The mid-air plot to block Moi succession — and the day Mzee had the last laugh

Former Defense Minister Njenga Karume. 

Former Defence minister Njenga Karume. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In this first excerpt of an illuminating autobiography by Njenga Karume entitled, ‘Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold’, published by Kenway Publications, an imprint of EAEP, the pioneer African businessman recalls his role in the infamous bid to cut off Vice President Moi from power

When Kenyatta agreed to the formation of GEMA, I doubt that he knew what a force GEMA would become. I say this because I personally witnessed a time when Kenyatta became quite uncomfortable with the influence of the organisation and even rebuked its leaders, telling them to stop imagining that they were the government.

He thought of GEMA as a cultural movement and allowed its formation in order to retain the support of his lieutenants. Whatever the case, he permitted its creation and subsequent events were virtually beyond his control.

GEMA was registered under the Societies Act in a single day by the then Attorney General, Charles Mugane Njonjo, who was acting under the instructions of Kenyatta. However Njonjo later came to intensely detest the movement. He never attended GEMA meetings nor did he want to see his name associated with it in any way. In general, we have had a somewhat cold relationship over the years.

Meanwhile, the organisation had managed to take control of Central Province and Nairobi politics and all the MPs who had won in the 1974 General Elections in those areas were backed by GEMA. Furthermore, other GEMA officials and I were very close to the President.

Overwhelmingly strong

Little by little, GEMA was becoming an overwhelmingly strong and influential body and this caused alarm and concern in certain circles. I, as the Chairman, had just become a nominated MP, but to some people it seemed that I had more power than many high-level government officials.
The tribal exclusivity was also making many outsiders uncomfortable.

Kenyatta was also growing older, and many people outside GEMA’s inner circle felt that the organisation was an impediment to the eventual Kenyatta succession. Complaints and grumbling grew and opposition to GEMA’s insidious power was becoming more and more obvious.

One of the factors that made GEMA hated among other communities was that it took its slogan of Kuuga na Gwika (words with action) to the extreme. Other tribes and tribal organisations had watched GEMA buy thousands of acres of land, a large clay industry, and saw its membership soar to hundreds of thousands of registered and active members.

Among all the other critics, there were two people to whom the whole concept and existence of GEMA was an abomination. These anti-GEMA individuals were Daniel arap Moi, the Vice President, and Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General. To my mind, Charles Njonjo was an arrogant and self-conceited fellow who felt that he was intellectually superior to all those who were close to Kenyatta.

Charles Njonjo was the son of Josiah Njonjo, a colonial chief, and as such he had been born into a privileged childhood. He had attended the best schools and attained a law degree from Fort Hare University in South Africa. He then proceeded to England for his pupilage before coming back to Kenya. Kenyatta appointed him to the post of Attorney General shortly after Independence and since his appointment, he carried on in a supercilious and haughty manner, ignoring or sneering at those who did not agree with his ideas.

All those who knew him describe him as an ambitious man who had the aspiration of becoming the President upon the death of Jomo Kenyatta. He was close to the President, who was somewhat of a father figure to him, and Njonjo would never contradict Kenyatta openly. But once out of the President’s vicinity, he made no secret of his opinion that Kenyatta was surrounded by idiotic advisors.

Then there was Moi, a loyal Vice President to Kenyatta and who was, according to the Constitution, supposed to be the successor, should
Kenyatta die. Moi served loyally, never disagreeing with his boss, and he was a patient man who knew his time would eventually come. After all, he had willingly made a sacrifice and dissolved his party, KADU, in order to join KANU and support Kenyatta.

Despite being a Kikuyu, there was no love lost between Njonjo and GEMA. He especially loathed Mwai Kibaki, a graduate of the London School of Economics who was now the Minister for Finance. Kibaki was the favoured intellectual among GEMA leaders and he carried out his job as expected and did not engage in petty politics.

But Njonjo feared Kenyatta. He knew that those who had shown the slightest bit of insolence or contempt to Kenyatta had done it at their own peril. Njonjo therefore befriended Moi, probably believing that he would be able to manipulate him and the law, when the right time came. And given Kenyatta’s age by the mid 1970s, the time was not far off.

However, Njonjo underrated the power of GEMA, as he discovered

when the “Change the Constitution Movement” began. This movement began with a conversation that took place on a plane one day in 1976. Kihika Kimani and I were flying to a meeting in Geneva. We were discussing a topic that had become the subject of many discreet conversations in and outside the corridors of power. We were talking about Jomo Kenyatta’s declining health and what would happen if and when he died.

Kihika, who was the MP for Nakuru North, was a somewhat arrogant politician with questionable ideas of his own grandiosity. He was reasonably wealthy and had helped settle many people, especially the Kikuyu, in Rift Valley Province. He had accomplished this through setting up land-buying companies such as Ngwataniro Mutukanio Company and thus many Kikuyu in the Rift Valley had a great deal of respect for him.

He was also Kenyatta’s eyes and ears in Nakuru and the Rift Valley and had clashed with Moi over many issues including power politics and supremacy in the province.

I often told Kihika to be careful about how he talked about Moi in public since Moi could become the President someday and then he, Kihika would be in a tight spot indeed.

