James Karugu resigned as attorney-general to start farming

Former Attorney-General James Karugu recounts his life in office, during an interview at his Kiambu home on May 9, 2017 PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Mr Karugu was a familiar name in the 1970s, when he was the deputy public prosecutor, until April 1980.
  • Mr Karugu had graduated as a student of history and political science from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
  • His main worry when he became the AG was that corruption was taking root in the Judiciary.

The lawns by the pink-coloured Indian-inspired flat-roof villa are immaculate, green and splendid.

While the coffee farm that rings the homestead — located on the outskirts of Kiambu Town — is perhaps one of the best in Kenya.

Ever since Kenya’s second Attorney-General, James Boro Karugu, retreated here some 37 years ago, the media seems to have forgotten a man touted as the best AG in Kenya.

When I recently traced him to his farm, Mr Karugu was welcoming.

“This is where I decided to hide,” Mr Karugu, 82, tells me in his first-ever media interview since he left his job, albeit in a huff, on the morning of June 2, 1981.

His voice is a bit raspy and I edge closer to him.


The entire family is here and they keep close to their father, who, interestingly, does not play golf — the solace of his age-mates.

“I have never played that boring game,” he says.

Mr Karugu was a familiar name in the 1970s, when he was the deputy public prosecutor, until April 1980, when he was appointed by President Daniel Moi as the new Attorney-General to take over from Charles Njonjo, independent Kenya’s first AG who had resigned to join politics.

It was a well-calculated move by Mr Njonjo, who had ostensibly paid then Kikuyu MP Amos Ng’ang’a to resign to give him a chance to enter Parliament.

Two months after he was elected unopposed, Mr Njonjo rejoined the Cabinet as a minister for Constitutional Affairs.

But hardly 15 months after his appointment, Mr Karugu surprised everyone by resigning.

Nobody knows what transpired at State House and Karugu, 37 years later, is still unwilling to go into the fine details.

“Let us put it this way — there were frustrations and issues that I could not push forward,” he says as I press him.

He then promises me that he will tell me at an opportune time.

What we know is that unlike other parrots of the Nyayo era, the now gray-haired Mr Karugu was fiercely independent and he respected the rule of law.

And when he decided that he couldn’t work with President Moi, Mr Karugu hardly told anyone that he was throwing in the towel.

“I did not consult anybody, I just wrote the resignation letter,” he tells me. Was he pushed or did he jump? We still don’t know.

“But you didn’t look for another job?” I ask him.

“I didn’t. I did not want to be told what to do. I could not stand being ordered, ‘Do this, do that’...” he says while almost dropping a hint about his departure.

Mr Karugu, his wife, Margaret (now late), and four children — Vicky, Mwaura, Rose and Githara — retreated into his coffee farm from his former residence in Loresho, away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. He started farming.

Kiamara Farm is historical and expansive. It was in a nearby Kathini Estate during the pioneer days of coffee that leaf thrust disease was identified first in East Africa and this saw the founder of Kiamara, John Walter Lennon, sell what was regarded as Kenya’s finest coffee farm.

That Mr Lennon sold the farm sent shockwaves through the coffee industry, since Kiamara was thought to be cushioned against any attack.

Many years later, it became the turn of Mr Karugu to buy the farm when most of the colonial farmers were leaving after independence.

“I was forced to buy this farm by Jeremiah Kiereini. I knew nothing about coffee and he forced me to take a bank loan. Had he not got me interested, I certainly would not have bought it,” he says.

It was the best decision he made.

Mr Kiereini and Mr Karugu were good friends and were some of the post-independence pioneers in the civil service.

As Mr Karugu tells me, and Mr Kiereini says as much in his autobiography, he (Kiereini) had a long interest in coffee farming.

By the time he was coaxing Mr Karugu to buy Kiamara Farm, Mr Kiereini was already an established coffee farmer with 250 acres.

“I relied on him to turn around this farm. I also relied on my good friends Dr Njoroge Mungai and Mr D.G. Njoroge,” he says.

While Dr Mungai was a powerful Kenyatta Cabinet minister and Mr Kenyatta’s physician, Mr Njoroge was the auditor-general for many years.

So close were Mr Karugu and Mr Kiereini that the latter says in his book that every week, they would all have lunch at either Red Bull or Bacchus Restaurant at The New Stanley.

As many civil servants later found out, working with President Moi was arduous.


On the day that Mr Kiereini was to be appointed the Head of Civil Service, President Moi had not even told Mr Geoffrey Kariithi, the incumbent, that he would be dropped.

Only Mr Kiereini and President Moi knew and as he joined Mr Karugu for lunch at the Red Bull, Mr Kariithi appeared.

He was the last man Mr Kiereini wanted to see on the day President Moi was to make the changes normally announced during the one o’clock KBC news.

“He normally did not have lunch with us so it was purely coincidental that he changed his routine that day and came to the restaurant instead,” Mr Kiereini says.

“He looked quite happy and relaxed as he joined us.”

It was only after Mr Karugu, Mr Kiereini and Mr Kariithi stepped out of the restaurant that acquaintances started to congratulate Mr Kiereini.

“Haven’t you heard? You have been appointed Head of Civil Service!” one of them said in front of Mr Kariithi, who was jolted by the news.

“The news seemed to stun Kariithi, who stood more than a foot away, and I knew how he must have felt.

"Having served diligently for all those years, he had not even been made aware that he was about to be retrenched and replaced by his former deputy,” Mr Kiereini recounts in his book.

