Bloodthirsty inner circle
Those who surrounded President Kenyatta were determined that the presidency of Kenya would forever remain only amongst them. Something like the royal family in the United Kingdom. There were confident enough that they were smart enough to pull this off. They saw that wisdom and experience to run the country could only be found amongst their midst and could hardly be found anywhere else in the country.
At one point they even went as far as administering oaths to the effect that the presidency would never cross the River Chania to other Kikuyus in neighbouring Nyeri or even Muranga. The presidency was firmly in the hands of Kiambu Kikuyus and that is why the president’s inner circle were often referred to as the Kiambu mafia.
Admittedly the Kiambu mafia deserved that tag much more than the Mount Kenya mafia that was to emerge much later during the Kibaki presidency. These characters were absolutely ruthless and many times acted in ways that suggested that apart from being power hungry, they were also very blood thirsty. It seemed that they were always itching for an opportunity to kill somebody. It was soon clear than anybody who dared to oppose Kenyatta would almost certainly end up dead. And it seemed that Kenyatta had ears everywhere so that people were terrified of even saying anything against him even in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Many times folks would have a private conversation in whispers in some corner of a seedy bar that was well out of the way and the next week they would be detained without trial or even worse go missing without trace. In those days families of persons who went missing had very zero options. It was unthinkable to go to court and prevail on the government to produce anybody. That was just plain suicide.
To further spread fear amongst the people, murders by the inner Kenyatta circle were executed in a manner that was straight out of some horror movie. It was not enough for the person to be killed but on many occasions their private parts would be cut off and stuffed into their mouths. This is exactly what happened with the JM assassination and a few others. If a person did not get shot, this was the “signature” that would confirm to the observant exactly who had carried out the execution.
In the early days there were plenty of people brave and stupid enough to satisfy the blood thirstiness of the Kiambu mafia but as the years wore on fewer people were willing to take the chance of even speaking evil against the Kenyatta administration in private or even daring to question anything that his government did.
A Kenyan well known to this writer took a trip to the UK in the mid 70s and while watching British TV discovered that the Observer newspaper had that morning published an article about one of the members of the first family. They quietly slipped out of their hotel carefully looking over their shoulders several times and purchased a copy of the newspaper from an outlet that was some distance from the hotel. They returned to their hotel room and carefully locked the door to read the article that described in great detail a business that first lady Mama Ngina was involved in of mining and then exporting precious stones mainly from the Taita Taveta area. The article revealed that the first lady was already one of the wealthiest people in the country. Hardly a seditious article on the first family, but on finishing reading the piece with his heart thumping violently against his chest, the man burnt the newspaper and flushed the ashes down the toilet. That was the fear that Kenyans felt in those days and it did not matter that one was thousands of miles away from home in London.
In this kind of scenario the attitude of Kenyatta’s inner circle was hardly surprising. They behaved as if they were gods. It seemed they could even hear what Kenyans were whispering in the privacy of their bedrooms. One interesting incident occurred in the early 70s that illustrates this point.
Jomo Kenyatta’s speeches were boringly predictable. He would always warn people from playing around with the valuable Uhuru which had been won by bloodshed. And he then he would often congratulate the ordinary Kenyans on their continued hard work and love for their country. He would often pepper his Kiswahili speeches by suddenly breaking into Kikuyu vernacular.
So Kenyans were shocked one day when in his speech the president said that it had come to his attention that some people were saying that he was incapable of fathering children. These people claimed that when the colonialists had detained him they had tortured him to such an extent that he had lost his manhood and ability to sire children. There was shocked silence at first with many conservative Kenyans embarrassed that the president would even talk about such things in public.
Kenyatta went on to castigate the people spreading such lies about him and said that any Kenyan who doubted his manhood should go ahead and ask Mama Ngina (the president’s fourth and last wife who was seated right there at the dais a few short paces from where Kenyatta was making his speech. She was visibly shaken and very embarrassed (wouldn’t you be?). Were the rumours true? Was Kenyatta bluffing? Or was it all untrue? It is difficult to tell and we will probably never know.
And so those close to the president started plotting on how they would inherit the presidency from a man who was still very much alive. Admittedly by this time it was clear to those close to him that the president would not last for much longer. He regularly slipped in and out of commas and it was clear that his health was rapidly failing. Of course nobody would dare discuss the president’s health in public. But those close to Kenyatta knew what was happening. And so a curious power struggle which would in the end hand over the presidency to Daniel arap Moi on a silver platter started. At the height of this power struggle a group of Kiambu politician including Njenga Karume, Kihika Kimani and others started a campaign to have the constitution changed so that in the event of the president dying or being incapacitated; power would not automatically go to the Vice President pending elections. The idea was to ensure that when Kenyatta died (and it was now obvious that it would happen very soon) it would be easier for one of them to take over power constitutionally.
The power struggle was intense and pitted mainly those very close and some of them related to the president against another group led by powerful Attorney general (who was literally running the country then) Charles Mugane Njonjo. Mwai Kibaki was one of the chief characters in Njonjo’s camp on this one. This in itself was curious because the two individuals hardly agreed on anything else and their personal squabbles have even been visible during the Kibaki presidency.
Interestingly a few days after Kenyatta died in August 1978, Time magazine listed one of the front runners to take over the presidency as being Njoroge Mungai (the president’s nephew and personal physician who was also a legislator for a long time until he lost his Dagoretti seat to one Dr Johnstone Muthiora. Muthiora was promptly assassinated by the Kiambu mafia, his main crime being deposing Mungai from the Dagoretti seat. It is widely believed that while he was in admitted at Nairobi hospital a lethal injection was administered on him). The other person mentioned in the Time article was Mbiyu Koinange.
In his last days Kenyatta would slip in and out of consciousness for days on end and many times would look like he had lost it and was not even aware of his surroundings. But on a few occasions he would make statements to those surrounding him that would display his sharp crisp mind was still very much alert and around. On one such occasion he dismissed those fighting for a change of the constitution to block Moi from ascending to power with one simple Kikuyu proverb. The proverb says that somebody who wants to rope a cow does NOT show the cow the rope. The Kikuyu proverb simply meant that the change-the-constitution group was going about their mission in a very unwise way because they were making their intentions rather obvious to their target Daniel arap Moi.
See earlier Kumekucha article on the character of Kenyatta
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To be continued. In the next post: Dramatic behind the scenes events that brought Moi to power.