One Lucky bastard: The untold story of Charles Njonjo

Use dry eucalyptus logs, don’t cremate me with diesel in a furnace when I die

Ovarian Lottery: The late Charles Njonjo who never herded goats, was never a prefect at Alliance High, had never handled a woman and not applied for the job…was appointed Attorney General, the most powerful man in Kenya-without being elected! When asked about power and influence he retorted. “Power can make you arrogant and ruthless.”

By Undercover Reporter

After his cremation, the bones of Charles Njonjo were placed in cold water then mixed with milk. They were then crushed in a grinder into ash, put in an urn. The former powerful Attorney General, a billionaire in real coin, had long chosen logs for his cremation, not the diesel furnace: Logs take 24 hours; diesel dusts the job in three hours.

Njonjo’s cremation this January 2, marked the end of one of Kenya’s most colourful personalities in politics, business, charity.

Stripped down to his bare essential, few Kenyans have had the star of good tidings shine upon their heads. Okay, he suffered untold humiliation during the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry in 1984, but that blot aside, his 101 years on mother earth were spent living like a Pasha.

Think about it. Born in 1920s Kenya meant life was rural, downright agricultural. But Njonjo neither tended livestock nor soiled his patrician fingers milking cows. His father’s 112-acre farm in Kabete, modeled like any in Yorkshire England, had milking machines for the imported Ayrshire cows.

Njonjo later inherited the entire bonanza- on which the Nairobi Wangige Road passes-after his two brothers died- one shot himself dead.

But how did a boy born in Kibichiku, Kabete, Kiambu County acquire a penchant for anything British; the chain time pieces, pinstriped suits, fresh lapel roses, imported fruits, lunch time champagne, drinking water flown via diplomatic bags from a spring in Lyon, France?

Njonjo was hardly socialized into African social mores; swimming in rivers, chasing after antelopes, girls in green lodges

The fire next time: Charles Njonjo’s cremation (above) was prepared by his friend, Sudhir Raithata at the Kariokor Hindu Crematorium in Nairobi: His wrapped body was to be cremated in a traditional outdoor pyre using eucalyptus logs, ghee and simsim-no diesel furnace please. Njonjo chose cremation despite being a front-pew Anglican.
He hated long churchy ceremonies, and worst of all, funeral harambees -just as he hated dating African women, beards, shabby dressing. The blazing open-air pyre consumes the mortal flesh and Hindus and Buddhists believe frees the soul for the next cycle of rebirth.

Well, the Njonjos had the families of Senior Chief Koinange and Canon Harry Leakey for neighbours in Kabete ka Nyungu where his Old Guy, Josiah Njonjo was a houseboy in the Leakey household. He later worked for the Leader of British East Africa newspaper in 1914. Canon Leakey later recommended him as a “dependable agent” paving his elevation to assistant district clerk in Ngong. There, he helped D.O. Hodges collect taxes from the Maasai besides buying livestock to feed British troops with beef during World War I.

Josiah Njonjo made so much dough in Ngong he went on a land acquisition spree in Kabete. By the time firstborn son Charles was born, the filthy rich father was already a chief in the colonial government, a position he held for 46 years!

Of their two neighbouring families, Njonjo admired the Leakeys. Not the Koinanges. Ironically, the Leakey’s spoke and lived as Kikuyus. Just why Canon Leakey’s grandson, Dr Richard Leakey-who died on the same day as Njonjo- remained best friend to death.

Like his father, Njonjo attended Canon Harry Leakey Primary where the Leakeys were teachers and then Thogoto. Missionaries were not keen on traditional African cultures. Neither was Chief Njonjo who hardly socialized his son into African mores; swimming in rivers, chasing after antelopes, girls in green lodges.

Njonjo entered Alliance High (which his father helped establish) as the only student in shoes in late 1930s Kenya.  He then proceeded to Kings College Budo, Uganda for a pre-university bridging course. At Budo, the sons of chiefs and other African royalty schooled without passing exams as “their intelligence was assumed” having grown around “symbols of power, wealth and good feeding,” notes Duncan Ndegwa in his 2009 memoirs, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story.

Wanjiru Koinange, Kenya’s Matron-in-Chief at State House, had hots for Njonjo-who never wanted anything to do with African women

Blood is thicker than bayonets: Charles Njonjo was the only surviving son, after one brother shot himself during the State of Emergency (above). It so happened that Chief Josiah Njonjo was touring England, leaving younger son Lewis Mungai Njonjo as acting chief. The local District Officer asked Lewis to identify locals to be killed during the State of Emergency. He refused. They labeled him a Mau Mau sympathizer, a very unflattering label at the time. In protest, Lewis shot himself dead.
The other brother, Edmund Muthemba Njonjo, died in 1983. In Chief Njonjo’s will, his widow, Wairimu Muthemba and  six children were named as beneficiaries. But Charles Njonjo moved and erected a house for them elsewhere. She sued, demanding  20 acres, but lost the case.

