How Kenyatta’s inaction paved the way to official corruption and impunity
Official corruption and misuse of public funds had already begun to gnaw at the national fabric, but they were rarely referred to in public
- This second part of the serialisation of a new book on the Nation shows that even though inequalities in colonial times predisposed Kenyan society to bribery, the situation became worse after independence. The first president did not despise graft, and the vice did not end with the attainment of some political equality.
The Nation’s founding editor, Mr Michael Curtis, believed he had found the perfect successor to editor-in-chief Hillary Ng’weno in George Githii, Kenyatta’s press secretary.
A small, nattily dressed man who usually wore a spotted bow tie (and often a gun under his immaculate business suit), Githii was to prove a courageous, wayward, devious, sometimes vindictive, often brilliant editor, who had no qualms about using the newspaper as his personal weapon on the political battlefield.
During two turbulent spells at the helm, Githii probably inflicted more agony on his mentors than all the other editors put together. Curtis was not to know this, however, when he reported, “Very good news is that the President has agreed to release his Press Secretary to take over from Ng’weno”.
Thus the former trainee with both the Standard and the Nation was hired at £2,500 per annum (car allowance £15 per month) as the Daily Nation’s fourth editor in six years. He promptly leapt into the fray.
Official corruption and misuse of public funds had already begun to gnaw at the national fabric, but they were rarely referred to in public.
Githii broke the taboo.
When he discovered that Alderman Charles Rubia, Mayor of Nairobi, planned to have the City Council buy him a luxury Rolls-Royce limousine for his official duties, Githii launched a virulent campaign, including page-one editorials that demanded to know why the mayor couldn’t use his recently bought Humber Super Snipe and, what’s more, how come a certain £300-per-annum council clerk could be suddenly promoted to a £1,180-per-annum job?
These were questions which excited ordinary Kenyans and the Nation’s sales soared. Kenyatta banned the car.
With corruption by now inching its way onto the public agenda, the next item was altogether more serious. John Platter recalled in a note to the author: “A civic-minded (or disgruntled) former colonial civil servant who was at that time attached to the Maize Marketing Board telephoned me one day, sounding very furtive. We arranged to meet at the Thorn Tree café outside the New Stanley Hotel and he came with a heavy, thick folder which purported to prove that his chairman, Paul Ngei, was embezzling furiously.
Ngei, a one-time detainee with Kenyatta, was a political heavyweight but he was a thorn in the side of the government and in particular of Charles Njonjo. Was this a set-up to get him or was he really purloining the country’s granary? I mulled over the papers for a few days, made a few calls, then took the story but not the papers or my source, to Githii, who could hardly contain his excitement.
George relayed the information to State House, so he told me, and said he had permission to go after Ngei. I wrote the story, George wrote a thundering leader, there was fury from the Ngei camp and Kenyatta ordered a Commission of Inquiry. We trooped over and solemnly gave our evidence and it began to look like an open and shut case of corruption [especially when Kenyatta suspended Ngei from the Cabinet].”
But in a way that Kenyans were to become familiar with, that is where it ended. Elections were coming and the value to Kanu of Ngei and his Kamba support was critical. The Commission was quietly forgotten.
In one sense, Platter believes, this was fair: “Corruption was already rife, even in the higher quarters, and to single out Ngei would have been subjective targeting for political ends”. Platter’s footnote: “Soon after that, I encountered Njonjo and Ngei together at the sauna at the Norfolk Hotel. We laughed about it all as we sweated out the night before.”
In retrospect, this early failure to act against corruption was a milestone on Kenya’s journey into venality at an official level.
The difficulties of law enforcement and the inequalities between the races in colonial times had predisposed Kenyan society to securing advantage by favour and, as far back as 1907, Lord Delamere wrote, “Time after time I have heard a native say they have been stopped by an Indian policeman and when I asked them how they got away, they always said, ‘Oh, I gave him something’”.
The phrase came to resonate in the modern era when kitu kidogo (something small) became synonymous with a bribe.
In a landmark Nyeri speech in 1952, Kenyatta said, “We despise bribery and corruption, those two words that the European repeatedly refers to. Bribery and corruption are prevalent in this country, but I am not surprised. As long as people are held down, corruption is sure to rise and the only answer to this is a policy of equality.”
