From Jaramogi to Murumbi and Saitoti; tribulations of Kenya’s vice-presidents

Jomo Kenyatta

President Jomo Kenyatta (right), First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta and vice-president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga during 1964 Jamhuri celebrations in Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In electing a deputy, the future Kenyan president should pick a person they can work with.
  • Before 2010, choice of deputy president was the preserve of the power brokers.

Before they fell out, Jomo Kenyatta and his deputy, Oginga Odinga, used to wear similar beaded beanies although Jomo was more flamboyant with his Savile Row suits, a knobbly black walking stick, a silver-handled seigniorial fly whisk, a gigantic golden ring (sometimes two) and a gold Omega watch. Odinga was much more at home with his Communist Zhongshan suits, made famous by Chairman Mao, and traditional walking stick and fly whisk. He could also wear Akala and khaki shorts.

Before the Karen residence of a deputy president was conceptualised, the vice-president had, for years, no residence after Moi grabbed what used to be the official residence of the VP – now known as Kabarnet Gardens – and made it his home. Most other ministers in the Moi era did as much and that is how ministerial residences disappeared – a story which deserves much more investigation. I will soon be digging the details. 

What we know is that Moi, after he became president, refused to vacate Kabarnet gardens for Mwai Kibaki who, perhaps, was more comfortable in Muthaiga than Kibera. But that is not my story today.

Before 2010, the choice of deputy president was the preserve of either power brokers – or left to the personal whims of the president. Here, you are either fired, forced to jump, pushed out – or sidelined.

Of all positions in Kenya, that of vice-president – and now deputy president – has been the trickiest. The modern day DP, as Ruto has found out, can be like a minister without portfolio since the constitution did not assign him specific duties apart from chairing Intergovernmental Budget and Economic Council. The other story that Dr Fred Matiang’i took the DP’s work is not supported by any clause in the constitution.

That Dr Ruto has been frustrated as Uhuru Kenyatta’s assistant is now on record. But that appears to have been the nature of the job. As Kenyans wait for the selection of running mates for the August 9 presidential race, I would want to share what some vice-presidents faced while in office and how they faced their predicament. Kenya has now had 11 vice or deputy presidents.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (1964 – 1966)

The choice of Odinga as Jomo Kenyatta’s vice-president came amidst some misgivings from the exiting colonial government which regarded Jaramogi as too radical. When Kenyatta was prime minister, the British rejected Odinga’s nomination to the Cabinet and he had no peace, thereafter. This is what he later wrote:

“On Kenyatta’s list, I was Minister of Finance. The colonial office vetoed my appointment. The British government refused to give a reason. I have no doubt that Governor Patrick Renison persuaded the colonial office (if persuasion were needed at all) that my visits to socialist countries made me unfit to take cabinet office. I also know of behind-the-scenes discussions in London in which some Kanu men hinted that I would be unacceptable not only to Kadu but even to some groups in Kanu. When the opposition of the colonial office was made known to him, Kenyatta removed me from his list. I was neither consulted.”

And that was not the end of his problems. The moment he was picked VP by Kenyatta, pressure on him to quit started. But it was the humiliation that he would later write about.

“On United Nations Day 1965, I was present at the commemorative meeting when a minister appeared to represent the President and to take the salute in the presence of myself as vice-president. Next there was yet another shuffling of my functions as vice- president. Responsibility for elections was removed from my portfolio, and given to a civil servant.

Then came the incident in the House when a motion of confidence in the government—then under fire, significantly, for its policy on Rhodesia as expressed by the Minister for Finance, James Gichuru, in Lagos at the time of the Commonwealth Conference on Rhodesia—was introduced by Tom Mboya, Minister for Economic Planning, but without my knowledge; and at the time I was Leader of Government Business in the House.”

And when the time to quit came, Jaramogi concluded his resignation letter: “You have not given me any consideration to me as your number 2 in state matters. I have a conscience and this in fact does prick me when I earn public money but with no job to do. I am worried lest the future generations question my sincerity when they would learn that I allowed myself to hold sinecure post in the midst of poverty and misery in our country. With this realisation, I cannot continue to hold this position any longer and I hereby tender my resignation.”

Joseph Murumbi

Socialist and art collector Joseph Murumbi was hardly two months in the office when he sensed that he would be a man under siege. There is a letter at the Kenya National Archives which he left and it reflects his dilemma. According to Murumbi, people exploited Kenyatta’s age and took advantage of him. “The Royal Family take more advantage of him, than he realises that, but he can’t do anything,” a passage in his posthumous, A Path not Taken: The Story of Joseph Murumbi, quoted him saying.

