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The quick rise and swift fall of Josephat Karanja as VP

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Wednesday March 18 2020

Dr Josephat Njuguna Karanja, Kenya’s fifth Vice-President, was a man of style.

His ascent to the second-highest office in the land was dramatic. He had a very short stint in elective politics when he was elevated from the position of assistant minister to Vice-President.

Dr Karanja was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Mathare Constituency in Nairobi through a by-election in 1986.

The MP he replaced, Andrew Ngumba, had gone to exile after his business empire, Rural Urban Credit and Finance, collapsed and he was facing conviction for misappropriation of depositors’ cash.

The by-election was a godsend. Dr Karanja had contested two previous elections — 1979 and 1983 — in his home constituency, Githunguri, but lost on both occasions to the more grassroots-bound Arthur Magugu. Dr Karanja was never a people person and could not connect with the rural folks.


The former vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Nairobi entered elective politics when the country was smarting from the aftermath of the 1982 coup and President Moi was consolidating his power.

Moi had dismantled the strong and influential Mt Kenya political power wielders he had inherited from Jomo Kenyatta. The most powerful of them, Mr Charles Njonjo, had been bundled out of government on claims that he was a traitor and was plotting to overthrow President Moi.

Not only was Njonjo — the man nicknamed the Duke of Kabeteshire because of his eccentric British mannerisms — pushed to resign as constitutional affairs minister and MP for Kikuyu, but he was also forced to go through the ignominy of being investigated by a commission of inquiry only to be pardoned by Moi, apparently keen to demonstrate who was boss.

With Njonjo out, the only other powerful Mt Kenya politician was Vice-President Mwai Kibaki.


When he took over power in 1978, Moi appointed Mr Kibaki Vice-President for two main reasons. First, he was paying back favours because Mr Kibaki and Mr Njonjo stood by him during the tumultuous period of the Change the Constitution Movement orchestrated by Gikuyu, Embu Meru Association leaders before Kenyatta died.

Two, because of the influence of the Mt Kenya region in government and economics, he needed one of their own to help him during the transition.

Time was ripe for President Moi to become his own man. Mr Kibaki’s role in government and transition was over. Moi had to cut Mr Kibaki’s legs and that opportunity came in 1988 during the infamous queue-voting, commonly known as Mlolongo.


Attempts were made to humiliate Kibaki at the Mlolongo voting but he survived after creating hell for the provincial administration, who then micromanaged the elections.

But soon after the elections, on March, 24, 1988, Moi dropped Kibaki as the VP and redeployed him as Minister for Health. A humiliating experience.

In came Dr Karanja. An urbane and erudite individual, Karanja took office with admirable gusto. He sought to bring grandeur to the office. Often, he never spared any moment to show off his powers, which became his Achille’s heel.

Yet if there is any VP without clout, it was Karanja. He had no strong political base. Neither did he have political experience, having served as an MP for only two years.

Early in 1989, hardly a year into office, Moi had travelled to France. In his absence, Karanja called top security officials for a national security briefing. Ordinarily under President Moi, nobody would seek out security briefs other than himself. It was a privilege not an entitlement by virtue of office. President Moi got wind of Karanja’s request and got angry.

When he came back, he tore into an unnamed person who had dared usurp his powers. He declared that he was the President whether in or outside the country. That was enough signal for President Moi’s attack dogs.

Simeon Kuria Kanyingi, a lowly-placed mechanic in the Transport ministry and who was styled as the deputy director of motor inspection, had become powerful in the Moi administration.

Despite his lowly position, Kanyingi became fabulously wealthy and extremely powerful, contributing huge sums of money in harambees, and launching numerous projects for women, including buying buses.


A political broker par excellence, he started going around talking of an individual who was forcing politicians to kneel before him. Quickly, the kneel-before-me politician chorus caught fire. Karanja was fingered as the politician who was forcing MPs to kneel before him. But there was no evidence, and never would be.

On April 27, Embakasi MP David Mwenje, a garrulous and combative politician who had cut his teeth in the rumble of city politics as a councillor, sought leave of Parliament to move a vote of no confidence against Karanja. The Speaker, Moses Keino, promptly allowed the special motion.

Several charges were put against Karanja, among them that he demanded that politicians to kneel before him, arrogated unto himself presidential powers, was working with foreign powers to destabilise the government, and that he was corrupt and tribal, actively promoting Kikuyu hegemony in public service. And a charade it was.

Every MP and minister who stood up to contribute to the motion condemned the VP, who sat pensively in the front row corner reserved for the Leader of Government Business, who was the Vice-President.

Common decency has been thrown out of the window and replaced with political thuggery"

It was a sight to behold. Karanja never knew what hit him. The House voted for the motion and what followed was the VP’s ignominious exit.

When he rose to respond to the accusations and in his characteristic eloquence and arrogance, he declared that is was a “sad day for Kenya, when common decency has been thrown out of the window and replaced with political thuggery”. And not without a rider, that he would not have minded calling Mwenje an idiot, which was one of the accusations that had been levelled against him.

The die was cast. Soon, Kanu branches, beginning with Nairobi — his political base — started a chorus of condemnation and insults, railing at him and asking him to quit government.

On May Day, Dr Karanja resigned as VP, marking the end of a tumultuous but short stint — one year and one month — in office.

For a man who had a sterling career and public life, starting as Kenya’s first High Commissioner to London in 1964 and becoming the University of Nairobi’s first VC in 1970, the rise to, and fall from, the pinnacle, came too suddenly and painfully.