Mboya, Njonjo and their unbridled ambition to gain political power

Founding President Jomo Kenyatta in a cheerful mood with his Vice President Daniel arap Moi, Tom Mboya and Mr Charles Njonjo at the Nairobi Airport turn-off. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Kenyatta, I think, never really liked Tom, but as always, it was a question of who was using whom, and how far Kenyatta would allow it to go.

  • While Tom might be losing friends in Parliament, he was still a force to reckon with, aligned with Kenyatta and very much at the centre of government.

  • He was, however, a Luo, and here lay his second problem, tribalism: The more he pushed himself forward, the more determined were the Kikuyu that he should not take over.

  • The question now was would he give up trying or would he have to be stopped somehow?

As Mboya’s star had risen, others, jealous of his youth and appeal, saw the power he was wielding  within the government and feared that Kenyatta had become too dependent on him

The student airlifts to America had also raised his international profile, and since 1960, when he became the first Kenyan to appear on the cover of Time magazine, there was an image around the world of Tom Mboya as a charming, dynamic and progressive young statesman, destined for great things.


He was certainly ambitious. Anyone entering politics at that level, given the intelligence, would want the top job, and though he never said so, it seemed to me that everyone was aware of his desire to take over from Kenyatta at the first opportunity. He knew he would need a lot of Kikuyu support, though, and he had virtually none.

One man who did back him was James Gichuru, to whom he would often give drinks. Gichuru owned a bar on Campos Ribeiro Avenue and one night he invited Tom to meet him there. Also present was Charles Njonjo. I had known Charles in England, where, referred to as ‘the senior chief’s son’, which he was, he was regarded as a kind of monarch in waiting, a ‘prince of Kenya’ who would one day be king. Those who held this impression knew little about Kenya. Charles had an upper-class air and spoke like an English aristocrat, with tremendous charm and self-assurance – “Lord Charles of Kabeteshire” as the young Africans called him.

In London in 1948, when we started the East African Students Association with myself as Literary Secretary, we had only one African and were taken in by Charles’s charisma. The British members appointed him president, but he never took part in debates or our visits to the House of Commons, except on one occasion when he told off a Conservative MP quite strongly.

Studying law, he went from cocktail party to cocktail party, and if he did sit exams, he never seemed to pass them. He had still not finished his Bar exams when I returned to the LSE in the 1950s.

When the Kapenguria Six were released, I remember saying to Charles that we – Kapila, the other lawyers and myself who had defended the Africans – had done all we could and it was now his turn to take over. His reply was that he was not getting involved in that sort of rubbish, but intended to work for the British Government. He took a job in the Registrar General’s Office as little more than a clerk, most of whom were Goans. I was surprised that he was totally uninterested in helping the people of Kenya.


What Tom saw in Charles Njonjo was an opportunity. Like Bruce, he realised that Charles’s bearing, outward intelligence and ability to express himself could be used for political gain. He also assumed that Charles had no ambitions. When Charles called me to have tea with him one day at the Queen’s Hotel, I arrived to find Tom there also.

“Fitz, I have something very serious to say to you,” announced Charles. “Tell your friend not to back that old man as President of Kenya.”

By ‘my friend’ I knew he meant Pio, and the ‘old man’ was Kenyatta.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” replied Charles in his lordly tone, “he is totally incompetent, he’s senile.”

“But who could you put in his place?”

“He’s sitting right here, Tom is the man.”

Exactly who had first latched onto whom was hard to say, but both men had now shown their hand, to me at least. Charles clearly saw Tom as likely to be the next leader of the country, and perhaps a place for himself in a future government.

Charles’s use of the word ‘President’ was not accidental. Kenyatta had spoken to me on how he saw leadership. He believed strongly that just as you could not have two chiefs in one household, a country could not have two leaders.


On June 1, 1964, he amended the constitution, and on December 12, one year after independence, Kenya was declared a republic, with the office of Prime Minister replaced by that of President, a position Kenyatta automatically assumed, making him Head of State, Head of the Government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Odinga was appointed Vice-President. One of the senior figures in the rival Kadu party, Moi, whose fellow Kalenjins occupied much of the prime Rift Valley land, was promoted to Minister for Home Affairs. At the same time, Kadu was dissolved and merged with Kanu. There was now no clear official opposition.

Kenyatta seemed keen that I should have a position in the new Kenya, and as well as offering me farms, asked if I would like to be a minister, or Attorney-General. I declined. As Deputy Speaker and a lawyer, I had plenty of work, but more importantly, I wanted to keep my independence.

