alexa Cost of friendship? The day Jeremiah Kiereini nearly killed a city tycoon - Daily Nation

Cost of friendship? The day Jeremiah Kiereini nearly killed a city tycoon

Wednesday May 15 2019

Jeremiah Kiereini

Jeremiah Kiereini. He was an astute coffee farmer and had interests in insurance, banking and hotel industry. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

VICTOR JUMA
By VICTOR JUMA
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As a senior civil servant, blue-chip boardroom director and an astute businessman, the late billionaire Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini strode the corridors of power like a colossus for three decades.

The positions lubricated the flow of money as he socialised with the high and mighty, investing in stocks and real estate.

In 2014, the man who died on Monday at the age of 90, fought to save his name — and part of his fortune — as the ghosts of listed motor dealer CMC returned to haunt him.

In his autobiography, A Daunting Journey, he glosses over it with an annexure dated May 14, 2012.

But there are other revelations in the book that offer us an insight into the world of power, business, and high society in the Kenyatta-era.

LOOSE TONGUE

One day in the 1970s, Kiereini reveals for the first time, he almost killed populist politician JM Kariuki’s brother-in-law Harun Muturi, a city millionaire who had built his wealth by trading in gemstones and trophies.

In the world of business, the late Muturi — the proprietor of Mamba Village and the father of Solicitor-General Njee Muturi — was nicknamed ‘Meta Meta’, thanks to the shiny gemstones he sold.

He was, according to Kiereini, also famous as a loose tongue. 

The potentially fatal act was contemplated at Nairobi’s Mayfair Hotel where Kiereini had gone for a drink.

At the table were some of the most powerful people in Kenya: Commissioner of Police Bernard Hinga, Head of Criminal Investigations Department Ignatius Nderi and General Service Unit (GSU) Commander Ben Gethi. 

The discussion, according to Kiereini, narrowed to Attorney-General Charles Njonjo.

THROWN OUT

Also at the table was another millionaire Edward Kariuki who apparently had walked in with Kiereini from Njenga Karume’s Pizza Garden.

The week before, Mr Njonjo (who like Kiereini was a major shareholder of CMC) had been castigated by MPs for holding a parcel of land in Surrey, England, an act that was termed unpatriotic in light of Kenya’s colonisation by the British.

Kiereini writes that he felt obliged to defend Mr Njonjo, who was also thought to be disrespectful of Africans and carried himself with an air of superiority, having grown up as the eldest son of a chief.

For that, Muturi remarked that Mr Njonjo and Kiereini should be thrown out of Kenya.

Thii ukere murumegwo Njonjo ninii ndoiga (Go tell your husband Njonjo, I'm the one who said so),” Muturi curtly said and continued to insult Kiereini.

“I was so enraged at Muturi’s foul and vulgar insult that I decided I would shoot him. I went to my car in an overwhelming rage, to get my gun... I even considered shooting them all! But as I walked out into the fresh air... I came to my senses... went straight home and slept.”

MILITARY HARDWARE

Had Kiereini returned, he would have altered the course of Kenya’s history radically. Perhaps.

During the Jomo Kenyatta era, Kiereini was the permanent secretary in the Defence ministry where he oversaw the modernisation of the military or what he calls “complete overhaul of military hardware…an extremely expensive exercise.” 

He hardly mentions the procurement only disclosing that the Chief of Defence, Major-Gen JM Ndolo, would go to him with all his requirements.

“We would discuss the merits and demerits and we would then consult the suppliers.”

This arrangement, Kiereini says, did not please Ndolo who wanted the military to be independent from civilian supervision. (Ndolo would later be implicated in the 1971 coup attempt against Kenyatta).

Kiereini’s friendship with Mr Njonjo would flourish over the years.

The two invested in multiple companies over the decades, including entities falling under the CfC Stanbic Holdings.

INVESTMENTS

Besides his life in public service, Kiereini also reflected on his time in the corporate world where he built his fortune.

His first investment in the private sector was the acquisition of a significant stake in Unga Group.

He had got wind of the sale from former Central Bank of Kenya Governor Philip Ndegwa, the late patriarch of the family that still controls the miller.

Ndegwa, an economist, had alerted him of an investor who was seeking to dispose of his Unga shares.

Kiereini used a quarter of his lump-sum pension from the government — he retired in May 1985 — to fund the investment.

It was after he left public service that he was appointed chairman of CMC.

The government was then a significant shareholder.

“During my stint as chairman I started buying shares in CMC for myself, because they were rather inexpensive at the time,” he says.

The businessman says he was not satisfied with the way the company was being run by its managing director Jack Benzimra who made decisions without involving him.

STANDOFF

Benzimra, however, reminded Kiereini that he was older and more experienced, having worked in the motor industry all his life.

Benzimra also brought up the fact that he had a major stake in CMC, adding that he would never do anything to harm the company’s management.

As Kiereini sought a solution to the standoff, he started accumulating shares in the company through his investment vehicle Kingsway Nominees. Mr Benzimra, who has since died, later left CMC.

Although he is a household name thanks to his time at the helm of East African Breweries, Kiereini hardly says much of his reign in his book.

Only that the beer wars between EABL and South African Breweries (SAB) led to a fallout between him and businessman Njenga Karume, a top distributor of EABL’s products in Nairobi and Kiambu at the time.

He estimates that SAB could have lost as much as $100 million (Sh10 million) in the war that it eventually lost.

Despite the cost, the episode proved beneficial to EABL by ending its lethargic streak that had been bred by a near-monopoly status, he says.

EABL had restructured its sales and marketing networks and this affected Karume’s distributorship business.

Karume held Kiereini responsible for EABL’s corporate actions and did not forgive him in spite of offers of ex-gratia payments made through emissaries.

PRIZED POSSESSION

Despite his multibillion-shilling fortune, Kiereini says, in his book, that he doesn’t consider himself wealthy.

However, he says he is not among the poor either, alluding to the long-observed hedonistic treadmill effect (The tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals).

He lists a double exhaust Mercedes 450 SLC sports car bought in 1978 for Sh680,000 as one of his most prized possessions. He says he laughs when he thinks of the hubris and snootiness of those days as they discriminated against anyone with a single exhaust car.

Another of his possessions is the 850-acre Kiambu farm (Gitamuri Farm), which he bought from a Greek family in 1974 for Sh5 million.

How did he get his wealth?

“Our society seems to thrive on rumours and I am sure there are also stories about me. I do not know exactly what people think of me having been in the Ministry of Defence as a permanent secretary or in the Office of the President… all I can say is that I never misused my position… it is difficult (for me) to comprehend how irregular tendering can occur given the many regulations that govern the process.”

This story was first published in the Business Daily on September 9, 2014.