Mystery of JM Kariuki’s millions

A portrait of the late JM Kariuki. 40 years ago, on March 2, 1975, the charismatic MP for Nyandarua North was brutally murdered. ILLUSTRATION | J NYAGAH |

What you need to know:

  • That JM Kariuki was immensely wealthy was known – his only mistake was that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
  • How JM Kariuki had managed to amass so much fortune in less than 10 years was puzzling, nay amazing.
  • At a time when an MP’s salary was less than Sh1,000 a month, JM had, by 1966, become a millionaire and was never ashamed to talk about it.
  • Kariuki had other properties under his family-owned company Kanyamwi Trading Company Limited which was an acronym for Kariuki, Nyambura and Mwikali, his two wives.

Two events this month went unmarked by the nation. The first was the 42nd anniversary of the death of JM Kariuki, which was on March 2, and the other was his birthday on Tuesday, March 21. Had he not been killed in 1975, he would have turned 88 this year: Five years younger than former President Moi and two years older than Mwai Kibaki. JM is slowly being forgotten.

In some years gone by, that studious silence would always be broken by the university students as they rioted to demand answers on who killed JM, as he was popularly known. Not any more.

Because of the manner in which he died – shot, disfigured and left on the hyena’s path in Ngong Hills – the slain vocal, flamboyant and boisterous Nyandarua North MP entered Kenya’s annals of history as a man who challenged the status quo. To his enemies, JM was a wind-bag and a loud-mouth. To his admirers, he was the hero of the downtrodden.

In 1975, shortly after his death, British journalist and historian Martin Meredith came to Nairobi to cover the funeral for the Sunday Times. In his article, he described JM as “a playboy”, and as not “particularly admirable character”. But he had said that Kariuki was gifted with “an unerring popular touch”.

JM, as he was popularly known, died young. He was only 46. I once asked the late Njenga Karume, the one-time powerful Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) chairman, why JM was the target of assassins and his reply was curt: “You don’t speak when you are eating,” said Karume. He had been warned by his close associates to tread carefully – and he said as much as he continued to pester the regime.

That Kariuki was immensely wealthy was known – his only mistake was that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. He was the ultimate king of double-crossers.

How he had managed to amass so much fortune in less than 10 years was puzzling, nay amazing. But his, like other politicos, was the story of independence heroes who took advantage of the opportunities that emerged for the African elite who tossed themselves into a wealth amassing spree that spared nobody – apart from Bildad Kaggia, who died in penury.


Detained in Manyani in 1957, JM was one of the Mau Mau “hard-cores” and was once senselessly beaten by prison warders to confess.

“I was beaten terribly on my ears and I contracted chronic otitis media,” he once said. That is why JM always carried match sticks to clean up his ears. Apparently, he had received some 200 lashes, was put in solitary confinement and was one of those in Manyani Camp No 6 who had refused to incriminate others. “I was always termed a leader of hardcore resistance.”

When the Israelis decided to fund the secret training of former Mau Mau fighters ahead of independence – starting with the military training of General China at Tel Aviv’s Military Officers Training School and at the Kibbutz (collective village) of Kfar Hannassi in northern Israel – the onus of forming the multi-million-shilling Gadna-Nahal type of movement fell on JM, whose book, The Mau Mau Detainee, had been released by Oxford University Press.

JM was also Kenyatta’s private secretary and Kenyatta had personally recommended him to the new Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Foreign minister Gold Meir.

Both were eager to train the thousands of ex-Mau Mau fighters and prepare them for the military and Kariuki would soon become the person to run the show in Nairobi.

In September 1963, some three months to independence, JM connived with Jesse Gachago (Makuyu MP who was later jailed for stealing coffee) and they introduced a private member’s motion on the establishment of what was known as National Programme for Kenyan Youth.


It was the first freelance motion in Parliament and Kenyatta, who was then Prime Minister, did not want to openly display his dalliance with the Jewish state which was behind this motion. It was a chance to adopt Israeli’s Nahal experiment in Kenya.

When Kenyatta was looking for money to revamp Kanu ahead of the 1963 elections, JM Kariuki and Harun Muturi, his brother-in-law, were some of the emissaries who were sent abroad to go and fundraise. In his book, former Central Bank Governor Duncan Ndegwa reveals that JM was one of the people who “received such cheques.”

Some of the money came from the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It will never be known how much money JM collected.

That is how central JM was in the early years of the Kenyatta government.

So central was Kariuki that when close Kenyatta allies went on a land grabbing spree, JM was one of those whose names were sent to the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) and he was allocated some 800 acres in Ol Kalou. When he was asked about this land (popularly known as Riverside Farm) in 1966 by then celebrated Nation editor Tony Hall, JM was candid: “You mentioned my 1,000 acres.

Well, people know that I did not have to pay out everything for it. This was paid by the government. I was lucky enough to buy it early on when there was no demand for a 50 per cent deposit,” he said in an interview published in 1966. By that time, he had also acquired the 200 acre Kanyamwi Farm in Gilgil.

Government documents show that JM was one of the first beneficiaries of Settlement Fund Trustees, which had been given money by the British government to settle the landless.