Unhappily, Kenyatta did not seem to despise bribery and corruption enough, nor did it disappear with the achievement of at least political equality.
By ignoring the opportunity in Ngei’s case to demonstrate that even the most powerful of men are subject to the common law, Kenyatta paved the way to a shark-like feeding frenzy among men of power which eventually became endemic at all levels of society.
Malcolm MacDonald, Kenya’s last Governor, first and last Governor-General, then first High Commissioner for Britain in Nairobi, was a fervent admirer of Kenyatta, but nine years after independence he wrote: “One of Kenyatta’s most serious errors is his tacit assent to the acquisitiveness of some of his ministers and civil servants. Soon after attaining power, they began to buy (sometimes with money gained by dubious means) large houses, farms, motor cars and other possessions. This development not only tainted his administration with a reputation for corruption, but also produced a wide economic division between governors and governed, haves and have-nots … it would have been more prudent as well as moral if Kenyatta had enforced on his colleagues and subordinates a stricter code of conduct, preventing them from becoming such a conspicuously privileged class.”
That men and women close to Kenyatta enriched themselves handsomely during his 15-year reign is not in doubt. Kenyatta’s favourite charity was the Gatundu Self-Help Hospital in his own backyard. During the 1960s and 1970s, visitors of consequence, particularly businessmen, were expected to beat a path to State House and hand over the obligatory cheque for the Gatundu hospital.
Hundreds of fund-raisers were staged on its behalf. A common joke was that it was a “self-help” project, because the Kenyatta courtiers helped themselves to the proceeds.
Summing up the era was this much-repeated story: During an official tour upcountry, Kenyatta spotted a farm he fancied and instructed an aide to acquire it for him. Timidly, the man said that was impossible. Impossible! Was he not the President! Indeed, yes, but Mama Ngina (his wife) already had it.
Certainly, it was in the post-Kenyatta years that corruption became systematised, with an exponential increase in land-grabbing and the amassing of vast personal wealth by politicians. But it can be argued that the conditions for the spread of corruption through a once-pristine civil service, signalling a national free-for-all, were set, with the best of intentions by the Ndegwa Commission in the Kenyatta era.
Duncan Ndegwa, head of the Civil Service and for many years Governor of the Central Bank, chaired a year-long inquiry into Public Service Structure and Remuneration in 1971.
It concluded that to maintain civil servants’ living standards and motivation at a time when many bright Kenyans were going into the better-paid private sector, they should be permitted to engage in business, provided their business was not similar to their work responsibilities – thus an official in the housing department should not be involved with a house-building company.
This precaution was widely ignored; personal business soon took precedence over public duty and the “coat on the chair” made its appearance as a signal to colleagues: the bureaucrat would hang his coat over the back of his office chair and go off to attend to his private business.
Said anti-corruption activist John Githongo in an interview: “The Ndegwa Commission legitimised something that had already started to happen and which led ministers and government people to use all manner of means to earn some money.
For instance, civil servants arranged for the government to buy goods from their own companies. What it did was change the entire culture of Kenya so that these things were no longer wrong.
It coincided with pressures on Asians who had decided to stay after independence. They had to pay off government godfathers for trading licences and work permits. All this turned civil servants into criminals ethically but people stopped asking them, “Where are you getting your money?”
What helped to entrench corruption was Nairobi’s business expansion and the fact that many Kenyans, including ministers and senior civil servants, were offered directorships by companies under pressure from Africanisation.
This new nexus legalised the dubious relationships which had already started to develop, and Kenya assumed the nature of an aggressively capitalist society. President Nyerere described Kenya as a dog-eat-dog society.
The first huge tender fraud involved the £25 million Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in 1978 that expanded and largely replaced the Embakasi facility, which had been built by Mau Mau detainees. A high civil servant made so much money out of kickbacks that he was able to retire early in comfort.
The money-earning techniques employed on the airport construction pointed the way to the massive and systematic corruption of later years.
Karl Ziegler, who was a banker in Kenya between 1969 and 1980, said in an interview: “The Mister Ten Percents became Mister Twenty Percents. It was more than bribery, it was extortion, protection money. If negotiations on a project were not going well, somebody very high in government would pick up the phone and say, “The head of state thinks that your operation is very attractive and if you want to go on making the money you are making, then you look after Kanu, or whatever organisation might be named.”
A Western diplomat who served in Kenya in the 1970s and then later in the 1980s said: “Whatever corruption there was in the earlier 70s did not have a distorting effect on the economy, it didn’t mean that bad projects or uneconomic projects were undertaken. By the time I went back in the 1980s, that was undoubtedly true.”
Projects were built which had no economic rationale, simply because it was in the interests of a particular individual that they should be built and when they were built that their companies should get the benefit of the investment. In the 1980s, corruption was a major topic for diplomats and presented problems for any of us who were dealing with the commercial side.
Githii’s first serious clash with the government came when he opposed the Preservation of Public Security Bill of 1966, which provided for detention without trial and other special measures under emergency powers granted to the President to combat threats to national security.
Attorney-General Njonjo argued that the measures were temporary and subject to Parliament; they were needed to deal with external aggressors, arms smugglers, rumour-mongers and “people who meet in secret against whom no evidence can be found”.
Only one member of the House of Representatives, G.J. Mbogo (Embu North) voted against the Bill, describing it as “very dangerous, South African-style legislation”, but a former Kanu official, the gadfly Martin Shikuku, objected that there was no limit to the period of detention.
“Does the Attorney-General intend to detain people until they die?” he asked. Several members objected that the legislation would require yet another amendment to the new constitution, which was beginning to look patchy. Githii’s editorials went for the jugular.
The Bill, he said, “provides for preventive detention, restriction and the compulsory movement of people; it seems to legalise censorship of ideas and information; it has provisions for the control of associations and societies. This is an issue of grave national importance [which] affects not only the liberty of this generation but also that of posterity.”
Then, in a reference which infuriated Njonjo, he said: “For these reasons, this newspaper does not flatter Mr Kenyatta or the government or the country by asserting that all these proposed powers are called for. An administration should not be allowed to have absolute power, there must be checks and balances.”
As to promises that the powers would not be abused, Githii noted perceptively, “We may accept Mr Kenyatta’s assurances, but we should not presuppose the benevolence of those in power in, say, 30 years’ time.”
Responding in Parliament, Mboya said, “I respect the Daily Nation and I respect the editor. But, on this occasion, I disagree and disagree wholeheartedly.
“Reading the Nation, I got the impression that all the laws of Kenya were going to be suspended. Have we got to be told like a pack of schoolboys so we obey the wishes of the Nation?’” (In fact, Githii, who received Curtis’ strong support for his stand, had warned Mboya he was going to write the editorial and offered him space to reply.)
Njonjo described Githii’s reference to not flattering Kenyatta as “the height of conceit” and warned, “if newspapers want to continue publishing in this country, it behoves them to be careful … this Bill is not a Preventive Detention Act, as the Nation would like to think. Kenya is not abandoning the rule of law, this is where the Nation has got it wrong. We used to complain that Europeans managing this newspaper were irresponsible. The editor of this newspaper today is an African.”
Public condemnation apart, Githii was also subjected to private pressure. After his first editorial, he was summoned to State House and a meeting with Kenyatta and Njonjo. Kenyatta listened attentively to his arguments and simply warned him not to go “too far”.
When he wrote a second editorial, Githii was telephoned by Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga, an old friend from his school days, who suggested that Githii had made his point and he would be wise not to carry the campaign any further.
Although the government took no action against Githii, a few months later, the Nation’s foreign editor, John Dumoga, a feisty, diminutive Ghanaian, was given 24 hours to leave the country.
Privately, Njonjo told Curtis that Dumoga had been criticising the government openly and the President would not tolerate that sort of thing.
Perhaps more to the point, Dumoga was a close friend of Githii and a known opponent of the Public Security Bill – he had been a victim of similar legislation under Kwame Nkrumah – and his deportation was seen in Nation House as an unsubtle warning to the Editor-in-Chief.
Privately, Curtis wrote, “Lively independent journalism is becoming harder and harder to achieve. Political control or influence over the Press is becoming more marked and the shadow of the Preventive Detention Act looms large over everyone”.
