Charles Njonjo

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo makes his remarks during the 50th Anniversary memorial service for the late Thomas Joseph Mboya held at the Holy Family Basilica on July 5, 2019.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

How Njonjo, working with politicians, silenced the karafuu whistleblowers

What you need to know:

  • So lucrative was the illicit trade in the Indian Ocean and between July 1970 and June 1971, the Zanzibari government had intercepted $4.7m worth of cloves. 
  • Top  politicians and civil servants were reaping big — until a dozen Kenyans were arrested in Zanzibar and were headed for the hangman’s noose.


Abu Somo was walking rather fast in the court corridors in the company of his lawyers when it happened. Within minutes, he had physically been attacked by Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge, causing a commotion in the court corridors. Mathenge, intensely irked or looking for combat, had swung his briefcase and it neatly landed on Somo’s face with a thud.

The Lamu West MP had in the previous week stepped on some sensitive toes by accusing some senior Jomo Kenyatta government officials of running the multi-million cloves-smuggling syndicate between Zanzibar and Kenya.

As a whistleblower, Abu Somo thought he would be safe. But, instead, he had been charged by Attorney General Charles Njonjo with giving false information. That is why he was in court that morning. But was it false? It all, perhaps, depended on whom you asked.

In a brief that Somo had sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the MP had named two provincial commissioners — Isaiah Mathenge and Eliud Mahihu — as members of the multi-million-shilling smuggling syndicate that was operating at the coast of Kenya. Others in the mix were Cabinet minister Paul Ngei and coast MPs Sheikh Balala and Abubakar Madhubuti. He also named acting commissioner of customs, P M. Mulili, and an assistant commissioner of Police, Coast Province.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs had, in a ministerial statement to Parliament, confirmed the names and claimed that they had been counter-checked with the Zanzibar government and “our own sources”.

Kenyans have of late been talking of cartels and corruption as if it is a recent vice — and the purpose of this story is to illustrate how historical the war on corruption is,and that when it involves senior government figures, it is difficult, without political will, to eradicate.

Again, it will illustrate that politicians and civil servants have always been involved in some corrupt deals and that this is not a recent phenomenon — only that in the Kenyatta I period, they did not have the guts to raid the Treasury or milk parastatals dry as is happening now.

But that is not to say that they didn’t try. Nay. During Jomo’s time, they did business with the government by awarding themselves tenders, and those who could not, entered into the smuggling business. Some did both. And that is why the history of unexplained wealth in Kenya is the history of theft and smuggling and not one of hard work and enterprise.

In the early 1970s, Zanzibar cloves, or karafuu, had become the most lucrative illicit trade in the Indian Ocean and records indicate that between July 1970 and June 1971, the Zanzibar government had intercepted $4,764,502 (Sh538 million at current exchange rates)- worth of cloves.

The Kenyan elite had found a market in the Indonesian kretek cigarette industry where tobacco and cloves were blended. More so, Indonesia provided the Kenyatta era politicians with a market for ivory whose prices skyrocketed from 1970, triggering a poaching crisis in Africa. Elephants were no longer seen as wildlife, but “a walking fortune worth more than a dozen years of honest toil” as conservationist, Peter Fitzmaurice, once put it.

But it was the karafuu business — and many Kenyatta oldies know — which seemed to provide an easy flow of cash. That was before it turned into a deadly practice after the Zanzibar government introduced capital punishment for those found guilty of smuggling cloves. The elite then turned to smuggling Uganda’s coffee through the small village of Chepkube, in Bungoma County, at least from 1972. Kenya of the 70s was a smuggling paradise of karafuu, ivory and coffee.

Smuggled cloves

Thus, when Zanzibar police arrested more than a dozen Kenyans in 1972 as they smuggled cloves, there was fear that they might spill the beans on the elite. This had caused some diplomatic ruckus as senior Kenyatta government officials sought his intervention and tried to have Parliament address the matter. Interestingly, and Kenyans would learn later to their dismay, the matter was brought to Parliament by one of the MPs who would later be named in the scandal: Abubakar Madhubuti.

Madhubuti was unaware that his name had been forwarded, by Abu Somo, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as one of the ring-leaders of the karafuu syndicate. The ministry, using some of the intelligence reports, would later tell Parliament that “these unfortunate people (arrested in Zanzibar) are not the main culprits…there are important politicians and senior civil servants who are behind the whole thing, and these people are merely sent as agents.”

Without knowing, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Burundi Nabwera had dropped a bombshell in Parliament as he read his ministerial statement.

What was known was that there was a go-down in Mombasa “near Taj Hotel” where the karafuu was stored and guarded by police. But if Nabwera thought he could escape without naming names, he was in for some shock.

“Could the assistant minister stand before this house and substantiate, and tell us who are the politicians and who are the civil servants?” said Nyeri Town MP Waruru Kanja.