Despite protests by Neil Brockett, an official of the British High Commission, who voiced concern that some key politicians had acquired huge tracts of land in the settlement schemes, this went on with the tacit approval of the Settlement Fund Trustees who were then Finance minister James Gichuru, Bruce McKenzie (Agriculture) and Jackson Angaine (Settlement). Up to that point, only Kandara MP Bildad Kaggia was on record among the politicians criticising the land grabbing spree via SFT.


At a time when an MP’s salary was less than Sh1,000 a month, JM had, by 1966, become a millionaire and was never ashamed to talk about it. He owned several race-horses, was a member of the elite Jockey Club and sat in the boardroom of several blue-chip companies among them East African Breweries.

JM was the first African to own a horse and had become an insider in the gambling circuits, owning shares in the casino and becoming the chairman of the Betting Control and Licensing Board. It was a multi-million-shilling industry.

But when asked in 1966 how he made his money, JM said: “As you know I am not one of the international drinkers … I got a loan to develop my farm and from there I continued making money.” He even protested that people were singling him out as wealthy. He said this was because there were few non-Africans who were as rich as him: “Believe me, there are many, non-Africans who are very rich.

But because they have been in a wealthy society, nobody bothers to seek them out. Today, if a man like me gets a little bit of money people talk about me, and some other leaders in this country being rich. But we are not – comparing with what other people in this country, European and Asians, are making.”

In the local Jewish circles, JM – thanks to his Israeli connections – became a good friend to some of the best known in town. Among them was Israel Somen, one time Nairobi Mayor and honorary consul, and the Nairobi real estate millionaire Jacob Hirschfeld – son-in-law to Abraham Block.


When Hirschfield decided to protect his Joreth Farm from compulsory acquisition from the government, he gave some senior government officials some prime land there. LR No. 4894/188 which comprised a 5.6 acre Castle-Inn Hotel was given to Mr Kariuki while Cabinet ministers among them Paul Ngei was given LR 4894/16, Lawrence Sagini (LR 4894/2), and Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano’s American wife, Hammond (LR 4894/25) among others.

Kariuki had other properties under his family-owned company Kanyamwi Trading Company Limited which was an acronym for Kariuki, Nyambura and Mwikali, his two wives.

In the company, JM held 50 per cent shareholding while his wives Doris Nyambura and Esther Mwikali held 25 per cent each. This was a business enterprise registered in 1966 and owned several liquor outlets in Nyandarua – thanks to JM’s boardroom connections at the East African Breweries.

He was also a big beer distributor in the Rift Valley via his three companies – Nyandarua Samburu Agencies, Laikipia Distributors and Rift Valley Agencies. He had also had built a commercial building known as Kanyamwi Building in Nyandarua.

Besides his properties in Nairobi, JM had major shares in Kedong Ranch Limited, Motor Mart Group Ltd, Kenya Breweries, CMC Holdings, Pan African Insurance Co Ltd, ICDC, Kulia Investments, Market Ltd, Unga Ltd, Rift Valley Agencies, Standard Chartered and several others.

Rift Valley Agencies was one of the companies that former EABL chairman -turned politician Kenneth Matiba singled out as the enterprise he set up for Vice-President Daniel arap Moi and his brother-in-law Eric Bomett to become beer distributors.


Besides the stable of racehorses, it is also known that JM owned a tour company jointly with an Israeli businessman Ernest Kahane and they had a charter aircraft based at the Wilson Airport. But it was in the mining business, together with his brother-in-law Harun Muturi aka meta meta, that JM got more of his wealth.

Another of his company was Kariuki and Gathecha Company Limited, which he co-owned with a Dominic Gathecha. Both owned a 453 acre farm in Ruaraka which they sold to Nyakinyua and Kang’ei Farmers in 1974, the year before JM died. Gathecha later refused to transfer the land, leading to a protracted case in which the Court of Appeal sided with Kariuki and Company since they argued that the law had not been followed in the sale.

The Kariuki family would later try to seek justice on Kariuki’s share in this property.

Shortly after his death, besides the tussle within the family over his wealth, his wife Nyambura would later reveal how Kariuki’s lawyer, Lee Muthoga, burnt some files that contained some documents.


“Shortly after JM’s funeral, Muthoga called us together (JM’s wives) and asked me to get a certain blue file which JM had given me a long time ago. I extracted it from the safe where I had kept it Will. I did not suspect anything because Muthoga was like a member of the family whom JM had helped a lot by paying fees for and helping to start his law firm. Instead of reading it to us … Muthoga sat by the fireside and plucked out page by page, reading each of them and then throwing all of them into the fire.”

Whether these files contained documents that could help trace JM’s properties is not known but Muthoga would later say that they contained damaging income tax records – meaning that JM may not have been filing his tax returns correctly.

As one of the wealthiest Kikuyus of his time, JM used to intimidate the Kiambu mafia. He saw himself as the voice of the downtrodden and started a populist campaign across the country where he donated hundreds of thousands of shillings.

At a time when Jomo Kenyatta was ailing, JM was seen as one of the most popular outsiders. He had the wealth and, as he looked for power, he stepped on various toes. He was a contradiction and would openly say that “Kenya has become a nation of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars.” Had he survived, JM would certainly be one of Kenya’s wealthiest men – and is the man Kenya wants to forget.

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