From Jomo Kenyatta to William Ruto: Inside the politics of police control

Daniel Moi, Charles Njonjo

President Daniel Moi with then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo at a Safari Rally event. Njonjo, as AG and Minister for Home and Constitutional Affairs, used police to get even.

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

For the first time in Kenya’s history, the National Police Service (NPS), as an institution, is not under any ministry. They are hanging out there like bats.

In his wisdom, President William Ruto wanted the police to control their budget — the billions of shillings allocated to them without dictation from the Ministry of Interior or the Office of the President.

We know that NPS is not an “independent’ entity and was not envisaged as such under Article 248 of the Constitution.

While Article 245 gives the Inspector-General of Police “independent command” of the force, it also allows “the Cabinet secretary responsible for police services” to “lawfully give a direction to the Inspector-General with respect to any matter of policy in writing.”

And that is where Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki's assignment starts and ends – and I think he has a weak link to what is going on within the police service after he lost the budget control. But, of course, President Ruto is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and has direct control. This, the way I see it, is a clever political move.

Legally, the only other person who can direct the Inspector General is the Director of Public Prosecutions under article 157(4). The rest is just pomposity and unbridled hubris.

At the moment, the Ministry of Interior looks like the Ministry of Home Affairs when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and later Daniel arap Moi, lost the police docket during the Jomo Kenyatta-era politics.

It is true that police have, since colonial times, been used for partisan politics and have been used by the state, the government, and the ruling party for mischief.

Interestingly, because of their structure, training, command, and history, the police are not supposed to be civil.

They are political units and successors to what one historian called “violent intermediaries”.

From Jomo to Ruto, this is the state of affairs – and I do not foresee a non-political police force unless we deconstruct the entire system.

Let me tell you some stories.

Once upon a time, Charles Njonjo used to have a file in his office, and it contained the names of all MPs who had filed false mileage claims. They were many.

“I would have jailed half of that parliament," he once told me in his Westlands office.

Njonjo, as Minister for Home and Constitutional Affairs, had the police — then under him — investigate the mileage claims and, as the cunning fox of Kenya's politics, would use the information to control the vocal MPs.

From the days when he was Attorney-General, Njonjo used police to get even – but not for long.

Finally, the man from Kabete, the glorified son of a colonial chief, fell on his sword.

In a single move in September 1981, the police, under Njonjo's watch, questioned 10 radical MPs over their parliamentary mileage claims as the minister prepared to spread fear within Parliament and control debates.

The first warrant of arrest was issued against a young MP, Chelagat Mutai, a former University of Nairobi student leader. Afraid of Njonjo's wrath, Mutai escaped to exile in Tanzania and lost her seat.

She was followed to exile by youthful Ugenya MP James Orengo. Later, Nyeri town MP Waruru Kanja was jailed for one year for possessing foreign currency for more than 24 hours following an overseas trip.

The week I met Njonjo, he told me he had gone to look for Chelagat Mutai to apologise.

His only request was to get him another of his early victims, Wanguhu Ng’ang’a – who had staged a coup in Kanu. I did, and he made fun of how he sent police to the Kanu headquarters and thwarted Ng’ang’a’s coup.

During his reign, Njonjo – as Attorney General and later as minister – wanted to have police within his reach. Whoever controlled the police not only controlled their might, but also influenced tenders.

As a shareholder in the company supplying Land Rovers, Njonjo would not let go. That was Njonjo's Kenya – and the law allowed him to do as much. He was later sorry for harassing MPs so that he could have free reign.

The point I am trying to make is that the control of the police has always been intertwined with politics – and business.

By 1963, the Interior ministry was known as the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it was a robust ministry covering defence, internal security, prisons, and immigration. Jaramogi was to be the first minister under the 1963 self-government.

But to his surprise, the police functions were removed from his docket and were taken by Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta. Jaramogi later said he went to ask Jomo why those functions were not at the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“When I confronted Kenyatta with this limitation of my powers, I found, to my surprise, that he was fully aware of this plan (by colonial Governor Malcolm Macdonald) and in complete agreement with it,” wrote Jaramogi in his book, Not Yet Uhuru.

And so, he was only left with the Prisons Department as his major docket, with Kenyatta controlling the police. As historian Charles Hornsby aptly puts it: “At independence, the (Kenya) police were still seen as an instrument of social control, violent and arbitrary — a negative image reinforced by the poor alignment between formal law and local practice."

With the little immigration power he had, Jaramogi ordered the deportation of several British police officers who had helped repress Mau Mau — among them Ian Henderson, the man who had led the hunt for Dedan Kimathi. But Jaramogi lost the immigration docket after the 1964 Cabinet reshuffle.

When Moi was appointed the Minister of Home Affairs to replace Jaramogi, he was given the internal security docket, which brought the police under him. There is an argument that Moi survived the transition from Kenyatta because he was close to the intelligence networks under him. He had befriended the likes of Kirinyaga-born James Kanyotu — the viciously secretive bully of the Kenyatta and Moi eras — and had, as a result, managed to keep the Kiambu mafia off his back.

The only time the police embarrassed Moi was when they duped him in 1975 that the missing JM Kariuki, the vocal MP for Nyandarua North, and Kenyatta critic, was in Zambia. The police knew that his body was in the City Mortuary marked “unknown adult male”.

“The fact that he could not rely upon the force he headed showed very publicly how tenuous his position was,” wrote Moi's biographer, Andrew Morton, in the book Moi: The Making of an African Statesman.

As Moi critics realise, controlling the police and its other units was politically significant. In 1977, when there was an attempt to hold the first Kanu elections, which would have changed the political landscape since Mzee Kenyatta was ailing, Moi found himself in a fix after the police docket was taken away. After several years, the Kiambu group had managed to wrest the police docket from Moi, and it was given to Mbiyu Koinange — a minister of State in the Office of the President.

“It was a move seen as a deliberate bid to dilute the vice-president's influence and reduce his status. Kenyatta's brother- in-law (Koinange) was now responsible for the police, the GSU and the Special Branch, leaving Moi in charge of prisons and immigration. The loss of this portfolio was a turning point, signifying to many of Moi's allies that he was in mortal danger,” wrote Morton.

And as GG Kariuki, who rose to become an insider in the Moi regime's early years, would later remark: “We felt that he was the next one to be murdered. If it had happened, it would have been without Kenyatta's knowledge.”

That explains why Moi, as the new President, had from November 1978 (with Njonjo's backing) removed senior police officers whose loyalty was doubtful — because of their dalliance with Koinange. One of the first to go was Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga, who had held the role for 13 years. Moi replaced Hinga with Ben Gethi on November 1, 1978, while a protégé of Gethi’s replaced him as GSU commandant.

Moi would use the police to construct a police state — and they were vicious and murderous. He controlled the police from the Office of the President and State House. His ministers for Internal Security were powerful and controlled the police billions.

During the Mwai Kibaki presidency, we all remember Dr Chris Murungaru and John Michuki — some of the most potent Internal Security ministers. But, for President Uhuru Kenyatta, nobody can match Dr Fred Matiang’i.

For those used to the old order — the Interior ministry looks diluted. But that is how politics of police control is played. For the more things change, the more they look the same.

[email protected]. Twitter: @johnkamau1