Charles Mugane Njonjo.

Daniel arap Moi (left) and Charles Mugane Njonjo.

| File | Nation Media Group

Charles Mugane Njonjo and the making of a political power broker

That Charles Njonjo was powerful is an understatement. Before he was edged out of politics in 1984, he lived like Cratus, the Greek god of power, might and sovereign.

Njonjo, or the “Duke of Kabeteshire”, for those who disliked his British manners, was the face of raw power. He manipulated the laws and the Constitution to his advantage, and to favour a small coterie of Jomo Kenyatta and early Moi-era politicos as he crafted the Kenyan state in his own style.

Later, he fell in his man-made cliff before he could achieve his ambitions.

Njonjo, who died yesterday, aged 101, went without telling his story.

“It is not important,” he once told this writer over a cup of tea in his Westlands office.

He was a billionaire and lived a good life.

Best known for his Saville Row pinstripes and British-oriented habits, it was Njonjo who was the link between influential western diplomats, the expatriate community in Nairobi and the Kenyatta and Moi state.

Charles Njonjo

Constitutional Affairs Minister Thomas Joseph Mboya and Charles Njonjo in the 1960s. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In politics, he stepped on every toe that came to his path without any sense of guilt.

In later stages of life, Njonjo became humane. Apologetic.

“If you find Wanguhu Ng’ang’a, come with him,” he said.

We went and learnt he had been inviting people he had detained or jailed for a tête-à-tête.

He apologised to Mr Ng’ang’a for getting him jailed in the 1960s when the former staged a coup in Kanu in the only case that Njonjo ever prosecuted.

The Cold War was raging and Njonjo – a capitalist – wanted to keep the Communists in Kanu, led by Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, at bay.

Njonjo had enlisted Tom Mboya, the young firebrand to do the dirty work while he worked the legal.

Sir Charles Njonjo dead at 101

The two had something in common: They were Kenya’s most eligible bachelors and loved to party with English girls. They also loved to listen to songs by Harry Belafonte.

It had all started in 1963 when the pair drafted the Constitution towards a republic, with Njonjo handling the draftmanship while Mboya did the politics. Mboya was Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs and Njonjo the Attorney General.

While in essence Mboya was Njonjo’s boss, the latter was more in Kenyatta’s inner circle. Again, Njonjo was 10 years older than Mboya – though the age difference was diluted by their friendship.

That is why Njonjo would be picked as Mboya’s best man – and everyone was surprised that he had settled for Pamela, the airlift girl and daughter of Walter Odede, a powerful politician.

Another close ally of Njonjo in the making of Kenya was Bruce McKenzie, the British spy who had been retained in the Kenyatta government as Minister for Agriculture.

It was McKenzie who introduced Njonjo into the boardrooms of British companies and he never disappointed.

Charles Njonjo

Charles Njonjo with his wife and children in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Njonjo and McKenzie were directors of blue-chip companies, which were doing business with the government. One of these was DCK Kenya Ltd, which used to own huge tracts of land in the Rift Valley and shares in several companies.

Both also got early shareholding in Cooper Motor Corporation (CMC), which was awarded tenders to supply the military and the government with Land Rovers – the official government vehicle.

They minted millions of dollars, opened offshore accounts – and, in later years, swindled CMC shareholders.

But Njonjo’s main task in the 1960s was to keep out the Russians from influencing local politics – a diplomatic nightmare.

For a country that did not have a clear-cut foreign policy, diplomats from both East and West had tried to endear themselves to Kenya, which publicly stated it was non-aligned but was known to be pro-West.

The first test on Njonjo was when the Soviet Union decided to donate World War II tanks to the Kenya army.

Charles Njonjo cremated at Kariokor crematorium, Nairobi

While James Nyamweya, then Minister of State, told Parliament that the government rejected the offer because the tanks were old, Njonjo – when I asked him in 2017 – told me they could not allow them in.

His version was that the World War II tanks “could not pass on any Kenyan bridge”.

The reason was that these donations had been given courtesy of vice-president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who was accused by Nyamweya of “pulling the country to the East, while the government was pulling to the centre”.

Americans, like the British, loved Njonjo. In all their negotiations over arms and on the future of US-Kenya relations, they always asked their ambassadors to have Njonjo – and to an extent, Mbiyu Koinange, Mwai Kibaki and Njoroge Mungai – informed.

For this was the group that was at the heart of Kenyatta’s administration and was always close to US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

At a time when the question of the Israeli state was arising, Njonjo and McKenzie were the protectors of the Jewish interests in the country. This also shaped the nature of Kenyan politics.

And that explains why Mr Kissinger, the first Jewish Secretary of State in the US, had diplomats keep the two together.

That might now explain why Njonjo and McKenzie were the only two Kenyans who were involved in the Entebbe raid, when the Israelis went to rescue their nationals detained at Entebbe Airport by Idi Amin after Flight 139 was hijacked and taken to Uganda.

It was Njonjo, even before President Kenyatta was informed, who had negotiated the landing rights with Mossad in Nairobi.

The meeting on Friday July 2, 1976 around 5 pm was attended by Ehud Barak – then Israeli Special Forces commando – and the legendary Mossad officer Mike Harari, the man who had once been sent to lead a squad of hitmen to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinians during the 1972 Munich Games.

According to Israeli archival papers, others in the mix were Bryn Davies, Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police in Charge of operations, Geoffrey Kariithi, the head of civil service and the Mossad agent, Mackenzie.

Njonjo would also be involved in the attempt to depose the Communist government in the Seychelles and install James Mancham with the help of British, Zimbabwen and South African mercenaries.