And that was the classic Moi who had perhaps forgotten the role that Mr Kariithi had played for the smooth transition after the death of Jomo Kenyatta.

When he left the Moi administration, Mr Karugu — perhaps ever cautious — tells me that he built his new house in Kiamara for a reason:

“I wanted to make a statement that I did not want to return to Nairobi.”

Mr Karugu had graduated as a student of history and political science from Bowling Green State University in Ohio before proceeding to London for a law degree.

As we sip some tea, he fetches some pictures from his album:

“In the US, I became a baby-sitter for Scott Hamilton, the one who later became an Olympic champion. This is the boy here and me,” he says.

Hamilton, now a retired American figure skater, won four consecutive US championships (1981–84), four consecutive World Championships (1981–84) and a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.

His father, Dr Earnest Hamilton, was a lecturer at the Bowling Green campus, where Mr Karugu was a student.

“It was a tough job. I didn’t know how to cook anything…,” he says with a chuckle.

Mr Karugu’s father had sold their four-acre farm in Chura, Kiambu, to send his son to the US to follow the dream of the likes of Mr Mugo Gatheru, later a professor (emeritus) of African and Middle-Eastern history at the State University of California-Sacramento from 1969 until his retirement in 2002.

“It was Mugo who advised me to study law after I graduated from Bowling Green,” he recalls. “To me political science was just a simple subject.”

Mr Karugu seemed to admire lawyers and the legal jargon and he diligently followed the Kapenguria trial of Jomo Kenyatta and the legal arguments.

“I came to admire the likes of D.N. Pritt and A.R. Kapila, who I later worked with.”

In London, he met the likes of Kihara Muttu, a soft-spoken lawyer from Nyeri who later became a Principal State Counsel.

But on returning home, Mr Karugu was penniless and could not start his own law firm.

He was advised by friends to look for a job at the AG’s chambers.

“So you worked under John Hobbs?” I ask him and he stares at me, stunned by my knowledge of John Hobbs.

“Who are you?...and how come you know John Hobbs,” he asks me.

In archival documents, Mr Hobbs is the one who appended signatures on most of the official documents apart from Mr Njonjo.

“He was a pleasant person. I replaced John as the DPP (deputy public prosecutor).”

Mr Karugu recalls with nostalgia working under Mr Njonjo: “He would call me to his office and tell me which cases to take over and prosecute.

“Gaka ni tukuoha,” Mr Njonjo would normally say, meaning, “We are going to jail this one”.

Or “Gatware Mombasa” (Take him to Mombasa) — and Mr Karugu would fetch a police car and take the suspect to wherever Mr Njonjo ordered.

It was while he was at the prosecution office that Cabinet minister Tom Mboya was assassinated and the hunt for the killer led to the arrest of Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, who was charged on July 21, 1969.

Mr Karugu wanted to prosecute this case but his senior, Mr Clive Brookes, decided not yet.

“I wish I had the Mboya case,” Mr Karugu thinks of how it would have built his image. “There was no way we were going to lose this case.”

Winning epic cases always called for celebrations. “We would always go for drinks with Brookes and John Hobbs after winning classic cases.”

“We had this attempted coup on Kenyatta in 1970 and you were the DPP? You were 33 and these were very senior men in the military,” I ask him about the coup plotted by Army Commander Brigadier Joseph Ndolo and that implicated first African Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa and several Kamba personalities, including Yatta MP Gideon Mutiso and Makerere don Prof Ouma Muga.

“This was a very big case, and focus turned to me. Had I lost that case, Mzee (Kenyatta) would not have forgiven me,” he says.

“I used to report to him on the progress of various cases. He would also call me to discuss cases.”

Mr Karugu’s appointment as Attorney-General after Mr Njonjo left did not surprise him. He had not canvased for the appointment.

“I would have been surprised if I had been bypassed,” he says.

But the appointment also came with the challenge of the famous Frank Sandstrom case, where an American marine had been accused of killing a Mombasa woman named Monica Njeri.

The case had turned emotional after Justice Leslie Harris fined Mr Sandstrom Sh500 for killing the girl.

In Parliament, Mr Karugu surprised everyone when he said that he was not satisfied with the ruling.

But by that time, the marine had paid the fine and left. “It was not the first time I had done it. I don’t know why people were surprised.”

His main worry when he became the AG was that corruption was taking root in the Judiciary. “Although it was not as rampant, it was there…”

And when he quit he had one philosophy that has guided him: “I don’t have to be corrupt and I can earn money by farming.”

And that is why he took his wife and children to the farm in Kiambu to make what he calls an honest living.

“I am lucky my children grew up knowing the joy of hard work.”

Interestingly, Mr Karugu’s wife used to pick coffee on this farm when she was a young girl attending Kiambaa Primary School.

She later joined Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for a bachelor of arts degree in history.

As Kenyans prepare for yet another AG after the exit of Prof Githu Muigai, the story of Mr Karugu — the man who reintroduced the publication of Kenya Law Reports and also banned the manufacture and sale of chang’aa — has yet to be told.

We then start admiring his mementos: the colonial passbooks, the passports and various other documents filed immaculately.

Pundits say that given his independence, there was no way he could have survived the Moi regime.

He is a man who left with his head high to Kiamara Farm.

As we stand outside, we could see the Two Rivers Mall standing out in the horizon.

“When you see Chris Kirubi, tell him he has blocked my view of Nairobi,” he says as we shake hands.


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