Tuesday, 3 March 2020


By Oduor Ong'wen

Today is a red-letter day. On this day, forty-five years ago, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known simply as JM), a freedom fighter, politician and successful businessman was murdered. His badly mutilated and decaying remains were discovered a few days later dumped in the Ngong Forest, a place then known to be roamed by hungry hyenas every night. But why would someone or some people want to eliminate the Nyandarua North legislator so badly that he or they would liquidate him in this most heinous manner?

The events leading to this gruesome murder were the kind of stuff that would attract Hollywood movie producers or fiction writers of crime thrillers. According to the evidence that was pieced up then and later enriched over a period of time thereafter, somebody had decided well before that fateful Sunday of March 2 that that JM had to be eliminated. President Kenyatta was old and not enjoying the best of health. Many hangers on around the President, having eliminated Tom Mboya in July 1969, believed that JM had his eyes on the presidency and was therefore the next piece of nuisance to be got rid of. Besides, JM had a dashing style and struck a powerful chord with the masses. This earned him bitter enemies within the Kenyatta State House. 

The scheme to do away with JM is said to have been developed well before the first post-independence general elections in 1969. For JM, these elections provided him a chance to demonstrate his organisational capabilities and the respect he commanded among colleagues. The elections came not only some five months after the elimination of Mboya but barely six weeks after the Kisumu massacre, the banning of the increasingly popular Kenya People’s Union (KPU) and the detention without trial of the entire KPU leadership led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. It was the beginning of the increasingly radical JM projected through word and deed, snipping at the Kenyatta government at every opportunity. Speaking during a student graduation at Highridge Teachers College in early 1970, he said that the Kenya Government had betrayed the vision of the freedom fighters. New black settlers had only replaced colonial white settlers. He told a dumbfounded crowd: "I believe firmly that substituting Kamau for Smith, Odongo for Jones and Kiplagat for Keith won't solve what the gallant fighters of our uhuru considered an imposed and undesirable social injustice". A few weeks later he received a standing ovation at the University of Nairobi when he declared: "It takes more than a National Anthem, however stirring; a National Flag, however beautiful; a National Court of Arms, however distinctive, to create a nation". Later, he spoke to Uganda's Makerere University and declared Kenya's policy on African Socialism a hoax. 

JM was now the man to watch. A GEMA delegation called on Kenyatta to complain about the MP. But it is reported that Kenyatta dismissed their worries, saying JM was "just a young inexperienced bull that doesn't know from which side to mount a cow". But clearly others did not think so. 

A scheme was put in place to slow him down by denying him permits to hold or address meetings. The restriction was extended even to innocuous gatherings like family parties. A birthday party he had scheduled for March 21, 1971,was cancelled at the eleventh hour by the State. And on January 1, 1972, a huge rally he had organised to be attended by a number of cabinet ministers and MPs was cancelled at the last minute. An incensed JM later told Parliament: "This anti-JM campaign is now bordering on stupidity". Denied a chance to speak outside Parliament, JM turned to the floor of the House to communicate. The then Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Munyua Waiyaki, would later recall that "JM would call and ask me not to miss Parliament as he was preparing a bombshell. He particularly liked the days when I was in the Chair as he knew I wouldn't deny him a chance to say whatever he wanted". 

JM's political enemies went on the offensive against him in the run up to the October 1974 General Election. All his campaign meetings, except one, were cancelled. He was virtually banned from visiting his constituency during the campaigns. In the meantime, Nakuru's Mayor, Mburu Gichua had camped in Nyandarua North with instructions to ensure that JM didn't go back to Parliament. To the great chagrin of his detractors, JM retained the seat with three times more votes than the combined total of his opponents. During the swearing-in of the new Parliament in November 1974, MPs gave JM a standing ovation. It rivaled the applause they had just given Kenyatta, who was in the Chamber. 

It was about this time that secret meetings began in Nakuru and in the city on how to stop JM. Taped speeches of his addresses were played to Kenyatta but it is said Mzee was not alarmed. He only suggested that the MP should be warned to change his ways. According to the late former Nakuru Town MP Mark Mwithaga, the State House clique that wanted JM eliminated was itself interested in keeping a hold on the presidency after Kenyatta. Which is why they held meetings in Nakuru and resolved that JM must die despite Kenyatta’s obvious reluctance.

JM's other strategy was to give generously to development projects. Not only did the debonair Nyandarua North MP give generously to charity, but his speeches were increasingly getting favour and approval with the Kenyan masses. His contributions to Harambees were also unsettling not only to Kenyatta’s courtiers, but to the King himself. For instance, he was known to have given the princely sum of Sh 80,000 to a public cause at a time when the President's highest known donation was Sh 3,000 to the Jomo Kenyatta College of Agriculture at Juja. The contributions aroused suspicion that foreigners who preferred him as a future president of Kenya were externally funding him. Propaganda was hatched and popularized that Chinese communists were behind JM's seemingly endless resources. But his widow Terry in a later media interview denied that JM had any foreign backer. "For all the time I lived with him, he never held a secret bank account. In any case, the government had the machinery to uncover such an account had it existed", she said. 

JM’s repeated harsh verdict on the growing inequalities and commentaries in favour of a more caring society founded on social justice did not help matters. On the 10th anniversary of Kenya's independence (1973), old Jomo joyfully extolled the country's achievements while JM remarked elsewhere that Kenya had become a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. 

In early 1975, the first bombs to strike independent Kenya exploded. In the month of February, there were two detonations in Nairobi’s Central Business District. The first blast was inside the lavatories of the then Starlight Night Club on Valley Road (the spot where Integrity House now stands) and in a Travel Information Office in front of the Hilton Hotel. The day after the second explosion, JM Kariuki revealed in Parliament that his car had been hit ‘by what seemed to be bullets’. There were rumours of a botched attempt on his life.  They were followed by a more serious bomb blast in a Mombasa-bound bus on February 28 at the terminus of the OTC buses long Nairobi’s Racecourse Road. The explosion killed 28 people and left about 100 people injured. Despite a massive public outcry and a police manhunt, no arrests were made. For several days thereafter, the city lived in fear, destabilised by numerous telephone bomb hoaxes. 

It was clear that someone or a group was creating a climate of fear and despondency. But the Kenyatta government took Kenyans on a diversionary path. The nation told that this bomb was the handiwork of a group called Maskini Liberation Organisation (MLO). In the months preceding these bombings, leaflets had been distributed all over Kenya claiming that JM, Charles Rubia and five other ‘dissidents’ were the trustees of the MLO. This disinformation campaign was followed by a series of bomb hoaxes in the form of anonymous phone calls to the police and media houses. None of them ever came to anything.  This was not until after there was an actual explosion at the popular Starlight club. The call to the Central Police Station was not treated with much seriousness given that they all ended up chasing a hoax every time they received these bomb alerts. Two hours after the call was made, a bomb did go off at the Tour Information Office. There is often no mention of any casualties or injuries at the second bombing, but it is likely that there were a few.

On March 2 1975, two days after the bus blast, top security officials, among them Ben Gethi, who was the Commandant of the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) of the Kenya Police, are said to have publicly accosted JM outside the Hilton. He had been followed by the police throughout the day, including police reservist Patrick Shaw. Gethi reportedly asked JM to accompany the Security officials into a convoy of cars and took him to an unknown destination. 

After JM’s disappearance, there was a lull of five days as his friends and family members tried to find out his whereabouts. Rumours began circulating that he had been detained without trial – a phenomenon that was the hallmark of Kenyatta dictatorship. Finally, on March 7, Vice President Daniel arap Moi who was also the Home Affairs Minister told Parliament that JM Kariuki was on a business trip to Zambia. All along, this was diversionary as top security honchos in his ministry were aware that JM’s partly decomposed body was lying at the City Mortuary. The police had sent the corpse to the mortuary as an “unidentified African male.” The same day of Tipis’ appeal, Kenyatta, on his way back to Nairobi from a month-long stay in Nakuru, made a thinly veiled speech that appealed for order, and warned ‘the government would have no mercy on any individual or group that attempted to disrupt peace and harmony in Kenya. It was then not obvious but Kenyatta apparently knew what was to come.

On Saturday March 8, the Daily Nation reported that JM Kariuki was in Zambia on a business trip, although the news desk already had sworn statements that the corpse in the city morgue was JM’s; editor-in-chief George Githii ordered a reluctant news desk to print this misinformation. On March 11, nine days after his abduction, a person who identified himself as “Israeli businessman” telephoned Terry Kariuki, JM’s third wife, and asked: “Have you checked whether your husband is lying at the morgue?”  Mrs Kariuki informed the anonymous caller that the family had been to the Nairobi City Mortuary twice. The caller said, “Just check again” and disconnected. 

After collecting herself following this terse hint, Mrs Kariuki called her two co-wives, Nyambura and Mwikali. Kariuki’s three wives met at the mortuary and had no difficulty identifying his partially decomposed body. Though the face was disfigured, the body was in the same green jacket and a dotted red scarf JM had worn on the morning he left home never to return. The widowed women screamed inside the morgue, after which armed GSU personnel sealed off the place. At the same time Vice President Moi was making a statement, reporting that Kariuki’s whereabouts were still unknown. On March 12, Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga finally confirmed that JM Kariuki was dead, killed by two bullet wounds. He claimed that the ‘partial decomposition’ of the body made identification impossible.

