'Homeguards' who Helped Jomo Kenyatta Ascend to Presidency
When the story of Jomo Kenyatta's ascend to the presidency is told, little is said of the family of former Senior Chief Njiiri wa Karanja.
However, the paramount chief and his sons, staunch defenders of the colonial government, contributed significantly to Kenyatta becoming Head of State.
Born in 1866, Karanja was a wealthy landowner by the time white settlers arrived and protected his interests by working for the colony when it was formed in 1920. Such was his political stature, that when Queen Elizabeth travelled to Kenya in 1957, five years after Karanja had retired, she visited him at his home in Fort Hall (now Murang’a). His political support was critical in ensuring colonial officials warmed up to Kenyatta.
The close relationship between Karanja and Kenyatta, which began long before Independence, has been cited as one of the reasons his son Kariuki Njiiri vacated his Legislative Council (Legco) seat for the former president in 1961 after he was released from detention. Had Kariuki not given up the seat, the Kenyatta story would have been confined to the footnotes of history.
Karanja’s son, Mr Mbiyu Njiiri, 81, said Kenyatta visited the chief often in the 1940s.
“When Kenyatta was teaching (at the Kenya Teachers College) in Githunguri, he was in contact with my father and visited him regularly,” said Mbiyu. “They remained close friends even during his imprisonment at Kapenguria and after becoming the President,” he added.
Ironically, Karanja is best remembered as the former paramount chief who smashed his ‘lying’ radio “when it announced Kenyatta was free”. The anecdote is used to mock loyalist Kikuyu reactions to the 1961 release of a man they had denounced as part of the Mau Mau.
However, his family says the 1956 incident is taken out of context: His anger was triggered by a propaganda broadcast claiming his friend Kenyatta, who was in detention, was “back in the country”. (The same radio station had a year earlier broadcast that Kenyatta had left Kikuyu-land and would never return again).
When Kenyatta emerged from seven years in detention and became president of newly formed Kanu party, he needed to be in the Legco to participate in constitutional talks being held in London in 1962. The Legco was the heart of African efforts to force changes at the Lancaster House Conferences in the lead up to self-government and later Independence in 1963.
Following the proclamation of a State of Emergency in 1952 by Sir Evelyn Baring, Governor of colonial Kenya, Kenyatta and five others had been held captive in Kapenguria. The six were charged with managing Mau Mau, a radical movement trying to push the British administration out of Kenya. Stuck in detention, Kenyatta missed elections in 1961.
But Kanu and Kadu, the parties formed after the first Lancaster House meetings, pledged to secure his release and ensure he assumed a position of leadership. In August that year the former president was freed, but remained outside the vital team negotiating the terms for full Independence.
On December 21, 1961 at a Kanu annual conference, it was announced that Kenyatta would stand for a constituency seat in Fort Hall, which Kariuki Njiiri represented. Kariuki vacated the Kigumo seat six days later. Oddly, no other Kanu member in the Legco – or in Kenyatta’s Kiambu backyard – was willing to make such a sacrifice. Not even his brother in-law Koinange.
In his book The Illusion of Power, veteran politician GG Kariuki writes: “( Kenyatta ally Tom) Mboya (who held a seat in Nairobi and had offered to do so) was reluctant to keep his promise because he knew that stepping down from his parliamentary position… would have meant cutting short his own political career. His political enemies would not have received his resignation… as a gesture of good faith but, rather as a final defeat.”
In the by-election on January 1962, Kenyatta was elected for the Legco seat without contest, setting off his meteoric rise. From June 1963 to December 1964, Kenyatta was the first Prime Minister (Head of Government) as Queen Elizabeth remained the Head of State. In December 1964 he became the first President of independent Kenya.
Njiiri said Kenyatta and his father were so close that even after he was released from detention, he travelled to Kinyona village in Murang’a to see the collaborator chief. For this, celebrated author Ngugi wa Thiong’o would later describe Kenyatta thus: “A black Moses who had been called by history... but failed to rise to the occasion and ended up surrounding himself with colonial chiefs, home guards and traitors.”
As Senior Chief, Njiiri was infamous for hostility towards anti-colonialists during his tenure from 1901 to 1952. Those who remember him vividly say he was a ruthless man who never hesitated to destroy those opposed to the unpopular British regime.
“During the State of Emergency (when he was a retired paramount chief) he assisted the British in cracking the whip on Mau Mau,” recalls 79-year-old Lucy Wanjiku. “He flew over the land calling for the surrender of forest fighters lest they face the wrath of the colonial soldiers and home guards.”
Njiiri’s son Mbiyu was named Kiambu Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu (no relation) as a show of friendship between the two paramount chiefs. Koinange’s daughter Grace Wahu was Kenyatta’s first wife.
According to Hezekiah Mwangi Kanyugi, who served as Kangari Assistant Chief under Njiiri’s son Kigo between 1952 and 1963, a shared ancestry of their fathers maybe contributed to this move. Kenyatta’s father Ngengi wa Muigai and chief Njiiri’s father Karanja wa Njiiri, he claims, hailed from Ngenda village in Murang’a but moved to Gatundu and Kigumo respectively.
“Their fathers’ common origin apparently bonded them and so Njiiri and Kenyatta remained close friends,” said Mwangi, 85. Njiiri was born in 1856 and Kenyatta in 1890s. “I think this friendship, coupled with the same origin, contributed to the sacrifice by Kariuki.”
Njiiri’s son Kariuki had schooled at the Lincoln University in the United States with the likes of Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s first president) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria’s first president). He was a beneficiary of Operation Crossroads Africa, a forerunner to other efforts to airlift African students to US for further education.
He returned to Kenya in the mid-1950s with his American wife, Ruth Stutts, who later served as President Kenyatta’s personal secretary between 1961 and 1968.
Kariuki took an interest in politics before Independence, but his future seemed doomed because he was the son of brutal colonial collaborator. Because his father had more than 40 wives, the connection was not immediately apparent. To fool voters, he changed his name to Kariuki wa Muingi [Kariuki, son of the people] and won the Legco seat he later gave up for Kenyatta. After Independence, when Kenyatta became a national leader, Kariuki got back his seat and served the Kigumo constituency until the 1969 elections when he reacted with defiance when his identity was uncovered.
It is claimed he defiantly stated: “Since when did the crowd birth a child? I am not a son of the people. I am son of Chief Njiiri wa Karanja”.
He lost the Kigumo seat to JFC Munene. Kariuki served as assistant minister for Local Government and later Wildlife and Natural Resources. He died in 1975 following a road accident at Juja, a year after his father’s death. Four years after Karanja Njiiri died at 108, Kenyatta followed him to the grave.
- The Standard