11 OCTOBER 1975, Page 15


Power struggle around Kenyatta

Patrick Marnham

Recent events have provided an unusually clear view of the internal politics of Kenya. Twelve years after independence Kenya is the Showpiece of Africa, prosperous, stable and democratic, a country under the rule of law, led by a dignified patriarch.

In March a popular MP and critic of the government, J. M. Kariuki, was taken from the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi by the chief of police, his trusted friend, and brutally murdered. So self-confident were his killers that they scarcely bothered to conceal his body. It was almost as though they intended that people should know what had happened. In this they very nearly miscalculated, for the news that Kariuki had been murdered was followed not only by predictable student riots but by an unpredictable investigation. A Parliamentary Select Committee carried out a very thorough inquiry and published its report, naming the police chief, four of his senior officers, four other policemen, 'General China' (a former Mau Mau leader) and a dozen other dignitaries as being implicated in the crime. Two names NA/6re suppressed by President Kenyatta: those of his closest adviser, Peter Koinange, Minister of State in the President's Office, and Arthur Thungu, the President's bodyguard.

The inference is that Kenyatta suppressed these names because they implicated him. But there is another possibility. That he suppressed the names because he was told to, in other words that the men who murdered Kariuki did not even fear Kenyatta.

Kariuki's death was the culmination of a Parliamentary battle dating back to the general election of 1974. Last November the newly elected parliament was prorogued to avert the election of another government critic, M. J. Seroney, to the key position of Deputy Speaker. This tactic failed and when parliament reassembled Seroney was duly elected. The unofficial parliamentary opposition, whose most effective member was Kariuki, then launched a campaign against the inexperienced Minister for Land and Natural Resources, Ole Oloitipitip. The purpose of this campaign was to embarrass the powerful clique which had been speculating in land, whose members included the Vice President, Arap Moi and Kenyatta's wife Mama Ngina.

This campaign came to an abrupt halt when Kariuki's mutilated body was discovered in the Nairobi morgue, havig been fortuitiously rescued from the hyenas. And despite the courageous report of the Select Committee it now looks as though the powers behind the Kenyan government have got away with it by the use of an endearingly British tactic — pretending that nothing has happened. Asked to make the report the basis for a criminal prosecution, Charles Njonjo, the bland, dandyish Attorney-General (a barrister of Gray's Inn, and one of Kenyatta's most loyal supporters) merely said that "nothing in it amounts to evidence". At the same time a whispering campaign against the heroic members of the Select Committee, 'the fifteen rogues', was started. Parliament's natural ally in such circumstances might have been the press, but Kenya's much-vaunted press has remained silent. In the case of the mass circulation Daily Nation this is not surprising. George Githii, its editor-in-chief (a distinguished graduate of the LSE) was named in the report as helping to delay investigations by publishing misleading statements about Kariuki's safety.

The initiative has now slipped so far from parliament that the long-promised Committee on Public Corruption has been disbanded, and Kenyatta has emphasised his contempt for the electoral,process by 'nominating' two unpopu lar former ministers who were defeated at the elections for parliamentary seats. Joe magazine (Kenya's Private Eye) made the point well: "It's a secret ballot. Nobody knows who they voted for."

But one thing has changed. During the Kariuki affair, for a moment, the mask slipped.

There are more ways than Idi Amin has dreamed of to rule a country by terror; it does not require public executions or a thousand bodies in the Nile. It is being done now in Kenya in a far more sophisticated manner; the question is, who by? Again the Kariuki Report provides a clue.

The involvement of 'General China' suggests not that Kenyatta's links with the Mau Mau were much closer than he ever admitted, but that his control of Kenya may be weaker than it appears. It would hardly be right to describe Kenyatta as 'a front man.' But it may be that one of Kenyatta's functions both before Independence and since has been as the consistent representative of one powerful Kikuyu group. This is not to deny his unique politial ability or his real authority in all public matters. But it is to imply that public authority is less important in Kenya than has been thought.

One of Kenyatta's oldest alliances within his branch of the Kikuyu tribe is with the Koinange family. Senior Chief Koinange was his early mentor. There is a good story in Jeremy Murray-Brown's biography of Kenyatta about the publication of Facing Mount Kenya, the book which made Kenyatta's name in the 1930s. Peter Koinange decided that it needed a selling-point, and so he arranged a photograph of the author stripped to the waist, holding a spear, wearing a monkey-skin cloak and glaring wildly at the camera. Then they needed a name. Kamau wa Ngengi did not have quite the right ring; the two of them went through the various vowels and consonants to find the memorable combination. Jomo Kenyatta was the result. This incident can now be seen as an example of 'image-building' far in advance of the devices employed by Nixon or JFK.

The Koinange alliance has remained crucial to Kenyatta. And through the murder of Chief Warukiu in 1952 and the appalling slaughter inflicted, almost exclusively on Kikuyu, by the Mau Mau, the hallmark of the partnership has been a concern to subjugate rival branches of that tribe. The murder of J. M. Kariuki, a Kikuyu from the Nyeri branch, is consistent with this.

The most significant fact about Kenya politics in the last forty years has been that whoever rules the Kikuyu rules Kenya. This may not always be so, because Kenya (as an alliance of many tribes) may not exist for ever. But for the time being the whole country can be governed from the platform at a loyalist rally in the Rift Valley.

"The son who is jealous and ambitious to sit on his father's throne dies young and leaves his father still kicking hard," said Vice-President Moi in a nationally reported speech on 8 June, when the fate of the Kariuki report was in the balance. And the hint has been taken.

For some years the great unanswered question about Kenya has been "what will happen when the Old Man goes?" After the Kariuki affair it seems clear that in some senses the Old Kan has already gone, if he was ever 'there'. His role as a figurehead has been crucial and his eventual death may make it impossible for the other 'Presidents' of Kenya to continue unchallenged. But the eventual struggle will not be a result of his departure. It has been raging for at least thirty years.