ONSANDO: Moi was a lion and a fox, the case of Charles Njonjo

By Joash Onsando On Wed, 5 Feb, 2020 18:04 | 5 mins read
Charles Njonjo
Sir Charles Njonjo. PHOTO | FILE

The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must, therefore, be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli.

Few politicians in Kenya’s history embody this quote as much as the late President Daniel Arap Moi.

As vice president to Mzee Kenyatta, Moi exhibited a fierce, unquestioning loyalty to his boss. He never disagreed with the President publicly or even privately for that matter.

While deputizing a then-ailing president, Moi had the unique opportunity to traverse the width and depth of Kenya. It is during this period that we first see his cunning fox-like nature.

Whilst he built a network of political allies and support across the country, he did it with such discretion that it escaped the notice of some of Mzee’s closest allies.

He remained humble, patient and unassuming and letting his ambition remain under the radar. This is how he managed to make an ally of then-Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo. This alliance would prove extremely useful later in his bid to succeed Mzee.

In 1976, the late Njenga Karume then a nominated MP and chairman of Gikuyu, Meru and Embu Association (Gema) and Kihika Kimani, then Nakuru North MP and a senior member of Gema boarded a flight to Geneva as part of a government delegation. During this flight the issues of Mzee’s succession came up for discussion.

Kihika was a wealthy and arrogant politician. Having helped many Kikuyus settle in Rift Valley through land-buying companies such as Ngwataniro Mukutano, he enjoyed popular support amongst his kinsmen and therefore served as Kenyatta’s eyes and ears in the region.

Buoyed by said support and his standing in Mzee’s inner circle, he went on to be a thorn in Moi’s shoes, constantly engaging him in a supremacy battle in the Rift.

Not only did Kihika find a Moi presidency simply unfathomable but he also took it for granted that it would never happen.

Anti-Moi faction

This bubble burst spectacularly when Karume informed him, mid-flight, that the Constitution stated that if the President died in office, the vice president would take over in acting capacity for 90 days.

Kihika was visibly shocked. Apparently he was ignorant of this law. He also understood, as well as Karume, that Moi would have an unassailable head start, going into a general election having served as acting president for three months.

After deep thought, Kihika mooted an idea which he immediately shared with Karume, “The best option,” he told him “is to have that ridiculous clause in the document changed to ensure Moi never becomes president.”

They then devised a plan to have three individuals, the Head of Public Service, Speaker of Parliament and Chief Justice, to hold brief for 90 days, in the event that a president died in office. Thus, the Change the Constitution Movement was born in mid-air.

Upon their return to Kenya, the duo embarked on a mission to onboard widespread support within and outside Parliament for the plan.

The movement pitted the Gema leadership on one hand and the Moi-Njonjo alliance on the other. Moi’s opposition to the movement was obvious because it was an affront to him personally. Njonjo’s opposition to the group, however, was more interesting.

Njonjo, the son of a colonial Chief, was anti-Gema, despite being a Kikuyu. He considered himself an intellectual cut above the rest of Mzee’s inner circle and fancied himself best fit to succeed Kenyatta.

He particularly loathed the then Finance minister Mwai Kibaki whom the Gema leadership favoured to fill Kenyatta’s shoes. His opposition for the movement was therefore informed by a thinking that Moi could be manipulated and outmanoeuvred, when the right time came. Little did he know that he had greatly underestimated the cunning fox.

Njonjo’s masterstroke

The Change the Constitution movement hit a crescendo in a Nakuru meeting in 1976. The meeting, attended by thousands and addressed by many leaders from across the country, laid bare the power machine that was fighting Moi.

Whilst Moi and Njonjo were not surprised by the movement, they were definitely shocked at the support it got from leaders outside of Gema.

The most passionate speech at the Nakuru meeting was delivered by Paul Ngei, from the Kamba community. The movement had to be dealt with as it was no longer an ethnic noisemaking lobby.

Unbeknownst to Kihika and company, there was a penal code statute that made it illegal and treasonable to even imagine the death of the president.

Njonjo called a press conference in his capacity as AG and announced that the speakers at the Nakuru rally would be charged with treason.

Not only had they imagined the demise of Mzee, they openly spoke about it to an audience of thousands. He went on to say that an airtight case against them had been prepared by his office.

Faced with the prospect of the hangman’s noose, Kihika, Karume and company abandoned their cause and the Change the Constitution movement died a natural cause.

Moi’s first years in power

As fate would have it, Moi would become President. His first few years in office were spent touring the country and popularizing himself with the people.

He maintained his fox-like nature, not changing things up too much. In fact, he outlined his leadership philosophy as the Nyayo philosophy, following in Mzee’s footsteps.

It never escaped his attention however that the biggest threats to his presidency were in his government, remnants of Kenyatta’s regime. Chief among these threats was his buddy, Njonjo.

So Moi bid his time and waited for the ideal opportunity to become a lion and scare away all the wolves, real and imagined from his government.

This opportunity came in the form of the August 1, 1982 coup. Because the coup didn’t happen in isolation and because Kenyans had seen coups happen elsewhere with mixed results, Moi now had the cover necessary to deal with his political detractors.

Many would end up in prison, detention and the gallows. Those were the hard, radical targets, leaving the soft and less radical targets, including Njonjo.

Taming Njonjo

In late April 1983, Njonjo was on a private visit to London. Part of his itinerary was a visit to Savile Row, where he was to pick suits for himself and President Moi as they both patronized the high-end tailor for their bespoke suits.

Meanwhile, president Moi was on a working tour in Kisii. After lunching at the home of a senior government official, Moi dropped a bombshell in a public baraza.

He claimed that there was a ‘msaliti‘ being groomed by foreign powers to overthrow him.

On the same day, the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Bethuel Kiplagat was asked to find Njonjo and ask him to fly back home.

Meanwhile, a secret secretariat was formed led by AR Kapila, who never saw eye to eye with Njonjo to begin investigations into the msaliti claims.

Kapila would, many years later, say in an interview that Njonjo had rubbed so many people the wrong way that it was easy to come up with a dossier to fix him.

Njonjo quietly flew back to Nairobi and went to his private office and wrote a letter resigning from the government.

Like a cat would with its prey before devouring it, Moi rejected his resignation and assured him he was not the msaliti in question.

This did not stop the msaliti choir from belting their tune across the country.

Across the country, handpicked politicians made statements that left no doubt in the minds of their audience who the traitor was.

This culminated in the assistant minister Martin Shikuku announcing in Parliament that indeed Njonjo was the traitor.

Moi fired Njonjo and formed a commission of inquiry to investigate his conduct. He then called a snap election where any politician even remotely associated with Njonjo would lose their seat.

He followed this up with a purge of Njonjo allies in the civil service and security sector. Njonjo was for all intents and purposes finished.

The lion had managed to rid his administration of what he saw as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The commission of inquiry took testimony and deliberated for a year before Moi announced that he had forgiven Njonjo, who was then 64, on account of his old age bringing to an end a relationship that showed us the duality of president Moi.

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