Karanja Kabage: A tribute to a Kenyan philosopher king

Saturday July 13 2019
karanja kabagepix

Lawyer and business Karanja Kabage, who died after a road accident near his Karen home in Nairobi on July 5, 2019. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


This is unfolding as a particularly painful year for Kenya, which has seen many of famous business titans gone too soon.

On July 1, we lost Robert Collymore, a Guyanese-born British captain of industry who had become a legend as a highly successful chief executive officer at Safaricom, a multinational telecommunications company based in Kenya.

And on July 5, the country lost another of its business icons, Karanja Kabage. Fondly known to his friends and colleagues as “KK”, Kabage is the closest one comes in our modern times to a philosopher king, a rare gem especially in Africa.

For the Greek philosopher, Plato, a philosopher king is a ruler who possesses both a love of knowledge and wisdom as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life.


Obviously, knowledge and power seldom co-exit comfortably in one person or community, said to only co-exist in the mythical city the Greeks called Kallipolis. It is for this reason that Plato posited that for this community to be realised, “philosophers (must) become kings … or those now called kings (must) … genuinely and adequately philosophise”.


Kabage (70) has been eulogised as a business titan who wore many hats as a lawyer, a public intellectual and a politician, with remarkable ease. He was a Jack of many trades and — thanks to his love of knowledge and wisdom — a master of all.

His traits as a resilient, hardworking, sociable and determined person with impressive personal etiquette, tastes and discipline stood out. But the most indelible mark in life is that of a philosopher king as a man of means, wisdom and knowledge.

The power-knowledge nexus in Kabage’s life is clearly discernible in three key areas of his multipronged professional achievements.

First, as a business titan, Kabage cut his teeth in the insurance industry where he started off in 1971 as an agency manager at the American International Group/ ALICO.

The trajectory of his rise into the helm of business is well known. What is less known is how he amassed knowledge to back his multifaceted career.


As a businessman, he held a Bachelor of Science (BSC) and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees. Playing by the book, he also joined the relevant professional bodies, including becoming a Member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and Chairman of the Association of Insurance Brokers of Kenya (AIBK) (1991 — 1995).

The second area of power-knowledge nexus in Kabage’s life was law. As a prominent lawyer, Kabage pursued a Bachelor of Laws (LLB); Master of Laws (LLM); and a Diploma from the Kenya School of Law. Two things interested him as a legal thinker. One was a capitalism with a soul, anchored on a firm moral foundation. This quest was reflected in his Master of Laws thesis: “The Interface between Foreign Direct Investment and Corruption in Kenya: Legal and Institutional Issues”.

He also joined professional bodies, becoming a member of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK); the East African Law Society (EALS); the International Bar Association (IBA); and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA).

The third area of knowledge-power nexus in Kabage’s career was energy. Karanja would state that: “I have a very strong bias for energy law and in particular nuclear technology application for peaceful purposes”. He believed that energy would “eventually inform overall macroeconomic growth and general rise in the standard of living of the Kenyan people and the region around.”

He therefore went ahead to secure a knowledge base for his cherished subject of nuclear energy as the future of the Africa Renaissance. For his Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Nairobi, he wrote on: “Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes, a Case for Kenya”.

Karanja also took a Diploma Course at the University of Montpellier I France conducted in conjunction with the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) based in Paris, France. Again, his interest in energy was reflected in his dissertation on: “Implications of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident to the International and National Nuclear Liability Regimes” based on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident in Japan in 2011.


At the time, Kabage also served as a board member of the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (2010—2013). He also enrolled for a Doctor of Philosophy Degree at a local university, writing his thesis on the legal imperatives of nuclear energy for generation of electricity with a special focus on Kenya, and preparing to graduate in June 2020.

During and after the struggle for Kenya’s new Constitution (2010), Kabage emerged as one of Kenya’s public intellectuals — defined as an intelligent, learnt person whose written works and other social and cultural contributions are recognised not only by academic audiences and readers, but also by many members of society in general — writing prolific articles in the media and commenting on issues of public interest.

It is during this time that I met and worked closely with him as co-director and strategist for the Joint-National Secretariat on the August Constitutional Referendum.

When I called to invite him to speak on water and energy during the First Annual Mount Kenya High-Level Uongozi Forum on Development on July 5, he confidently wrote back: “I will grace the occasion”.

And he did. He spent his last day on July 5 as one of the most inspiring panellists and experts in Uongozi Forum. He told the 70-plus delegates to the forum that if Kenya is to realise the Big Four agenda and Vision 2030, it has to embrace nuclear energy to raise the national energy capacity from 2,600MW to over 90,000MW like South Korea to power its industrialisation.

Although he was a man of power and influence, Kabage spoke truth to power from his vantage point of knowledge and wisdom. Adieu my friend.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute