25 years on, Kitili Mwendwa’s family seeks answers on his death

File | NATION
Kitili Mwendwa (left) is sworn into office by President Kenyatta and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo (right) at State House, Nairobi, after his appointment as Chief Justice in 1968.

What you need to know:

  • Why was he taken to Thika hospital and why did the facility’s laboratory go up in flames the same day?

Twenty-five years since his death in a freak accident near Kenyatta University, the family of Kenya’s first African Chief Justice is yet to come to terms with the cause of the death.

While an inquest confirmed that Kitili Maluki Mwendwa died in an accident, his widow and children are yet to erase the doubts. They still ask why those who came to his rescue took him to Thika – 25 kilometres from the scene of the accident – instead of Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, only 15 kilometres away.

They still wonder how his car rolled at a stretch that was said to be fairly straight given his experience in driving.

And what was the cause of the mysterious fire at the Thika hospital laboratory on the same day that Kitili’s body was taken to the facility? Was it supposed to erase any evidence regarding the cause of death?

The family is yet to understand what happened between the scene of the accident and Thika hospital where Kitili was pronounced dead on arrival.

According to the Weekly Review magazine of October 4, 1985, a soldier who claimed to be a doctor checked Kitili’s pulse and said he was still alive.

A briefcase said to have been stuffed with an unspecified amount of money to pay workers at his 1,000-acre Chania Farm in Thika was never recovered.

John Njoroge Guchu, the good Samaritan who picked up Kitili soon after the accident, told the Sunday Nation on Saturday he never noticed it as he was more concerned about saving the man’s life. He added that there were many people at the scene.

At the time of the accident, Kitili’s wife Winfred Nyiva was in Europe visiting their children Kavinya and Maluki. But, on her arrival in Nairobi three days later, all Kitili’s offices and safes had been cleared by people who remain unknown.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation last week, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka suggested that the former chief justice’s death was an assassination.

“When I got to the scene, I was left with no doubt that it was not an ordinary accident because the smashed glass (shards) apparently from collision impact were several metres away from his car, yet the road was a dual carriage way,” he said.

Mr Musyoka said it was suspicious to family and friends that the good Samaritan who rescued Kitili from the car wreckage decided to take him to Thika Hospital, a government facility about 25 kilometres away, while better equipped hospitals were much nearer and may only have taken minutes.

The former Chief Justice was reported to have been in a jovial mood at 2.30 p.m. in his Nairobi office but, two hours later, his body lay on a cold slab at the Thika hospital mortuary.

The family’s suspicion is based on the fact that there was no other car involved besides the one he was driving.

But Mr Guchu, who was the first on the scene of the accident, said he was driving behind him.

“We had just gone past a road bend and a drift after KU when the red car ahead of me began to swerve dangerously, first to the right then left and to the right again, before it crashed in a cloud of dust about 300 metres away,” said the 49-year-old businessman.

On Saturday, he said he found the driver lying unconscious a few metres from the car. This conflicts with his testimony at the inquiry on the cause of the former CJ’s death, where he said he lay unconscious in the car.

Some witnesses at the inquiry said Kitili was flung out and lay some 20 metres away from the car.

Kitili had just served for a year as the Kitui West MP after a 10-year hiatus from public life when he met his death on that Friday, September 27, 1985.

According to the Weekly Review magazine of the time, he had left his office on Muindi Mbingu Street at 2.30 p.m. in an Alfa Romeo car and headed for his home in Gigiri.

He then changed the Alfa Romeo for a red Lancia registration KSK 736 for the trip to his Chania Farm in Thika. His mission to Thika was to pay his workers and meet his farm manager and business partner Palle Rune. But the journey ended when his car reportedly swerved off the road, rolled and landed on its roof in a ditch.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Thika hospital.

Mr Rune, his business partner of 15 years, said a lorry driver whom Kitili had overtaken said he found his car parked by the roadside near KU and he was checking tyre pressure by kicking them.

“Minutes later, Kitili overtook the same lorry but rolled 100 metres ahead,” Mr Rune, who is now based in Mombasa, told the Sunday Nation. “The fact that he went round his car kicking the tyres is an indication that there could have been something wrong with his steering wheel,” he said.

