The history of Nation and that of Kenya is closely intertwined. In this first instalment of the newly-published book, BIRTH OF A NATION: The Story of a Newspaper in Kenya, the author discloses for the first time how Mzee Kenyatta’s bid to control the media house was politely but firmly rejected.
When the $3 million Serena Hotel in Nairobi was opened on 16 February 1976, there came a moment when four men found themselves together: the president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta; the leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims worldwide, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan; and two Kenyan businessmen, Udi Gecaga and Ngengi Muigai.
According to an executive on the fringe, Kenyatta addressed the Aga Khan: ‘This is my nephew, Mr Muigai. He has just come back from America and I was wondering if it was possible to find a position for him in your newspapers.’ The Aga Khan appeared taken aback but replied politely that he was sure that would be possible, but he would have to make enquiries. Gecaga and Muigai looked unhappy at this guarded response, but the Kenyan president nodded and the group split up.
In a dark suit, with an orchid in his buttonhole and a fly whisk dangling from his wrist, the revered father of the nation unveiled a plaque opening Nairobi’s most elegant hotel, and then at the celebratory luncheon graciously acknowledged a toast by the Aga Khan to his continued good health and long life.
The chic guests amidst the flowering jacaranda and bougainvillea were not to know that Kenyatta’s twilight years were approaching their end and that the prospect of his demise had already begun to influence the course of national politics, to which the cameo on the Serena terrace would add a significant footnote. Indeed, the meeting set in train a course of events which had an important impact on Kenya’s constitutional development and long-lasting effects on freedom of expression and the future of democracy.
The new 400-bed hotel on the edge of Uhuru Park was an investment by the Aga Khan’s Tourism Promotion Services Ltd, an offshoot of Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), which he established in 1963 as a catalyst for Third World development in partnership with private institutions and global agencies.
The newspapers to which Kenyatta referred were an earlier Aga Khan personal initiative, a publishing stable named the Nation Group comprising two English-language titles, the Daily Nation and the Sunday Nation, the Kiswahili daily Taifa Leo and Taifa Weekly.
The group started in 1959 with the purchase for £10,000 of a tiny Kiswahili weekly, Taifa (meaning Nation), from Charles Hayes, a former district commissioner in the colonial administration, and his business partner, Althea Tebbutt. Taifa was quickly turned into a daily, an English-language Sunday paper was launched in March 1960 and the Daily Nation appeared in October the same year. The first African editor-in-chief, Hilary Boniface Ng’weno, was appointed in 1964.
After investing more than £1 million in the venture (at least £12 million at today’s rates), the Aga Khan saw the group move into profit in 1968, and just a year later the daily overhauled its long-established rival, the East African Standard. In 1973, the group became a public company, with more than 8,000 mostly Kenyan shareholders, reducing the Aga Khan’s shareholding to 60 per cent.
This was later lowered to 44.73 per cent ownership and in 2003 the founder transferred his 23.9 million personal shares to the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which worked to bring jobs and services to poor countries.
At the time of the Serena opening, the Nation was selling more than 70,000 copies a day, double that of its rival, and the group was the unchallenged industry leader in East Africa. It was easy to see why the Nation was an attractive proposition for a young man with commercial or political ambitions in 1976.
The Aga Khan’s personal association with Kenya was a long one. During World War II, his father Prince Aly Khan was based in Cairo with the Free French forces and fought the German Axis armies in the North African desert. Prince Karim and his younger brother, Amyn, were sent to safety in Kenya and lived in a house belonging to their grandfather, the then reigning Aga Khan, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah.
The house in suburban Nairobi had a metal roof, and when the boys lay in bed at night they could hear the rain pattering overhead and occasionally the grunts of lions prowling outside. Returning to Switzerland, the country of his birth, Karim attended Le Rosey private school for nine years, then began reading for a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, switching later to Islamic History at Harvard University in the USA.
He was aged 20 and half-way through his course when his grandfather died in 1957, naming the young Prince Karim as the 49th Imam in direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, and leader of some 15 million Ismaili Muslims in 25 countries.
One of the largest of these communities was in Kenya , and the new Aga Khan broke off his studies to visit the local leaders and take part in his enthronement ceremony in the course of a world tour to meet his followers. But already he was looking beyond the ceremonial and pondering the future in East Africa.
Independence, he believed, was inevitable. Though by no means imminent, he considered British Colonial Office talk of 10 and 15 years as unrealistic. Could he assist in a peaceful transition from colonial rule, he wondered, and if so, how?
Michael Curtis was Fleet Street’s youngest editor, aged 34, when he took over Charles Dickens’ old chair at the News Chronicle in London in 1954. He had been with the newspaper as editorial writer and deputy editor since 1946, but came into conflict with the ownership on two fronts.