Hinga’s pronouncement was greeted by a mass outpouring of popular anger amid collective national grief. As soon as JM’s death became public, angry students at the University of Nairobi staged massive demonstrations, which were violently dispersed by the GSU. Large crowds gathered around street corners as the police tried to cordon off roads leading into Nairobi. Most shops and schools in Nairobi and environs closed down. The media reported that, fearing public attacks, several ministers removed the flags of office from their cars and fled in fear.

Kariuki’s death also roused the National Assembly into open hostility to and defiance of the Executive. MPs immediately demanded an investigation into the murder. Moi publicly subjected himself to ridicule before Parliament, swearing that he had had no idea that JM Kariuki was dead, and was only repeating what officials had told him: “I did it in good faith. I am sorry, I am sorry.” 

On March 14, parliament unanimously voted to appoint a  Select Committee to investigate the murder. The committee was chaired by Elijah Mwangale , the MP for Bungoma East Constituency, and it included Martin Joseph Shikuku of Butere, Jean Marie Seroney of Tinderet and other friends of Kariuki’s. The Kenyatta administration, infamous for exercising iron grip over the legislature, appeared to have lost control of Parliament completely; there was talk of the murder as being Kenya’s Watergate ( an eavesdropping scandal that had hit the US a few months prior, leading to the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon).  In the meantime, Kenyatta, furious at the ministers’ weakness, had summoned an emergency Cabinet meeting, where, one by one, he forced each minister to declare continued loyalty to him.

The entire cabinet was to boycott JM’s burial. Mwai Kibaki was the only government minister that attended JM’s funeral in Gilgil, stressing he was there not in his capacity as a cabinet minister but as a friend of the late JM’s. Central Provincial Commissioner Simeon Nyachae bravely represented the government, but faced deep hostility and was unable to read Kenyatta’s condolence messages. Even the churches were roused into opposition, with a young Kikuyu Anglican cleric David Gitari (later the Archbishop), particularly outspoken in his criticism in a series of life radio broadcast, Kenyatta and senior ministers lay low, avoiding public events. There appears to have been hatched a plot of misinforming Kenyans over this matter with a shocking zeal. In a matter of ten days, Kenya was transformed from a nation of relative calm to a nation in crisis.

Although I was only a Form Two student, I followed very keenly the developments in the JM Kariuki inquiry, particularly the sharp analyses that Hilary Ng’weno and his team provided in the Weekly Review. For me June 3, 1975 was a day of great expectation - and overpowering tension. The team investigating JM's murder had completed its work and was due to table their report in Parliament. Elijah Mwangale, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee, according to Weekly Review, was in conference with his 13 members in Room 7 on the first floor of Parliament Buildings, going over the details of the 38-page report when word came through the Clerk's office that the Committee was required at State House, Nairobi. 

The Committee was reported to have made three copies of the report. Mwangale reportedly took one with him. The other two were each put in the "custody" of the then Butere MP Martin Shikuku and Diriye Amin, then MP for Wajir East. Their instructions were simple: They were not to leave the precincts of Parliament until the afternoon session of the House was over. Meanwhile, Mwangale left for State House with a few members of his committee, among them Starehe MP Charles Rubia and Lurambi North MP Burudi Nabwera. The two MPs with the other copies were "policed" by other MPs. Suspicions were high. Attempts to sabotage efforts to table the report could not be ruled out. The tension was aggravated at 2.30 p.m. when the afternoon session of the House started without any word on when the Mwangale team would return. 

It was reported that at State House, when Mwangale and his team faced Kenyatta, they were asked one question: Why were the names of Cabinet Minister Mbiyu Koinange and that of the president's bodyguard, Senior Supt of Police Arthur Wanyoike wa Thungu, in the report? 

Rubia: "Kama ni hivyo Mzee, tunaweza kuondoa hayo majina tu alafu tuipeleke bunge" ("If that is the case Mzee we can just delete the two names and thereafter we table it in Parliament"). 

Kenyatta: "Kama ni hivyo, sawa sawa"! ("It’s alright if you can do that"). 

Kenyatta is said to have given Mwangale a green pen. He made him delete the two names and sign against each deletion. Back in Parliament, Shikuku and Diriye entered the Chamber with their copies clutched under their arms. Without warning, Mwangale and his team entered the Chamber, eliciting sighs of relief, foot-thumping and loud cheers. Mwangale tabled the report minus the two names. 

As we mark this 45th anniversary of JM’s brutal murder, I cannot help but marvel at how far we slaves have come!

Nairobi, March 2, 2020.

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