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Mama Ngina Kenyatta: How house wife became Kenya’s richest woman

‘Ventures’ magazine named her one of the over 50 people in Africa who were dollar billionaires

Sons of fortune: Mama Ngina Kenyatta flanked by her sons and hubby. She once confessed that when Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978 she struggled to pay school fees for Muhoho and Uhuru at St Mary’s School, Nairobi.

By GW Ngari


@Undercover KE

By now you must have heard that former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta draws a monthly government stipend in excess of Sh500, 000 from the government. Her dough is 40 percent of what her son and current president Uhuru Kenyatta trousers home a month.

Mama Ngina is paid for being the spouse of founding President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta-who died in August 1978 when Uhuru was still a wiry student at St Mary’s School, Nairobi.

The National Treasury explained that the pay is pegged on the law which stipulates that a spouse of a retired or dead president be provided for with pay calculated at 40 percent the salary of a sitting president.

Mama Ngina who is bending her 80s began receiving the pay way before hers son became President. But there has been legal debate whether her pay is consistent with the Presidential Retirement Benefit Act which took effect in 2003.

But her pay of Sh577, 500 is pocket change for Mama Ngina Kenyatta, easily Kenya’s richest woman, a multi-billionaire in real coin.

Her journey to stupendous fortunes began when at 18, she was married off to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, over 50 years her senior in 1951.

Though Kenyatta had two other breathing wives (one, Grace Wanjiku had died giving birth) it was the fourth wife, Mama Ngina who became First Lady-and the richest of all the other wives.

Despite no records of any basic education, professional training or any stints of formal employment anywhere, the secured investments of Mama Ngina Kenyatta sweeps across hospitality, banking, mining, large-scale agriculture, equities, property, real estate and ranching.

He left his family inter-generational wealth which can only squandered in 100 lifetimes

First among equals: Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta wanted to badly buy a prime beach plot not knowing the reluctant seller was his wife, First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta.

Never mind when her husband left Kapenguria Prison in 1959, Jomo Kenyatta had nothing to bank on. When he died in 1978 after 15 years as president, he left his family inter-generational wealth which can only squandered in 100 lifetimes. 

Curiously, she once confessed in a local vernacular radio station some years back that she struggled with school fees as Kenyatta left her with little to go on!

The lid on personal fortune of the matriarch of the Kenyatta family was lifted the other day when Commercial of Africa, where the Kenyatta’s have a controlling stake, was acquiring NIC Bank largely owned by the Philip Ndegwa family.

The other Kenyans dollar billionaires on the list were the late Nicholas Biwott, Naushad Merali and Manu Chandaria

Her combined stake together with sons, President Uhuru and Muhoho Kenyatta was 13.21 percent pf the merged NCBA worth Sh6.6 billion and held through Enke Investments. Mama Ngina holds another 11.93 percent through Ropat Nominees Ltd worth Sh5.9 billlion and another 5.7 percent through Ropat Trust Company valued at over Sh2.9 billion.

This means Mama Ngina and her brood are still the largest shareholders of NCBA with their combined worth pegged at over Sh15 billion. Of that bonanza, Mama Ngina Kenya owns Sh8.8 billion of Kenya’s third largest bank by assets!

 Indeed, Ventures, a Nigerian-based financial magazine named her one of the over 50 people in Africa who were dollar billionaires, basically those with assets in excess of Sh100 billion. The other Kenyans on the list were the late politician Nicholas Biwott, businessman Naushad Merali and industrialist Manu Chandaria.

Mama Ngina was one of only three women dollar billionaires in Africa. The other two being Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s president and Nigerian oil tycoon, Folorunsho Alakija.  

Mama Ngina’s wealth is a classic case of employing state power and resources coupled with crony capitalism, nepotism and unbridled avarice to feather one’s nest. 