In the face of weakening circulation, he argued for a change in the paper’s format, suggesting, far ahead of current thinking, a restrained tabloid with serious content, as favoured by some European industry leaders. The Cadbury family, which owned the Chronicle, was not convinced.
More importantly, Curtis disagreed strongly with the British Government’s policy over Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and said so in his columns. The proprietors felt he should support the government, and in 1957 Curtis resigned. A family connection put him in touch with the Aga Khan and he accompanied the new Imam on his enthronement tour as his press adviser.
Curtis recalled in an interview for this book that the Aga Khan was obviously interested in newspapers during that tour but it was only when he got back to Harvard that he raised the idea. “I said to him, ‘Look, I better go, I don’t think this PR stuff is really my métier and I want to get back to journalism.’
He then said, ‘Well, how about starting a newspaper in Kenya?’ This was a complete surprise to me but also an attractive proposition, the prospect of actually starting a newspaper, which a lot of journalists long to do. I made it very clear that I could not be involved if he wanted a newspaper for the Ismaili community and he said immediately, ‘No, no, that’s the last thing I want. I want a completely independent paper.’
He always said that and he stuck to it. He never used the paper in the Ismaili interest. What he wanted was a newspaper to give a voice to Kenya’s nationalists, who were not being heard in the political debate.” On his 1957 tour, the Aga Khan made note of what Curtis called “the abysmal quality of newspapers in Kenya and Uganda and all these old British Empire places where the papers were quite simply the mouthpieces of the colonial government”.
Encouraging him to go into the business were the young African nationalists of the time: “It was basically his idea but certainly he was pressed in Kenya by politicians, particularly Tom Mboya. They were pushing all the time, saying ‘Let’s open up, this is going to be the new East Africa.’” Mboya and colleagues such as Dr Julius Kiano and James Gichuru would occasionally meet with the Aga Khan for lunch or dinner in London or Switzerland as the hectic pace of independence negotiations quickened.
Although Kenyatta at the Serena encounter had referred only to a “position” for Muigai with the Nation, it soon became apparent that the position he had in mind was the top one, chairman of the holding company, Nation Printers and Publishers Ltd (NPP). Albert Ekirapa, a Nation manager and former civil servant who was scheduled to take over as NPP executive chairman, was at the Serena opening.
In an interview, he recalled, “Gecaga and Muigai were not satisfied with the meeting with the Aga Khan, who was due to fly out the next day and they wanted an announcement immediately.” The two turned to Peter Hengel, an influential Nation director and the man whose financial expertise dragged the company back from the brink when it over-extended unwisely in the early 1960s.
Ekirapa recalled, “They got hold of Peter but Hengel said he wasn’t sure that the Aga Khan wanted to make an immediate announcement.” Next day, the Aga Khan met with Muigai and Gecaga at Nairobi International Airport during a VIP lunch when the feasibility, methodology and timing for Muigai’s ascent to the chairmanship was broached.
According to the memories of participants, the meal was an uncomfortable affair. The Aga Khan said he could not announce a new chairman without warning, since such a move would create a major upset and have a questionable impact upon shareholders. He suggested a meeting between Muigai and Gecaga and NPP’s directors in April, in two months’ time, and said meanwhile he would write to the President.
In other words, he would communicate directly with Kenyatta and not through Gecaga and Muigai. Ekirapa said, “The Aga Khan had promised the President he would do something,” but the precise nature of the commitment was open to question. “The management view of Muigai at the helm was very, very negative,” Ekirapa said, “and it was my job to tell the Aga Khan so”.
Nation managers were worried by what seemed to be a “company raider” mentality by the two men. They were even more concerned about the political implications. The two had close ties to the “royal court” at Kenyatta’s Gatundu home, a Kikuyu power centre which appeared to wield more power than Kenya’s elected cabinet; they were also members of the Head of State’s own family – Muigai was a nephew of Kenyatta, Gecaga a son-in-law. Gecaga was also chairman of Lonrho East Africa Ltd, owners of the Standard, the Nation’s chief rival.
It did not help that his father, Mareka, was a long-serving director of NPP. On leaving Nairobi , the Aga Khan travelled to Pakistan , where he had the opportunity to observe the deleterious effects of a government-controlled press, while in Kenya , the Nation’s top people canvassed opinion on the Muigai proposal from a wide range of contacts. On his return to Europe, the Aga Khan called NPP directors and senior managers to a series of meetings in St Moritz , Switzerland. Ekirapa recalled, “We expressed our criticism in no uncertain terms.”
