Mbiyu Koinange: Bundle of contrasts of Jomo’s friend

Former Cabinet minister Mbiyu Koinange. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Kareithi explained that though Kenyatta never had Koinange run the country on his behalf, he found Koinange an indispensable companion to talk to.
  • Koinange once told then-Coast provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu that he never understood why one should own more than a pair of shoes at a time.

He was a permanent fixture in the presidential photographs taken during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s reign – a balding small-build figure smiling benignly next to the Head of State.

In their free time at State House or at the President’s Gatundu home, the two old men would be together munching on boiled goat head, washed down with a bowl of soup, and swapping proverbs and cheeky peer jokes in vernacular.

On the last day President Kenyatta lived, they had been together at State House Mombasa since morning, when they met Kenyan heads of mission abroad and hosted them for lunch, then took an afternoon tour of the south coast.

After supper, Koinange bade the President farewell to fly out to Nairobi to attend to a pressing personal matter and be back the following day.

It was one of the very few days the two wouldn’t be together. Then the unexpected happened. The President died at night.


For Koinange it was a double tragedy to be away on the night his life-long friend breathed his last, and perhaps would have needed him most if only to whisper goodbye.

The two had been like inseparable twins in the 15 years of Jomo presidency, their friendship going way back when they met in Europe.

It is Koinange who helped Kenyatta coin the word “Jomo”, which became his first name.

Kenyatta had been born Kamau wa Muigai. When his father died and his mother was inherited by her late husband’s brother, he became Kamau wa Ngengi.

At baptism he added the name Johnstone. He had wished to be called John Peter but was told to choose one of the two.

Instead, he added “stone”, which is same as “Teter”, to John to come up with one name – Johnstone.

Later he took to donning hats and belts decorated with beads called “kinyata” in vernacular. People began referring to him by that name.

He liked the name, which he changed to “Kenyatta” and dropped name Kamau in its favour.

Years down the line when living in Europe and bitten by the bug of African consciousness, he requested Koinange to help him come up with a suitable African version of the name Johnstone.

After trying various combinations of vowels and consonants, they came up with the word “Jomo”, which in Kikuyu means pulling a sword off the sheath. And so Jomo Kenyatta he became.


Kenyatta, the elder of the two friends, had first met Koinange as a teenager and classmate to his younger brother James Muigai at the pioneer class of Alliance High School.

Kenyatta’s younger brother was student Number 1 in the register and Koinange Number 5.

They would later meet in England where Kenyatta had taken the fight for Kenya’s independence, and Koinange, the first Kenyan to get a master’s degree, had gone for further education.

The latter had been to Columbia University in New York, and wound up with a postgraduate diploma when he met and became a bosom buddy of Kenyatta’s.

On return to Kenya, Koinange found himself in the awkward position of being “unemployable” because he was “over-educated”.

In colonial Kenya, all the jobs that matched his high qualifications were strictly a reserve of the white people!

In protest, he took the lead position in founding the first indigenous Kenyan learning institution, the Kenya Teachers College in Githunguri in Kiambu, where he was the first principal.

The college became an incubation centre for firebrands and agitation for independence of the colony.

When Kenyatta returned from Europe, Koinange gave him a job as deputy principal at the college.

Their friendship deepened even further when Kenyatta married Koinange’s sister, Grace Mitundu, as his third wife.

He was already married to Grace Wahu, and to a white woman he left in England, Edna Clarke. Later, he would have a fourth wife, Mama Ngina.

Shadow president or palace jester?

At independence, President Kenyatta appointed Koinange minister for State in his office.

A perception formed, and lingers on, that Koinange was the power behind the throne, so much that most misdeeds of the Kenyatta era are blamed four-square on the former minister.

While in Nairobi for the funeral of the late Kenyatta, then-US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his UK counterpart David Owen secretly sought audience with Koinange to get his assurance that there was no secret plot to sabotage then-Vice-President Daniel Moi’s seamless ascendancy to power.

But insiders in Jomo Kenyatta’s government had a different take on the matter. Then Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet Geoffrey Kareithi would tell me that the perception of Koinange as the man who ruled Kenya back in the day was quite off the mark.

“Kenyatta was fully in charge of his government and hardly sought Koinange’s help to execute his mandate,” he said, adding that close as the latter was to the Head of State, his role was largely confined to something of a court jester.

“Kenyatta wanted Koinange by his side not to help him run the country, but just to keep him in good humour,” the topmost civil servant corrected the popular assumption, and disclosed that on most occasions when he went to consult the President on weighty state matters, Koinange would be asked to leave the room.


Kenyatta-era security intelligence head James Kanyotu would testify before a parliamentary committee that he gave security briefs only to the Head of State and when he was alone.

