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Death of political kingpin Njonjo stirs political passions

The animus triggered by Jomo Kenyatta's Attorney-General haunts today's dynastic politics

Many in the political establishment wanted to ensure that Kenya's first Attorney-General, Charles Mugane Njonjo, who died on 2 January had a 'respectful send-off'. But his passing has resurrected old quarrels that raise questions among voters about the current political alliances.

As Attorney-General from 1963 to 1979, Njonjo was one of the most powerful members of the first post–independence cabinet. His supporters described him as playing a key role as President Jomo Kenyatta's right-hand man and establishing the new republic and its political orientation.

Some go further, and say that Njonjo ran the government during the first decade of the reign of Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta's father, following his falling out with his Vice-President, Oginga Odinga, Raila Odinga's father. The titanic clash between Kenyatta and Odinga at the dawn of independence set a pattern for today's politics, with the initial rivalry of their sons followed by their current alliance (AC Vol 50 No 16, The hard road to truth, justice and reconciliation).

In the elections of 2013 and 2017, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga contested for power, sparking a bitter dispute between their supporters and families which seemed to end in March 2018 with the historic 'handshake' of the protagonists (AC Vol 59 No 6, Raila beats rivals to a new deal).

Now, Uhuru Kenyatta is backing Raila Odinga's campaign for the presidency in the August elections. They claim that this alliance will heal the country's political rifts. But it has opened up new ones – between them and Deputy President William Ruto, who has positioned himself as the 'hustler' taking on the dynasties.

Njonjo's passing has shown how those earlier political schisms, notwithstanding new dynastic alliances, still resonate with Kenyans.

Many public officials attached praise for Njonjo to their condolences. Chief Justice Martha Koome said that he had distinguished himself as a lawyer and a pioneer for the Black Bar.

That met with an immediate backlash. United States-based academic Makau Mutua called out Koome's statement as 'a blatant lie', stating that Njonjo will be remembered as 'one of the most malignant, anti-black, vindictive, and anti-democratic officials in Kenya'.

'Njonjo being an encouragement to other members of the Black Bar is a cheap lie', added former Law Society of Kenya chair Ahmednasir Abdullahi.

Njonjo was the son of a paramount chief, and his plain striped suits, hand-tailored in Britain, symbolised his affection for all things British. He was unenthusiastic about the Africanisation of the Kenyan government, and was accused of opposing the promotion of Kenyans in professional roles. Some have questioned Njonjo's own academic qualifications although he was the country's chief legal officer.

Regarded as one of Kenya's most feared officials in the 1970s, he traded favours with fellow politicians and ministers and waged vendettas against his opponents. Initially, he was one of the most trusted advisors to Kenya's second president, Daniel arap Moi (AC Vol 39 No 23, Before the storm).

Njonjo eased the transition from Kenyatta's rule to Moi, keeping Oginga Odinga out of State House, with the intention of running things in the background. He offered former Kerio central MP Francis Mtwoi money to recruit MPs to his side while creating a list of MPs he deemed 'not useful' to him or the government.

Among them were former MPs Koigi wa Wamwere (Subukia), Waruru Kanja (Nyeri), Martin Shikuku (Butere), Samwel arap Ng'eny (Aldai) and Mark Mwithaga (Nakuru Town). Njonjo promised to get rid of them, and most of them went to prison.

During Njonjo's time as Minister of Justice, senior politicians including JM Kariuki, Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto and Johnstone Muthiora were killed. There were no credible investigations.

But accusations of Njonjo's involvement in the failed coup attempt against President Moi in August 1982 ended his political career. At the same time, Raila Odinga was jailed on charges of having helped the plotters.

A Commission of Inquiry found Njonjo guilty of threatening the security of the state, storing arms and ammunition, and installing a radio network at a house near State House and the military headquarters. That left Njonjo at the mercy of Moi, who pardoned him and then forced him into early retirement. In the late 1990s, Njonjo was rehabilitated and made Chairman of Kenya Wildlife Services.

The inquiry also uncovered evidence that Njonjo had maintained relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Njonjo was later linked to a coup attempt in Seychelles backed by apartheid South Africa.

As one of the architects of the authoritarian state that marked President Moi's rule, it is Njonjo that has been the target of most of the attacks and blamed for the widespread arrests, and disappearance and killing of political opponents. President Moi largely escaped public criticism following his death in February 2020.

Like Jomo Kenyatta, Njonjo declined to write his memoirs, ensuring that his knowledge of the plots and intrigues of the country's early post-Independence years went to the grave with him. But the legacy of elite-sponsored political machinations and deadly violence lives on at a time when many are raising concerns about the conduct of this year's elections.

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