The view of Editor-in-Chief George Githii was sought. The controversial Githii was a politically-minded editor whose two periods at the helm of the Nation made the newspaper as much a topic of public debate as the events it reported. Recalled Ekirapa, “Githii was very, very forthright, more forthright than any of us. He believed there was no way this merchant group should be allowed to get anywhere near the Nation.’
The managing director of the newspaper company, Gerry Wilkinson, was asked to prepare a list of “banana skins”, possible repercussions if the eventual decision was badly received at Gatundu. After a weekend break, Gecaga and Muigai arrived. Said Ekirapa: “They looked surprised to see us there. The Aga Khan turned to Muigai and said words to the effect that ‘These are my directors, they are the people who make decisions on my behalf. Perhaps you would like to tell them what role you believe you can play in our group.’
They were taken aback. We had heard that they had already been telling people they were going to get part of the Nation, it was just a matter of signing on the dotted line. Muigai was so taken aback, he didn’t have anything to say. But Gecaga was very smart. He kept saying the Nation needed an injection of business acumen, new blood and so on.
“The Aga Khan said, ‘I really wanted Mr Muigai to answer but since you have spoken up, how would you feel if I suggested that I would nominate somebody to the board of Lonrho?’ Gecaga said, ‘That’s different, I am not here as a representative of Lonrho, I’m here in my personal capacity.’
The Aga Khan said, ‘I don’t see where the divide is. Could I also nominate somebody for you?’ It became like a game and in the end the Aga Khan said, ‘We will discuss with the board what contribution you might make to our group and we will let the President know.’ So they left, obviously very disappointed, since this was not what they had expected.
The Aga Khan and his directors faced an extremely awkward situation. It was impossible to reject President Kenyatta’s wishes out of hand without risking severe and far-reaching consequences. But to put Muigai in as chairman would be to surrender the Nation’s hard-won reputation for independence and label it a blatant sell-out. With Udi Gecaga at the Standard, such a move would effectively submit the national print media to the control of a single political faction, and the Nation leadership was never in doubt that the Muigai initiative was intended to place control of the domestic editorial output in the hands of the Gatundu circle.
The St Moritz meetings pondered the way ahead. The easy option was to accept Muigai as chairman of NPP, though this would destroy the Group’s credibility and risk a mass exodus of key personnel; there was also the likelihood that the Gatundu family rule would collapse with Kenyatta’s eventual demise and the Nation would be exposed to retribution from a new leadership.
A second course was to sell off the newspaper company, Nation Newspapers Ltd (NNL), with a management contract going to NPP. The paper’s loss of independence would not then sully the group’s image. Legally, however, this would be almost impossible; what’s more, it would deprive the group of its major revenue source.
A third and harder option was to offer Muigai the chairmanship of NNL, perhaps altering the Articles of Association to limit the appointment to one year. If he insisted on the NPP job, consideration would be given to selling the group. The hardest course of all would be simply to say no to Kenyatta. The consultations were extraordinary in their thoroughness, including examination of how a Muigai-headed Nation would be affected by any change of regime in Kenya.
A three-page analysis typed on the notepaper of the Crystal Hotel, St Moritz, was headed “Plan of action in the event of a sudden transition of power.” There had been no overt moves against the ageing Kenyatta, but the succession issue was an obsession with Kenya’s politicians.
After the first round of St Moritz consultations, the Aga Khan sent a letter to Kenyatta saying he had had “serious second thoughts” since their meeting at the Serena. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that if Mr Muigai were to become chairman of NPP, the press in Kenya would be, to all intents and purposes, under the control of one group of individuals with a consequent monolithic outlook (and) whatever may be the actual facts of the case, public opinion in Kenya would be likely to regard the new chairmanship as an act of government to create a press monopoly.”
He added that if circulation declined because the public considered the paper had become part of a State monopoly, the 2,000-plus Kenyan shareholders in NPP would suffer. (The total of shareholders grew to close on 8,000 in 1988 with a second offering.) The letter also pointed to the Gecagas’ relationships with the Nation and the Standard respectively.
“I consider this sort of situation to be potentially very unhealthy,” the letter said. “If, within the next few months, it becomes known that our new chairman is closely related to the controlling interests of the Standard Group in Kenya, I expect that a number of questions will be raised at our General Assembly (AGM) and that they will have a substantial impact on our readership.”
The letter concluded: “I think that it would be in the best interests of Kenya that while NPP clearly remains loyal to you and the government, it also remains independent of Lonrho… I would truly request you to reconsider the suggestion that Mr Muigai become the chairman of NPP.” What started as a polite response to a request from the Head of State – “a vague promise” as Hengel put it – had somehow become a critical part of the political power struggle.
