Tuesday, June 04, 2013
Powerful cabinet minister and founding father who never lost his love for seedy bars and heavy drinking
James Gichuru Road is a long winding road in Nairobi that starts when you branch off Waiyaki Way. It goes past St Mary's, where President Uhuru Kenyatta went to school. When you are on it you will see some of the most majestic upmarket residences in the country. Hardly a description of the man whom it is named after.
For starters James Gichuru has the distinction of being the cabinet minister who left important and confidential cabinet documents in a bar along River Road in the 1960s. He was then serving as minister of finance in Jomo Kenyatta's cabinet.
It is not clear whether he ever recovered the briefcase with the sensitive documents.
A humble down to earth man who was a close supporter of Tom Mboya, Gichuru never changed his ways just because he was a cabinet minister. He preferred having a drink with ordinary wananchi and riff ruffs in seedy bars in downtown Nairobi that he had started frequenting in the colonial days when Africans were not allowed into the CBD (starting from what is today Tom Mboya street), even after they had been allowed to drink beer for the first time. However the minister preferred hard drinks.
Twice he stepped down for Jomo Kenyatta as leader of a political grouping/party during critical times in Kenya’s struggle for Independence. In 1947 he was president of the Kenya African Union (KAU), the only nationwide African political party, when Kenyatta returned from Britain to join the freedom struggle. Fifteen years later, he would step down again for Kenyatta again, this time from the presidency of the newly formed Kenya African National Union (KANU) shortly after the latter was released from detention in Lodwar.
Gichuru played a game-changing role in a curious incident that took place in Kiambu when African members of the Legco got together to form KANU in 1960. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in a fierce power struggle with Tom Mboya hatched a plan to form a national political party that would exclude Mboya. He did his groundwork well and convinced most in the powerful Kikuyu clique who had previously backed Mboya accusing him of being dangerous and not the kind of person to be included in the new party. That move would have finished Mboya politically had it not been for Gichuru's decision to stand firm and support him to the hilt.
Despite his weakness for the bottle he was well respected and very popular politically. Many were puzzled at Gichuru's coziness with Mboya and there were even rumours that Mboya had a hold over Gichuru because of some damaging information he had on him that dated back to Mau Mau days. However most analysts at the time attributed this to his principled non-tribal approach to national politics. In the end Mboya ended up as the powerful secretary general of a party he had deliberately been excluded from in the beginning.
The truth is that Gichuru is one of the very few powerful cabinet ministers who never abandoned the original vision for independence in exchange for amassing vast wealth for himself. A true unsung Kenyan hero of the struggle and founding father of the Kenyan nation.
Additional info from a reader;
Gichuru was not the most highly likeable member of the Kenyatta Cabinet, and a lot of the elite members of the Mumbi's House distrusted him and were frustrated by some of the lifestyle choices he had made after being accepted into the higher echelons of powers.
He was considered as a friend of the foreigners - outsiders and strangers, which explains his affinity for individuals like Mboya and others.
As stated, he was a man who never changed his humble ways at time when most of his contemporaries were fond of being seen drinking, eating and socializing in some of the most exclusive establishments in Nairobi, Nakuru, Nanyuki and Mombasa.
Gichuru never had the urge to shift his after hours activities to some of the upgraded venues where other cabinet ministers and who was who at the time were known to frequent, such as the Hilton, Stanley, Winsdor, Muthaiga ..., Intercontinental, and other exclusive county clubs that were patronized by the reminants of the settler community and expatriates.
He may never have changed his spots but was not known to be a champion of chauvinistic politics of the day, including wanton greed, bad deals and corrupt financial decisions that contributed to the stagnation of the country's economy throughout the mid-late 60s, 70s, and the consequent ripple effect that reverberated throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000s.
He was an odd ball of a kind, and was never scared or fearful of Kenyatta in the same way his contemporaries were during the post-colonial adminstration, and that's why Kenyatta valued his opinion and input where necessary.
This was at time when the choir boys - kitchen cabinet - were overly accustomed to following Kenyatta wherever he went around Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa, or whenever he was in Gatundu.
Those were 'good old days' when Kenya was ruled as one big village under the tight control and carte blanche micromanagement of the dreaded mighty provincial commissioners, provincial police officers, provincial CID officers, and leftover colonial chiefs and their nosey sub-chiefs.
Another common thread held by those who were familiar with the era where few courageous big men like him (James Gichuru) mingled freely with ordinary people at various watering holes in the city, states that the mystery of the misplaced official briefcase was resolved when it was retrieved and delivered to the minister's office in the early morning hours of the next day.
The old leather briefcase had a secure combination lock and its contents were never compromised at any time, thanks to the quick action of the manager at the establishment where the minister's patronage was highly cherished.
In those days, there was a special corner table reseved for him just in case he ventured in for a quick drink with friends or serious business dealings with special guests during his regular hours.
Believe it or not, there was a fresh broiled sirloin steak named after him because they used to prepare it - tengeneze kama ile ya munene - in the manner in which he liked it.
Unfortunately, the well known establishment along River Road that was once located several blocks from another establishment that used to front a huge sign - Miti Ni Dawa - above its main entrance, was demolished and gave room to a modern hotel that built in its place.