At the funeral service of former civil servant Jeremiah Kiereini in 2019, a story was told of how a former attorney-general, Charles Njonjo, who was in attendance at the service, made a surreptitious journey from Muthaiga to Kiereini’s Karen residence at the height of the Nyayo dictatorship. By then, Njonjo had fallen out of favour with Moi and he feared being trailed by the secret police. So he laid 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 lying fearfully under a blanket was the same who had, almost single handedly, created the police state that ruled through fear, harassment, imprisonment, systematic torture and murder. Perhaps, on hearing that story, some people might have smirked and mumbled, “poetic justice”. But it was more than that. It was a story about the illusions of power, for when Njonjo was creating a dictatorial Frankenstein — first under Jomo Kenyatta and then under Daniel arap Moi — he could never have imagined that he would one day feel the paralysing fear of being on the wrong side of his creation.
Charles Njonjo passed on last week at the age of 101. And as usual, officialdom embarked on mind dizzying historical revisionism. The Chief Justice Martha Koome styled Njonjo a legal practitioner that young barristers should emulate. President Uhuru Kenyatta praised him for laying the “solid foundations upon which our country thrives.’’
Deputy President William Ruto, a former member of a group that mobilised on behalf of the Kanu dictatorship in the 1990s, said “ we would miss his warmth and wisdom”.
But of all these and other praises, the one that grated the most because of its mockery of the struggle for a new constitutional dispensation was ex-VP Kalonzo Musyoka’s. Said the former Kanu functionary: “We all owe him gratitude for his contributions towards progressive constitutionalism”.
Really, Mr Kalonzo ? Progressive constitutionalism is a principle for which so many were killed, imprisoned or exiled under Njonjo’s political and jurisprudential order.
In the same week, the country lost Richard Leakey, a renowned paleontologist, conservationist and some-time politician. It is something of an irony that he and Njonjo, long-time friends, would die within days of the other. In the 1990s, just like Njonjo in the 1980s, Leakey would suffer at the hands of the regime his friend had helped create. However, they were friends with contrasting 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 to be on the cover of Time magazine. His battles with personal adversity are inspirational. Though privileged from birth, he joined with others to push for a new constitutional order.
In contrast to his friend, “the Duke of Kabeteshire”, Leakey’s legacy will keep Kenya a part of the global conversation in a positive way for a long time.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator