Njonjo: Why Kenyatta burial was a nightmare

Saturday August 21 2010

File | NATION The procession during the burial ceremony for Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, in Nairobi in 1978

File | NATION The procession during the burial ceremony for Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, in Nairobi in 1978 

By David Okwembah [email protected]

Thirty-two years after the death of Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, his long-serving Attorney General has for the first time disclosed the agony government officials went through before settling on burying the Head of State at Parliament Buildings.

Mr Charles Njonjo, who served as Kenya’s first Attorney General for the 15 years Kenyatta was president, disclosed that some of the options were to bury Kenyatta at his Gatundu home or even in Mombasa where he had died in his sleep.

He also reveals that there was no discussion about moving Kenyatta’s body to any other site after his interment.

“We were confused, we were overwhelmed, this had never happened... What do we do with the body of the first President of this country?” the former AG said in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Nation.

As one of Kenyatta’s confidantes, Mr Njonjo says the government had never considered where the President would be buried if he died.

He said a Cabinet sub-committee in which he was a member together with the then head of civil service, Mr Geoffrey Kariithi, was formed to decide on the founding father’s final resting place.

The sub-committee held discussions with the Kenyatta family and finally agreed on Parliament grounds as the burial site.

Mr Njonjo, now in his 90s, said some members of the sub-committee wanted Kenyatta buried in his Gatundu home but they were informed that the President was “bigger” than his constituency in Central Province.

Other members suggested having him buried in Mombasa because they felt that since he belonged to the nation he could be buried in the coastal town. This was also overruled when the committee was informed that Kenyatta was not from the Coast province and that he was the father of the nation.

“This was something completely new and we agonised over it a lot,” Mr Njonjo said, staring at the ceiling of his third floor office in Nairobi’s Westlands.

The Sunday Nation interview with the former AG is significant because it is Mr Njonjo who outlawed any discussion on Kenyatta’s death while serving as the country’s chief legal adviser.

He warned that imagining the President’s death was a treasonable offence, a ruling which put to an end a fierce debate on the Kenyatta succession spearheaded by a group of central Kenya leaders whose intention was to stop then Vice-President Daniel arap Moi from succeeding Kenyatta.

Back to the Kenyatta funeral, Mr Njonjo said the committee finally agreed to bury him at his present site to reflect his national stature and also as an honour to the institution of Parliament.

“We felt that he should be buried in a Parliament that he created,” a thoughtful Mr Njonjo said.

The former AG says today the situation may be different because people may think that a president should be buried in accordance with the will he has and the wishes of their families.

Seven years ago, the family of Kenya’s eighth Vice-President Michael Kijana Wamalwa went through similar motions after the government made available the heroes’ corner at Uhuru Gardens to inter his body.

The family and clan prevailed when they decided to have his body buried at his Milimani home in Kitale. Mr Njonjo, who still adorns his trademark pin-striped black suits with a fresh red rose at the lapel, said future presidents and freedom heroes need to declare how and where they should be buried.

“It may be that the current leadership would say that the next president when he dies should be buried where he comes from, his home and not in the centre of Nairobi,” the former AG said.

And on whether Kenyatta’s body should be moved from the current site at Parliament, Mr Njonjo said: “We didn’t give any thought of his body being moved at a later stage.”

He said that he, together with his family, had already agreed where his final resting place would be.

“My children and I have made a will and made provisions on how I should be buried and where I should be buried,” he added.

Mr Njonjo remembers Kenyatta as a great man who was larger than life.

“If you went to his office you felt his presence,” the former AG said, choosing his words carefully, as his eyes seem to recede."

He said the founding father has no peer among the current political leaders as he was decisive and was not ambivalent.

“If you asked Mzee a question, he would answer you straight and weighed his words carefully and there was no question of ambiguity or failure to understand,” he added.

Mr Njonjo said as president, Kenyatta had authority and meant every word of what he said.

“Mzee was never a private man, he was always the President of the Republic of Kenya whether it was in his office, in his home in Gatundu, in Cabinet or anywhere else,” Mr Njonjo said.

Reflecting on the day Kenyatta died, Mr Njonjo said he vividly remembers the activities Kenyatta engaged in the night before he passed away peacefully in his sleep.

“He (Kenyatta) had gone to Msambweni as he was wont to do. Listened to singers. Talked to them. Got in his car again. Got into the ferry and back to State House and we knew the person who had crossed the ferry was the President of Kenya,” he states.

Mr Njonjo also talked about Kenyatta’s style of leadership, saying he exercised authority in the discharge of his duties as president.

“Mzee was a man who had finesse and conducted his meetings in an orderly manner.”

He said Cabinet meetings were held every Thursday from 10 a.m. and would end just before 1 p. m. with Kenyatta presiding and lunch would follow.

He dismissed assertions that the Cabinet ever sat in Gatundu during the 15 years that Kenyatta was President.

“We went for tea or somebody had a problem and the President didn’t come to town and ended up in Gatundu,” Mr Njonjo said dismissing claims that the Cabinet occasionally met in Kenyatta’s verandah.

Mr Njonjo who also served President Moi in the same capacity and as constitutional affairs minister did not have much to say about Kenyatta’s successor.

“Moi tried, after all he was in the Cabinet when Kenyatta was president,” Mr Njonjo said when asked to compare the two leaders.

He termed as “rubbish” claims that ministers were summoned to State House and were whipped by Kenyatta if they failed in their responsibilities.

"Mzee was never a brute. He was a civilised man. He would use his words if you annoyed him or if you didn’t do your work he would call you and tell you but he would never whip anyone,” Mr Njonjo said.

Two years ago, Mr Moi’s private secretary Mr Lee Njiru launched a scathing attack on Kenyatta’s handlers accusing them of exploiting the founding father in his last days in office.

Mr Njiru claimed that Kenyatta was abandoned and neglected during his hour of need by his aides and top advisers whose unbridled greed for power, property and money was their propulsion force.

“These fellows, consumed by rapacity greater than that of desert locusts let loose on green foliage, could not be objective about Kenyatta’s needs and separate those needs from their own,” Mr Moi’s aide said of Kenyatta’s handlers.

But Mr Njonjo termed Mr Njiru as a “reckless man” who had failed to speak the truth.

“There was no truth on what he said while he knew that the person he was talking about was not there to answer him,” he said.