Charles Njonjo

President Jomo Kenyatta, Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange, Permanent Secretary in the President’s Office kariithi, Mr Charles Njonjo and Vice President Daniel arap Moi in Nairobi on November 1, 1974. Njonjo died and was cremated yesterday.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It was alleged, by President Alberte Rene, that Njonjo and Gethi were the two Kenyans who helped the mercenaries.

It later emerged that Njonjo was part of the group that had hired a Sunbird Aviation plane, owned by his ally Andrew Cole (later Lord Enniskileen), a former Kenya Airways MD, to fly the deposed president back home.

They worked together with Police Commissioner, Ben Gethi and a former Deputy Director of Criminal Investigation Department, J.D. Irwin.

The others brought into the picture was a former Special Branch officer and Safari Rally Chairman William Henry Parkinson; an Irishman residing in Kenya and a Captain David John Leonard.  The last two had links with South Africa.

When a commission of inquiry was conducted, Njonjo was found to have been deeply involved.

He had earlier duped President Moi who had come to his defence in a letter dated February 4, 1982. In that letter Moi told President Rene that neither Mancham nor Gerald Hoareau had been to Kenya.

Andrew Cole would later in a published interview admit that Sunbird flew Mad Mike Hoar into the Seychelles.

“We did, but we didn’t know (they were mercenaries) …They registered as a rugby team,” he said.

Besides international politics, Njonjo was instrumental in shaping the Kenyatta succession by ensuring that the Kiambu inner-circle, which did not want a Moi presidency, stuck to the Constitution.

With Kenyatta ailing, a change-the-constitution movement had been started to stop the automatic handover of power to Moi.

The face of this movement was Nakuru political operative Kihika Kimani, a man who had collected millions of shillings from poor farmers with his Ngwataniro-Mutukanio Company but ended up registering some under his name.

Njonjo had his own ideas. He had thought that Moi, as a weakling, would not last for long and that he would eventually achieve his political ambitions.

Njonjo and Mr Kibaki formed an axis that would determine the succession politics.

And with Kenyatta’s death, Njonjo was lucky that Mbiyu Koinange, the powerful Minister of State, was not in Mombasa.

The man to break the news was a Njonjo-ally Eliud Mahihu, the Coast Provincial Commissioner and Geoffrey Kariithi, the Head of Civil Service who informed Moi and Kibaki before the other group.

After Moi took office in October 1978, Njonjo would start the campaign against Moi haters by claiming that they had a secret group that wanted to assassinate top leaders. He called them Ngoroko.

He claimed that the formation of the Anti-Stock Theft Unit was part of a larger scheme to kill Moi, Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki – the most senior politicians opposed to the Change-the-Constitution movement.

“We will not rest until those culprits have been punished,” Njonjo said. 

The Head of Civil Service, Geoffrey Kariithi had also said that the “paymasters of this band of highly trained Ngorokos are known and police are investigating them”.

This unit was led by James Mungai who got too scared about Njonjo’s allegations that he fled to Juba, Sudan.

Before he fled, he went to see Njonjo’s friend, the Head of Special Branch, James Kanyotu with his deputy, Mwangi Stephen Muriithi. After explaining his fears, the two did not seem to sympathise with him and that meant the die was cast:

“You see Mungai, little knowledge is always dangerous. I know very little about this unit,” Kanyotu said.

That September, Police Commissioner, Bernard Hinga, asked Mungai to transfer the unit from Ngong. Mungai took off.

It was the Ngoroko crisis, perhaps, a figment of Njonjo’s imagination, that led to a purge in the system and Njonjo brought in his men into the government.

In the early years of Moi rule, Njonjo was the pointman and had eclipsed Vice President Mwai Kibaki. He was also close to Moi and was the man who conducted the first harambee to build Moi’s Kabarak High School.

He was on record telling Moi not to turn the institution into a public school.

But soon, the two would fall out – and in a bad way.

The first fallout would come after Njonjo was named in the plot by Mungai Muthemba to buy arms from the military.

Muthemba, a businessman, had claimed that he had informed Njonjo, Gethi and CID chief Ignatius Nderi about his investigations.

The truth about these claims has never been known. But Nderi would later say that Muthemba told him: “These things are now ready, this man must go. He is no good. Njonjo is the right man.”

Muthemba denied uttering such words to Nderi. It was this statement that pricked the Moi men. Njonjo knew Muthemba better than the investigating officers. Njonjo’s mother and Muthemba’s father had the same father but not mother.

Occasionally, Muthemba would have meetings with Njonjo discussing business, politics and personalities. The two were like Siamese twins.

While Nairobi’s celebrated criminal lawyer Byron Georgiadis, also Muthemba’s lawyer, said his client had naively dropped Njonjo’s name in the hope that the Special Branch would release him – the facts are that this was a complex attempt on the Moi presidency.

After the 1982 coup attempt, President Moi trimmed his inner circle and got rid of Kenyatta-era hangers-on.

One morning, as Moi took breakfast in Simeon Nyachae’s home ahead of a meeting at Gusii Stadium, somebody commented on the absence of GG Kariuki (who was permitted to be away) and Charles Njonjo, who was in Europe.

“You remember they called you a passing cloud.”

“You will see today,” Moi is alleged to have replied.

That day, he claimed there was a plot by a foreign government to install somebody as Kenya’s president. After several weeks in which the ‘traitor’ issue became the subject, Njonjo, then MP for Kikuyu and Minister for Constitutional Affairs, was forced to defend himself.

He was thrown out of Kanu, robbed of all his might and reduced to a shell as he was humiliated through a Commission of Inquiry chaired by Justice Miller.

Njonjo’s rapid fall was well orchestrated. It was also his end as a politician.

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