He also does not understand why he ended up in Thika instead of Nairobi.

The crash came after Kitili had ended a silent house arrest imposed by President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta after he was implicated in the 1971 coup attempt.

His elder brother Ngala Mwendwa says the Kenyatta government had put Kitili under “a close spy watch” for a decade.

Classified information seen by the Sunday Nation indicates that Kitili and the first Kenyan Chief of the General Staff Major General J.M. Ndolo were summoned to State House Nairobi by Kenyatta and asked to step down.

Kitili was rumoured to have fallen out with Kenyatta over a possible conflict of interest involving his extensive business and professional interests.

Sources close to Maj-Gen Ndolo at the time said the Chief Justice and the military boss had struck a deal in which Kitili would swiftly swear in Ndolo after overthrowing Kenyatta.

The abortive coup came just two months after Ugandan military chief Idi Amin had overthrown President Milton Obote on January 25, 1971.

Obote, who had been Kitili’s roommate at Makerere University, had fled to Kenya and was hosted by the Chief Justice’s family before he was granted asylum in Zambia.

Kenyatta was concerned that some soldiers in Kenya could be inspired by Amin to replicate the Ugandan scenario in Kenya.

On May 31, 1971, 12 members of the defunct Kenya People’s Union (KPU) were charged with sedition. But it was the implication of “other people not before the court” which roped in military officers in the coup attempt.

The coup that had been planned for April 8 landed Prof Ouma Muga, a university lecturer, and Gideon Mutiso, the Yatta MP, in jail for lengthy terms.

He resigned

Kyale Mwendwa, Kitili’s brother, told the Sunday Nation that after he (Kitili) resigned as Chief Justice, he engaged in farming and business.

According to Mr Rune, the former Chief Justice used his time out of the public limelight to expand his business empire.

In 1970, he bought Chania Farm located between Chania and Thika rivers. On the farm was a 400-acre coffee plantation.

He also acquired shares in East African Management Company Limited which managed 35 per cent of coffee production in the country.

This was followed by the acquisition in 1978 of the 48,000-acre Mugi Estate in Laikipia and a 400-acre farm in Shimoni, Kwale district.

Mugi Estate was turned into a ranch, making Kitili and Mr Rune importers of cattle from Denmark for an artificial insemination procedure known as embryo transfer to Boran cattle.

Through another firm, Ranching and Agricultural Consultancy, they also sold semen to other farmers in Kenya.

“We were the only company outside ILRAD (International Livestock Research on Animal Diseases) to do this in Kenya,” Mr Rune said.

It was only after Mzee Kenyatta died in August 1978 that Kitili showed an interest in public life again. He contested the Kitui West Parliamentary seat, which was held by Mr Parmenas Munyasya, in the abrupt 1983 General Election. He lost by a mere 20 votes.

A voter, Johnson Nzuki Ndundu, contested Mr Munyasya’s victory in court and it was nullified. Mr Munyasya was banned for five years from contesting elections for bribing voters.

In the subsequent by-election Kitili, who had supported the petitioner, comfortably romped home.

Although he was not appointed to the Cabinet, his growing influence almost eclipsed the self-declared king of Ukambani, Paul Ngei.

Mr Ngei was still reeling from the death of his friend, President Kenyatta, and he was yet to establish close ties with Kenyatta’s successor, Mr Daniel arap Moi.

In the Kanu national elections called in 1984, reports had it that Kitili was being groomed by some bigwigs close to President Moi to take on Mwai Kibaki for the vice-chairman’s post.

While Foreign Affairs minister Elijah Mwangale had openly declared he would take on Mr Kibaki, his candidacy was seen as a smokescreen for Kitili.

A day to the election, Kitili’s bid for the vice-chairman’s seat was abruptly dropped. After the elections, Mr Moi proposed the establishment of the post of a legal adviser and the appointment of Kitili to the position. But he died before this was formalised.

In your Daily Nation on Monday, read about:

  • The family tussles that resulted from the death.
  • Reflections by VP Kalonzo Musyoka, who was Kitili’s lawyer, and much more

— Additional reporting by Oliver Musembi .

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