Hindsight was to prove Githii’s fears wholly justified.
By the time Kenyatta died in 1978, at least 26 people were being held in preventive detention and, though they were freed by President Moi, detention without trial came back into regular use under Moi himself.
When Githii protested again, this time in an editorial in the Standard, he was fired the same day, and left journalism and Kenya, too. Whatever the protestations of Njonjo, it was clear that internal developments were the raison d’être of the Bill rather than any threat of external aggression.
Earlier, a Kanu conference at Limuru had abolished the post of party vice-president held by Oginga Odinga which made him vice-president of Kenya, too.
Eight vice-presidents representing the provinces were installed instead but Odinga was not nominated and, without a post of any sort, he resigned and formed an opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union.
Joseph Murumbi succeeded him in government but resigned a few months later, and Moi became the new national Vice-President.
The Limuru changes effectively removed Odinga from the race for the presidency, a result which those close to Kenyatta had long sought. Odinga was joined in the KPU by radicals such as Bildad Kaggia, Achieng Oneko and Tom Okello Odongo, and by trade unionists including Dennis Akumu and O.O. Mak’Anyengo. They promised to pursue “truly socialist policies to benefit the people”.
Mboya swiftly crafted legislation providing that National Assembly members who crossed the floor must seek the voters’ mandate anew under their fresh colours, and with 30 seats thus made vacant, a “little General Election” was called.
As the campaign got under way, Kenyatta pointedly declared: “I have today given my assent to the Public Security Act and will now deal very firmly with all trouble-makers”.
When polling day came, the KPU was crushed by Kanu and only Odinga and seven of his colleagues were returned. Kaggia and Oneko were among the vanquished. It was not long before KPU adherents began filling the detention cells under the new legislation.
All this excitement did nothing to hurt newspaper sales. The main focus of the circulation department was the Daily Nation.
For its first five years, the paper hovered between 15,000 and 18,000 sales per day as it sought to overcome anti-tabloid prejudice, but in 1966, a year of major news events, it broke through to 24,263. This was partly due to a resumption of the Coast edition when the Standard’s Mombasa Times folded.
The Sunday Nation by then was already past 37,000 and the daily and weekly Taifas were selling 51,000. Staff were told that the company’s priority was to break even financially in 1968 and push the daily paper past the Standard’s maximum sales mark of around 34,000.
These tasks took on formidable proportions in May 1967 when the African Investment Trust Ltd, a London-registered subsidiary of Roland (Tiny) Rowland’s huge conglomerate Lonrho, bought Consolidated Holdings Ltd, owner of the East African Standard, the Tanzania Standard and the Uganda Argus, for a reported £1 million.
Kenyatta originally was unhappy about the deal because Lonrho’s sources of wealth were based in white-ruled Rhodesia, and he telephoned the Standard’s Charles Thetford. However, Kenyatta was persuaded that the investment Lonrho would bring to Kenya outweighed the political objections.
Within two years, Lonrho had bought Motor Mart, becoming Kenya’s largest foreign investor, then expanded into tourism and hotels, including the Norfolk Hotel and the Mount Kenya Safari Club, food processing (Farmers’ Choice), real estate, ranching and plantations. Curtis noted, “I am not entirely happy about the prospects as far as we are concerned.
‘‘Lonrho is so enormously wealthy they will be far less reluctant than the present set-up has been to engage in extensive re-equipping, re-staffing etc.’’ Eric Marsden gave this view from inside the company: “Lonrho made a killing financially and they gained great political influence.
They got prime property in the heart of Nairobi, a great coup. But the first thing they did was to close down the office in Standard Street and kick us all out to the Industrial Area. The talk about Lonrho was that Tiny Rowland said to Kenyatta, ‘‘The paper is yours to do what you like with, just say the word’’. I believe that’s true.”
Udi Gecaga would later become Lonrho’s first African director and, as Chairman of Lonrho East Africa and a relative of Kenyatta, he would facilitate Rowland’s access to the head of state. When Kenyatta died, Rowland swiftly dropped Gecaga.
Birth of a Nation is published by I.B. Tauris, 6 Salem Road, London W2 4BU, and is available for purchase online and from leading bookstores.