If for one reason or the other the President wasn’t available for briefing, instructions were strictly that the intelligence head only brief the Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

A top Presbyterian clergyman, the Reverend John Gatu, would also recall to me the day he and other men of collar sought to know from the ageing Kenyatta who he preferred as his successor. Koinange was asked to vacate the room as Kenyatta shared his views on the matter.

Another Cabinet minister in Jomo’s government, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, also told me of an occasion when some unscrupulous characters had Koinange instruct him on telephone to let them have their way in a shady deal.

Not sure whether the minister was acting with the President’s consent, he directly checked with the Head of State away from Koinange’s ear.

The President was curt in his reply: “Julius, I am the one and only President of Kenya. Any time in doubt, personally check with me.”

Next time Koinange’s friends showed up in Dr Kiano’s office, he chased them away and Koinange didn’t raise a finger.

Kareithi explained that though Kenyatta didn’t need, and never had Koinange run the country on his behalf, by virtue of age and their shared long history, he found Koinange an indispensable companion to talk to and keep him in a good frame of mind.

With the exception of Koinange, members of Kenyatta’s Cabinet were all his children’s age, hence had little personal experiences to share with the old man.

The wife he lived with, Mama Ngina, was also almost five decades younger than the President, and all her children – including now President Uhuru Kenyatta – were away in school.

In an interview with Koinange’s fourth wife, Hildah Wanjiru, she recalled that when together, Kenyatta and Koinange would share stories and jokes only the two understood.

They fondly referred to the other as korofi (the naughty one), as they remembered their bygone days living in Europe and how life was before independence.

Koinange was the only one who could read Kenyatta’s mood, especially when tensed up from gout pain, and crack an appropriate joke to distract him from his suffering.

He and Mama Ngina were also able to face up to Mzee’s volcanic temper. Provoked to anger, the President would peel off his dentures and unleash a string of epithets as only an elder would.

At that moment, only Koinange would keep his company and not risk a stroke from his walking stick.


A major contradiction about Koinange is that though he accumulated enormous wealth in form of prime land – including an acre of land in the CBD now worth Sh3 billion – and shares in blue chip companies, he was very mean and frugal even to himself.

Once he told then-Coast provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu that he never understood why one should own more than a pair of shoes at a time, when they had only one pair of legs.

On the very rare occasion he took a day off, he would be driven around in the only old Mercedes Benz he owned, and which was remarkable for its worn-out tyres and faded exterior.

The most generous donation he ever made at a fundraiser and sent through proxies was Sh1,000!

And though he left behind so much wealth, he couldn’t come round to writing a will, lest he “lose” his property to his own children!

He was also an absent father whose children’s wedding ceremonies would be postponed for up to half a dozen times because dad wasn’t able to come.

Unavailable even to write cheques to pay family bills, he granted powers of attorney to his younger brother, then-provincial commissioner Charles Koinange, and surrendered his cheque book to him but with firm instructions only to spend on school fees and medical bills but not any other “silly luxury”!

When one of his sons asked for a “soft loan” to set up a business, he got a tongue lashing and was advised to get hold of his age-mates and form a savings cooperative where he could go borrow money.


Yet another contradiction in Koinange is that though educated in two of world’s top universities – Columbia and Cambridge – he still believed in traditional oaths and curses.

Kareithi recalled a day the President had to rebuke Koinange for insisting that a high-powered government delegation that had returned from shopping for arms abroad take an oath never to disclose what they had come back with, something that offended everybody in the room as it cast doubts on their allegiance to the state and loyalty to the President.

“Why take another oath? Kenyatta snapped. “These are my highly trusted officers who have been faithful and loyal to their country all these years!”

On another occasion, Koinange paraded his potential rivals in the race for the Kiambaa parliamentary seat and led the crowds in pronouncing a “curse” on any who would dare oppose him in an election as long as he lived!


For his closeness to the President, Koinange’s was one of the very rare cases when the state machinery intervened in parliamentary elections to ensure Kenyatta’s friend, though hardly ever seen in the constituency, was returned to parliament “unopposed”.

A candidate intent on opposing him in the 1974 elections, Gideon Gathunguri, was arrested by police on flimsy excuses shortly before the deadline for presenting his nomination papers to be freed without charges when the deadline had lapsed.

President Kenyatta also demanded Koinange name and that of his rogue bodyguard, Wanyoike Thungu, be expunged from report of the parliamentary inquest into the murder of fiery MP JM Kariuki.


Life turned upside down for Koinange when President Kenyatta suddenly passed away. In a Cabinet reshuffle by the acting President Moi, he was transferred to the Ministry of Environment.

On receiving the news, for one used to “working” from State House, Koinange’s reflex question to his lifelong secretary, one Ms Carmen Pereira, was: “Where the hell are the ministry offices, and what do they do?”

Soon after he lost his parliamentary seat and retired to his private home. He never lived long thereafter, and followed his friend to eternity in September 1981.

There couldn’t have been a life for him in this world without Jomo around.


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