Mbiyu Koinange: The politician British aptly nicknamed ‘Newt’


What you need to know:

  • Files made public by the British Archives provide interesting reading about a man the British wanted to jail but they never got a chance.
  • It is now known that after Kenyatta suffered a stroke in 1969, Koinange was always on the president’s side, plotting and agonising a Kenya without Kenyatta to an extent of forgetting family affairs.
  • In times of trouble, when the old Jomo was under political pressure, Koinange kept Kenyatta going and playing the role of a court jester.

The British Archives has made public some interesting intelligence files on Mbiyu Koinange, the man they secretly called “Newt” – perhaps because he was a slippery political salamander.

Unless you know the story of Peter Mbiyu Koinange – the man who later became Kenya’s most powerful politician – these files may perhaps be of no interest.

Mbiyu was one man the British wanted to jail, but they never got a chance. He was the man who wanted to inherit the Jomo Kenyatta presidency but, again, he never got a chance.

Last month, on the 36th anniversary of his death, there was hardly any remembrance on the man; perhaps the most powerful Cabinet minister in Kenya’s history.

It is now known that after Kenyatta suffered a stroke in 1969, Koinange was always on the president’s side, plotting and silently agonising a Kenya without Kenyatta to an extent of forgetting family affairs.


In times of trouble, when the old Jomo was under political pressure, Koinange kept Kenyatta going and playing the role of a court jester. The two would crack jokes in a way that no other Cabinet minister would dare. Although Kenyatta had a Vesuvian temper, Koinange managed to cool him even as he unleashed, at times, a string of expletives on his critics and in public.

The colonial files – which can be purchased online - cover the years of independence struggle and give us a glimpse on how the British looked at Koinange, the first Kenyan to get a Masters degree in Sociology after he graduated from Columbia University in 1938.

Koinange had set a record when he became the first student from Alliance to go overseas for studies after he was accepted by the Hampton Institute in Virginia, whose famous alumni included Booker T. Washington. The college had a legacy of black activism only rivalled by Howard University.

Koinange had left Alliance in 1927 for Hampton after a Scottish teacher told his father, Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, that the college was cheap and had strong black links . It was a move that would prepare him to fight later political battles and also help Kenyatta entrench himself.


Koinange’s graduation was a big event that even the Time magazine noticed him in an article titled Dancer’s Son. The Time was curious that a successor to Koinange wa Mbiyu, “a chief of 800,000 Kikuyu tribesmen in then British East Africa’s Kenya Colony”, had graduated with BA degree at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. He had also not only conquered his greatest handicap - his ignorance of English- as the Time put it but when he departed after four years a classmate rightly said: “A noble person goes on his way, conscious of his nobility.”

Unknown to Koinange, who was in Britain during the onset of Mau Mau crisis in 1952, the British intelligence was collecting information on him and even the staff of the East African Airways were keeping the secret service informed, just in case he bought a ticket to return home.

One of those was a Mr H.C.E. Down, who was the publicity officer of the airline. He informed the intelligence officers that Koinange “proposes to book a passage for himself back to Kenya on the same aircraft as Sir Evelyn Baring.”

In his letter, now made public, Down says that “this will be a great embarrassment to Sir Evelyn Baring. We expect a record crowd of Kikuyu to meet Koinange at Eastleigh Airport when he arrives, and it is therefore most important that his arrival does not coincide with that of the new governor.”


In a secret note between the security agents, and signed by a P. Evans Lombe, the officials in Nairobi were told: “We have taken action which we hope will enable us to give you advance warning of departure of Koinange.”

The worry in Kenya was that the return of Koinange, at a time of great political tension was going to jeopardise the British hold on the colony. By this time, all Koinange’s letters were intercepted and copied and were subject of discussion by the intelligence. One of these was a letter from his friend, Peter Abrahams, the South African author of Mine Boy, and who was a frequent visitor to Chief Koinange’s Kiambaa farm.

After one of those intercepted letters, the intelligence officers wrote: “Peter Abrahams has written to Peter Koinange, presumably under the erroneous impression that the latter has returned to Kenya. Abrahams says he will be arriving in Kenya on 27 May for a visit, and asks for accommodation.”

Because of the link with Koinanges, Mr Abrahams got a file opened by the intelligence on him. They wanted to know whether he had any contacts with communists in UK. They found that he was married to a woman named Dorothy, a communist. He had also worked at a communist bookstore, Central Books Limited.


There was also fear that Koinange had asked his father Chief Mbiyu to employ him at the controversial Kenya Teachers College at Githunguri.

Various informants had been assembled to track Koinange and all had codenames, Swift, Land and  North and there was once fear that the sources could be compromised.  In UK, Koinange was always in the company of Fenner Brockway.

