Joseph Murumbi was nervy about assassination

Joseph Murumbi (left). President Moi was one of the few former government colleagues who visited Murumbi in the last year of his life. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Murumbi was appointed in May 1966 but he put down his first letter of resignation in July of the same year.
  • Murumbi smoked his favourite cigars and Rooster cigarettes almost till his last breath in June 1990.

Joseph Murumbi was appointed Vice President in May 1966 after Jaramogi Oginga Odinga fell out with President Jomo Kenyatta.

But he remained an ‘outsider’ in the eyes of the President’s mono-ethnic inner circle.

Fearing for his life, he resigned in November of that year and assumed a low political profile until his death in 1990.

In this final instalment of a two-part series, Australia-based former Nation journalist Cyprian Fernandes uncovers Murumbi’s fears and life away from the limelight 


Within a few weeks in office, any reasons Vice-President Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi might have considered for remaining in the position began to disappear.

According to his business partner Alan Donovan, “there were no major issues with his (Murumbi’s) health when he resigned on November 6, 1966”.

Concern about his health was the reason Murumbi gave to President Jomo Kenyatta.

When Murumbi first handed in his letter of resignation, Kenyatta turned his back on him.


Murumbi was appointed in May 1966 but he put down his first letter of resignation in July of the same year even though he officially left at the end of November.

Those close to him knew he resigned because “he was getting paranoid about his safety”.

There were several reasons for this. One was, of course, that he could not stomach the fact that a central Kenya elite was enjoying most of the benefits of independence.


Kenyatta and those close to him had, for example, acquired large tracts of top-quality farmland as well as prime land along the beaches in the Coast.

Murumbi’s Cabinet colleagues and senior civil servants had done the same.

With each day — as more land, more businesses, more opportunities for financial advancement became evident in a one-tribe traffic — Murumbi became more and more agitated, thus increasing fears for his own safety.

Murumbi wrote in his papers included by Anne Thurston in A Path Not Taken: The Story of Joseph Murumbi, published by Donovan, that Kenyatta “had no political will to direct the Settler Transfer Fund (STF) to the benefit of millions of landless Africans as had been stated in the Kanu manifesto at independence”.

The STF “had been hijacked by a few African elites who were loaning themselves money meant for the landless and were acquiring huge tracts of land at the expense of the majority of the poor”.

Donovan said: “Personal security was the main reason Murumbi quit and, as he said many times, he would rather collect stamps with his lovely wife rather than be underground.

"It was made clear to him by several people in the government that he was not welcome and should get out. 

"He never served in any capacity after that except as chairman of the National Archives.”

Donovan added about his friend: “Yes, the assassination of (Pio Gama Pinto in February 1965) played into these fears, of course, and shook his faith in government and in Kenyatta; although he never wrote the book, he had planned to examine this and refrained throughout from being negative about Kenyatta.

"His loss of trust and faith in Kenyatta must have been very painful.”

According to Donovan, Murumbi was never a politician in the sense that others were. 

“He was always regarded as an ‘outsider’, of course, by the rest of the Cabinet and others. 


"I was not privy to much of what went on but I know Joe (Murumbi) did receive direct and indirect threats from the Kikuyu circle around Kenyatta and they treated him as an interloper, and were not happy with Kenyatta’s special relationship with him.

“I heard one minister told Murumbi jokingly to “not get too comfortable in that seat (meaning the vice-presidency)” and another said to him, “don’t think you will be President if anything happens to Mzee Kenyatta”.

Many years later, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi faced opposition from the central Kenya elite before and after Kenyatta’s death in 1978 but he succeeded in becoming President — largely thanks to the efforts of Attorney-General Charles Njonjo in upholding the Constitution.

Constitutional lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee was to observe many years later: “The assassination of Pinto illustrated to Murumbi the shocking extent to which the new government had departed from its promises.

"His feeling, evidently, was that these were not the values for which so many had suffered, and (from then on) his departure was effectively only a matter of time.”

So, who killed Pinto (in 1965) and Tom Mboya (in 1969)?

Donovan said that “Murumbi thought it was people who had an interest in the presidency. But not Kenyatta”.

When a relative asked Murumbi why he resigned, he responded: “Politics is a very dirty business.”