From Uganda, Njonjo went to Fort Hare University in South Africa and on to Exeter University England to study law, in between developing “the image of a man of status, well dressed in a white collar shirt and bowler hat, often able to switch at will to a “contemptuous grin, disdainful silence or a cold-teeth smile-indeed, the whole body language of a British gentleman.“

Though Mbiyu Koinange, his neighbour from Kabete was also in London, Njonjo never invited him to his flat in Kesington. Instead, Njonjo’s best friends included Seretse Khama, future President of Botswana and who unlike ‘Sir Charles’ was actually knighted by the Queen to Sir Seretse Khama during Botswana’s independence.

Mbiyu, later Minister of State also had a sister, Wanjiru Koinange, Kenya’s Matron-in-Chief at State House. She had hots for Njonjo-who never wanted anything to do with African women, let alone those from Kabete Ka Nyungu!

With Njonjo’s opulent heritage, sartorial elegance, religious posturing and creature comforts, Ndegwa thought while dressing every morning he “must have struggled at his mirror to accommodate a black skin in a self-portrait of a civilized man.”

Njonjo never used matatus in his life. There were Kenya Buses in the 1950s, but he gassed his father’s Ford instead

Doomsday conspiracy: President Daniel arap Moi (above) was once told how Charles Njonjo imagined himself the president. Moi found the idea so funny he laughed so hard, going on all fours on the State House carpet floor, his rungu on one hand.
Moi was a student of Italian political strategist Niccolo Machiavelli who in, The Prince, advises politicians to get rid of those who eased their ascent to power.
It was Charles Njonjo who suggested to President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta that Moi become Vice President in 1965. It was Njonjo who made Moi President when Kenyatta died in 1978. Njonjo had to go, as British historian Daniel Branch notes in Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011.

Though a law degree takes four years, it took Njonjo nine to be admitted to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, London, meaning there were empty pockets between his ears, according to Ndegwa who had access to all CVs from the Directorate of Personnel. Even populist politician J.M. Kariuki berated him as a ‘third rate lawyer’ for which Njonjo later ensured he was dropped from ministerial appointments.

It was this upper class English mannerisms that he brought to Kenya when he returned in 1956,  as part of Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service which allowed ‘Native’ Africans higher ranks in the colonial service.

That was how, without competition, he was absorbed into the Department of Public Trustees and posted to Mombasa, then to Nairobi where for years his personal secretary was Penelope Warren-Hill.

Njonjo never used matatus in his life. There were Kenya Buses in the 1950s, but he gassed his father’s Ford from Kabete to the State Law Office in Nairobi.

Many independence era politicians and civil servants lived in Eastlands when they came to Nairobi. Future President Daniel arap Moi lived in a bathroom size room in Pumwani. Tom Mboya in Ziwani, Oginga Odinga in Jerusalem. Even Milton Obote, the future president of Uganda lived in Makongeni.

Njonjo finally moved out of his father’s crib in Kabete when he was in his late 40s

Naked ambitions: How did President Kenyatta appoint Njonjo Kenya’s first Attorney General, yet it was later revealed he imposed Miss Wilson, an open British spy, as one of the president’s secretaries?
 Well, Njonjo was invited to “give legal advice” in case it was needed at the Cabinet Room, Harambee House, but for just that day in February 1963.

Tom Mboya, Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs was nervous at appearance of Njonjo yet he represented the vacant position of Attorney General. Mboya’s displeasure was open. Come independence, he was transferred to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Njonjo was AG.
How did he do it? Njonjo was tasked with panel beating the independence constitution to suit the aspirations of the new nation. He dissolved Mboya’s Ministry of Justice into the Department of Attorney General-with Njonjo at the helm.
Njonjo also made the Attorney General an ex-officio member of Parliament and the Cabinet meaning he had a say in the three arms of government: Executive, Parliament and Judiciary and which he used to amass power, control and with it, fortunes-for 18 years!

 Not so Charles Njonjo: When he finally moved out of his father’s crib in Kabete in his late 40s, it was to a house near State House Nairobi. There were less than 1000 landlines in Kenya at the time. Njonjo had a landline too; with the headset imported from Denmark alongside the furniture, warranting a full feature in the East African Standard.

Living along State House Road meant proximity to the President, the Provost of the Anglican Church, the All Saints Cathedral and Parliament. For a taste of night life, many MPs haunted the Starlight Club along Valley Road. It was owned by Robbie Armstrong whose wife Jean run Jean’s Bar in Nairobi West. Starlight Club was not far from Njonjo’s home. Despite prominent people like King Carl Gustaf of Sweden visiting Starlight, Njonjo, lover of Jazz and classical music told Parliament the joint was for ‘vagabonds and never-do-wells.’

From State House Road, Njonjo moved to his residence along Naivasha Road in Old Muthaiga after marrying Kenya High School teacher of French, Margaret Bryson in November 18, 1972. Besides close family including his sisters, no one else was allowed inside All Saints Cathedral. Even President Jomo Kenyatta, who for ages was uncomfortable being advised by bachelor Njonjo, waited for the newlyweds at a tent erected outside!

Charles Mugane Njonjo, father of three, was that clear on how he wanted things done when the Grim Reaper came calling: Use eucalyptus logs, don’t cremate me with diesel!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *