Mr Charles Njonjo, who died yesterday aged 101, was the ultimate power broker who bestrode the country’s political landscape like a colossus, making and shattering careers in equal measure in the two decades he was in power.
His death closes a remarkable chapter of Kenya’s history as he was the only surviving member of Kenya's independence Cabinet, as President Uhuru Kenyatta observed yesterday while paying tribute to the man nicknamed the 'Duke of Kabeteshire' for his unusual English mannerisms.
“As a nation, we owe a debt of gratitude to Hon Njonjo and his generation of Independence-era leaders for their selfless contribution to the laying of the solid foundation upon which our country continues to thrive.
“Kenya's progressive constitutional and legal regime owes its robustness to Hon Njonjo's splendid work when he served as the country's first post-Independence Attorney General between 1963 and 1979, and as Constitutional Affairs minister between 1980 and 1983,” President Kenyatta said yesterday.
Mr Njonjo oozed real power and opulence as an insider of President Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi’s administrations, but his fall was equally spectacular and he never recovered his clout for the nearly four decades that he was in the political cold.
So powerful was Njonjo that during his reign as AG, he would often ride in the limousines of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi. He also played a key role in the selection of ministers, envoys and other key members of government.
To underscore the power that Mr Njonjo wielded in the political sphere, he reportedly recommended that Mr Moi be appointed as Kenya’s third vice president following the resignation of Joseph Murumbi in 1966.
“As we drove one day in the presidential limousine from some town in the Rift Valley after Murumbi had resigned as vice president, Mzee wondered loudly whom he would appoint to replace Murumbi. Then Kenyatta asked me: ‘Who do you have’? To which I replied, ‘How about Moi’?” Njonjo recalled in one of his interviews in a publication by the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board.
According to him, the senior Kenyatta was so pleased with this proposal that he appointed Mr Moi the next day.
To those who followed the law, Njonjo was an armour of protection, but those who broke it trembled at the very mention of his name. Mr Njonjo was a man of few friends among politicians. Apart from Mr Moi, then Assistant Minister G.G. Kariuki and Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki, he did not have other close friends.
Many regarded him as the second most powerful man after President Moi. For instance, during his 17-year stint as AG, he occasionally shocked the nation by expressing views that were against the country’s foreign policy or even that of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
At some point during his tenure, Mr Njonjo negotiated the Israeli military to use Kenya as a base during a raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda to free Israeli hostages seized by terrorists who had hijacked their aeroplane.
He was also opposed to the existence of the tribal grouping known as the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema), which he had registered in 1971 but sought to proscribe in 1976.
In Parliament, where he served as Kikuyu MP, he was feared and loved in equal measure because of his closeness to power. His colleagues believed he had access to classified information. However, those who loathed him associated him with President Moi’s excesses, including the arrest and torture of perceived dissidents and detentions without trial.
In the House, Mr Njonjo met stiff opposition from a group of seven young lawmakers—Koigi wa Wamwere, Mashengu wa Mwachofi, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai, Abuya Abuya, Onyango Midika and Lawrence Sifuna. He was perceived to be misadvising President Moi to brutalise his opponents and enforce tough policies.
Mr Njonjo also played a key role in making Mr Moi the second President, a man who would later throw him out of his Cabinet and end his political career. In 1976, as President Kenyatta’s health deteriorated, a plot was hatched by five politicians to block Moi from automatically taking over.
Njoroge Mungai, Njenga Karume, Kihika Kimani, Jackson Angaine and Paul Ngei advocated constitutional amendments to bar Vice President Moi from automatically succeeding Mr Kenyatta upon his death. However, due to his closeness with Mr Moi, Mr Njonjo waged an all-out war on them, insisting the constitution had to be followed.
Mr Njonjo warned them that imagining the death of President Kenyatta was treasonable and challenged them to bring the proposed amendment to Parliament, instead of making it a subject in political rallies and reducing it to a tribal debate.
“You do not change the constitution by the roadside. I told the group to stop imagining the death of the President and instead take an amendment to Parliament if they had a genuine cause, instead of playing the tribal card,” Mr Njonjo recalled in one of his interviews.
The Constitution provided that in the event of the death or incapacity of a sitting president, the vice president would take over for 90 days before fresh elections were held. Eventually, the group’s scheme was thwarted by the combined force of Mr Moi and his supporters who included Mr Njonjo and Mr Kibaki, the then-Finance Minister.
When President Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978, Mr Moi took over and Mr Njonjo retained his position as AG. He added another political feather to his hat as he was now seen as a kingmaker. But their dalliance was short-lived.
The attempt to portray Mr Moi’s as a stop-gap presidency through the mocking statement that his reign was “nothing but a passing cloud” would prompt the Head of State to start a ruthless purge of critics and he would go on to rule for 28 years. As their relationship soured, he was a marked man.
Following the August 1982 attempted coup, Mr Njonjo’s tenure in government ended. Despite denying involvement, a judicial commission of inquiry presided over by Justice Cecil Miller found Njonjo guilty of abuse of office, marking his political downfall.