Murumbi smoked his favourite cigars and Rooster cigarettes almost till his last breath in June 1990.


He did suffer from diabetes, gout, and several other complications.

He did have a drink now and then but largely he was too sick at the end.

For a while, away from politics, life appeared to seem good.

Outwardly, he even appeared to be enjoying himself. But inwardly, all was not well.

He walked away from it all and seemed to find a new peace … but only for a very short time.


New nightmares were soon to torment his every night.

Following his short-lived role as VP, Murumbi allowed the capitalist in him to come out of the closet, in the process serving on the boards of several big businesses including Rothmans of Pall Mall and African Steel Pipes.

Although he put on a brave face with the return of the beaming smile, he did admit, once or twice, that he missed being in government, especially in the Foreign Office, and in the same breath he would say “thank God I am out of it all”.

Donovan told me: “Murumbi was optimistic but certainly his treatment by the Kenya government and his former colleagues must have taken a huge psychological toll and led to his strokes.

"The last stroke he suffered at his house at Intona caused severe irreparable damage to the nerves in one arm.

"One of the doctors treating him made a mess of it while trying to repair the damage.

"This left Murumbi in incredible pain for the rest of his life. He had a small box on his shoulder from which a drip fed codeine into his system.”

According to Donovan, Murumbi was very frustrated at this stage.

He would constantly abuse the drip and shout for his wife Sheila.

“Some folks have always maintained that what finally killed Murumbi happened when he went to his Muthaiga house the last time.

"He was in his wheelchair when he peered through the gates and discovered all his beloved indigenous trees had been cut down and three awful houses were being constructed on the site.

"He wailed and wailed at the sight. This is what killed him. He suffered his last stroke shortly after,” Donovan said.

President Moi was one of the few former government colleagues who visited Murumbi in the last year of his life.

Donovan knew nothing about Cecilia (Murumbi’s first wife — a Somali, and their son — Jo Jo) until he interviewed Fitz De Souza for A Path Not Taken.

De Souza is the former deputy speaker of Parliament and a member of the team of lawyers who defended the Kapenguria Six.

“I knew they existed but Sheila refused to ever acknowledge that and she and Joe never spoke about them in my presence.

"Sheila was adamant about this. Fitz looked after Cecilia, who was destitute, till she went back to Somalia.”

According to Donovan: “Sheila, like all of us, had her faults and her attributes.

"She was a loyal loving partner but they had some major fall-outs along the way which, I suppose, was normal.

"Her main shortcoming was that she refused to think of whatever she did not want to accept or thought was unpleasant. 

"She caused me a great many problems because she never wrote a will, even after haranguing me many times to get my will done!” 

He added: “She died intestate. I was shocked to have to find relatives of hers (whom she hardly knew and did not like) to become administrators of her estate whom the judge recognised instead of myself and David Blackhurst who were acting as administrators of her estate.” 

Donovan described that as a horrible time.

“Her heirs cleaned out what they wanted and left the containers of ‘African’ items for the Museum/Archives and I spent 14 years rehabilitating them after the government looted and damaged much of what she left behind.

"These items are now on display (permanently, I hope) at old Provincial Commissioner’s Office in Nairobi,” he said. 

However, the much larger collection Murumbi sold along with the Muthaiga house to the government in 1976 suffered a much worse fate and Donovan spent many years rehabilitating and replacing items where possible.

“The Government takes no interest in this, especially the library and stamps, which are now resting in deplorable condition,” he said.

Donovan said that he tried to move them to a wonderful space in the old Rahimtulla Trust Library near the Archives.


He is still hoping to pursue that battle. 

“Mainly, Joe and Sheila were like two peas in a pod, which is phenomenal considering their totally different backgrounds. 

"They loved cooking (each had their own stove), thrived on each other’s interests, which they mutually enjoyed: books, of course — as Sheila was the librarian who helped Joe catalogue his collection — art, politics, stamps (which Sheila brought), and dogs (which were their children).

"So they were a great couple when at their best,” he said.

Years later, Donovan sought the help of Vice-President Moody Awori to retain the remaining containers that the heirs had not already shipped out.

Murumbi’s Maasai relatives also continued to blackmail Donovan thinking somehow that he had access to money or properties. 


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