How fear of Jaramogi’s candidature resulted in Gatundu oath

President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta with his then vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga

What you need to know:

  • Recently, Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria tried to invoke the Kiambu oathings to fight Raila Odinga’s run for the presidency.
  • However, he missed the historical background and context. What was done in 1969 lead to a man was ostracised for 23 years.

On the night of September 15, 1969, the politically-instigated hate-based oathing ceremonies in Kiambu had reached a maddening point. The pseudo-fear of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former vice-president, had also reached a crescendo.

The propaganda against Odinga, then official opposition leader, had triggered a terrifying mobilisation of Central Kenya communities with torture, abductions and extortions reported by those who failed to take the oath. And now, on September 15, 1969, a senior clergyman, Samuel Githinji Mwai — a victim of brutal torture in the hands of oath administrators, was at death’s door.

It was 79 days after the death of Cabinet minister Tom Mboya, and President Jomo Kenyatta’s inner circle, blamed for Mboya’s death, was now using the divisive oath ceremonies to hold the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities together ahead of the December 6, 1969 General Election. Ethnic supremacists were in panic mode.

There were also reports that lorry-loads of Kamba were making trips to designated places to take what was known as kyalo kya mweini — which translates to “journey under the moon”, or “journey to the moon”. Yatta MP, Gideon Mutiso reported how frightened children abandoned classes terrified that they would be given oath.

The 1969 General Election, at a time President Kenyatta was reported to be ailing – perhaps incapable of doing campaigns – had triggered the propaganda and the nocturnal trips disguised as “breakfast chai meetings” in Gatundu. The Mboya crisis and boiling anti-Kenyatta anger had terrified the inner circle.

For Kenyatta’s inner circle, time was running out – and their worry was that he was going to face Jaramogi in the first ballot test on his rule since he became president in 1964. Mboya’s death had buoyed Jaramogi’s stature and it helped him unite the divided Nyanza region. But whether the former vice president posed any serious threat to Jomo can only be deduced by the oathing, disguised as “chai”, and the ensuing propaganda that took centre stage from 1969. 

What was not foreseen was that a negative ethnicity seed planted against Jaramogi – the person – would inform Kenyan politics for years.

But even as reports emerged that lorry loads of villagers were being driven at night to some atavistic ceremonies in Kiambu – and that those who refused were tortured, the government continued to politically pretend that nothing was happening.

Kenyatta knew what was happening in his backyard. Twice, since Mboya’s death on July 5, 1969, he had been alerted by the PCEA and Anglican clergy about a resurgence of divisive oathing in Kiambu. But after he failed to act, the church leaders decided to put it in writing in a “strictly confidential” letter dated July 22, 1969, which they delivered to him.

In the letter, they reported to Jomo that “In the Central and Eastern provinces … people are being subjected to taking a Gikuyu oath. Whereas, on our part, we cannot see the need for such a move at the moment, we do not rule out the fact that there may be others who see the need.”

They further told him that “many Christians, ordained ministers included, have been compelled to take the oath, which is contrary to their religion and belief . .. May we report to you that people have been subjected to torture, inhuman, degrading punishment and other treatment.”

And, finally, they told him what no other man could dare say: “There will be no Kenya unless Kenyatta acts now. We do not know the forces and pressures that have brought this situation into being and there may be many. But one thing we are sure of Mzee, is that …Kenyatta is the one man who can change the present trend for better or for worse.” The hard-hitting letter was signed by, among others, Bishop Obadiah Kariuki and the Rt Rev Crispus Kiongo.

But neither the hate campaign, nor the oathing ceremonies ceased.

Soon, the ‘chai’ oath became commercial, according to Rev John Gatu in his memoirs, Fan Into Flame: “Large sums of money changed hands because every single person who went through the rite had to pay a fee. Some people were even being charged for their ‘previous offences’ and, of course, no receipts were being issued.”

That was until the morning of September 15, 1969, when the prominent PCEA church elder in Kikuyu, Kiambu, Samuel Githinji Mwai, and his wife, Esther Muthoni, were dumped unconscious at the gate of their home in Rungiri.