Kihika was however least bothered. He could simply not envision the possibility of a Moi presidency.

Now, as we flew over the continent below us, I shattered that assumption.

“How would Moi become President?” Kihika asked, astonished by this possibility. “Where would our Kikuyu leaders be, if and when this happened?”
I reminded Kihika that there was the small issue of the law.

“The Constitution,” I informed him, “states categorically that the Vice President takes over as acting President if the President dies in office.”

This shocked Kihika. He had no idea that the law had anything to say on the matter. As he thought over the matter, Kihika hatched an idea which he shared with me.

“The best option,” he said, “is to campaign to have that ridiculous clause in the document changed, to ensure that Moi never becomes acting President.”

We both knew that Moi would have a distinct advantage in any presidential election if he had already occupied the position in an acting capacity for 90 days.

Devised plan

We devised a plan. We would campaign, both in Parliament and outside, to have three different individuals stand in as acting President for those 90 days. The three individuals we had in mind to stand-in were the Head of the Civil Service, the Parliamentary Speaker, and the Chief Justice.
When we returned to Kenya, this is just what we did. We secretly began to canvass for supporters among our parliamentary colleagues.

The first meeting of the “Change the Constitution Movement” was held in Nakuru in 1976. Thousands of Kenyans attended and leaders from various tribes addressed the crowd. They spoke unflatteringly of Moi’s style of leadership and told the people that the person who would take over from Kenyatta should be a strong character who could steer the country forward. They depicted Moi as the antithesis of this person and urged wananchi to support their goal of changing the constitution.

“Let me tell you people,” Paul Ngei, the Minister for Cooperatives and Housing, told the crowds in Afraha Stadium, “If my wife, Emma, and I were to go to State House and I was in the acting capacity of President for three months, I would never get out for any other person to occupy the seat. Not even the strongest animal in the world would pull me out of there.”

This Nakuru meeting caused a stir all over the country and spread alarm among Moi’s supporters.

Njonjo, Moi and his camp were not surprised by the tactics and strategy of the “Change the Constitution Movement” but they were appalled and shocked by the enormous popular support from the leaders of other tribes.

After considerable deliberation, Njonjo came up with a fairly simple, yet totally devastating solution which surprised the rest of us. As the
Attorney General, 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 offence for anyone to imagine the death of the sitting President.

The offence amounted to treason, whose sentence, according to the same document, was death. Therefore, Njonjo said, those who had addressed the Nakuru rally had not only imagined the death of the President, they had stated it outright, through the use of loudspeakers. They were on record for having uttered words that insinuated the President’s death, and Njonjo told the press that he had a watertight case against them. No doubt Njonjo was congratulating himself as he spoke. His counter-attack was ingenious.

I was up before 5 am and started my day by reading the newspaper. I was absolutely stunned to see my name and those of the other leaders who had spoken in Nakuru, on the front page.

I immediately understood, with great dismay, that Njonjo actually had a water-tight case against all of us. Kenyatta was in Nakuru that weekend, and we decided to go see him at State House. We realised that our only sure source of protection was Jomo Kenyatta himself.

So the four of us, Ngei, Gichuru, Angaine and myself, together with Kihika Kimani, who joined us later, sat at a table at Midlands Hotel in
Nakuru and reviewed our predicament before we went on to see the President. If Njonjo actually carried out his threats the lot of us would be in prison in a short time.

I dialled the Nakuru State House number, which we all knew by heart, and asked for the President. As I waited to be connected, my courage just trickled away, I lost my nerve and, in a fluster, I gave the phone to Gichuru. Kenyatta told us to join him at State House and so we all drove there.

As usual, the inscrutable Kenyatta appeared to know nothing of the reason for our visit. Although he obviously was well aware of what had been going on, he allowed Gichuru to struggle with the explanation of the whole embarrassing story. It was not easy to mention that so many people were virtually anticipating Kenyatta’s death but somehow Gichuru laboured through. Finally Gichuru revealed that the Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, was threatening to charge us with treason. Then, Gichuru hesitantly asked Kenyatta to give his views on the matter.

Worried and anxious

The rest of us sat silently, quite worried and anxious about the President’s reaction. Kenyatta did not react immediately, then he suddenly laughed so uproariously that he had tears in his eyes. He was shaking with mirth when he pointed at us, sitting there in such a subdued manner. In between his laughter he said, “I did not know I have so many cowards in my government!”

Gichuru and the rest of us smiled uncertainly, not knowing whether to join in Kenyatta’s laughter or not.

When Kenyatta wiped his eyes and recovered from his amusement, he promised that he would talk to Njonjo and tell him to drop the whole issue. However, serious once again, he advised us to lobby in Parliament if we truly wanted to have the Constitution changed.

After that, we toned down our anti-Moi vitriol but the public rallies continued. Stanley Oloitiptip, a burly Kajiado MP who was a Moi supporter organised a petition, and about 100 MPs signed against the motion to change the Constitution. After that no one had the courage to take the motion to Parliament. Gradually the movement fizzled out and died with a whimper.

Extract and photographs published with permission of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), publishers of Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold by Njenga Karume with Mutu wa Gethoi. © Njenga Karume
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