From humble beginnings, tycoon who became father figure to many families

Friday February 24 2012

By MUGUMO MUNENE [email protected]

Veteran politician and business mogul Njenga Karume was reputed to have a near-photographic memory in which he effortlessly stored his diary and telephone numbers. 

The recollection of events in great detail is the hallmark of his autobiography in which he tells enthralling accounts of his personal, political, business and family life.

Mr Karume wrote the autobiography, Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold, with Mutu wa Gethoi who told the Saturday Nation on Friday: “He never wore a watch, but he always kept time.”

According to Mr Gethoi, Mr Karume narrated details for the book from memory.

A man who worked with him and admired his memory was one-time central Provincial Commissioner and now Mwingi South MP David Musila.

“He would tell you something which happened a long ago as if it happened only yesterday,” he said.

“I worked closely with him when I was PC. He was a man of integrity, business acumen and he was held by everyone in high esteem. And wealthy as he was, he was a humble man,” Mr Musila said.

Mr Karume’s legendary memory is something which family friend, former Nation journalist David Muniu who covered him for a decade, is in awe of.

“You did not need to be introduced to him twice. It did not matter whether you were rich or poor.

“You would be introduced once in a crowd and two years down the line, he would call you by name,” said Mr Muniu.

So gifted was he, Mr Muniu said, that he did not carry a diary or notebook. He would commit appointments and discussions to memory.

“Back in the office, he would dictate to his secretary, from memory, the appointments he had made.

“He would expect those coming to see him to arrive in time. If, for any reason, he was unable to fulfil his appointments, he would leave a message with his secretary,” Mr Muniu said.

And in one of the more dramatic accounts, Mr Karume recollects in his book the day when a beer mug belonging to the then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo disappeared.

Mr Karume, who had hosted a party at his home, had gone to quite some trouble to serve imported beer — the brand Mr Njonjo particularly enjoyed.

But Mr Njonjo had a peculiar habit — he would bring his own beer mug to a party. After the party, Mr Njonjo realised his mug was missing.

In the usual haughtiness of the men in Kenyatta’s inner circle, Mr Njonjo called the PC, who contacted the DC who in turn instructed the DO to go to Mr Karume’s home and find the mug.

And, what is arguable Kenya’s most dramatic mug-hunts was conducted. The mug was found among other utensils where it had been put by a worker.

Mr Musila, who was PC at the time, told Saturday Nation he had no recollection of the incident and when he read about it in the book, he had a good laugh.

In his book, Mr Karume however demonstrates that there was no love lost between him and Mr Njonjo. The relationship was especially icy in the sunset years of founding President Jomo Kenyatta.

There were those in the Kenyatta circle — the likes of Nakuru politician Kihika Kimani — who believed that Kenyatta had to be succeeded by a Kikuyu. 

Mr Karume, on the other hand, told Mr Kimani that it was impossible because the constitution said in case a President dies, the VP would hold office for 90 days before elections are held.

But the two would agree to begin a “change the constitution” campaign to alter clause so that the VP did not automatically succeed the President.

AG Njonjo got in the way and declared that anyone who as much as imagined the death of the President would be charged with treason.

Mr Njonjo supported the status quo in which VP Daniel Moi would become president on Kenyatta’s death.

“Charles Njonjo was the son of Josiah Njonjo, a colonial chief, and had been born into a privileged childhood,” he says of the former AG.

“Kenyatta appointed him to the post of AG shortly after Independence and since his appointment, he carried on in a supercilious and haughty manner, ignoring or sneering at those who did not agree with his ideas.

“He was close to the President and he would never contradict Kenyatta openly. But once out of the President’s vicinity, he made no secret of his opinion that Kenyatta was surrounded by idiotic advisors,” Mr Karume wrote.

According to Mr Muniu, due to the size of Mr Karume’s business empire, he would inevitably deal with pilferage and theft.

But he never reported such cases to the police. He was also a father figure to many families.

When former Embakasi MP Muhuri Muchiri was detained, Mr Karume supported his family until their patriarch could return.

He also loved to educate children and sat on numerous school boards in addition to paying fees for countless children.

His philanthropy was also seen in the church. After parishioners at Holy Family Basilica decided to buy a new car for Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki to replace an ageing Peugeot.

It was agreed that the new car would be a Subaru. When the matter was brought to the attention of Mr Karume and Mr John Michuki, the two, together with a group of prominent parishioners decided to spare the congregation the trouble of organising a harambee.

Mr Karume suggested that the Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi deserved a Mercedes — the group bought the Subaru and a Mercedes.

Mr Karume’s closeness to President Kibaki for about six decades was well known.

And so important was it for Mr Karume that he would invite his friend to officiate at most of his major family functions.

Project Uhuru

But their friendship would be tested to the limit after Mr Karume decided to support Kanu candidate Uhuru Kenyatta for the 2002 presidential race instead of Mr Kibaki, his old friend.

He devotes a section of his book to it. “I must have surprised and confounded even my closest friends by switching my support from Kibaki to “Project Uhuru”.

Whatever the case, many in the opposition were outraged and shocked by this decision,” he wrote.

“I was roundly condemned, and in a rare show of hostility, my close friend Kibaki publicly censured me for joining ‘the enemy’.

Finally, the matter was settled after two elders, Duncan Ndegwa and James Kome were sent to his Cianda House office where they pleaded with him to stop the quarrel since it was “causing a lot of embarrassment”.

Mr Karume often kept his family away from political affairs and gave them privacy.

He once told a journalist who sought to write a story about the newest arrival in his family that “mwana ti wa magathiti. (Children’s lives should not be published.)”