After all, the Member of Parliament for Kieni had checked all the boxes. He was the Secretary General of the Democratic Party (DP), the President’s political vehicle. He was the only legislator to have been re-elected from the President’s home region of Nyeri District (since renamed Nyeri County). He had been part of the elite group that crafted the original alliance (National Alliance Party of Kenya, NAK) that brought together Kibaki, Charity Ngilu and Kijana Wamalwa together to form the core of the party that eventually rode to power in 2002. In addition to all this, Murungaru had a solid degree from the University of Nairobi and the physique of a security chief to boot.
Just four years earlier, Murungaru was a little-known pharmaceuticals merchant and an ordinary dairy farmer in Nyeri, worrying about hay, semen and the price of milk. Then Munene Kairu, the long-serving MP for Kieni Constituency and Kibaki’s associate of many years, died. And the farmer-cum-pharmacist became the new MP following a by-election in 1998.
Following his re-election in 2002 and Kibaki’s ascension to power, Murungaru occupied one of the most influential offices in the land. In the words of William Shakespeare, greatness had been thrust upon him. And this wasn’t hard to see from the way he conducted himself, dismissing real and imagined opponents of his boss in a manner that suggested he was totally oblivious to the circumspection and nuance required of someone in his position.
At the time, Kibaki was not in his best physical form, having been involved in a car accident just a few weeks before the 2002 General Election. The new Minister for Internal Security may have seen his role as including the President’s personal protection. But then he crossed the line, or so his critics thought.
After graduating from university in 1978, Murungaru would dabble in low-key politics. On the return of multiparty politics following the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution of Kenya in 1991, he became an activist for DP in Nyeri before clinching the Kieni seat following Kairu’s demise.
Come 2002, Murungaru and his close friend, Kipruto arap Kirwa, MP for Cherangany, were key behind-the-scenes players in DP, Ngilu’s National Party of Kenya (NPK) and Wamalwa’s Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (Ford-Kenya), which came together to form NAK. The other strategists were Musikari Kombo and Mutua Katuku.
This group made up the key NAK negotiators during talks for the merger with Raila Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), the party that handed Kibaki presidential victory. No wonder Murungaru was a clear choice for the Cabinet, being appointed to head one of the most influential ministries — Provincial Administration and National Security.
It was still in the early days of the new Presidency that critics of the regime started to claim that key Kibaki associates, later named ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’, were in charge. The critics charged that besides Murungaru, fellow ministers Kiraitu Murungi and David Mwiraria, State House Comptroller Matere Keriri, Joe Wanjui (Chancellor of the University of Nairobi) and Matu Wamae, a Kibaki confidant and MP for Mathira, were the coterie that all but ruled at that time.
In his biography, Riding on a Tiger, former Vice President Moody Awori wrote how the ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’ hijacked the NARC dream.
“The people who had campaigned the hardest for NARC, and sacrificed the most, soon found that they could no longer even secure an appointment to see the President,” read the 2017 publication.
Whether the cabal came to control the government by design or they simply took advantage of the President’s ill health to pursue their personal interests remains inconclusive nearly two decades later.
Being in charge of the police, military, intelligence service and the general security of the country, Murungaru’s rise to power was as sharp as his fall a mere three years later owing to a multi-billion shilling scandal.
The Kibaki government had in 2003 commissioned a company to print passports with improved security features and build a modern forensic laboratory for the police. The items were never delivered even though an estimated USD 250 million had been paid out. To be fair, 13 of the 18 contracts were made during the tenure of President Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki’s predecessor. It is still ironic that the Kibaki government that had sought to change this legacy went ahead to sign five questionable contracts upon coming to power.
Anglo Leasing was a series of security-related scandals involving 18 security contracts, totalling USD 770 million (KES 55 billion) in which the government entered finance lease and suppliers’ credit agreements to pay for forensic facilities, security equipment and support services for Kenya Prisons, the Police Air Wing, Kenya Police Service, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, the Administration Police, the National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), and the National Counter-Terrorism Centre.
The names of Murungaru, Energy Minister Murungi, Finance Minister Mwiraria, Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura and Awori came up as suspected players in the scam.
Uhuru Kenyatta, then chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the scam as “an organised, systematic and fraudulent scheme designed to fleece the government through the so-called special purpose finance vehicles for purported security contracts”.
While Murungaru was later transferred to the Ministry of Transport, in the public opinion and the donors’ view he was a blot on the record of the Kibaki government that had been elected on the promise to end the Moi regime’s almost two-and-a-half decades of kleptocracy. Indeed, the new government had made strides on many fronts, the most visible being infrastructural development.
The UK government in July 2005 barred Murungaru from visiting the country and cancelled his visa. A year earlier, British High Commissioner Sir Edward Clay had accused the Kibaki government of arrogance and greed.
“They can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over our shoes,” said Sir Clay in his famous quote.
Murungaru, however, did not take it lying down. He took the British Government to court challenging the cancellation of his visa. In court he lined up an impressive array of legal counsel. In Kenya he was represented by Senior Counsel Paul Muite, while British lawyers Rabinder Singh, a Queen’s Counsel of Matrix Chambers, London, Richard Stein and Tessa Hetherington represented him in London.
But pressure mounted unabated, with the US withholding USD 2.5 million in aid to the country’s anti-corruption war. In October 2005 Murungaru was barred from travelling to the US as well.
The World Bank followed suit, stopping the payment of about USD 266.5 million that was earmarked for education, the fight against HIV and AIDS, and banking reforms, charging that the country failed the accountability test.
Mwiraria – a long-time associate of Kibaki’s whose friendship goes back to their days in Makereke University, Uganda – resigned two weeks after news of the scandal broke out, though a number of Kenyans saw him as a scapegoat to cover for the real beneficiaries of the scam.
