Charles Njonjo

The late Charles Njonjo.

| File

Charles Njonjo was a steadfast friend, loyal to a fault, says John Githongo

A lot has been written and will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who died on Sunday – I would like to tell my own personal story.

I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983.

Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to be the guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but importantly, as 17-year-olds, would agree to show up.

Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We had other names of public figures in our list as well and I was tasked with reaching out to them.

Frankly, I wrote to Njonjo not expecting to ever hear back from him. He replied immediately and accepted the invitation to our play – The Human Encounter – that was to be performed at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi.

Our guest of honour

Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. After a few days, however, news was conveyed to us that the authorities had deemed Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable, and this was not negotiable.

I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we’d obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Njonjo – there was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Njonjo from being our guest of honour when he’d already accepted.

I spent a whole night drafting the letter, in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively because “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly”. So, I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and respectfully as I could.

I found a friend of his to pass it to him and never expected to hear from him given the shambles of the invite and its withdrawal. The message I promptly received back though, surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invite and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn and asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved.

Over the years, through family and friends, he would reach out to me and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written disinviting him. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.

In the early 1990s, political pluralism was reintroduced in Kenya and violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elite arm wrestled for power.

I travelled to Laikipia and then Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi, we launched the “Kenyans in need appeal”.


The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced, especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from N’garua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the Catholic Church’s relief infrastructure to distribute any donations that came our way.

The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated clothes, books, shoes and cash. In total, we raised around Sh1 million worth of donations. We delivered the first batch directly to Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, which was unique because of it specially built library full of books he clearly loved.

Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Njonjo. He was not keen on his name being mentioned, but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.

When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. On the morning when it was announced that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Njonjo: “You’re going to resign immediately aren’t you?”, he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall the advice at the time.

When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 as he had predicted many times and I found myself in exile, Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He was the most interesting person in that way. He was loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances.

Whenever he called, he would push me as to my personal circumstances. While I was in exile, Njonjo would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with the family, offering moral and any other kind of support sought.

When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Njonjo, and we picked up from where we had left off in 2005.

Wryly hilarious

His observations on politics and some politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I admired. We would sit in his Westlands office as I sought his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical style he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half of what so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, and so on. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.

By and large, Njonjo and I, kept our friendship quiet. In part because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends, like the late legal giant Achroo Ram Kapila . We didn’t discuss his enemies, but he advised me on mine.

Politically, even though there was much we completely disagreed on, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. I never had a complication or problem in my life that I raised with Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his immediate no-nonsense style.

He was also a very funny man when he wanted to be, full of jokes and insightful observations without bitterness. He was funniest with me when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.

Much will be said and written about Njonjo, but the Charles Mugane Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.

Mr Githongo is CEO of Inuka Kenya, an NGO involved in governance issues