turned round blaming the very system for having turned against them in the manner it did, people laughed behind their backs.

The divide and rule method also known as the ‘crack method’, was adopted from communist countries like Romania and it worked very well for Kanu.

It also made those who survived in the party to develop lots of fear, submission and surrender. This morbid fear led some to behave like fools or clowns in front of senior party mandarins. Some of the ‘cracked ones’ who are alive today, still harbour a lot of bitterness against the old Kanu system.

They, however, do not socialise openly due to their equally dirty past. Most of them are paranoid and scared of both real and imagined enemies. When spotted in common places like shopping malls, they hastily walk away or wish the ground would open up and swallow them.

One example of the earliest victims of cracking was Stanley Oloitiptip, a former Cabinet minister. He thought he was very close to President Moi. On various occasions, he used to influence the locking up of his opponents on flimsy grounds just to frustrate and keep them away before general elections. When Oloitiptip was cracked, his main opponent took his seat and became very close to the President.

Oloitiptip cried foul and immediately filed a petition in the High Court to challenge his opponents win. Ironically, among his grounds of petitioning the court, was that after the vote counting the Returning Officer left the counting hall to consult a ‘higher authority’ on phone. Oloitiptip claimed that after the alleged consultations, the officer announced his opponent as the winner. His own trick had been played on him.

One of the ministers who was very close to the President once confided in me what the cracked minister and him used to do in order to get certain politicians returned to Parliament even if they had lost in the actual balloting. He confessed how they used the provincial administration to influence the returning officers to help or even declare certain candidates winners. They would invoke the President’s name to instill compliance from the government officers.


They branded some candidates the “President’s candidates”. He confessed that he had used this strategy against me in the 1985 Kanu elections and his cracked friend had also done it to me in the 1983 snap elections.

One can assume that this trick must have been played on many other politicians countrywide.

Although this individual is no longer around, others who learnt the trick are still around and may use it in future. This trick was not used in vain and there were heavy sacrifices that went with the whole arrangement.

Another politician who was cracked, was an assistant minister from one of the districts who was himself rigged to Parliament. After the 1988 election, his sole opponent at the election filed an election petition No.1 of 1988.

The evidence against the election of the returned MP and the Returning Officer was enough to remove him in a fair trial.

The complainant was, however, prevailed upon by the powers that be to withdraw his petition although he was on record to have filed the first petition in 1988.

In the course of time, the winner who had already been appointed an assistant minister, was miserably sacked from the government in 1991. The sacking had been preceded as usual by numerous squabbles in his home district where he had also rigged himself in as the Kanu chairman. He was eventually suspended from the same party for a period of two years.


It is understood that every association has rules and procedures which govern its members and its operations. Kanu, as a political party, was no exception and it had rules that guided its members on how to approach elections.

When the banned KPU (Kenya Peoples Union) members wanted to contest the 1979 election on Kanu tickets, they were given tough conditions which they had to fulfill before getting cleared to contest. Despite these, none of them was cleared.

As said earlier, after my election was nullified in 1981, through petition No. 26 of 1979 filed by Nicholas Wanyama Okada, I was also disqualified from contesting any election for a period of 10 years. It was also such a big blow to my supporters. My campaign team pondered a lot over how to handle the ensuing by-election.

There was a feeling that my eldest son Steve Osogo would stand. This was put aside when we realised there was a technicality. Steve was below the legally allowed age of 21 years.

The idea, however good on paper, became a cropper. We also tried to convince my wife Maria Elizabeth Nakhubali, but she declined even before the idea reached her for consideration. I therefore missed out in both the 1983 and 1988 mlolongo elections. My nemesis, Peter Okondo went through both elections unopposed. It was perceived that he did not have a strong challenger hence the romp to victory. To my supporters, Okondo was competing against himself.

In Bunyala politics, I was nicknamed ‘Orada’ which means ‘the mauling lion’. My supporters believed I was the only one capable of dealing with Peter Okondo come rain come shine. My political challenges were somehow intertwined around the rivalry between the two of us and to date the Abanyala speak with nostalgia about the Osogo – Okondo rivalry as a political case study in the constituency.

Tomorrow: How I handled the 1979/80 food crisis