At the funeral of former civil servant Jeremiah Kiereini in 2019, a story was told of how former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who was present at the funeral service, made a secret trip from Muthaiga to Kiereini’s Karen residence. made the height of the Nyayo dictatorship. At this point, Njonjo had fallen out of favor with Moi and he feared the secret police would pursue him. So he lay down in the back seat of a car and covered himself with a blanket as his wife took the wheel.
It was an incredible revelation because the man who was scared under a blanket was the same who did it, almost single-handedly created the police state that ruled through fear, harassment, incarceration, systematic torture and murder. Perhaps when hearing this story some people grinned and mumbled, “poetic justice.” But it was more than that. It was a story about the illusions of power because when Njonjo created a dictatorial Frankenstein – first under Jomo Kenyatta and then under Daniel arap Moi – he could never have imagined that one day he would have crippling fear feel on the wrong side of his creation.
Charles Njonjo died last week at the age of 101. Chief Justice Martha Koome described Njonjo as a lawyer whom young lawyers should emulate. President Uhuru Kenyatta commended him for “laying the solid foundations on which our land will flourish”. “We would miss his warmth and wisdom.”
But of all these and other praises, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka was the one who most irritated because of his derision of the struggle for a new constitutional dispensation. The former canoe official said: “We all owe him our gratitude for his contribution to progressive constitutionalism.”
Really, Mr. Kalonzo? Progressive constitutionalism is a principle for which so many have been killed, imprisoned or exiled under Njonjo’s political and legal order.
In the same week, the country lost Richard Leakey, a renowned paleontologist, conservationist and former politician. It’s ironic that he and Njonjo, long-time friends, would die within days of one another. In the 1990s, like Njonjo in the 1980s, Leakey suffered from the regime his friend helped build. However, they were friends with opposing legacies. Leakey contributed to the science of paleontology and helped expand knowledge of the origins of the human species. He is one of only three Kenyans who can be seen on the cover of Time magazine. His struggles with personal adversity are inspiring. Although privileged from birth, he teamed up with others to push for a new constitutional order.
In contrast to his friend, the “Duke of Kabeteshire”, Leakey will be bequeathed to Kenya to be part of the global discussion in a long time positive.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator