When Kenyatta ordered his cronies’ names removed from JM Kariuki’s death report

PHOTO | FILE The widows of JM Kariuki, Esther Mwikali (left) and Doris Nyambura Mwangi during a ceremony to mark the 36th anniversary of his death on March 2, 2011. The widows and their family wait to know the killers of their husband and father to date.

What you need to know:

  • Officially, the government position is that the case file remains open and anybody with information that can help apprehend JM’s killers should give it to the police
  • It was Charles Rubia who, on March 6, 1975, raised the issue of JM’s disappearance in Parliament

It is 38 years since JM Kariuki was murdered. The body of the charismatic and highly popular MP for the then Nyandarua North constituency was found dumped in a thicket in Ngong Forest, in a place inhabited by hyenas. Its discovery there meant that no clues were needed about the intentions of his killers— the body was never supposed to be found.

The murder has never been conclusively resolved. Officially, the government position is that the case file remains open and anybody with information that can help apprehend JM’s killers should give it to the police. It is by any standard a cruel position but that is what his family lives with.

It was Charles Rubia who, on March 6, 1975, raised the issue of JM’s disappearance in Parliament. JM had not been seen since March 2— the day, in fact, he was murdered. His family had publicly appealed to the government to help trace him.

Justus ole Tipis, an assistant Minister for Home Affairs, told Parliament in a statement: “Mr Speaker, I would like to state that my ministry does not know the whereabouts of Mr JM Kariuki. Police are now investigating and my ministry is awaiting the outcome of their investigations.”

Last week, when JM’s name came up, (he was universally known by his initials), Rubia, said: “I may have too much sentimentality about this because I was in Parliament and JM Kariuki was a colleague in government, and we were regarded as the extremists.

“When he was an assistant Minister for Tourism, I was an assistant Minister for Education. This was in the 1960s and 70s and we worked together very closely on political matters and we were singled out by some people in President Kenyatta’s Government. When JM was murdered in 1975, I was MP for Starehe and was one of the sponsors of the motion to have a select committee of Parliament to investigate the murder.

“In fact, I can tell you, it was my personal idea. There was this American thing, Watergate, and somebody, a friend told me, ‘why don’t you do it like Watergate?’ That’s where I got the idea. I went to Parliament and told my colleagues, ‘we’ve got to do this like Watergate. Parliament must take charge. We can’t trust the government to get to the bottom of this.”

The country was in a state of convulsion. There were demonstrations led by university students protesting the murder. At no time since independence had the Government of President Kenyatta appeared so vulnerable. In fact, the report of the select committee, when it was finally released, noted that had Parliament not done what it did, the fires raging in the country could have spread out of control.

The idea in Parliament at first was just to debate JM’s killing as a matter of national importance. But, according to Rubia, that was never going to be enough.

There were strong suspicions that because of his well articulated position on so many social and political issues, the government, or at the very least elements in it, had a hand in JM’s killing. He recalls:

“There was an idea to debate the issue about JM’s disappearance. It was going to be a debate where you don’t resolve anything, you just express views and I thought ‘no, no, that’s not enough. Let’s have a select committee. I sold the idea to a lot of people and they agreed. I wasn’t alone. There were others, but as I said, I came up with the idea.”

One of the most vocal critics of the government was Martin Shikuku. He is the one who wanted to move a motion of adjournment to debate JM’s death as a matter of national importance. This is Rubia’s recollection of events and his role in them at that time:


“After canvassing the idea of a select committee amongst my colleagues and gaining wide acceptance, we went and spoke to Martin Shikuku. We said to him, ‘No, don’t do this now. Let’s have a select committee.’ Shikuku had already seen the Speaker, Fredrick Mati, who had agreed that he would allow him to raise the matter of adjournment.

So we told him, ‘Look Martin, this is not good enough. Let’s have a select committee. And Shikuku said without hesitation: ‘Alright, we can go that way.’
Then I went to Mati. I told him that a few of us had met and we wanted to have a select committee to investigate JM’s murder. Mati said, ‘No, Shikuku has seen me about the debate.’ I said ‘Yes, but I have spoken to him. He is willing to drop the debate.’

Then Mati said, ‘Alright, you’ll be the sponsor, then.’ Sponsor means the mover of the motion. I said ‘No, I won’t be the mover of it. JM is a Kikuyu and I am a Kikuyu and we want it to look national.’ Mati said, ‘Fine, look for a sponsor and let me have a resolution by two o’clock’. This was all happening during the morning hours. We worked very intensely on this; among the people we were working with was Dr James Muriuki, the MP for Bahati, Waruru Kanja of Nyeri Town, and Mark Mwithaga of Nakuru Town.

I was really the one doing the running around. I went to Wafula Wabuge. I told him, ‘there is this thing and we want to move a Motion calling for the formation of a select committee of Parliament. Will you agree to be the sponsor of the motion?’

Wabuge said, ‘No, no, JM was my friend but why don’t you do it, Charles?’ I said, ‘No, as a Kikuyu, it will look tribal.’ The country was very tense at that moment. The last thing we wanted was to trivialise the matter by making it appear tribal. Wabuge said, ‘No, no, I will support it but I don’t want to be the sponsor’. We looked around but whomever we approached shied away. People were scared of Kenyatta.