Murumbi says that even before the Limuru Conference of 1966, which brought down Jaramogi, and he was named vice-president to replace him, he had already made up his mind to leave. While he was appointed in May, 1966, he had by July put his resignation letter.

There were two things that always annoyed him: Pinto’s murder and the deportation of Kisumu lawyer, Pranlal Seth.

“I was having lunch at State House with the President, and all the ministers were gloating over this thing that they had deported Pranlal. I said, “No, I don’t agree with any of you people.” They said: ‘He is a Communist…” I said “I don’t agree with anybody…”

Then he turned to Kenyatta and asked him point blank: “Could you tell me the real reason why Pranlal was deported.” The answer according to Murumbi came six months later when Kenyatta told him: “Joe, the reason we deported Pranlala was because he was the brains behind the formation of KPU (Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union).”

“Mzee, do you realise that there are people in this country who have legitimate grievances against the government, people like Odinga and Achieng Oneko, and the people of KPU?...whoever has given you that information, they have been wrong, the people have got a genuine grievance.”

Murumbi couldn’t stay in such a system, he feigned illness and went to private sector.

Daniel arap Moi

Moi was the punching bag of the Kiambu mafia, in that, he was closer to becoming president in case Kenyatta died in office. In his biography written by Andrew Morton, Moi recounted what happened one evening at State House, Nakuru.

“(Moi) was deliberately kept waiting by the President’s aide-de-camp, the Rift Valley provincial commissioner Isaiah Mathenge, who allowed numerous groups to call on the President while Moi sat patiently in the waiting room. When Kenyatta rang through to see who was left, Mathenge replied: ‘There’s only Moi here.’ Then Kenyatta came out and started speaking Kikuyu, a language which Moi follows with difficulty. In the end, he asked Moi to listen to a choir with him before discussing his business. During the singing, the President dozed off.” In another occasion, wrote Morton, “On at least two occasions, James Mungai (The Rift Valley provincial police commissioner) slapped Moi in the face in front of President Kenyatta at State House, Nakuru. Moi’s motorcade was regularly stopped and searched by Mungai’s men outside Nakuru as he was returning to his home or to his constituency. Mungai’s men regularly camped near Moi’s farmhouse at Kabarak to monitor his movements, and often placed roadblocks at night on the roads that he would be taking on his way from Nakuru. Such was the routine persecution that Moi and his supporters faced from Mungai’s loutish police that Nakuru became, for them, virtually a no-go zone.”

Moi did not quit. He instead waited for his chance to serve his version of justice, cold. Mungai had to run to exile!

Dr Josephat Njuguna Karanja

This was one of the most dramatic falls. Dr Karanja had replaced Mwai Kibaki and appeared to harbour more than enough hubris to make some politicians restless. Power got into Dr Karanja’s head quickly but by the time the Kanu hounds, Kuria Kanyingi and David Mwenje, were set up on him and alleged that he was a “kneel-before-me” politician, and that he was undermining President Moi by working with foreigners, he would make a painful speech that would always be remembered for its poetic manner of delivery. Moi had apparently left Dr Karanja to swim alone.

"The charges levelled against me are totally false and malicious, tendentious and contemptible. I have no intention of defending myself against blatant falsehoods. This is a sad day for our beloved country. Common decency has been thrown out of the window. It has regrettably been replaced by political thuggery and vindictiveness."

On May 1, 1989, Dr Karanja resigned. The House had passed a well-orchestrated vote of no confidence.

Prof George Saitoti

Prof Saitoti had always thought that he would succeed President Moi – until the day Moi appointed a Cabinet. But in the 1990s, two factions emerged within Kanu jostling for power. On January 8, 1998, Moi named his Cabinet but failed to appoint a vice-president and it was not until April 1999, and by a roadside, that he announced that he would “soon name a vice-president so we can see if your grumbling and fears will stop," then he went on. "But even if I appoint a VP the number of sufurias of ugali you cook in your homes will not increase.” Later, he re-appointed Saitoti back only to later tell a rally that “huyu makamu wangu ni rafiki, lakini urafiki na uongozi ni vitu tofauti”. 

It meant that Moi had doubts on Saitoti’s ability to lead the country. He said that during a public rally. We don’t know what he said in private but Prof Saitoti would fall dramatically during a Kanu-NDP merger when he found that his name was missing in the list of vice-chairman the night before. He approached Moi. “Kimya professor”! Moi barked at him. Saitoti recoiled in humiliation and he had to make a speech. “There comes a time when the nation is much more important than an individual.”

Post script: In electing a deputy, the future Kenyan president should pick a person they can work with. There are some inner lessons in the humiliation and the fall of previous vice-presidents. Some of these were good men, and some were not.

[email protected] @johnkamau1