Mbiyu Koinange, the powerful force behind the Kenyatta presidency

Mbiyu Koinange was more than the powerful Minister of State in the Office of the President. He was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s bosom friend, in-law, confidant and instrumental political go-between.

Mr Koinange was the man regarded as the power behind the throne in the Kenyatta presidency and one of the key decision makers in the formative years of the young nation.

Newly declassified documents obtained by the Sunday Nation paint a vivid picture of the Kenyatta presidency and describe the mechanics of power in the post-independence administration.

Mr Koinange is considered perhaps the most powerful pivot around which the Kenyatta administration revolved. The documents demonstrate how informally power was exercised.

Mbiyu Koinange was genteel, educated and well connected. When Kenyatta, as the Prime Minister, formed his first Cabinet, he appointed his old friend Minister of State in the Office of the President.

Born in 1907 in Kiambu, Mr Koinange was the MP for Kiambaa. He served as the Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, but it was as Minister of State that he carved his niche as Kenyatta’s most powerful sidekick.

Mr Koinange was nicknamed Kissinger after Mr Henry Kissinger, US President Richard Nixon’s powerful Secretary of State in the 1970s.

As the Kissinger in the Kenyatta administration, Mr Koinange enjoyed unparalleled access to the President.

Was detained

Former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere, who was detained by Jomo Kenyatta in 1975, says he only saw Mr Koinange from a distance as he was always in the Nakuru State House with the President.

“Kenyatta and Koinange were inseparable. Kenyatta would not have done without Koinange.

He was Kenyatta’s right-hand man, the loyal face of his government and everything that went wrong in it was blamed on Koinange.

“Some said Kenyatta was okay were it not for Koinange, but I think it was the other way round.

“The problem with God can’t be the angels,” said Mr Wamwere, who was detained for three years after writing an article critical of the Kenyatta Government in the Sunday Post newspaper.

To illustrate their tight bond, Mr Wamwere recalled the Mwangale Commission of Inquiry into the 1975 murder of Mr J.M. Kariuki, the popular MP for Nyandarua North, which featured, among others, Mbiyu Koinange’s name.

“Kenyatta is reported to have said that to have Koinange’s name on the report was to have his own there as well,” Mr Wamwere recalled.

The report was tabled in Parliament, minus Koinange’s name, and that of President Kenyatta’s bodyguard, Wanyoike Thungu. Nothing much came out of the inquiry.

“He was the man who almost ran the government,” says the former Butere MP Martin Shikuku of Mr Koinange. “He was very powerful.”

Although he says they were not the best of friends, Mr Shikuku recalls once asking when other MPs would ever reach the President with Mr Koinange ever being around him.

“I was told there were other things Kenyatta talked about with Koinange that he couldn’t share even with Mama Ngina,” Mr Shikuku said.

When Mr Koinange died, then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo eulogised him as one of Kenya’s greatest sons, “an educationist, nationalist, freedom fighter, pan-Africanist and humanitarian who lived a life that symbolised the long and difficult struggle for the freedom and welfare of the people of this country”.

Mr Koinange was said to be a proud perfectionist in dress and deed. Mr Njonjo singled out his “thoroughness” as only “the best satisfied him”. His family nicknamed him Muthera, or the clean one, for his neat, well cut suits.

Among his attributes, which Mr Njonjo outlined as not being widely known, were being a sensitive, humble, generous, hospitable and knowledgeable man.

“Koinange was not outgoing and preferred to influence things from the shadows,” Mr Wamwere said. “He was not a publicity seeker.”

Unlike Mr Kenyatta, Mr Koinange didn’t boast a commanding, declamatory voice. Although he was Minister of State, Mr Wamwere contends that “very few could tell what his portfolio was all about”.

“I don’t know what his work was since I have never been a minister,” Mr Shikuku said.

Veteran journalist Philip Ochieng recalls Mr Koinange as not being too close to the media and that he only appeared in the press due to his proximity to President Kenyatta. And, despite being wealthy, Mr Koinange “was not flamboyant or showy”.