While Speaker Fred Mati tried to protect Mr Nabwera, MPs felt that if the matter was left without substantiation it would lead to speculation. Said Mati: “It is rather unfortunate that Mr Nabwera chose to introduce this matter here which, in my opinion, is quite uncalled for. However, I think the House is entitled to exoneration.”

There was also a suggestion that Nabwera should simply withdraw his remarks with fear that he could do more damage. He refused. “I am not going to withdraw my statement because I have all the information here with me. And if I may, one of the politicians involved, who is one of the organisers of the racketeering according to information available to my ministry – he is the hon Questioner,” he said, alluding to Madhubuti, the same MP who had demanded a ministerial statement on the Kenyans arrested in Zanzibar and what the government was doing about it.

Madhubuti never expected Nabwera to name him: “Why should the assistant minister pick out only my name?” he asked. The Speaker, to save an ugly situation, demanded that Nabwera names the other cloves smugglers, but he sought to speak with Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who was the leader of government business, on whether he should name the civil servants.

Involved in racketeering

“The information we have received from the government of Tanzania and from our own sources shows that the three members of Parliament involved in the racketeering are as follows: Abubakar Madhubuti, Sheikh Balala and Paul Ngei.

Pressed further, the minister named Mahihu and Mathenge, Mulili, and an assistant commissioner of Police, Coast Province.

Then Somo rose, and without disclosing that he was privy to the list read by Nabwera, said: “In view of the fact that those people who were involved in the smuggling of cloves do not belong to the tribes of the three hon members, Hon Madhubuti, Mr Ngei and Mr Balala…”

“He is Sheikh Balala…” — somebody cut him short.

“He is no longer Sheikh, he is finished,” retorted Somo, perhaps knowing what damage had been done. He then asked: “Will I be in order to ask the assistant minister for Foreign Affairs to extradite these three politicians to Zanzibar so that they can face the death penalty there, and replace them with our 30 kinsmen who are now awaiting trial on that island?”

Other members demanded that the politicians and the civil servants be forced to take care of the families of those arrested. When Madhubuti tried to raise the issue of lack of legal representation in Zanzibar, another vocal coast MP, Kassim Mwamzandi, rose on a point of order.

Mwamzandi: “Is the honourable member in order to speak on this matter since he has already been named as a culprit in this racket?”

Madhubuti: “Bwana Mwamzandi, ikiwa wewe ni mwanamume, (Mr Mwamzandi, if you’re man enough) get out of this chamber and repeat the same words, and you will know who is Mr Madhubuti.”

Somo had a scored a victory, or so he thought. Then the tables started to turn, thanks to Njonjo.

Whatever happened behind the scenes for the next 12 days has never been known. What we know is that a frightened Somo, on September 26, 1972, took to the floor of the House and did the unthinkable — he withdrew his statement.

False statement

“I Abu Somo, I am sorry indeed for having made a false statement to the permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, concerning the alleged smuggling of cloves and maize between Kenya and Zanzibar. This statement was subsequently used by the assistant minister for Foreign Affairs in the House to incriminate (senior government officials and politicians) … I do sincerely apologise.”

Besides that, he was forced the next day to write personal apology letters to all those he mentioned and deliver the letters to Njonjo’s office. It was here that Njonjo had charged him with giving false information and he had incriminated himself.

When the case came up for hearing, on October 12, Somo found Mathenge in the corridors of the courtroom, according to an account given to Parliament by Njonjo:

“Good morning, Mr Mathenge,” Somo is said to have greeted the powerful PC.

“Good morning,” Mathenge is said to have replied.

With some disdain, or perhaps anger, Somo – according to Njonjo – then pointed at Mathenge.

“I will fix you in the court, you are thief,” Somo is alleged to have said, according to Njonjo’s account. Mathenge, who was carrying a briefcase, is said to have “lost his head and in anger, (and) hit Mr Somo with the briefcase.”

With Njonjo on the side of Mathenge and his other allies, it was hard for Somo to wriggle out of that case. Again, he had confessed to giving false information. A week later, on October 17, 1972, the whistleblower was jailed for 18 months.

In the diplomatic circles, the government managed to reach out to Zanzibar President Aboud Jumbe, as negotiations started for the release of the people arrested in his country.

On August 27, 1974, President Kenyatta presented the 11 men to their families while opening the Mombasa provincial headquarters. Mahihu, who was present, and whose name had been mentioned, asked the locals to “stop indulging in clove or ivory smuggling from neighbouring countries”.

With their release, the identity of their employers remained a mystery – and the ministry of Foreign Affairs had disowned Somo, who lost his parliamentary seat.

The karafuu traders had consumed one whistleblower. Others learnt to keep quiet and corruption thrived. That was 50 years ago!

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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