The Powerful men who had Mr. President’s ear

  • Eloquent, immaculate and as the first Kenyan to get a Master’s degree in the 1930s, Koinange had managed to cut the image of an African liberal, which made him, at one time, to become Ghana President Kwame Nkurumah’s adviser on pan-African matters.
  • He was abroad when the crackdown that followed the State of Emergency commenced.
  • With the negotiations for independence starting in 1960, Kenyatta asked Koinange to represent him, but the British did not want the “wanted” Koinange in their midst.
Mbiyu Koinange

Former Cabinet minister Mbiyu Koinange.

They wined and dined inside State House. They were either friends of the presidents or had simply found themselves at the right place at the right time with the right presidency.

At best, they knew how to play their political cards, and at worst, they later became victims of the State House chicanery — where the mighty flourish and tumble at the same rate.

The Jomo Kenyatta presidency saw the emergence of Mbiyu Koinange as the most powerful politician in the 15 years that Kenyatta ruled.

Eloquent, immaculate and as the first Kenyan to get a Master’s degree in the 1930s, Koinange had managed to cut the image of an African liberal, which made him, at one time, to become Ghana President Kwame Nkurumah’s adviser on pan-African matters.

In liberation politics, Koinange was in a class of his own. The colonial authorities were disappointed that they did not manage to detain him.

He was abroad when the crackdown that followed the State of Emergency commenced.

Again, the Senior Chief Koinange family had been implicated in the murder of Senior Chief Waruhiu – an assassination that triggered the crackdown and arrest of Jomo Kenyatta.

As a result, Koinange continued to mock the colonial regime from abroad. He remained “Kenya’s most wanted”.

With the negotiations for independence starting in 1960, Kenyatta asked Koinange to represent him, but the British did not want the “wanted” Koinange in their midst.

The issue paralysed the talks for days. Nonetheless, Koinange cut the image of a suave politician, emerging as the man to watch in independent Kenya.

His relationship with Kenyatta was solidified during the days they were both teachers at Githunguri Independent Teachers College, which they had started to train the bulk of the Kikuyu elite.


Kenyatta had married Koinange’s sister, Wanjiku. They had had a daughter, Jenny, before Wanjiku died.

Fast forward to State House. Koinange, as Kenya’s de facto Prime Minister, did not disappoint. Always photographed beside Kenyatta, they referred to each other in private notes as “Kolofi” — meaning quarrelsome — but an indication of the strong bond that they had.

When Koinange’s name would later find its way into the report of the select committee investigating the disappearance and murder of populist Nyandarua.

North MP, J.M. Kariuki in 1975, Kenyatta ordered the committee chairman, Elijah Mwangale, in the presence of Charles Rubia, to delete Koinange’s name and that of his (Kenyatta’s) bodyguard, Wanyoike Thungu, before tabling the report in the House that afternoon.

As a result, Koinange was loved and loathed in equal measure. It took the genius of another group led by Attorney General Charles Njonjo to make sure that Koinange (and his ilk) did not get the presidency after the ailing Kenyatta died.

One avenue used by Njonjo, and which later led to his fall, was to convince Kenyatta to stop the 1976 change-the-Constitution group that wanted to bar Vice-President Daniel arap Moi from automatically succeeding Kenyatta. With Koinange as its titular head, the group’s mouthpiece was GEMA official Dickson Kihika Kimani, an all-politics-and-no-principle rabble-rouser. Kihika operated from Nakuru.

Njonjo, who also had the president’s ear, managed to persuade Kenyatta to stop Kihika and his supporters from paralysing the country with their campaign.

It is not that Njonjo loved Moi; he thought the man could be more easily manipulated than Koinange.

According to Moi’s biographer Andrew Morton, it was Njonjo who had floated Moi’s name as Kenyatta’s vice-president as he and Kenyatta rode together in the president’s limousine. Moi was a skilful organiser, ruthless loyalist, and shrewd operator too.

