An encounter with Charles Njonjo by Ugandan veteran journalist JB Wasswa

I met Mr Charles Mugane in Njonjo for the first time, and the only time in May 1989 in Machakos, Kenya. Our Nairobi University postgraduate journalism class was  visiting Katumani Agricultural Station in Machakos- one of science journalism field classes.

On the same day, students from one international school in Nairobi were also visiting the station. They travelled there in their school bus. Behind the school bus was a black limousine carrying Mr Charles Njonjo and his two children.

My classmates, some from the Daily Nation, The Standard and the Kenya Times asked our Science Journalism lecturer Prof. MacLaing, if we could suspend the class to have a rare chance of talking to Njonjo- who had fallen from grace and kept a low profile since parting ways with President Arap Moi in 1983.

JB Wasswa third left with Sir Charles Mugane Njonjo (middle in blue jeans) and journalism class in Machakos in 1989

Njonjo’s children joined their colleagues and he allowed us an interaction that lasted almost one hour. He first told us that he hated talking to journalists but since we were students, he allowed because ‘we had not yet been polluted by the stupid media environment prevailing  in Kenya at the time.’

We asked why his children were travelling with him and not with the rest in the school bus all the way from Nairobi to Machakos. Njonjo calmly replied that he did not trust any of the African drivers, except his drivers who had been carefully trained by a British driving instructor. It was the practice whenever the children were on a school trip. The children were always chauffer-driven in one of the family limos, and whenever possible, he accompanied them.

Njonjo told us that he had lost trust in the media; that he no longer talked to journalists and that he had not watched television since the end of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into what he called his alleged treasonous activities. For five years, he had not watched television.

“I have never seen such stupidity, such lack of professionalism as manifested by the Kenya media, especially Voice of Kenya TV and Radio during that inquiry. I decided it was over with the Kenya media. I have not watched TV since,” said Njonjo. “I hope that when you get out of university, you will redeem journalism.”

The Commission of Inquiry, headed by Jamaican-born Justice Miller concluded in 1984 with a report that found him guilty of acts of high treason against the government of President Moi.

He talked about his quiet life, and a range of issues but he refused to be drawn into discussing politics in Kenya. We took photographs and he wished us well.

Later the classmates from the mainstream media started recounting to us, foreigners the type of man who was once the most powerful politician in Kenya after President Jomo Kenyatta. We foreigners in that class included two Ugandans, a Tanzanian , American and Canadian.

He was Kenya’s powerful Attorney General and Minister of Justice, a Kenyatta confidant. In 1978, as Kenyatta became frail with age, succession plots increased in Kenya. There were several factions that did not want Moi, then Vice President to succeed Kenyatta. Factions plotted all types of schemes including changing the Constitution to prevent the Vice President from automatically succeeding the President in the event of the president dying—and the death of  Kenyatta -was surely not far away.

The classmates narrated that Njonjo and Kibaki, then Finance Minister strongly opposed the Change-Constitution Groups. They told us how Njonjo had at the time issued a ministerial instrument as Attorney General criminalizing any imagination of the death of President Kenyatta.

Our media law teacher Professor George Rukwaro (RIP) later explained this further. ‘The Njonjo Instrument banned the thinking, dreaming, imagining, conceptualising and conjecturing that President Kenyatta was about to die. Whosoever happened to think, dream, imagine, conceptualize or conjecture the death of the President, was supposed to report their thinking, dreaming, imagination, conceptualisation and conjecture to the Police.’ And Prof Rukwaro really liked repeating this.

Kenyatta died in 1978 and Moi succeeded him, thanks to Njonjo, Kibaki and some others who stood to defend the constitution. Njonjo resigned in 1980 as Attorney General to secure his place in parliament as MP for Kikuyu Constituency in case Moi dropped him.

However, after the attempted military coup in August 1982, Moi moved quickly to consolidate his power and neutralize all those who wielded power and influence in the party, government and security forces. Njonjo fell out with Moi in 1983 as Moi made allegations of a powerful person who was working with foreign countries to destabilize Kenya.

He eventually appointed a Commission of Inquiry in 1984 to investigate Njonjo as prime suspect.  The Miller Commission found Njonjo guilty of various counts of high treason. As soon as the Commission Report had been submitted to Moi, he made it public to name and shame Njonjo in the court of public opinion. Then soon after, Moi issued a presidential pardon to Njonjo, cleverly ejecting him from politics.

The Njonjo Inquiry was a national sensation. Dailies must have made a killing with verbatim reports. Voice of Kenya TV (now KBC) gave live coverage. With government monopolizing public broadcasting.

Njonjo has lived an eccentric lifestyle. He had such a negative attitude towards Africans. No wonder when we met him he had school- going children because he married late in 1972 at the age of 52. He told Drum Magazine that although there were millions of girls in Kenya, he had not found one he could share a home with. And when he married, he chose a European lady, Margaret.

Our Kenyan classmates said that Njonjo wore only striped suits specially designed in the UK. The stripes were actually lines made of thin letters CMJ (Charles Mugane Njonjo).  He only employed whites in critical positions in his offices.

Even when he was Attorney General in the early years of independent Kenya, he doubted the capacity of African lawyers. Drum quoted him as saying he would not promote African lawyers to the bench just because they were black in colour but that that they had to prove themselves at high levels of practice.

Njonjo would only fly on planes piloted by whites. Some Kenyans report that he once abandoned a plane before take-off when he realized the Captain was a black Kenyan. Could not  verify this.

Locally known as the Duke of Kabeteshire, or at time ‘Sir Charles’ because of his love for British lifestyle, Njonjo reportedly created many enemies when he was in Parliament, something that deprived him of enough support when Moi turned against him. He also had an unexplained dislike for the Luos, despite the group being the second largest tribe in Kenya.

  • What is most important is that Njonjo who turned  100 in janary 2020 lived, served and aged in Kenya, like all senior Kenya politicians do. They disagree, often bitterly and then live and  also let their rivals live .By JB Wasswa in memory of his  brief encounter with Sir Charles Njonjo in Machakos in May 1989 when he was a postgraduate journalism  student at Nairobi University. JB Wasswa went on to serve as News Editor at the New Vision and Managing Editor at Daily Monitor . He is now a media trainer and university lecturer .

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