Charles Njonjo and the genesis of Kenya’s fixation with security

Charles Njonjo

Charles Njonjo (left), the first Attorney General of independent Kenya. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Charles Njonjo, the first Attorney General of independent Kenya, died earlier this year at the age of 101. Writers of obituary essays have rendered competing verdicts on his life.

The activist John Githongo warmly remembered Njonjo as a ‘steadfast friend and a man of his word’. The politician Miguna Miguna, by contrast, gave a dark valedictory: ‘Rot in hell, Charles Njonjo’, he wrote. ‘You represent all the problems Kenyans want and must rid themselves of’.

Njonjo saw himself as a stalwart defender of Kenyans’ liberties. In his day he was a prolific contributor to political conversation. His favourite theme was the relationship between law and liberty. On one memorable occasion he lectured parliamentarians for an hour and 45 minutes, insisting that preventative detention -— the incarceration without trial of people pre-judged as dangerous to the political order —- was entirely constitutional.

The legal and administrative regime that he defined and defended was meant to guard the security and prosperity of Kenya’s wealthy and entitled upper classes. It was a regime that was paranoid about dissent, scornful of the poor, and focused on the security of property. It was a regime where —- in the name of the common good -— many categories of people found themselves incarcerated.

That is why it is worth inquiring again into Charles Njonjo’s life. It is not to humanise a man who disregarded the humanity of so many people. It is that, in unpacking the human history behind Kenya’s political institutions, we can see —- and also challenge —- the logics that uphold injustice in our contemporary times.

Early years

Charles Njonjo’s father, Josiah Njonjo, was a divisional chief under Kenya’s colonial government. He was one of the founders of the Kikuyu Association, an early political party. He was by no means a pliable tool of British self-interest.

African farmers taking their cattle from one part to another were forced to pass through European farms, risking fines and imprisonment. He asked government to rectify the injustice (Page 133): "Seeing that both we and the Europeans are children and subjects of the King, surely it is only fair that all the children should be given equal justice?"

It is not surprising that Chief Josiah’s son would become a lawyer. In the late 1940s Charles Njonjo was in England, studying at Exeter and the London School of Economics, where he chaired the East African Students’ Union. He applied for a post in the colonial civil service, but insisted that the terms of his employment should match those offered to Europeans. When Kenya’s government refused, an indignant Njonjo entered Gray’s Inn to study law.

He returned to Kenya in January 1955 to take up his first government post: as temporary Assistant Registrar General. British intelligence operatives thought him possessed of an ‘anti-European outlook’ and ‘potentially very dangerous’.

When he landed in Nairobi he was found to have in his luggage a prohibited publication: George Padmore’s Africa: Britain’s Third Empire, a vituperative critique of Britain’s colonial project in Africa.

Here is one way to see Charles Njonjo. Formed by his father’s conservative loyalism and by his own experiences with colonial racism, he spent his career wielding the tools of English culture and identity to demand recognition, respect, and authority from European and American brokers of power.

By 1963 he was Kenya’s Attorney General, the first African to hold the post. He was famously fastidious in his manner, appearing always in a three-piece Saville Row tailored pin striped suit, with a watch chain looped across his waistcoat and a red rose of carnation in his buttonhole.

He complained on the floor of Kenya’s Parliament about politicians who ‘dressed like shamba men (gardeners)’.

At a time when most African states were hastily placing Africans in the topmost positions of the civil service and the military, Njonjo insisted that British policemen, soldiers and civil servants were essential. ‘Should we lower our standards … just because a man has a black face?’, he asked (Daily Nation: 17 Dec. 1966).

He scorned cultural nationalists’ efforts to make Swahili into Kenya’s national language. Kenyans should not be ashamed of speaking English, he told parliamentarians, because it was ‘not an Englishman’s language but an international means of communication’.

He insisted that Kenyans should ‘avoid as much as possible an attempt which would make us narrow in our outlook’ (Daily Nation: 26 July 1969). It is for this reason, perhaps, that Njonjo was a consistent defender of Kenyan women’s liberties. He derided the nationalist impulse to confine public culture within traditionalist moulds.

Women should be allowed to exercise the ‘right to choose their own fashions and makeup and men should not interfere’, he averred (Daily Nation: 8 Oct. 1969).

Denigration of the poor

The Kenya that Njonjo sought to create was meant to be -— in his words —- the ‘greatest living example of democracy, justice and peace’ (Daily Nation: 10 Dec. 1966). But there was no space for the poor: they were disreputable, a danger to the public good.

In 1968 Njonjo pushed through a new law giving authorities the power to remove prostitutes and beggars from cities and send them to work for their parents on the land. He called beggars ‘lazy people who think they can enrich themselves at the expense of others’ (Daily Nation: 20 Dec. 1968).

Under Njonjo’s tenure punishments for crimes of property were disproportionately harsh.

The incarceration of dissidents, detention without trial, the expansion of prisons—all of this was, for Njonjo, a means of guaranteeing Kenyans’ freedom. In 1977, while defending the detention of dissidents by government, he warned that ‘Kenya’s freedom could disappear overnight if adequate public security was not provided’ (Daily Nation: 7 Jan. 1977).

It was, among other things, a rationale for expanding the power of Kenya’s president. When in 1968 opposition activists pressed for the creation of a new post – a Prime Minister, who would control and advise President Kenyatta – Njonjo called the proposal ‘misconceived, meaningless and pitiful’ (Daily Nation: 19 October 1968). Eight years later, Njonjo warned Kenyans that it was a ‘criminal offence’ for anyone to ‘compass, imagine, devise, or intend the death or deposition of the President’. The mandatory sentence for any such offence was death.

A great many people lost their lives and their freedom in those years. A great many people spent years in prison as a guarantee for the security and liberty of Kenya’s rich and propertied classes.

Some of the detainees were well known. Raila Odinga — now a leading contender in Kenya’s presidential elections — was detained from 1983 to 1988, from 1988 to 1989, and from 1990 to 1991. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. The famous novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo was detained in December 1977 for ‘activities and utterances which are dangerous to the good government of Kenya’. Other people suffered anonymously.

That, then, is another way to see the late Njonjo: the ruthless defender of entrenched inequality, an architect of a legal and political system that advantaged the wealthy and criminalised the lives of the poor.

Fall from grace

Njonjo’s downfall, when it came, was swift. On 1 July 1983, he announced that he was resigning his position as Minister for Constitutional Affairs. He was accused of scheming, in the company of Kenya Air Force men, to oust President Daniel arap Moi. Moi appointed a Commission of Inquiry to go into Njonjo’s affairs, and over the course of 109 days Kenyans were transfixed as a parade of witnesses opened up Njonjo’s dirty laundry for public inspection.

The political and legal system that Njonjo built, however, has endured. In a recent article the journalist Patrick Gathara argued that contemporary Kenya’s prisons ‘carry the DNA of their forebears’. According to a 2015 report Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens than any other country in eastern Africa, outside Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Today Kenya’s elite lives behind security walls, while — under the guise of counter-terrorism — Kenya’s police target poor and marginal residents of Nairobi. As Gathara argues, this is a legacy of colonial government. It is also a legacy of Charles Njonjo. In working to protect Kenyans’ liberties, he made the incarceration and punishment of the poor seem to be a moral necessity.

Article by Derek R. Peterson, University of Michigan.