“That’s the man I am going to appoint,” said Kenyatta as he shook Njonjo’s hand.

Besides Njonjo, Kenyatta’s nephew, Dr Njoroge Mungai, was a member of the oligarchy. However, his political rise was tamed in 1974 after he lost his Dagoretti seat to little-known Dr Johnstone Muthiora.

A medical doctor who served as Kenyatta’s physician, Dr Mungai was thought to be a likely successor. He held high profile ministerial positions, including Defence and Foreign Affairs.

Outside politics, Kenyatta’s head of the civil service, Geoffrey Kariithi, was arguably the best illustrator of power.

A man who could single-handedly craft the Cabinet, Kariithi was the person Kenyatta trusted in handling government affairs. If Kariithi said no on any official policy, Kenyatta would agree.

Thus, Kariithi would be the only daring civil servant to rehearse on a Kenya without Kenyatta — complete with dirges done by St Stephen’s choir.

He ran the government in his own style and understood his work as that of protecting the government’s image in the face of many political mistakes.

One needs to see the thousands of letters copied to Kariithi by permanent secretaries to have a feel of the power that he wielded.


Moi played it safe in the Njonjo, Kariithi, and Mwai Kibaki camp.

While everyone, interestingly including those in his camp, thought he was a “passing cloud”, Moi in phase one of his leadership insulated himself from Koinange’s camp by having Njonjo as his right-hand man.

Another person brought into the fold was Godfrey Gitahi (GG) Kariuki — a newcomer in the political mix.

Moi’s phase one was shortlived and abruptly ended with the attempted coup of August 1981. His trust in his political friends not only waned, he started a deliberate effort to sink all of them.

Karithi had quit the civil service in 1979 to join politics, giving Moi a chance to bring Jeremiah Kiereini (and later Simeon Nyachae) in the head of civil service position. But neither of these two could match Kariithi’s valour.

The 1982 coup attempt frightened Moi, but it also gave him an excuse to rid himself of the Kenyatta-era security group.

And so went Commissioner of Police Ben Gethi, who was detained at Kamiti Maximum Prison despite having played a role in quelling the insurgence.

Major General Kariuki, the Air Force commander who had reported to his seniors and Moi the impending coup, was jailed for four years.

Inside State House, Moi, in the second phase of his leadership, started to replace his inner circle with close friends.

It was Kiereini who, after the August 3, 1982 Cabinet meeting, informed all ministers and other regular visitors that they would require prior appointment and permission before going to State House.

By this time, Njonjo and Vice-President Mwai Kibaki had formed separate camps. Moi, with total backing from a military that had Jackson Mulinge at the helm together with Lieut-Gen John Sawe and Lieut-Gen Mahmoud Mohammed, intensified his hold on power and decided to sink his political friends.

First, he went for Njonjo, and in choreographed chicanery, told a rally in Kisii that there were people “undermining the vice-president” and that Western powers wanted to impose their own leader on Kenya.

Kibaki, happy that Njonjo’s fall would benefit him, joined the traitor chorus, unaware that five years later, he would face the same fate.

The Njonjo-Affair, as it came to be known, gave Moi another excuse to clean the terrain of politicians sympathetic to Njonjo, who had become a politician.

Thus, when Moi called a snap election in 1984, he managed to use the provincial administration to rig out those who did not “toe the line.”

“When Mzee Kenyatta was there, I used to sing like a parrot. Politicians must toe the Nyayo line or leave,” Moi once said.


With little trust in politicians, Moi did not allow any of them to wield the power that Koinange or Njonjo had.

Nicholas Biwott, a former personal assistant of Moi’s and who had been awarded an Australian scholarship, thanks to Kenneth Matiba’s friendship with Moi, had cultivated these former links to rise within the ranks as a politician.

As a minister of State, and later Energy, Biwott became a member of a small group that had Moi’s undivided attention.