One of her early forays was in acquisition of prime beach plots in Mombasa when Eliud Mahihu was Coast Provincial Commissioner. To be allocated a beach plot, two signatures were crucial- Mzee Kenyatta and Mama Ngina’s. Duncan Ndegwa in his 2009 memoirs, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story, recalls an incident when Kenyatta desired a particular beach plot only to be told that the owner was not selling. Upon insisting, the patriarchal Kenyatta was informed the owner was actually a woman. She wanted her brought to him forthwith for negotiations only for his handlers to inform him “she is seated next to you!”

Heads you win: CBA merged with NIC to create NCBA, Kenya’s third largest bank by assets and where Mama Ngina and sons Muhoho and Uhuru Kenyatta are listed among the largest shareholders with equity worth over Sh6 billion.

It was on these beach plots that the family erected Leopard Beach Hotel, one in a chain that form their Heritage Hotels & Resorts.

British historian Charles Hornsby notes in his 2013 effort, Kenya: A History since Independence that “The Kenyattas were probably the wealthiest African family in Kenya. They owned the Heritage Hotels chain, the Hilton Hotel, and hotels in most of the main parks. The family owned Brookside Dairies, which had taken over much of the urban market for milk. They still had vast tracts of land in the Rift Valley, on the coast and along the Nairobi–Thika road,” besides farms and businesses in Brazil and a fortune running into billions of shillings.

Continues Hornsby: “Moi had remained friendly with Mama Ngina, and the Moi and Kenyatta families were in business together. The Commercial Bank of Africa and Euro Bank were believed to be part-owned by the two families. They also had joint interests in transport, shipping, hotels, the media and land. These links gave Moi another reason to favour a Kenyatta as his replacement. Without clear institutional mechanisms or any precedent to protect him, Moi had reason to be fearful of his future under another president.”

Mama Ngina was allocated or bought on the cheap large farms through Mzee Kenyatta’s personal approval

Besides prime beach land, Mama Ngina also got licenses from the Ministry of Wildlife and Natural Resources to engage in the sale of game trophies including the lucrative export of baby elephant ivories before a ban was imposed in 1977.

Using her position and that of her husband, Hornsby notes that Mama Ngina was allocated or bought on the cheap large farms through Mzee Kenyatta’s personal approval, but which exempted her property from review by land control boards.

In 1975, Britain’s Sunday Times in an expose on the Kenyatta’s listed her vast farms including Mama Ngina’s own 26,000-acre farm in Kiambu, and another in Rongai, Nakuru, next to Kenyatta’s own.

The Sunday Times also included Kenyatta and Mama Ngina’s beach plots, 11 prime properties by 1972, but which the Mombasa Municipal Council waived all rates.

Mama Ngina’s other ventures were in gemstones, deals she entered through fronts including Asian lawyers and accountants and mzungus, the biggest being George Criticos, the father of Basil Criticos, the former Taveta MP.

Through Criticos Sr, Mama Ngina dug into acquisition of mines owned by foreigners.  One case actually created a diplomatic row between Kenya and the USA.

Best kept secret: President Uhuru and former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta. She is said to be among his advisers but that is not why she draws a monthly pay of over Sh500, 000.

 American prospectors, geologist John Saul and business partnerElliot Millerhad discovered rubies in Tsavo National Park in 1973- the world’s largest ruby mine. In January 1974,they registered their find and were given permission to mine and export the rubies through Taita International Ltd.

To get political protection, Saul roped in the then Vice President Daniel arap Moi and then Tourism and Wildlife Minister Jaxon Shako and Natural Resources Minister William Odongo Omamo as partners who were allocated 51 per cent of profits from the rubies. Years later, Omamo’s granddaughter Fiona Achola married Uhuru Kenyatta’s son while her aunt, Raychelle Omamo is the Cabinet Secretary for Defense.

Things changed when the powers that be realized the full value of the ruby find, $5 million or Sh500 million today. Shortly, the Kenyatta family demanded a piece of the action.  After all, Saul had discovered three finds he named Ng’ang’a, Penny Lane and Saul Mines. Ng’ang’a, was the real deal.

