Jomo Kenyatta

President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta presents the "President's Award booklet" to Miss Janis Joy Dunstan, of Australia, at State House Mombasa on September 3, 1971. She was one of the 34 members of the Commonwealth Gold Award expedition who called on him.

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How Jomo Kenyatta was coerced into taking over the leadership of Kanu

What you need to know:

  • The colonial government was  putting pressure on Kenyatta to keep off active politics and let young politicians lead.
  • In Kanu, a plot was underway to push Kenyatta in isolation and force him to take up leadership of the party.

For the 15 years that he was in power, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta dominated national politics by maintaining a tight grip on Kanu. His name became synonymous with the party, and his position as party leader became almost unassailable.

However, Kenyatta was never interested in joining Kanu when he was released from detention in 1961. Archived records from the governor’s office and Kanu General Council meetings, paint him as a nationalist who was politically confused and afraid to commit himself to either Kanu or Kadu, the two nationalist parties that were prominent at that time.

This was despite the position of party president being set aside for him in Kanu, long before his release. Instead he was considering three courses of action. Firstly to try unite Kanu and Kadu, secondly to start his own political party and thirdly to either join Kanu or Kadu.

On the other hand, the colonial government was equally putting pressure on him to keep off active politics and let young politicians lead.

According to a record of a meeting held at Government House referenced 8/1/38,now available at the British National Archives, when Kenyatta suggested the idea of forming a new party, Governor Patrick Renison was straightforward with him, telling him that he should stay out of politics and instead play the role of a father figure from outside.

Kenyatta then came up with the idea of reviving his old KAU, which had been proscribed during the state of emergency in 1952, but this too was disapproved by the governor.

With the possibility of reviving KAU and forming a new party becoming impossible , Kenyatta tried to have Kanu and Kadu merge into one party. He was hoping that, by uniting in a merger, it would unite different tribes and eliminate tribal tensions that had started to build up.

But Kadu was careful not to end up in a situation whereby it was subordinate to Kanu and be part of its radical policies. On September 29,1961, around 40 Kadu leaders mainly from the Maasai and Kalenjin tribes, angered by Kenyatta’s move, declared that he was no longer accepted as their leader and that he should not hold any meeting in their territory unless he stopped his proposal for a one party system.

Meanwhile, in Kanu, a plot was underway to push Kenyatta in isolation and force him to take up leadership of the party. This plan had first been revealed in strict confidence to the governor by the head of Special Branch, Ian Henderson, who cited his sources within Kanu.

The plan was mooted on September 28, 1961 when Tom Mboya, the party’s secretary general, met Kenyatta’s fellow KAU ex-detainees led by Paul Ngei. During this meeting, a press statement was drafted in which the detainees were to declare that they were joining Kanu.

The whole plan was that, once Kenyatta had seen the signatories of the statement after its public release , he would realise the opposition with which he was faced and would be forced to commit himself to a definite course of action. 

In order not to appear that Mboya was involved in the scheme , the ex-detainees decided that he should not appear with any of them, especially Ngei, in public and should not indicate ,prior to the press release, his knowledge of their plan to join Kanu.

Leadership vacuum

Exactly as Henderson had revealed to the governor, on September 29, 1961, Paul Ngei on behalf of all the ex-detainees announced that all his associates were joining Kanu. It was published in local and international newspapers, among them the Guardian of September 30 1961.

Among the signatories were Joseph Murumbi, Peter Koinange, Paul Ngei, Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia , Kungu Karumba and Muroo Maratha.

The only ex-detainee who didn’t sign the press statement was Achieng Oneko, who had taken up the role of Kenyatta’s private secretary. Perhaps it was feared that, being Kenyatta’s private secretary, he would have leaked the plot to Kenyatta. In the statement, Ngei called upon Kenyatta to open a Kanu office in Nairobi and to “come and lead Kenya .”

He went on : “ After consideration of the present unsettled and undecided political (situation), we declare openly that we give full support to one political party called Kanu.”

Ngei denied suggestions that Kenyatta was “incapable , ineffective and too old to act” and added:

“He is no older than Adenauer and many other world statesmen . Even if he could only work from his bed he could do better than Musaddiq.”

On October 5,1961, five days after Ngei’s press statement, James Gichuru, who was the temporary leader of Kanu, sent a formal invitation to Kenyatta requesting him to take over the leadership of the party.

Mboya, in an effort to push Kenyatta further in a quandary by making it appear as if there was a leadership vacuum in the party , announced that Gichuru “henceforth would only be chairman of Kanu parliamentary group.”