Murungi capitulated too, but not so Murungaru, who stayed put despite mounting public and donor pressure for the President to deal with the misuse of public funds.
Murungaru attracted the most attention, with critics saying he was the personification of what went wrong with the Kibaki government despite the third President having radically transformed the economy and governance structures after the previous regime.
It appears that Kibaki was in a dilemma as to how to deal with Murungaru, who had been his close associate and a grassroots mobiliser in Nyeri. He was also a leading campaigner for the 2005 Draft Constitution that the government pushed in a referendum unsuccessfully.
The opportunity presented itself in November 2005 after the ‘No’ side victory in the referendum on the Constitution, when the President disbanded the entire Cabinet and left out Murungaru on reconstituting it in December 2005.
Wikileaks, the confidential cables released by the US Embassy in Nairobi, celebrated the Minister’s sacking: “The only apparent good news in Kibaki’s announcement is the exclusion from the new cabinet of former Transport Minister Chris Murungaru,” said the cables sent to Washington on 8 December 2005.
In January 2006, Murungaru returned to the limelight when John Githongo, who had been Kibaki’s Ethics and Governance Permanent Secretary and had fled to exile in London – released a dossier that implicated Kibaki’s associate in the Anglo Leasing scandal. Githongo named Murungaru, Murungi, Mwiraria, Muthaura and Awori as the key players in the USD 600 million Anglo-Leasing scam.
Murungaru sued Githongo for defaming him and won. Githongo, however, appealed; the matter is still in court.
Three weeks after Githongo’s dossier was released, President Kibaki allowed the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) chief Aaron Ringera to request Murungaru to declare and account for his wealth. But the Minister moved to court to prevent KACC from investigating, saying fulfilling the commission’s request would amount to self-incrimination.
In February 2006, KACC arraigned Murungaru in a Nairobi court charging him with failing to declare and account for his wealth. The basis of the suit was that the Minister had grown rich all of a sudden. He denied refusing to declare his wealth, and was released on a bond of KES 200,000.
The case was dismissed in December 2006, when the High Court ruled that KACC’s notice to Murungaru did not follow the laid down law. This subsequently led to the High Court quashing KACC’s case against him. The court gave a window that was still free to investigate Murungaru but in a legal manner.
Born in Nyeri on 19 August 1954, Murungaru attended Munyu Primary School and later Nyeri High School from 1968 to 1974 where he did both his O’ and A’ levels. He later joined the University of Nairobi where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Pharmacy in 1978.
After his meteoric rise in politics, representing Kieni for nine years and becoming a Cabinet Minister, Murungaru lost the Kieni seat in 2007 to Nemesyus Warugongo, a little-known candidate, during the Party of National Unity (PNU) nominations.
Remaining true to Nyeri voters’ traditional high turnover rate of their MPs, the county in that election sent away all their incumbents except Kibaki who was defending his presidential seat.
Apart from Murungaru, Kabando wa Kabando ousted Cabinet Minister Mutahi Kagwe in Mukuruweini, Ephraim Maina defeated Nderitu Gachagua in Mathira, while Francis Nyamo beat Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai in Tetu. Former activist Esther Murugi won the Nyeri Town seat, replacing P.G. Muriithi.
Defeated, Murungaru went back to Nyeri. He would later lament in court that damning allegations ruined his political and private life, leading to his being dropped from the Cabinet and losing the Kieni parliamentary seat.
“The contents of the report had a devastating effect on my political career. A man who had been elected twice in Kieni Constituency in a landslide win lost his re-election in 2007 to a little-known newcomer,” Murungaru told Justice David Onyancha.
Murungaru claimed that Githongo instigated falsehoods, rumours and gossip to be published about his role in the Anglo-Leasing scandal in local and international media as well as in a book titled It’s Our Turn to Eat, by British journalist Michela Wrong which starred the anti-graft boss.
“I can only conclude that the sole reason for being dropped from Cabinet in 2005 was because of the extreme pressure placed on President Kibaki,” Murungaru later said while testifying in his defamation case against Githongo.
But Githongo defended himself saying that senior government officials knew the players and those involved in the Anglo-Leasing scandal, and that investigations revealed that Murungaru and others were behind the scam since his name was mentioned again and again.
In December 2016, Githongo told a judge in the defamation case that Dr Murungaru filed against him — and later won — that the former Minister was a primary challenge in the fight against corruption during the Kibaki regime.
In May 2019, Justice Joseph Sergon, who had taken over the case from Justice Onyancha, ordered Githongo to pay Murungaru KES 27 million for defamation in the case that took 13 years.
Githongo appealed the decision.
The ruling was met with outrage from the civil society fraternity. George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission said: “This case was about isolating John and exposing him financially. It was to embarrass and ruin him and to silence him.”
Samuel Kimeu, the Executive Director of Transparency International-Kenya, asked: “How is it that a perceived injury to one person trumps public interest?”
In 2013, the former Minister who had been shunned by DP, the party he nurtured and chaperoned to power under NAK and NARC in 2002, and unable to join Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA), attempted to win the Nyeri Senate seat on the Democratic Labour Party of Kenya ticket to no avail.
Away from politics, Murungaru is a celebrated breeder, running one of the biggest farms in central Kenya. His 22-acre Amboni Farm in Mweiga, outside Nyeri Town, produces 1,200 litres of milk a day from 60 cows.
Established in 1986 before Murungaru entered politics, the farm also supplies semen to local research stations such as Kabete and to farms in countries as far away as Zambia, Malawi, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
“Animal breeding has been my passion through most of my working life. This is something I started long before I went into politics. It is something I can’t let even politics interfere with. This is my other life,” Murungaru told an interviewer.
He now leads a laid-back life, shuttling between Nairobi and Nyeri.