Tom, as Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, in due course asked that Charles Njonjo be made Attorney-General. Kenyatta, who only knew Njonjo distantly as the son of a chief, was not very keen.

Tom told me he also had a fight to persuade the “inner group” including Odinga, who probably had someone in the Asian community such as Kapila in mind for the job.

Though Charles and I had never really agreed, he did get on well with Kapila and a few others in the Asian legal community. Among the few African lawyers in Kenya at that time, Argwings Kodhek and Jean Marie Seroney were both very competent, but Charles was perhaps unique in that he moved almost exclusively in European circles where he had many friends, and Kenyatta, once he got to know him, found his English mannerisms not at all offensive, but rather charming and a good bridge to the Europeans who all liked him.

Thus, at Tom’s request and with Kenyatta’s assent, Charles Njonjo, the man who had seemed so uninterested in advancement, was handed one of the most powerful positions in Kenya.


He would even in a sense come to exercise more control than the President himself. Kenyatta did not attend to the day-to-day business of running the country. Njonjo was quite happy to do so. Why? Because he was ambitious and with it, very clever. Not only did he move in Parliament to bring police investigations under his authority, but he also acted in such a way that all the CID officers now looked on him as their boss and kow-towed to him.

The prosecution also came under his authority, and as side prosecutor he would appoint his own people in the department, and though allowing them a degree of independence, they had basically to follow his preferences, which they always somehow knew and understood. The judges, who had previously had a separate board and budget, were now subsumed within the Attorney-General’s board. In a relatively short space of time, through force of personality and the widespread belief that he was close to Kenyatta, the whole Judiciary was effectively being run by Njonjo.

With such power, he could arrest anybody at any time. I remember the case of an Englishman, a sailor on holiday who, strolling along the seashore and happening to pass what was then the provincial commissioner’s house, was apprehended and locked up. When someone applied for bail for him, Chief Justice Wicks announced: “I haven’t been able to ring my friend Njonjo yet to see whether the man should be released or not.”

A friend of mine was in court at the time. “I’m sorry,” he objected, “but you are a judge and are supposed to be in charge, you cannot approach the Attorney-General.”

Wicks replied simply: “But I always ask him.”  I was very surprised when I heard that, and thought if the Chief Justice is taking instructions from the Attorney-General, we don’t have a Judiciary.


Joe Murumbi’s swift departure as vice-president had left an unexpected vacuum, which in 1967 Kenyatta filled with the appointment of Daniel arap Moi. With Odinga out on a limb, Tom Mboya, who in 1966 had organised the Limuru Conference so skilfully to achieve just that, was now seen more than ever to have his eye on the presidency.

He had married Pamela Odede, one of the young Kenyans sent to study in America, daughter of Professor Walter Odede, a politician and renowned veterinary surgeon, and they now had three lovely daughters. Well known to the international media as a bright, engaging, articulate young family man, Tom Mboya would seem to the outside world a natural successor to lead Kenya.

Close observers agreed this was indeed Tom’s ambition, and a key part of his strategy was to make himself indispensable to Kenyatta, which could already be seen working.

But at some point after 1966, two things began to go wrong for Tom. One, he started to lose his supporters in Parliament. It was happening for a simple reason that, sad to say, stemmed from an aspect of his personality. As a clever man, he couldn’t suffer fools lightly. In debate, at which he was so strong, he would always flatten the other fellow completely.

One day he came to see me and took me for a drive. He was a big minister and I was a nobody, but he wanted to talk. We went to the airport bar.

When we had sat down with a drink, Tom leaned over and said: “Tell me something, Fitz. Why do people hate me?” I said: “Tom, you are so intelligent that when you attack a man in debate, you make him feel absolutely stupid, and a fool in other people’s eyes. It is much better to refute the other fellow’s arguments, while at the same time telling him he has a very good case; if he asks a question of you as minister, don’t make him think he is idiotic; thank him for raising the point so perceptively, then answer it objectively. By complimenting him, in the process, you make him your friend, not your enemy.”


I had learned this lesson from a very shrewd man, Sir Humphrey Slade, who told me one day: “Fitz, don’t be too hard on people, try to praise them a little.”

I realised it was very good advice, which I would follow throughout my life, and in the law courts. As a result, there were several cases in which fellows, Indians mostly, whom I had proved to be liars, came to me afterwards and said: “Mr de Souza, would you be my lawyer now?”