Though entirely unknown to the general public, the implications of the Muigai affair were not lost on leading politicians, particularly those outside the Gatundu circle, and a number of them made personal appeals to the Aga Khan not to proceed with the appointment.
They included Vice-President Moi, Finance minister Mwai Kibaki and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, who called at the Nairobi home of Sir Eboo Pirbhai, the astute and influential leader of the Ismaili community in Kenya, during a visit by the Aga Khan and put their case directly to him. A witness recalled a number of government limousines flying national flags parked outside Sir Eboo’s house.
Over several weeks, in his typically systematic way, the Aga Khan consulted his directors, the Nation’s top managers, his lawyers and a wide range of Kenyan opinion. The consensus was that he had no other course than to meet with Kenyatta. The Aga Khan was an eloquent and persuasive advocate and Kenyatta was known to be a rational listener.
The publisher–investor flew to Nairobi, travelled 100 miles north to Nakuru Town and met Kenyatta at the State House there. His argument was simple: he loved Kenya, he said, he had spent his boyhood there; he was a good friend of the country as his extensive investments and welfare initiatives proved. But he did not think it would be in the interests of Kenya if his, Kenyatta’s family, should effectively control the two largest newspapers in the country.
He believed sincerely that upholding the independence of the media should become part of the Kenyatta legacy. If the President wished, he would sell the newspaper to the government, but he did not wish to proceed with the appointment of Mr Muigai. The two men had met many times and held each other in mutual respect. Kenyatta, pragmatic master of the political terrain, saw no advantage in promoting conflict.
No, he said, the government did not want to buy the Nation, and as for Mr Muigai, while he found it difficult to go back on his promise, he would accept the Aga Khan’s judgment on the matter. They parted amicably and the Aga Khan returned to Europe the same day. The crisis was over. Just six months later, the crucial importance of the Aga Khan’s stand became clear.
On 27 September 1976, the Standard front-paged a demand by a group of MPs and cabinet ministers at a rally in Nakuru: they wanted Kenya’s Constitution changed to bar the VP from automatically assuming the presidency when that office became vacant, with elections within 90 days. The Gatundu group had broken cover, moving to keep power in the hands of their ethnic circle.
Kenyatta was an old man, increasingly remote and occasionally ailing, and VP Moi stood constitutionally unchallenged as his heir. Ninety days as president would surely suffice to ensure his permanent transition. The royal court wanted one of their own in the supreme office and a change in the Constitution could effect Moi’s removal.
Spearheaded by leaders of GEMA, the tribal Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association, they suggested that temporary power should be invested in the Speaker of the National Assembly, with Gatundu heavyweight Foreign minister Njoroge Mungai as their candidate for Speaker. Sedulously, the Gecaga-controlled Standard headlined the demands of the Change the Constitution group and its attacks on Moi, sanctimoniously asserting that no personal ambitions were involved and that the change would simply be for the good of the country.
Whenever the campaigners spoke, the Standard was there offering page-one treatment, and Mungai in particular seemed to have a hotline to the newsroom. Even when Attorney-General Charles Njonjo declared it a capital offence to speak of the president’s demise, the Standard responded that this was no more than his personal opinion.
The Nation, by contrast, gave little coverage to the Change the Constitution rallies and Githii wrote sharply worded editorials in defence of a constitutional succession. Moi’s detractors, he warned in one, were on the borderline of treason. Eventually, Kenyatta himself, having tested the political waters, called a cabinet meeting in Nakuru and upbraided those ministers who had joined the anti-Moi campaign.
Meekly, they submitted to Mzee, the old man, as Kenyatta was respectfully known, and an official, joint cabinet statement supporting the provisions of the Constitution was issued, putting an end to a naked move for power. It is profitless to speculate what might have happened if the Change the Constitution movement had succeeded.
One minister suggested there could have been civil war, and certainly many Kenyans were so outraged by the arrogance and corruption of some of those close to Kenyatta that, had their power been perpetuated by illegal means, a violent response was likely. This must have been evident to the Standard’s managers.
That they nevertheless permitted their title to be used as a weapon in a potentially destructive war signalled the vulnerability of a newspaper to the political caprices of a tendentious ownership. It would be foolish to suggest that the power-seekers were disarmed by the opposition of the Nation. That was achieved largely through the good sense and strong personality of the Head of State.
What is clear, however, is the immense monopoly of power in terms of exposure and persuasion that would have been available to the Change the Constitution group if the Aga Khan had not resisted the pressures to instal Muigai. Kenya would have seen Nation and Standard joined at the hip in prosecuting the same political agenda with never a dissenting published voice. Thus it is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that, in clinging so stubbornly to its independence, the Nation changed the course of Kenya’s history.
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.