Senior Chief Koinange

Senior Chief Koinange, who gave Kiambaa a high profile since during colonial times.

| File | Nation Media Group

How the hot politics of Kiambaa have entwined with national issues over years

What you need to know:

  • It is the history of Kiambaa that makes the constituency much more interesting since its politics have always been intertwined with national issues.
  • This month, Kiambaa has been in the news – thanks to the hotly contested by-election which was won by UDA’s Njuguna Wanjiku against Jubilee’s Karari Njama.


Kiambaa has been the seat of billionaire MPs. Stanley Munga Githunguri, Peter Mbiu Koinange and Njenga Karume are among former MPs. At times, it attracts a few rookies like Kamau Icharia and now the latest political lad, Njuguna Wanjiku.

But it is the history of Kiambaa that makes the constituency much more interesting since its politics have always been intertwined with national issues. Even more interesting is how the Koinange family has influenced those politics.

Ever since Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu tested the colonial government in Kiambaa by growing coffee on his 500 acre farm – without a permit – the history of that location, and the Koinange family, has been instrumental in significant shifts in both colonial economy and, indeed, future politics.

This month, Kiambaa has been in the news – thanks to the hotly contested by-election which was won by UDA’s Njuguna against Jubilee’s Karari Njama – who had jumped from UDA. But there is also the other history of the area which makes very interesting reading.

On July 3, 1951, Chief Koinange, as he was popularly known, planted 10,000 coffee seedlings in Kiambaa without the approval of the director of agriculture. But after he was charged, and told the court ‘I admit the offence’, Koinange, who was fined Sh100, did not walk away but decided to take on the colonial administration by arguing that Rule 3(1) of the African Grown Coffee Rules was not an offence in law.

The said Rule 3 (1), which Koinange had defied, expressed that “no coffee shall be grown by any African except on a plantation approved by the director” and that Africans were only allowed to grow Coffee Arabica.

Koinange, with many of the Kiambaa residents, had been pushed out of their original farm by the white, which was over 2,000 acres, the Europeans planted coffee and it was only after his submissions to the Carter Commission that he proved ownership of his land by pointing where his father was buried. He got some 200 acres back.

Actually, it is now known, Koinange was the first African in the Kenya colony to grow coffee in 1916. The senior chief had planted three acres but these were uprooted in 1919 and he was compensated.
But in 1950s, he tested the coffee growing rules and he had the Supreme Court overturn them. That July, Githunguri Division was gazetted as a coffee growing area – a victory from Kiambaa.

It was also in Kiambaa that a plot was hatched to kill Chief Waruhiu – the murder that triggered the 1952 State of Emergency in Kenya. The High Court was told by the two suspects, Kamundia Wahinga and Gathuga Migwe, that the crime was plotted in Kiambaa at Koinange’s home. It was also claimed that a meeting was held in Kiambaa on the Sunday before the murder and the assassins were given the pistol.

That Koinange was double-dealing the colonial government, though he was a chief, was widely known. He was known to be a member of Kenya African Union (KAU) and a man of some moderate political views.

Significant figures in Kiambaa politics

Actually, the Special Branch had been told that those who attended the meeting with the assassins included Chief Koinange and his sons John Wesley Mbiyu, and his half-brother Noah Karuga. But finally, only John Wesley was arraigned in court together with Wahinga and Migwe. To save his son, and with the help of a British MP Leslie Hale, Koinange engaged a Queen’s Counsel Dingle Foot – who exposed the gross shortcomings in the investigations.

“The police rightly suspected that their Kiambaa house was a base for oathing and the gathering of funds, but the family would with some justice claim that these activities were on behalf of KAU, not Mau Mau,” opines David Anderson in his book, Histories of the Hanged.

What is now known is that from 1945, Koinange had turned his Kiambaa home to become the base for fundraising and where guns and money were collected to start the war against the colonial government. That explains why he was the only chief who was detained after the State of Emergency was declared – after all wasn’t he involved in plotting Waruhiu’s murder?

Koinange, then aged 90, was released from his Kabarnet detention in December 1959, sickly and on the verge of death. He died in December 1960.

Another significant figure in the Kiambaa politics was Peter Mbiyu Koinange, the chief’s eldest son, who became the first Kenyan to get a masters degree. The chief had sent his son abroad in 1927 after only one year at Alliance High School where he was a classmate to Jomo Kenyatta’s brother Muigai, who apparently was recorded in the register as Muigai wa Johnstone.

It was from Kiambaa that debate about the future of African education started as Chief Koinange toyed with the idea of starting a teachers’ training community college for the Kikuyu Independent Schools.