Then we went to Elijah Mwangale, who was a back-bencher like us. He could be a haughty man but he was a good debater. I went to him and he said, ‘Oh yes, I will. Bring the resolution and I will sponsor it.’ It was such a relief. We framed the resolution and took it to Mati. Mati said, ‘Okay, I will allow you to raise it after Question Time’. We informed Mati that Mwangale was going to be the mover of the motion.

But after Question Time, which comes after 3.30pm, Mwangale was nowhere to be seen. We frantically looked around, asking, ‘Where is Elijah?’ Fred Mati was a pro-establishment Speaker. I was perceived by his kind as being anti-establishment. Our gelling, purely in terms of political posturing, could therefore not be described as perfect.

But he was my schoolmate in Alliance High School and we knew one another very well.

Before he went to the next Order, Mati addressed me saying, ‘Honourable Rubia, there was a matter you raised with me this morning. Are you ready?’
I replied ‘Yes, Mr Speaker, Sir, but Hon Mwangale is the one to move the motion but he is not around and I am at a loss. Mati said, ‘I’ll give you five minutes to get him but that will be all.’ I looked around for Mwangale but I couldn’t find him anywhere. In the meantime, Mati left the seat to Jean Marie Seroney, his deputy. But before he left the seat, he said: ‘In the absence of the mover, I must drop that item.’


Seroney took the seat. It was after this that Mwangale resurfaced and we asked him with exasperation and anxiety, ‘Where did you go?’ We were feeling as if we could tear him into pieces. He said, ‘Arh! I got annoyed.’ He gave his reasons. Now we were completely at sea. Here was the sponsor of the motion. We had lost time. Mati had dropped the order. What were we going to do?

When we were at Order Number 4 of Question Time, I went to Seroney and whispered to him, and explained what had happened. I told him, ‘this case of JM is very sensitive. The country is tearing itself into pieces. And Mwangale has now come back. Even if the Speaker had closed this matter, why don’t you re-open it?
Let me now say here as a by-the-way that Seroney was one of us. He was part of our group, those of us considered to be a problem. He and JM were together, very good friends. In fact, it was through the campaign by our group, led by JM, that Seroney became Deputy Speaker. Seroney needed no convincing; he just said ‘okay!’

I went to Mwangale and told him that I had spoken to Seroney and he had agreed to reopen the matter. So at a stage in the proceedings I rose and said I wanted to raise a matter of national importance regarding the matter of JM. I said that if not handled carefully, the country was going to be in a lot of trouble. And even if the Speaker had ruled that it was out of time, the matter was of grave national importance and I pray that you will allow it to be reintroduced.

Because I had spoken to him, he immediately suspended the on-going business and allowed the tabling of my motion. That’s when Mwangale rose to move the motion on the formation of a select committee to investigate the murder of JM Kariuki. And that’s how he became the chairman of the Select Committee.

Now, I was very close to JM politically, and I can tell you that I was right at the centre of everything that was happening at that time. This was an obvious case of assassination. As a committee, we recommended that certain people be questioned further.

One of them was Wanyoike Thungu, President Jomo Kenyatta’s bodyguard. The other person we recommended for investigation was Ben Gethi, the commandant of the GSU at that time. Mbiyu Koinange, the Minister for State, was also recommended for investigation mainly because it was his bodyguard who was said to have been following JM. Even he himself, Mbiyu, was in it. But Kenyatta complained about his inclusion.

We took the report to State House, Nairobi, to give a copy to him before we could table it in Parliament. After perusing it, President Kenyatta used these exact words, which I remember very well: ‘If you include my bodyguard Wanyoike Thungu, and you include my Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange, why don’t you include me there as well?’

People were quite scared. Maybe it’s my nature; I always stuck my neck up. I raised my voice and said, ‘Mr President, your name was never mentioned by anybody during the inquiry. But the name of Mbiyu Koinange was mentioned. Clearly, we couldn’t just put your name; you were not involved.


But even then, we are not condemning these people. We are only saying that they should be investigated further. But, sorry Mr President, your minister has been mentioned because of what we have heard. But what can we do as a committee now?’

It is at that point that Kenyatta got into my trap. He said, ‘Alright, if you can remove my minister’s name from that list, you can publish the damn thing!’
We said ‘Alright, Mr President, we’ll do that but because they are already done, we are going to remove that sheet and black out his name.’

That is actually what happened. But some of us had hidden some copies of the report. I myself had a copy, which I had already given to my friend, publisher John Nottingham. I had told Nottingham, ‘in case we are detained or killed, here is a copy. Publish it.’ So the name of Mbiyu Koinange was still there. We went back to Parliament with all those cancellations — in fact what we did was just to stencil it. But people could still read it. The original report is intact. That is what happened.”

Mr Rubia is currently engaged in a tussle with the Prisons Department to release the reflections he wrote while in detention in agitating for a return to multi-party democracy in Kenya in 1990. This account forms part of the narrative of the memoirs he plans to write when those documents are finally released to him.