JM Kariuki

Politician Josiah Mwangi Kariuki who was assassinated in March 1975.

| File | Nation Media Group

JM Kariuki’s last words in 1975 and how they echo Kenya’s situation today

What you need to know:

  • The political firebrand was assassinated in March 1975 and efforts to bring his murderers to book failed.
  • The ills that JM identified back then were corruption, land grabbing, dishonesty, tribalism and nepotism.

I have always heard that weeks before he was killed, J M Kariuki had an interview with a former Nairobi journalist Tony Hughes, which was published in April 1975 after his death, in a now defunct scholarly journal. 

Recently, in my digging, I came across this verbatim article, which is titled ‘JM Kariuki’s Testament’, and it contains all that he thought was going wrong in the 1975 Kenya.

JM, as he was popularly known, was assassinated in March 1975 and efforts to bring his murderers to book failed. His worry, then, as is still our worry today, was the level of corruption, political deceit, and land grabbing by leaders. JM was not a poor man. He was rich. He had class and he had a heart. He also wanted power.

There is a disclaimer here: Whatever you choose do with this information is up to you. But listen to JM’s last words, his testament, to this republic – and which still echo as we prepare to celebrate Mashujaa Day this month.

It was a brutal attack on the privileges of the political elite and governmental corruption. The sleaze and the bad manners. 

“The present (Jomo Kenyatta) establishment is incapable of ending tribalism and nepotism in Kenya. The old group (he was 47) will continue to defend what they have accumulated and anybody who talks about it will be considered disloyal. That is how I am considered,” he told Hughes. 

“The isolation of the present national leadership will continue because they are not prepared to change the system,” he said and expounded on his frustration. “We could have a group of young people who would look for ways and means of promoting these changes but as it is now, that is absolutely impossible. Things are becoming worse and worse.”

“The results of last November (1974) elections represent a defeat for the present establishment. Consider my own case. All the government authorities in my constituency worked for my downfall. When they realised that their efforts were failing, they banned me from speaking, from meeting the people in public. Then the ordinary people came flocking to see me, to tell me, ‘we know what those big people are doing. To try and undermine you. But don’t worry. We have the vote.”

Unfairly acquire wealth

“I was in touch with many other Members of Parliament who had fallen in disfavour – people like Martin Shikuku, Burudi Nabwera, John Seroney and Charles Rubia. These were the one who were left out of the government after the elections, in spite of their seniority and inspite of most of them having held office before. They are referred to as ‘JM’s people’… In Nyanza Province hardly any true government supporters came through. I count a very large number of Members of Parliament as being with me.”

“Let me tell you what it is that we are dissatisfied with, what we don’t like in the present set-up.”

“Since Kenya became independent in 1963, we have moved away from the state which we intended to create. This country has the type of capitalist structure which economists have characterised as economic development without growth. It is like a tree growing very tall very quickly but it is going to fall because it does not have deep roots, it is not firmly rooted in the people and in society.”

“All the development is concentrated in Nairobi. It is no good having development just for a few in Nairobi. It is no justice for a few to live in and own the best houses in cities and town while the majority of our men and women live in squalid conditions in cities and town – not to mention most of rural Kenya.

“It is no justice for a few greedy people with influence and connections to utilise resources of public or government-supported or funded institutions to unfairly acquire wealth – houses, the best commercial premises and the best and largest tracts of land.”

“With such inequalities, we cannot pride ourselves as we look to our record as an independent nation. In the selective approach which has essentially benefited a few, we have meted out injustices to the many. Its continuation will have dangerous consequences for a just society and political order and stable government of this land.”

“There is a belief even among foreign investors that the top echelon of the government is misusing its economic power by insisting on participation in ventures without financial participation, by using its power to demand shares without paying for them.”

“The country’s commercial and industrial sectors at independence were in the hands of Patels and Singhs, the Smiths and the Jones (now) a few Kariukis and Odongos have taken over these business monopolies with the intention of exploiting the masses. We must find ways and means of communal ownership, cooperative societies, (and) parastatals.”

JM Kariuki

Politician Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, who was popularly known as JM Kariuki.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“(This is because) the same people who own large tracts of land are the same persons who are in a position to take large loans from the banks and the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation to enable them to acquire these businesses.”

“Unless we can exercise sufficient control over private ownership, we shall find ourselves in a position where social classes have become so pronounced that conflict is inevitable.”

“There is danger of dividing the people of this country into two distinct classes. In years to come, we are in danger of having a class of the very rich people and a class of very poor people. That is what I can see coming as a result of the present system. If that situation continues there is going to be an uprising.”

“There are inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in Kenya. For example, the Kikuyu from Kiambu deny that they have disproportionate power in the country. There is apparently a feeling among the Kikuyu from Kiambu that the Kikuyu from the North too have much influence in running the government. This is a feeling of the leaders, not of the masses. Those leaders claim that they want to redress what they say is an imbalance and they want to replace those from the North with themselves. They fail to look at Kenya as a unity, as one country. They have to keep looking at things in terms of their districts of origin.”

“The highest goal for any true Kenya is national unity. We should not only preach it but practice it. It should indeed be reflected in our policies, in the attitude of politicians and in the way of life of all those Kenyans who have the supreme interests of Kenya at heart…Only a man devoid of the ideals of a strong and united Kenya would seek votes on the basis of his district or other section of origin. This one nation must not be sacrificed for the convenience of a few leaders.”

“We combined forces for many years to fight colonial and racialist injustice – injustice in social, economic and political opportunities. But it is injustice if some of our children cannot afford education; live in inhuman conditions, die before getting to health centres and die of hunger and malnutrition.”

“Nepotism has set in. The question when one has a problem is: “Do you know anyone from that place?” The implication is clear, if you don’t, you are doomed. Your problem will not be solved unless you are known to someone important. Nepotism and tribalism have set in and are greatly assisted by the inequalities.”

Land ownership issue

“I tell you, the country is not being run by the Cabinet. It is no use having ministers who do not take decisions, who have no control over their ministries. Take the case of Firestone. They are supposed to be protected against the importation of competing tyres by import licensing. Yet, some people in the top positions or their families, have been bringing thousands of pounds worth of Michelin tyres into this country. These things are being done without the approval of the Treasury or the relevant ministers.”

“As for land holdings, I believe that one farm is enough for each family. That is why I have asked for a ceiling on land holding acreage and for a commission of inquiry to determine how many acres of fertile land each person should have.”

“We should institute a principle of land use as opposed to land ownership. The guiding criterion would be the ability to utilise a piece of land and not merely prestigious and speculative ownership at the expense of many.”

“It is wrong for one family to concentrate too much. Some families have been buying 12, 20 farms..”

“In the wake of a sharp need for land, a few people have gone in full force to purchase or acquire tracts of land previously held by settlers. Titles have been issued to a few men, their wives and children... Overwhelming numbers of our people are without money, have no hope of getting a fair deal. Organised groups have not infrequently been outmanoeuvred by those with influence, connections and money.”

“Foreign businessmen and corporations should realise that if there were to be an uprising it would ruin the millions that the British and the American have invested in Kenya. It would be against their interests of the situation continues and an uprising occurs.”

“My own suggestion has always been: the top leaders must accept changes because anything can happen in a country like Kenya to rectify the situation if the leadership is not committed to change.”

JM spoke those words in 1975 – the same month that he was killed. They still echo at this time as the registration of voters continue and as political campaigns start. The question is: which of our current leaders can slay the dragon of corruption, land grabbing, dishonesty, tribalism and nepotism – the ills identified by JM?

[email protected] @johnkamau1