Tom and I were very good friends and had known each other from our youth when he used to come to our house, talking, organising dances and parties, having a lot of fun together. I felt I could be honest with him. I told him again: “Try to be reasonable, realise other people have an ego, dignity, when you make them feel like children they could hate you for the rest of their lives.” He frowned: “That’s difficult, you know.”

Tom’s vanity was a problem. Kenyatta would imitate him, saying: “The man walks like this.” We all knew whom he meant. It was like George W. Bush walked as he approached the podium for a press conference, a sight that annoyed me, showing off his power to the press and to the camera crews, to the world.

Tom had that arrogance. As his star had risen, others, jealous of his youth and appeal, saw the power he was wielding within the government and feared that Kenyatta had become too dependent on him.

Kenyatta, I think, never really liked Tom, but as always, it was a question of who was using whom, and how far Kenyatta would allow it to go. While Tom might be losing friends in Parliament, he was still a force to reckon with, aligned with Kenyatta and very much at the centre of government.


He was, however, a Luo, and here lay his second problem, tribalism: The more he pushed himself forward, the more determined were the Kikuyu that he should not take over. The question now was would he give up trying or would he have to be stopped somehow?

The other prominent Luo, Odinga, was now out of office and in the political wilderness, but hanging on. Any Kikuyu saying publicly that he accepted rule by Luos risked being hounded out of his constituency, but with money from the Chinese, and the Soviets too, probably, Odinga could buy wider support.

Kenyatta, aware of the risk that he might yet stage a successful comeback with the KPU, set about countering it. At a meeting in Nakuru, he attacked Odinga personally, telling the people they could not support the “black necks”, meaning the Luos.

Next, intermediaries who passed or smuggled money into the country for Odinga were arrested. With his funds being cut off and Kenyatta denouncing him, Odinga would quickly lose his support with all the other tribes, and even people like Oduya Oprong and Zephania Anyieni, who before had backed him very staunchly, turned away. Oduya, who I think had once said Kenyatta should resign because “he has let us down”, suddenly became very pro-Kenyatta.

Among those who did not were fellow Kapenguria inmates Achieng Oneko and Bildad Kaggia. Kenyatta was very upset with them both. Oneko had resigned as Broadcasting Minister in 1966 and joined Odinga’s KPU.


Kenyatta told me himself that he had treated Oneko like a son and felt bitterly that he had now betrayed him. Kaggia, who had quit his ministerial post as early as 1964 in protest at the government’s failure to return confiscated land to its rightful owners, had stuck to his belief in equality and helping the poorest people in the Kenyan society.

He was a Kikuyu leader willing to support the left-wing group, who were very keen he should be president of KPU, but the elders said no; Odinga was the more senior person. Kaggia’s response was: “I don’t mind, let him be leader; that sort of thing doesn’t worry me; power doesn’t worry me”.

I think maybe this was the mistake.


Tom Mboya’s escalation of power and influence had by now become too much for his political enemies, and it was decided he must be reined in. As with Odinga, they began damning up his source of money, writing to the US government, issuing statements in the American Press and bringing US business consultants to State House to be lectured by Kenyatta himself about how illegal and immoral it was to support other parties in Kenya. Everyone knew to whom he was referring. Tom seemed undeterred, though. He was getting very unpopular with Kenyatta, Odinga and the African leadership generally, and to try to get him out of the way they offered him a job in the United Nations as Kenya’s Permanent Representative with the chance to go to New York and live in a sumptuous house.

After accepting, Tom quickly realised the job was a way of excluding him and changed his mind. I don’t think he even got as far as leaving the country.

Tom realised he couldn’t fight the Kikuyu, but he was very resilient and resourceful, and using his own youth wingers fought back brilliantly, retaining his position as Minister of Economic Affairs.

However, although he had a few friends, like Oduya, Odero, Jowi and Sam Ayodo, his enemies were the more prominent. Mungai and Moi in particular hated him.

Just after Joe had resigned as Vice-President, Moi had picked a fight with Tom in the parliamentary dining room, accusing him of wanting to take his job.

Tom was a brilliant man, no doubt about it, but he couldn’t stand anybody coming on his wrong side. At one point he even brought a no-confidence vote against me and announced it in the House.

One day I was in the chair when he appeared. Watching him walk very arrogantly across the chamber, the idea just flashed into my mind, by Jove, this man is going to be dead in a few weeks, and I thought, what a shame.

Tomorrow: My struggle to free Kenyatta and other Kapenguria Six members from jail.