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Mbiyu Koinange and the mystery of JM's murder

Sunday May 26 2019

Former Cabinet minister Mbiyu Koinange.

Former Cabinet minister Mbiyu Koinange. Koinange’s obsession with secrecy and night meetings would eventually fail him when it mattered most. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KAMAU NGOTHO
By KAMAU NGOTHO
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While working on an investigative story on the 1975 assassination of fiery MP JM Kariuki, I sought an interview with former Director of Security Intelligence James Kanyotu.

The request was declined but, through a third party, the retired top sleuth sent me verbatim recording of his testimony when he appeared in camera before a Parliament committee that investigated the murder.

The intelligence chief had told the committee that the Minister of State in the Office of the President, Mbiyu Koinange, had wanted him to implicate JM in alleged training of illegal militia in Zambia, but Kanyotu flatly refused.

That was only a few hours before JM’s bullet-riddled body was found in Ngong Forest.

These are excerpts from the Kanyotu testimony:

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"On my way from home, a car passed me. It was a Peugeot 404. It stopped in front of my car.

A fellow called (Peter) Karanja, a bodyguard to Mbiyu Koinange, stopped me and said he’d come from Nakuru to look for me.

So, he came to my office with me in my car. This was about 5 o’clock.

He told me somebody had told him there were certain people from Banana Hill (Kiambu) who had been recruited to be sent for military training in Zambia, and the man who had told him this said they’d been recruited by J.M Kariuki.

I asked him who told him that and he said it was somebody from Banana Hill and that his son had already gone to Zambia.

He said he’d told this to Koinange who in turn had told it to the President.

He had been told there was a letter and told to come and get the letter from me.

I told him I had no such letter and he should go and look for it himself. And if he got it, not to come back to me but take it to the person who had sent him. I was not interested.

I knew for a fact there was no such letter, and whoever had sent him wanted to authenticate the lie about the letter by involving my office. I wouldn’t allow that."

SUMMONS

The parliamentary probe committee summoned Koinange several times to appear before it and respond to testimony by the Intelligence head, but he ignored the summons.

Eventually, when the committee wrote its report and mentioned Koinange as a person of interest in the JM murder, Kenyatta ordered that the name and that of the President’s rogue bodyguard, Wanyoike Thungu, be deleted from the report.

When JM was reported missing and before his body was discovered disfigured and dumped at the City Mortuary, then-Vice President Daniel arap Moi had been ordered to tell Parliament that JM was alive and on a business trip to Zambia.

Again, the Intelligence head told the probe committee that he had advised the President that Mr Moi shouldn’t issue the statement in Parliament but was overruled. Here is what Kanyotu told the committee:

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ZAMBIA ELEMENT

Question: “Mr Kanyotu, you have told us about a letter linking JM to secret training of militia in Zambia, which you say was a lie. Now, you must also be aware of a statement made in Parliament by the Vice President to the effect that JM was on a business trip to Zambia when in fact his body was rotting at the City Mortuary. What is this Zambia connection in the murder mystery?”

Kanyotu: “I am aware of the statement by the Vice President. On the day he talked in Parliament, I had been alerted about the statement he was to issue and rang the President to advise against it. At that point it was clear in my mind about foul play and that JM could actually be dead. All the same, the misleading statement was given in Parliament against my counsel.”

Question: “So, why Zambia?”

Kanyotu: “JM had business interests in Zambia. I think something to do with export of mines. I guess whoever came up with the idea of Zambia had that in mind and thought the lies would be believed if Zambia was mentioned.”

In a conversation with Jomo Kenyatta-era Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet Geoffrey Kareithi, he told me that in his entire life, he had never met a man who believed in back channel, oaths, and conspiracy as Minister Koinange did.

OATH

He gave me an example of an event only months to Mzee Kenyatta’s death when a government delegation led by Vice President Moi went to brief the President about a high-powered trip to the US, UK, and then-West Germany.

Koinange demanded that members of the delegation, which had met with US President Jimmy Carter and Prime Ministers James Callaghan (UK) and Willy Brandt (West Germany), take oath and pledge never to reveal contents of their discussions with the leaders.

The former PS told me that this offended Kenyatta so much that he told off his minister.

“How dare you tell my officials to take an oath when they have all along served me so faithfully! The official secrets oath they took on their appointment is good enough.”

***

Kareithi also told me about a contradiction in Koinange’s life, that though he was the first Kenyan to graduate with a university degree in 1938 and was Student Number 5 in the inaugural 1926 class at Alliance High School, he hated anything written and would never last through a meeting without dozing off.

Said Kareithi: “It amazed me that, though a product of premier institutions, New York Columbia University and Cambridge, Koinange loathed reading and had the least concentration on anything. He hardly read any Cabinet paper and would sleep in the middle of Cabinet meetings!”

On the contrary, the former PS told me, Minister Koinange loved conspiracy and small talk.

Unfortunately, some of the gossip would get to the ear of the President to devastating consequences, as was the case in the JM murder.

MANDATE

In his first days as Secretary to the Cabinet, Kareithi recalled his major nightmare was to check with the President verbal instructions issued to government officers by Koinange in the name of the President.

Eventually, the President had to reprimand his Minister and ask the PS to issue a circular that any instruction from the Head of State must be in writing and signed by the Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

The President also instructed the Director of Intelligence that even in case of illness, only PS Kareithi, not Minister Koinange, should access the presidential intelligence brief.

Koinange’s obsession with secrecy and night meetings would eventually fail him when it mattered most.

On the evening of August 21, 1978, he requested the President to be allowed to travel from Mombasa to Nairobi for a meeting with his business partners and said he’d be back early in the morning.

CABINET RESHUFFLE

That very night Kenyatta died, a great irony that the man who had always been on his side was missing the night he needed him most!

On Kenyatta’s death, Koinange found himself like a fish out of water.

First, he was immediately transferred from Minister in the Office of the President to the Ministry of Environment.

Not used to going to office and having always operated from State House, Koinange’s first reaction on hearing of the Cabinet reshuffle was: “Where the hell are offices of that thing called Environment, and what do they do?”

Later, when attending an inter-ministerial committee meeting chaired by then-Vice President Mwai Kibaki, he kept referring to his ministry (Environment) as the President’s office, until Mr Kibaki had to tell him: “Mr Minister, it appears like you are still living in the past. You better come to the present, otherwise you’ll waste all out time!”

He died not long after, a forgotten old man — and still living in the past. Seemingly, he had been longing to join his old buddy Kenyatta wherever he was.

***

Correction: In this column last Sunday, I wrote that the Kenyatta family originally came from Maasai-land. Captain (retired) Kungu Muigai, a nephew of first President Jomo Kenyatta, telephoned to clarify that the Kenyattas always lived in Gatundu, and the Maasai connection is that Mzee Kenyatta’s grandmother, wife of Kungu wa Magana, was from Maasai-land.

Her name was Mosana, but named Wanjiru in Gatundu. Her family lived in Narosula, Narok County.

Note: While Kenyatta was alive, Koinange never faced an election challenge as MP for Kiambaa. All the opponents were intimidated to step down.

When one Gideon Gathunguri refused to withdraw his candidacy, he was arrested on the morning of poll nomination day and was not released until Mr Koinange had presented his papers and declared elected unopposed.