“Acting for Mama Ngina and Kenyatta’s niece Beth Mugo, George Criticos, Kenyatta’s Greek-Kenyan partner who had minted his dough selling guns and scrap metal in Egypt, approached the Americans to demand their share,” writes Hornsby. “A day later, on 18 June 1974, Saul was deported. The same day, the mining claims register was mysteriously lost. The first entry in the new register was the discovery of ruby mines by George Criticos.”

Criticos, with whom Mzee Kenyatta had split the whole of Taita Taveta District according to Ndegwa memoirs,  laid claim to Ng’ang’a Mine as the president castigated some “foreign geologist out to swindle  Kenyans.”

 The American Embassy through protests of Ambassador Anthony Marshall were followed by hostile press coverage in the US and the UK.

Mama Ngina returned one of the mines, though the other remained in family hands

 In fact, copies of Time magazine carrying the story were impounded at the airport and destroyed. It was only after America threatened to cut foreign aid that Kenya backed down.

 “The Criticos license was revoked in December, and Mama Ngina returned one of the mines, though the other remained in family hands. Compensation was only paid to the Americans when Kenya needed US military assistance in 1976,” notes Hornsby.

Mama Ngina is still in mining, Beth Mugo still operates Beth International, a gemstone concern. Saul and Miller returned to Kenya after Mzee Kenyatta’s death in August 1978 and continued profiting from Nga’ang’a Mine until the 1990s when they fell out of each other and is now owned by politician Johnston Muthama.

Following Kenyatta’s death, the CIA Report the Economic Intelligence Weekly Review dated August 31, 1978 on Mama Ngina stated that she “owns at least 115,000 hectares including a 13,000 hectare ranch in the Kiambu district, two tea plantations at Matu and Mangu, and three sisal farms near the Tanzanian border. She also has considerable holdings in the resort areas around Mombasa and is involved in coffee plantations and in the Kenyan ruby mines”.

Shall we tell the president? Former strongman Daniel arap Moi harassed the Kikuyu community when he took over power in 1978. But he left the Kenyattas alone.

 Mama Ngina Kenyatta was thus a particular beneficiary of political and state largesse in which legitimate and illegitimate means were the sure routes to untold wealth. She used the connections her position conferred to acquire businesses, extract commissions and win contracts.

 Mama Ngina was married to Kenyatta by design rather than default. And it paid off handsomely for her.

See, having been born a commoner in Ichaweri, Gatundu, Kiambu County in ‘the year of the jigger’, Jomo Kenyatta desired ascent into royal circles and which explains his marital liaisons to relations of higher social class. Having socially sidelined first wife Grace Wahu-another commoner-and with whom he sired two children, Kenyatta married English woman Edna Clarke at the height of World War II in May1942. They had one son two years later, Peter Magana, in the 15 years he was in England, where he wrote Facing Mt Kenya. The loyalties of that 1938 book bankrolled Magana’s education.

Edna Clarke died at 86 in 1995. Her son Magana is 75 today.

Upon his return to Kenya in 1946, Kenyatta, in line with searching for royal blood married Grace Wanjiku, daughter of Chief Mbiyu Koinange, but his third wife died during childbirth in 1950. The child, however, survived-Jeni Wambui Kenyatta, mother of Jomo Gecaga, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s personal assistant.

President Moi left Mama Ngina and her family alone, their wealth flourished tenfold in succeeding years

The fourth wife whom he married in 1951 was Mama Ngina Kenyatta, again, the daughter of Chief Muhoho wa Gatheca after whom Muhoho High School is named.

Grace Wahu, the mother of Margaret Kenyatta and Peter Muigai Kenyatta, was alive when Kenya earned her independence in 1963. Her children went on to hold public positions, Margaret was the first African woman Mayor of Nairobi, Peter, the MP for Juja Constituency. All are now deceased.

Though second President, the now retired Daniel arap Moi succeeded in politically and economically neutralizing Kikuyus who made their fortunes in the regime of Mzee Kenyatta, he left Mama Ngina and her family alone and in fact, their wealth flourished tenfold in succeeding years.

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