“He never drove big cars,” Mr Ochieng said, adding that “he was a very secretive man”. Among his guarded engagements beyond public duties was membership in the Freemasons Society.

A letter – now part of declassified personal files – he received on June 1, 1970 from Murad Kassam, the secretary of the Freemasons, reads in part:

“You are summoned to attend the Lodge at Freemasons Hall, Nairobi, on Friday 19, 1970 at 6.30 pm. The Lodge will be tyled up at 6.45 precisely. By command of the Right Worshipful Master, Brother M. Basheen Chaudry.”

Dress code: dinner jacket and white gloves. In Masonic speak, to “tyle” is to “guard the door from unqualified, malicious or the curious”.

Among the businesses of the day, reads the letter, was to “open the Lodge, read summons covering the meeting and ballot for initiation into Freemasons of Mr Humphrey Rugunda Njoroge, the Assistant Exchange Controller, Central Bank of Kenya.”

The other agenda was to take collection in aid of the Lodge and “to raise into the sublime Degree of Master Mason” to, among others, a former minister of Health, one of Kenya’s eminent historians (both still alive and bending their twilight), and Mbiyu Koinange.

“Brother” Kyale Mwendwa was named in the letter as the Lodge’s “Inner Guard”. That is a junior officer who guards the Lodge from inside the door.

Kyale Mwendwa later became MP for Kitui West in 1986, after his brother, former Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa, died in a car accident in 1985.

The Freemasons are a fraternal order whose basic tenets are brotherly love, philanthropy and truth. Joining the Freemasons is not by invitation.

Neither are members encouraged to solicit for members to the Lodge. A hopeful “brother” makes enquiry upon which members discuss suitability before voting.

General requirements of entry include belief in a supreme being (whatever the candidate conceives that to be), joining by one’s free will, being of good morals and reputation and being of sound mind and body.

Women are never admitted to the fraternity that has become less of a secret society and more of a “society with secrets”.

Humphrey Rugunda Njoroge, who was being initiated into “Entered Apprentice” that June, died in Kanyariri, Kiambu, in 1999.

The fraternity aside, Mr Koinange remained one of Mzee Kenyatta’s elbow-length lieutenants. Not surprising considering their bosom friendship stretched back to 1936 in England.

Mbiyu Koinange was initially suspicious of Mzee Kenyatta. Before leaving for England in 1928, Kenyatta had denounced Mbiyu’s father, Senior Chief Koinange, for being an appointee of the British Government.

Chiefs then equalled “colonial prefects”. And, though the young Koinange had attended Alliance School with Muigai, Mzee Kenyatta’s younger brother, he had only met the future President once 10 years earlier when he was a meter reader for the Nairobi Water Board.

The two later met in England the same year when Mr Koinange was attending St John’s College, Cambridge, before later enrolling at the University of London.

Mr Koinange’s studies were on a Rhodes Trust grant arranged for him by archaeologist Louis Leakey, the father of politician and conservationist Richard Leakey.

The Koinanges were childhood friends of the Leakeys, who lived in Kabete and fluently spoke Kikuyu. Louis Leakey was studying anthropology and African religions.

Mr Leakey asked Mr Koinange to study for a year, but refrain from seeing Mr Kenyatta as Jeremy Murray-Brown, Kenyatta’s biographer, says in his eponymous book of 1972.

As fate would have it, Mr Koinange met Mr Kenyatta and his fears were allayed about his stand regarding his father.

Mr Kenyatta was then putting the final touches to his book, Facing Mount Kenya, that required the author’s name.

“Kenyatta was still Johnstone Kamau and “Johnstone” sounded too Western,” writes Murray-Brown. “What is wrong with Kamau wa Ngengi?” Koinange asked.

“You see, I am known by the name Kenyatta, I want to retain it,” replied Kenyatta.” The pair searched for a rhyming name. After alphabetically playing around, they reached “J” and Jomo emerged.