Another was Joshua Kulei, a former prison warden who became Moi’s personal assistant. As a result of his dalliance with State House operatives, Kulei emerged as one of the richest Kenyans. He was also adversely mentioned in the Goldenberg report.

Kulei handled Moi’s business interests. Thus, his power was unlike that enjoyed by Koinange during Kenyatta’s reign.

While Kenyatta left his business interests to his fourth wife, Mama Ngina, Moi, divorced and lonely, left them to Kulei, but hardly allowed him to wield any political power.

From his Baringo backyard, Moi brought into the limelight a few confidants. The most memorable include Hosea Kiplagat, Ezekiel Barng’etuny, and Mark Too — a court jester who would tickle Moi to ease his political pains.

In the civil service, the only equivalent of Kenyatta’s Kariithi was Hezekiah Oyugi. Although he was only the permanent secretary for Internal Security, Oyugi eclipsed the colourless head of the civil service and secretary to the Cabinet, Joseph arap Leting.

Finally, he was adversely mentioned in the disappearance and murder of Foreign minister Robert Ouko. He died before he could tell his side of the story.

Rather than have a single confidant, Moi ruled by having many demi-gods in various districts, some with minimal education like Mulu Mutisya, others highly trained. Still, he never allowed anyone to be like Mbiyu Koinange or Charles Njonjo. He was the final word.

And that was the confused scenario that broke Kanu during the battle of succession. Moi had hurriedly tried to bring in Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred candidate, while several aspirants, led by Raila Odinga, wanted the slot.

It was Kibaki who would benefit from this confusion with the National Rainbow Coalition (a combination of the opposition and Kanu-left wing) coming to power.

The rush to beat the nomination deadline had made unlike-minded politicians make come-we-stay nuptials with power brokers benefiting in the pull-and-push of it.

The matter got complicated after Kibaki was injured in a motor accident, leaving a small coterie of “advisers” to fill in the vacuum.

In politics, Kibaki had one close friend named Munene Kairu. But when Kairu, an immensely wealthy Nyeri tycoon, died in 1998, his personal assistant, Dr Chris Murungaru, took over the political handling of the Democratic Party (DP), where Kibaki was chairman.


Murungaru and another DP veteran, Kiraitu Murungi, became the most powerful individuals in the pre-Anglo-Leasing Kibaki tenure.

Together with Kibaki’s personal assistant, Alfred Getonga, they wielded power inside and outside State House and became the face of what the media christened “Mt Kenya Mafia”.

It was in this group that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) was trashed, giving way to rebellion within NARC over the allocation of Cabinet seats.

As a result of this rebellion, the group did not enjoy a peaceful stay and when the Anglo-Leasing scandal broke out, they were all forced to resign as some Western countries banned them from their territories.

While this group was close to First Lady Lucy Kibaki, the later served as a political decoy and hardly wielded any power. At her worst, she could be ruthless and take on anyone, anywhere.

That is how State House Comptroller Matere Keriri, who would have become a powerful man, fell and gave way to Stanley Murage, a policy adviser to the president. Murage did not last either.

The fall of Murungi and Murungaru left Kibaki to operate with his old friends — Joe Wanjui, Nat Kang’ethe, George Muhoho, and Njenga Karume. Kibaki, unlike Moi, had little time for politics.

With failing health and on a rush to build a 10-year legacy, his real friends were those who would make the economy and civil service work.

For that reason, his head of the civil service and secretary to the Cabinet, Francis Muthaura, came in handy. However, he never reached the status of Kariithi.

While a coalition government emerged after the post-election violence and with Raila Odinga as Prime Minister, the later only had power in his political wing. That is why rows could emerge on appointments without consultations, as provided for in the Reconciliation Act.

At the moment, it is too early to know who will emerge in the Uhuru-Ruto mix, but the man to watch in the interim is Joseph Kinyua, the new Chief of Staff and Head of the Civil Service.




Tags: , ,
%d bloggers like this: