Former VP Joseph Murumbi, a man at war with himself

Joseph Murumbi (left) and Vice-President Oginga Odinga (centre) in Soviet Russia. PHOTO

What you need to know:

  • Joseph Murumbi, whose death 27 years ago was marked last month, remains one of the most significant but mysterious figures in Kenya’s political history.

  • In this first instalment in a two-part series, Cyprian Fernandes, a former Nation journalist who is based in Australia, weaves together personal interactions with historical records to unmask the complex character that was Murumbi.

Joseph Murumbi, whose death 27 years ago was marked last month, remains one of the most significant but mysterious figures in Kenya’s political history he had relationships with independence heroes like Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and Pio Gama Pinto and abruptly resigned as Kenya’s second vice president almost 51 years ago after just one-and-a-half years in office. In this first instalment of a two-part series, Cyprian Fernandes, a former Nation journalist who is based in Australia, weaves together personal interactions with historical records to unmask the complex character that was Murumbi.

Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was an enigma: he tried to be both a Western capitalist (the arts, especially African art and books prized collectibles) and an African socialist (a man of the landless and the poor) at the same time. He seemed to me he was always at war with himself, never the sum of one ideology.

Yet, he was the man Jomo Kenyatta (who came to love the British Westminster system during his time there) trusted most besides his own “Kiambu Mafia” colleagues – Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange (US educated), Attorney-General Charles Njonjo (a close British ally), and the founding president’s physician and nephew Njoroge Mungai. Murumbi was educated in India.

For one thing, Murumbi was a man without a tribe: the product of a Goan Indian man and a Maasai mother. The Goan part of him had no value in independent Kenya. The Maasai were not as large in number or as powerful as the dominant Kikuyu or the challenging Luo. Murumbi did not pose any political threat but he appeared to be more in Odinga’s camp politically than in Kenyatta’s Western capitalism.


Yet, though he did not realise it at the time, he was never accepted as a full-blood Kenyan because he was a half caste. As a Kenyan leader he did not have the backing of any one tribe – or any one ideology – because he could not stomach the ideology that was in power, the Western capitalist way.

In a way, Murumbi’s inner conscience went to war with itself at the Lancaster House Conference where Kenyatta appeased the British government and the white settler community by opting for the willing-seller-willing-buyer principle instead of the government buying all the land and sharing it out to as many landless as possible. That was perhaps the first heart attack of Murumbi’s life.

Yet, on return to Kenya after the colonial ban on him was lifted, Kenyatta appointed Murumbi his personal assistant and after independence Foreign minister.


From the moment he learnt of the assassination of his good friend and mentor Pio Gama Pinto (February 25, 1965), Murumbi went into a state of shock that never really left him, ever. It is common knowledge that he would wail quite loudly every time Pinto’s name was mentioned. A mutual friend once told me that Murumbi’s death wails reminded him of the howling of a hound for its dead master.


• Kenyatta and his Central Kenya dominated Cabinet had chosen to take Kenya down the capitalist path, reneging on the somewhat socialist promises before independence of sharing the fruits of independence more equitably.

• Pinto and Odinga, Kenyatta’s perennial opponent, were socialists who were supported financially by both the Soviet Union and China.

• The instrument of capitalism in Kenya – Sessional Paper No. 10 – was drawn up by an American. Both the US and Britain played a huge part in keeping Kenya out of the hands of the communists.

• Pinto and Odinga conspired publicly to oppose the Sessional Paper in Parliament. They even planned to move a motion of “no confidence” in Kenyatta.

• There was a much reported slanging match between Kenyatta and Pinto in which the word “bastard” was audible. Unconfirmed reports said that when Pinto was asked why he called the president a “bastard”, he replied: “He called me a bastard first” (undocumented but part of the local legend, no doubt).

In private, many people in the corridors of Parliament were convinced that “something” would happen to Pinto, there was no way he was going to get away with insulting Kenyatta. Tom Mboya, the chosen capitalist of Western interests, at great risk to his own person, called Pinto and told him to get out of Nairobi or even the country because of the threat of an unspecified “they” (perhaps there was no need to specify).

Pinto went to the coastal town of Mombasa and waited for friends to give him the all-clear. It was Murumbi who called him and told him that it was safe to come back to Nairobi. The story was that Murumbi was confident that he would be able to convince Kenyatta to forgive Pinto; and was convinced the president was not the kind of man who would assassinate a fellow freedom fighter.


Within a day or two of returning to Nairobi, Pinto was assassinated and Murumbi went into genuine mourning and wailing which, if you did not know him, you would be forgiven for mistaking the melodrama for the stuff of a Hollywood B-Grade movie. Remember, Murumbi was a large man, with a very big heart, an even bigger smile and a booming laugh.

He usually greeted his friends with open arms and a hearty handshake. Socially, he held a lit cigar in one hand and a single malt Scotch or a classy cognac in the other. If it was not a cigar, it would be one of those tough tobacco Rooster cigarettes, which cost next to nothing a pack. It would not be long before this version of Murumbi would be wiped for ever.

Many years later, while researching my debut novel, I became more and more convinced that Pinto had not been Kenyatta’s favourite person. Again, although there is no written evidence, I became convinced that Kenyatta refused to allow Pinto to visit him in detention before independence. However, Pinto did visit him, sneaking in as part of the Goan East African League which met with Kenyatta at Maralal. There is not even a skerrick of a smile on any of the faces in the photograph taken that day. In fact, everyone it would seem was thoroughly miserable.


Murumbi was never convinced that Kenyatta had anything to do with Pinto’s death. He would not tolerate anyone raising the subject, reminding even his close friends that they would be “bordering on treason”.

“It was not Kenyatta,” he told me once confidentially.

Murumbi was, however, certain that it was “those around Kenyatta” who were responsible.

So, why did Murumbi accept Kenyatta’s invitation to the vice presidency to which he was sworn in on May 13, 1966 and served until November 31, 1966 (Murumbi had in fact handed in his letter of resignation in July)? According to Alan Donovan, his business partner and the man who had stood by Murumbi and wife Sheila until their deaths: “Murumbi was willing to give Kenyatta his services due to their unique relationship to help him out and Murumbi told Kenyatta that ‘this was the last job he would do for him’.”


After all, Murumbi was the man who took over the reins of the Kenya African Union in 1952 when the association’s leaders, including Kenyatta, were arrested. Murumbi went on to play a pivotal role in setting up the legal team to defend Kenyatta and the other five members of the Kapenguria Six. He fled to London and with Pinto’s help did a sterling job in exposing and turning British opinion against the colonial atrocities. He also played a key role in the Lancaster House Conference on Kenya’s independence. After independence, Murumbi almost single-handedly went about setting up Kenya’s diplomatic missions, appointing staff and making sure that Kenya was well represented wherever the world and the United Nations met. Jomo Kenyatta was very impressed with the man. What’s not to like?

Hence, as far as the president was concerned, he had found the ideal candidate for the vice presidency.


The Office of the Vice President in Kenya (which has since been renamed the Office of the Deputy President) was not quite the poisoned chalice. It was, however, a “nothing job” (a lame duck position, as Odinga, the first holder of the position after independence, once labelled it). It was more of a ceremonial gig. There would be times when Murumbi expected that Kenyatta would ask him to take on special task, especially highly confidential matters. Murumbi was among three or four ministers he trusted implicitly and in that respect, Murumbi must have convinced himself that his president needed him.

The people closest to Kenyatta were mostly from his Kikuyu ethnic group. They included Njoroge Mungai (nephew and personal physician), Mbiyu Koinange “Mr Clean” (Kenya’s first university graduate, Minister of State and Kenyatta’s key confidante), and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo. They were key members of a group that generally became known as the “Gatundu (or in some instances, the Kiambu) mafia”.


The post-independence period was also marked by Cold War intrigues. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, which worked closely with Britain’s foreign secret service, the MI5, and the Kenya government, it couldn’t establish the extent of Odinga’s involvement in the 1964 Zanzibar revolution and subsequent massacres. The CIA alleged that “as Minister of Home Affairs, Odinga did hide ‘Field Marshal’ John Okello (of Uganda, who led the coup) when he fled from Zanzibar” besides supposedly supplying him with money and a car “while professing complete ignorance of his whereabouts”.

The level of mistrust created by these allegations are contained in another declassified CIA document in which it was alleged that when Odinga left for Beijing and Moscow in April 1964 to look for funds, Kenyatta ordered Murumbi to accompany and spy on Odinga.


In Moscow, Odinga was accorded VIP treatment and given the honour of attending a May Day rally where he shared a dais with Algeria's first President Ahmed Ben Bella and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Murumbi would later disclose to the CIA that even though they shared a hotel, sometimes Odinga would disappear for two days. I am convinced there must have been other instances when Murumbi took on similar confidential assignments but never revealed them anywhere, not even in his papers or interviews with Anne Thurston that are the sum of A Path Not Taken: The Story of Joseph Murumbi, the book published by Alan Donovan.


However, the book does provide another clue why Kenyatta and Murumbi were so close: “I remember when I was a minister, I would come home in the afternoon for lunch and I would get a call from him. ‘Joe’, Kenyatta would say: ‘I have got something to discuss with you. What are you doing?,”

Kenyatta would ask Murumbi to abandon his lunch. “Come and have lunch at State House.”

“So I would go up to State House, have lunch with him, and he would tell me, ‘Now Joe, sit down here, order any drinks you want, coffee, tea, whiskey, anything you like. I’ll see you in a few minutes’.”


Kenyatta would then disappear and Murumbi would be left sitting there for hours and then the president would suddenly appear and say: “Oh, Joe, I forgot about you… wait a minute. I’ll see you in a few minutes”.

According to Murumbi, this would continue until half past four, when Kenyatta would leave for his Gatundu home.

“He’d get into his car and he’d go away,” Murumbi is quoted recalling.

And this was a norm. Murumbi had come to understand Kenyatta and his fears. He was a man who wanted to have people around him.


“He (didn’t) want to discuss anything with me, but he wants you to be around. He cannot be lonely. You know he has been in, kept under solitary confinement …and the effect of that (is) he cannot bear to be alone. He must have somebody around him. And I think that is the psychology behind these dances, people with him all the time.”

(Kenyatta loved evening dances – former President Moi in his own memoirs says that Kenyatta would call him at night and Moi would waste the entire evening watching traditional dancers alone while Kenyatta remained inside the State House, Nakuru. – John Kamau, Nation)

At one point Murumbi says he asked Kenyatta whether he knew about corruption in his cabinet and civil service.

“Well Joe” Kenyatta reportedly said, “I know all about that… but you know, I am in a difficult position that ministers no longer tell me the truth.”


According to Murumbi, people exploited Kenyatta’s age and took advantage of him.

Murumbi confirmed the old story that Kenyatta often threatened to personally beat his ministers. He recounted his own experience: “He threatened to beat me one day. But I walked out of his office and banged the door and disagreed with him. And I went to my office and was just waiting for a call: ‘Joe, you are sacked.’ 
But it never happened, perhaps showing another side of Kenyatta.”

After that episode, Murumbi met Kenyatta that evening at the Parliament Buildings and apologised. Kenyatta once again picked his walking stick and said: “If you do that again, I will beat you… I appreciate your coming and apologising.”


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.