“It was a good name,” notes Murray-Brown, “and it was close to a Kikuyu word describing the pulling of a sword from its scabbard.” Jomo Kenyatta it was.

The cover of Facing Mount Kenya – for which Kenyatta was paid an advance royalty of £30 (Sh4,680 at current exchange rates), shows him sporting a monkey skin provided by Mr Koinange.

“With his intelligence and American experience,” writes Murray-Brown, “Koinange was stimulating company for Kenyatta” – which remained until Mzee died 42 years later.

“They were almost agemates and held very strongly to the culture and traditions of their people,” Mr Wamwere said.

The in-laws

When they returned to Kenya in 1946, Mr Koinange appointed Mr Kenyatta the vice-principal of the Githunguri Teachers’ College that the family had started.

To bury their colonial hatchet, Senior Chief Koinange allowed Mr Kenyatta to marry Mbiyu’s sister, Grace Wanjiku, who later died while giving birth to Jane Wambui in 1950. Mr Koinange returned to England in 1949.

“With Koinange gone, Kenyatta was more than a son-in-law to the Senior Chief,” writes Murray-Brown.

“Kenyatta was a commoner,” said Mr Wamwere. “Koinange came from a powerful family and Kenyatta didn’t mind the association.”

It was at the Githunguri college that Mr Kenyatta met Ngina Muhoho, daughter of Chief Muhoho wa Gatheca, and married her in 1951.

The colonialists demoted Senior Chief Koinange, who was becoming a hard-liner, and detained him for eight years in Marsabit until 1960.

Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u, a loyalist, was promoted but was murdered inside his car on October 9, 1952. Sir Evelyn Baring, Kenya’s Governor, attended his burial two days later. Chief Waruhiu’s death precipitated the State of Emergency declared by Sir Baring 11 days later.

Mr Kenyatta was arrested together with Kung’u Karumba, Paul Ngei, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai and Achieng Oneko for “managing the Mau Mau” and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour.

That was in 1952, a year after Mr Koinange left for England, where he stayed for 10 years, and returned as the secretary of the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and South Africa.

When Mr Kenyatta was released and ascended the highest office, he appointed his old friend Minister of State in the Office of the President where he wielded enormous powers.

After the General Election of 1969, Mr Koinange wrote a letter to the President on January 2, 1970 thanking him for his generous contribution, support and encouragement during the campaigns besides appointing him Minister of State, which demonstrated confidence, trust and faith in him.

“This unshakeable confidence,” Mr Koinange wrote, “leaves in me a permanent challenge to respond unreservedly with unfathomable loyalty and devotion to you … and pray for your long life.”

At the time, the Royal Technical College was about to become the University of Nairobi, Kenya’s first.

Dr Arthur Porter had resigned as its principal, creating a vacancy that needed urgent filling. Mr Koinange feared there might not be a “competent transitory authority” when the college became a fully-fledged university. He ruled out picking one on an ad hoc basis, thus compromising administration.

After wide consultations with senior officials in the ministry of Education, including permanent secretary Peter Gachathi, Mr Koinange told the President they had settled on Josephat Njuguna Karanja, Kenya’s High Commissioner in London.

“Dr Karanja fulfils all the necessary qualifications in international diplomacy and academic background being in possession of a PhD. Formerly he was a lecturer,” the minister said.

And so Dr Karanja it was. He later became the MP for Mathare Constituency (now Kasarani) in 1985 and vice-president three years later.

His political balloon was burst in 1989 after a week of public humiliation in Parliament, where he was accused of arrogance, corruption and disloyalty. Dr Karanja, who died in 1994, resigned to beat a motion of no confidence in him.

When Mr Daniel arap Moi took over after Mzee’s death in 1978, Mr Koinange’s “Kissinger” status changed. President Moi “demoted” him to the less visible ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

Mr Koinange lost the Kiambaa seat to Njenga Karume in 1979. He was the chairman of the Kenya Salt Company at the time of his death at Nairobi Hospital on September 2, 1981. It was a heart attack, the doctor said. He was 74.

The second instalment of this series comes next week

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