Among the Koinanges, Fenner Brockway is well known. A few years ago, we had gone to speak to Elizabeth Gathoni,  the surviving wife of Chief Koinange at her Kiambaa home with renown Oxford University Professor John Lonsdale.  As we walked to the house, she pulled me aside and asked me whether that was Fenner Brockway. I was surprised that she knew Fenner Brockway, the famous British Labour MPs who – together with Leslie Hale - retained the services of a team led by Denis Pritt, a QC to defend Jomo Kenyatta during the Kapenguria trial.

The British were worried that Koinange and Kenyatta were raising funds through the Kenya African Union (KAU) to enrich themselves. 

In one letter, the intelligence say that Koinange had asked the secretary of KAU for more money.

“This is illuminating because the Kenya African Union have been collecting large sums at their recent meetings, held ostensibly  for this very purpose of financing Peter Koinange. At one meeting the amount realised was £200; clearly a lot of this is finding its way into other people’s pockets. Jomo Kenyatta is suspect in this connection.”


The Security Liaison Officer in East Africa, Lt Col J. Baskervyle-Glegg  wrote a scathing letter on Kenyatta’s management of the teachers college in Githunguri.

“I have been informed by the DIS (Director of Intelligence Service) that reports are being received that educated Africans are becoming captious regarding Jomo Kenyatta’s lethargic attitude towards the affairs of the Kenya Teachers College. Critics are reported to be saying that his only interest on the college is financial gain. It is rumoured that when Peter Mbiyu returns to Kenya Jomo Kenyarra will probably return to England where he is said to be sending money  and luxuries.”

The fear in London, at least by April 1952, was that Koinange was planning “a campaign of non-co-operation” if the Kenya land question was not settled in the indigenous Kenyan’s favour.

That July, the BOAC airline contacts with the intelligence had been asked “to place Koinange’s name on the Stop List”  and according to Lt Col J. Baskervyle-Glegg, East Africa’s Security Liason Officer  “we shall be informed immediately a firm booking has been made…unfortunately we have no idea when Koinange proposes to return to Kenya.”

What the British knew was that the British Communist Party had tried to recruit Koinange “but eventually gave him up as a bad job” according to intelligence briefs. “Whether or not it was a case of sour grapes is not clear, but according to source “North”, the party dismissed Koinange as unreliable and unlikely to be useful.”


In a letter written a month before the State of Emergency was declared in 1952, the British privately wrote that “there is nothing whatever (sic) to indicate that Koinange is implicated in Mau Mau activities but I do feel that the colonial office would be glad if we were to operate an HOW on him, if only for the purpose of satisfying ourselves that the result is negative.”

Operating an HOW meant that Koinange’s phone would be tapped – on in security parlance, telechecked. The only problem was that some of intercepts were in Kikuyu and had to be sent to Nairobi for translation. That was a month after the State of Emergency had been declared and it was suggested that the name Newt should be used to refer to Koinange.

But the intelligence found that getting a Kikuyu translator who was competent to intelligence standards was impossible. The man they had turned out to be a friend of Koinange’s ally in London, Muoria Mwaniki, a pioneer Kenyan journalist who was also teaching Kikuyu language at the University of London’s School of Oriental Studies.

It was after these intercepts that the true story of Koinange emerged and the intelligence started referring to him as a “political extremist” and as the son of ex-Senior Chief Koinange “who is now under arrest in Kenya charged with the murder of Chief Waruhiu.”


But the Colonial Office, somehow did not see him as a threat. While there was fear that Koinange might return to Kenya to step into Kenyatta’s shoes, some thought he could not spark any revolution.

“We are not in a position to comment on Koinange’s potential influence in Kenya in the present situation. We can only say that his associates here are reported to consider him a somewhat ineffective person,” said one letter from Colonial office dated December 1952 writing to the intelligence officers in Kenya.

Again, the Colonial Office said that while the whites, according to the letter, “talk of his abilities as a propagandist” this was not an indication “of the influence which he might be expected to exercise over the Kikuyu if he were among them in person.”

They also managed to intercept a phone call from Muoria to Koinange in which he expresses his dissatisfaction on Koinange’s work: – “That he never gets down to things.” 


This was perhaps because Koinange, at least by December 1952, had become broke and at one point he had eaten nothing for a whole day.

“Rolene gave him some money and said Copai (Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism) would discuss possibility of giving Koinange something regularly. Rolene told him that they would make some arrangement between themselves so that he should not be stuck without money. Both were horrified he should starve…”

By this time his source of money, KAU activists in Nairobi had been put behind bars.

Koinange could neither travel to the US after the British government sabotaged his trips and he was the man the Colonial government did not want to take a seat during the Lancaster Conference leading to a stand-off. He later ended up in Independent Ghana as an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah before returning to Kenya as Jomo Kenyatta’s Cabinet minister.

The full story of Mbiyu Koinange has, however, not been told – perhaps one person, Kenya has forgotten.