When Mbiyu returned to Kenya in 1938, the colonial government had decided to appoint him a school principal at a salary of £100 instead of the £1,000 which the previous white principal earned. He turned down the offer saying that in the US, he did not pay less tuition because of his colour.

That is how he joined the Kenya Teachers College, Githunguri, as the principal – though some western publications dismissed it as a “cluster of mud huts” and with “African teachers, most of them unqualified to teach.” There was also an attempt to make Mbiyu an assistant chief, despite his education.

Before that, Koinange, as chairman of the Local Native Council, had been pushing for the establishment of a high school in Githunguri but this had been shot down by the director of education , H.S. Scott, who argued that the government did not have enough staff. When Koinange was told that Alliance High School had the same standards he was looking for, he replied that he wanted higher standards than those offered at Alliance.

Establishment of ‘Kiambaa Parliament’

After Koinange’s efforts were sabotaged, he decided to work with Nyeri and Muranga’s Local Native Council to establish what is now known as Kagumo School. But in order to spite Koinange, the director of education registered it as a primary school.

It was after all these frustrations that Koinange decided to build the Githunguri Teachers College on self-help basis and it attracted many teachers including Jomo Kenyatta until it was closed down after the imposition of the State of Emergency.

Another important historical incident in Kiambaa was the establishment of ‘Kiambaa Parliament’ which was instrumental in the financing of Mau Mau and acquisition of guns.

The banning of Kikuyu Central Association in 1940 had left the community with no political leadership and Senior Chief Mbiyu Koinange reconstituted KCA elders into a group known as Mbari (household) that regularly met in his Banana Hill’s house, aka ‘Kiambaa Parliament.’ Actually, the Muhimu

Militants, as they were known, regarded Kenyatta as a member of Kiambaa Parliament.
While these militants respected Kenyatta as a national leader, they had reservations at the moderate pace that he was taking in demanding for independence.

It was in this ‘Kiambaa Parliament’ that the Mau Mau oathing began and young recruits into Mbari began to inject Kiambaa Parliament with revolutionary ideas and the original objective of unity was transformed into a unity of purpose: forcing the settlers out of Kikuyu land.

It was in this Kiambaa Parliament that the likes of Bildad Kaggia were recruited while trade union leaders, especially in Nairobi, started to get interested in politics by stationing themselves at Kiburi House, the only building owned by Africans in the central business district.

That the killing of Chief Waruhiu was hatched in this Kiambaa Parliament has never been lost to observers.

It was at Waruhiu’s funeral that Governor Evelyn Baring, while attending his first official function, came across the man he had heard about: Jomo Kenyatta. He also came face to face with members of Kiambaa Parliament.

“The difficulty of discerning friend from foe amid the dignified crowd of African faces must have posed ominous questions in the Governor’s mind,” argues historian David Anderson.

Intrigues of Kenyatta succession

But as more districts demanded oath, Kiambaa Parliament shifted to Kiburi House and that is how modern-day Kirinyaga Road in Nairobi was transformed to become the centre of trade unions, activists, local publishers – and more importantly, Mau Mau.

That the activities in Kiambaa transformed central Kenya politics and the State of Emergency is now clear.

After independence, Kiambaa remained the constituency headed by the most powerful Cabinet minister, Mbiyu Koianange who was not only Kenyatta’s brother in-law but also his right-hand man.

By choosing to marry from the Koinange family, Kenyatta had found a place among the colonial chiefs – but more so in a family that was wealthy and could easily bankroll his politics. That is why he easily fitted into the Koinange-inspired Githunguri Teachers and later led the college.

It was also in Kiambaa that the intrigues of the Kenyatta succession were played out since Njenga Karume, the chairman of the Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association, came from there. There were countless meetings held in Kiambaa to discuss the future of the central Kenya politics thanks to the heavy weights who hailed from the region including former permanent secretary Peter Gachathi.

Another untold story is that the squatters from Kiambaa raised money and they bought a farm in Eldoret which they also named Kiambaa. The squatters had formed the Kiambaa Farmers Cooperative and bought the 500 acre farm from Mr Giuseppe Morat in 1967 for Sh80,000.

It was on this farm in Eldoret that the church in Kiambaa was burnt during the post-election violence leading to an international uproar.

The recent by-election, to replace the late Paul Koinange in Kiambaa has once again brought the constituency on the political map. But more interestingly, is that the Koinange factor has slowly been vanquished and for the first time, the constituency has gone to a young lad, unknown, untested.

Previously, it was the seat for the barons of power – Mr Githunguri, Mr Karume, and Mr Peter Mbiyu Koinange.

And with the by-election, Kiambaa has not disappointed us with its politics.

[email protected] @johnkamau1

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