Oath story

A September 22, 1969 cutting of the ‘Daily Nation’ on the church elder who was killed for refusing to take part in the oath allegedly taken in Gatundu. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

That night – as Muthoni would later narrate from her hospital bed – the couple had been dragged out of bed and driven to an oathing ceremony: “(They) drove us away in a motor vehicle to a place I do not know. We were taken to a dark room and asked to take the oath. My husband was taken to a different place, although in the same house. When I resented the oathing I was beaten with the flat of a simi. I received some cuts also. I was unconscious and found myself and my husband the next morning at the entrance to our home. Neighbours of goodwill took us to hospital (but) my husband died on Wednesday (September 18, 1969).”

At the PCEA church in Rungiri, the Rev Mwai’s grave is still a deep reminder of a hatred that consumed victims in Central Kenya. The death sent shockwaves across the country – and especially in Central Kenya where the church had, since the 1952 outbreak of Mau Mau war, condemned oathing as unchristian. And like during the Mau Mau years, here was another conflict that was taking root in Central Kenya. Ironically, while it was targeting Jaramogi, the man the powermongers wanted to stop from trying his luck at the presidency in three months’ time, the victims of torture were mainly those in Central Kenya who refused to submit. According to the Rev Gatu, hundreds of church adherents had been tortured to take the oath.

Two days after the Rev Mwai’s death, the clergy went to see then-Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who was in charge of police, and asked him to beg President Kenyatta to intervene and stop the madness. That day, Moi met Kenyatta and released a statement dated September 20, 1969, saying that “the attention of the government has been drawn to statements and rumours that there are oath administrators going round the country beating up and forcing people to take some illegal oath … I have discussed the situation with the President and he has directed me to warn these people … any member of the public who has knowledge of these illegal activities or any related matters may make a full report to the police.”

To Moi, oath-taking was still a “rumour”.

In his book, Negative Ethnicity, former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere recalled how, at 20, he was lured into the hate project, and like many youth – he was a victim of ignorance.

Koigi was not alone: “When I was waiting to take this oath a young girl told me that the purpose of (this oath) was to protect the black government against its enemies. So we went into the oath-administration hut and vowed never to let a Luo leader – good or bad – take power in Kenya. Yet the little girl was not the only victim of ignorance-driven negative ethnicity … She was thunderstruck to learn that these enemies were black people as well. Kenyatta knew how to take advantage of ignorance to inculcate negative ethnicity in young and unsuspecting minds,” writes Koigi.

As tension increased in the country and as tribal wars erupted in Nairobi slums as gangs fought, the pro-Odinga and pro-Kenyatta supporters hunted each as the charged atmosphere turned toxic.

That the oath was connected to the General Election emerged on October 2, when Moi, while denying that the oathing was still going on said: “I want to reassure the House that there is no oath-taking going on in the country now … every single person has one vote and everyone has the right to vote.”

Okelo Odongo, a KPU MP had told the House that the oathing was dangerous since it could alienate the Mt Kenya communities from the rest of Kenya. “We know that the Kikuyu took oaths once, it was against the Colonial government and the settlers, but everybody is asking — who are they taking oaths against now. This is very dangerous. If the next president is Kikuyu he will be through election and not through oathing,” said Odongo.

Some 42 days to the election, and during this poisoned atmosphere, Kenyatta went to open the Russian Hospital in Kisumu on October 25, 1969. The charged crowd shouted Dume, the KPU symbol, which provoked Kenyatta. What followed was the Kisumu fracas and Kenyatta had to be whisked away as shooting ensured.

An excuse to keep Jaramogi away from the 1969 polls had brought itself and he was detained with the entire top membership of KPU. For the next 23 years, he was ostracised and kept away. The rest is history – Kenya became a de facto single party state.

As Koigi rightly notes, Jaramogi, unlike many of the Kenyatta era politicians, was a “multi-ethnic nationalist … and free from ethnic bias.”

When Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, recently tried to invoke the Gatundu oath on Raila Odinga’s candidature, this is the historical background and context that he missed.

By supporting the son of Jaramogi for the top seat, President Uhuru Kenyatta might erase a bitter memory that has always led to tribal tensions when invoked.

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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