Kenyatta responded to Gichuru’s request on October 19,1961, by asking for a joint meeting of the Executive Committee and Governing Council before he could decide, and went on to suggest October 28 as the most convenient date.

On 28 October,a special meeting of the Governing Council was convened at Parliament Buildings, attended by delegates from 35 Kanu branches. James Gichuru, who was in the chair after welcoming the delegates, said that the only item on the agenda was Kenyatta’s relationship with Kanu.

He informed the delegates that he had sent Kenyatta a letter offering him Kanu presidency, to which he hoped he would now receive a reply.

In a quick rejoinder, Kenyatta said he had long wanted to meet members of Kanu Governing Council and to know the state of affairs of the party, adding that, although he had been offered the presidency , he thought that he should first know details of its financial position and organisation.

Argwings Kodhek then asked Gichuru whether details of the party had been given to Kenyatta since the letter offering him the presidency was sent to him. Gichuru said no and suggested that all branch representatives and Mboya should give brief reports at the meeting.

The first to speak was Ngei, who was more direct, telling Kenyatta that his delay in accepting the presidency meant a delay in the attainment of independence, since Kadu was being sponsored by imperialists.

Laban Lucas, a representative from Elgon Nyanza, stole the show by telling Kenyatta that he had come from “Katanga of Kenya”, and that he brought him greetings from Nabii Elijah Masinde of Dini ya Musambwa. He warned the meeting that, if he returned to Mt Elgon without good news , Kanu would not make any progress there.

A large number of delegates made brief speeches, all expressing similar sentiments and beseeching Kenyatta to become their leader.

After all the delegates had spoken, Mboya in an impassioned speech that lasted fifteen minutes said the party was on the verge of collapse, unless Kenyatta took over that same day. He revealed that the financial state was poor, many cars were in the garage, and others confiscated.

In support of Arap Koskei,a delegate from Nandi who had said that Kenyatta was being put in a very difficult position by being asked to lead a party that had been bedevilled with conspiracy, Mboya said it was necessary that Kenyatta should be given complete power to reorganise and cleanse the party.

He urged all those present to forget the past and work loyally under Kenyatta’s command, arguing that, at times in a struggle similar to Kenya’s, it was necessary to accept a certain amount of dictatorship.”

Mboya’s speech

He complained that Kanu had lost elections in Nakuru because of the rivalry within it , and therefore they couldn’t afford to laugh at Kadu. Mboya concluded his speech by saying that Kanu was not dead and but required only leadership and that if “Kenyatta joined today the whole of Kenya would follow him tomorrow.”

Just after Mboya’s speech, a resolution offering Kanu’s loyalty to Kenyatta, and asking him to lead and organise it, was moved by arap Koskei. It was unanimously passed.

Kenyatta, in his acceptance speech, said the party was not in a bad state as people had suggested to him. In his opinion , it only needed some reorganisation on the lines of his old KAU.

He told of how the Governor had discouraged him from joining politics by encouraging him to play the role of an advisor,but he argued that he knew of no leader of a country who did not lead a political party.

Kenyatta also sensationally claimed that he believed Ronald Ngala, the KADU leader who was serving in the government as Chief Minister, was secretly working with the governor to lock him out of politics

Kenyatta’s move was not well received by the governor. Among Kadu officials , the anger caused by Kenyatta’s move was noticeable.

Mr William Murgor, in an address to his constituents in Elgeyo a day after Kenyatta took charge of Kanu , declared: “ We will not exchange British imperialism for Kikuyu and Luo domination. I advise Mr Kenyatta to remove all the Kikuyu from West Kenya.”

Murgor beat the rostrum with such force to emphasise his point that his stick broke.
Ironically, Murgor was serving as Parliamentary Secretary for Internals Security and Defence after a power sharing agreement between the colonial government and Kadu.

His remarks, therefore, contrasted his position which was equivalent to assistant minister. In the Legislative Council, his remarks ignited anger with members of the opposition Kanu,accusing him of provoking tribal feelings.

Speaking to a tense House, Murgor’s boss Mr Anthony Swann, the Minister for Internal Security and Defence said: “At this critical time in Kenya tribalism has never been more predominant. If members say these things on public platforms, then we shall have a disaster.” Murgor was eventually forced to resign by the governor, dealing Kadu a blow.

In 1964, just before Kenya became a republic , Kenyatta succeeded in uniting Kanu and Kadu , a move that also helped him consolidate power as President of the new republic until his death in 1978.

The writer is a London-based Kenyan researcher and journalist