Njenga Karume and Mwai Kibaki were the best of friends. But how Karume, a Standard 4 primary school dropout, could hobnob with an economist, who had not only lectured at the prestigious Makerere University but also passed all his exams with a distinction at both Makerere and at the London School of Economics, was the mark of this friendship.
In June 2004, at a time when Kibaki was facing rebellion within his own government, he reached out to Karume, who was then a member of the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), to join the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) Cabinet under the Government of National Unity. They had met in State House Nairobi after Karume was summoned by Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, Francis Muthaura, from Mombasa. “I was quite surprised,” he would later say. “All along, speculation had been that Kibaki would appoint Paul Muite in order to include a Kiambu Member of Parliament (MP) in his Cabinet.”
But Karume had been selected to join an expanded Cabinet that included FORD-People’s (Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-People) Simeon Nyachae and KANU’s John Koech and William ole Ntimama in a bid to create a regional balance, to cater for regions that had not voted for NARC during the December 2002 General Election.
Karume was appointed to head the newly created Ministry of State in charge of Special Programmes. At the time, Kenya was facing severe drought and Karume’s task was to work with humanitarian agencies and liaise with other government departments to get food and water to the affected communities. An estimated 3.3 million people were facing starvation in 26 districts across the country and the country was seeking US$ 33 million in donor aid.
“I did not just sit in my office and wait for reports from my officers. I took an active role, and liaised with relevant ministries and humanitarian organisations as much as possible in order to ensure that people did not die of hunger,” he wrote later in his autobiography, Beyond Expectations.
It was during Karume’s tenure that Kenya joined six other countries in signing a United States government-sponsored Memorandum of Association for joint regional disaster management. Also, the Regional Disaster Management Centre with its headquarters in Kileleshwa, Nairobi, was opened.
Born in 1929 in Elmentaita in the Rift Valley, where his family had settled after emigrating from Kiambu, the young Karume dropped out of school early and was lucky to join Jean’s School Kabete, later Kenya Institute of Administration (now the Kenya School of Government), where he was a awarded a certificate in business studies. As such, he entered the business arena at an early age selling charcoal, timber, and hides and skins before venturing into liquor sales.
While it was in this beer business that Karume would make a mark as an entrepreneur having started to operate bars during the colonial period, it was his leadership of the quasi-political Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) that would catapult him into the inner circle of the President Jomo Kenyatta-era politics.
GEMA had been formed in 1971 initially as a welfare organisation; Karume later become the face of the organisation. But GEMA was detested by some of President Jomo Kenyatta’s advisers, including Attorney General (AG) Charles Njonjo. Its interim officials were Gikonyo Kiano (Chiarman), Lucas Kamau (Secretary General), Kibaki (Treasurer) and Waruru Kanja (Organising Secretary). Karume was elected the chairman with Kihika Kimani as the Organising Secretary in 1973. Kibaki did not defend his seat and Jacob M’mwongo was elected in his place.
Karume would later claim that Kibaki’s decision to leave Nairobi, where he was Member of Parliament (MP) for Donholm to vie for the Othaya seat, was a result of pressure from GEMA.
It was this earlier dalliance with Kibaki that would shape their political relationship.
While Karume had not gone for elective politics, his position as GEMA chairman gave him immense power. That is the reason why he became a central figure during the 1977 Change-the-Constitution movement in which some politicians wanted to block Daniel arap Moi’s automatic ascension to the Presidency in case of Kenyatta’s death.
Opposition to Moi had begun in September 1976 when two huge rallies were held in Nakuru on 26 September and in Limuru on 3 October 1976. These were attended by among others, Cabinet ministers from GEMA who were demanding the removal of the provision for the Vice President’s automatic succession. Among the ministers were Jackson Angaine, James Gichuru, Paul Ngei and Taita Towett plus Njoroge Mungai, Karume and several Gusii MPs.
But Moi had Njonjo and Kibaki by his side and on 6 October, Njonjo issued a statement from Nakuru warning politicians, “it is a criminal offence for any person to compass, imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the President.”
It was the AG, according to Karume, who convinced him to stop supporting the Change-the-Constitution movement “since it was in bad taste”.
On 11 October 1976, the Cabinet met in Nakuru and endorsed Njonjo’s statement as law.
A year later and as Moi took the oath of office, he knew that the only politically vibrant group he had to deal with was GEMA. By then, Karume was a nominated MP. Although there were other smaller welfare groupings, such as the Luo Union and the Abaluhya Union, they confined themselves to welfare activities and were not as politically pronounced as GEMA.
Karume claims that, as chairman of GEMA, Moi called him to his Kabarnet Gardens home to ask his opinion on a suitable candidate for Vice President.
“Your Excellency, it is your prerogative, but I think Mwai Kibaki is best,” Karume replied.
After the 1979 General Election, Moi picked Kibaki as his Vice President and soon, after a leaders’ conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration in July 1980, the government decided to abolish all tribal unions in the country, in the interests of ‘peace, love and unity’. GEMA was proscribed, leaving Karume with no regional political platform.
But the cold war between Karume and Njonjo, over his earlier opposition to Moi and for his position within GEMA, continued unabated. And it extended to Kibaki, causing the emergence of political groupings within the ruling party that eventually led to Njonjo’s downfall.
Njonjo was branded a traitor after Moi claimed that foreign powers were grooming an unnamed person to take over the government.
Coming shortly after the abortive 1982 coup attempt led by the Kenya Air Force (KAF), which also helped Moi to consolidate his power base further, the fall of Njonjo led to the reorganisation of Moi’s inner circle. The President also called for early elections in 1983 in which almost all of Njonjo allies were removed from Parliament and government.
With Njonjo out, the President set about taming Kibaki and his allies, including Karume. Although he had won a seat in the 1983 General Election, the queue voting system for KANU positions in Kiambaa Constituency in 1988 turned into a national fiasco. Karume had been elected unopposed at the Cianda sub-branch, but the results showed he was by someone who was not even a candidate for the position.
A similar stunt was tried in Kibaki’s Othaya Consitituency, where Kibaki stopped the DC as he was announcing the results to inform him that the candidate he had named as a winner was deceased. “Even rigging requires some intelligence,” Kibaki told the DC.
After the 1988 General Election, Kibaki was dropped as Vice President and the position was given to Josephat Karanja. Kibaki was appointed as Minister for Health.
As a Cabinet Minister, Karume had become one of the trusted allies of President Kibaki, cementing a friendship that has started many years before
Moi was then under pressure to return the country to a multiparty system and bold politicians led by Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and George Anyona started pushing for the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution, which made KANU the only party allowed in the country.
While most of these leaders coalesced around FORD, which was agitating for change, the grouping started to disintegrate due to power struggles.
According to Karume, he then approached Kibaki and John Keen and mooted the idea of starting a political party. This is how the idea to form Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) was born. Kibaki was slated to be the chairman and Keen the Secretary General. Karume then approached Eliud Mwamunga, a former Cabinet Minister, to give it a national outlook.
On 31 December 1991, Kibaki formally announced that he had left KANU for a new party much to the surprise of FORD supporters. But with the split of FORD into Odinga’s FORD-Kenya and Matiba’s FORD-Asili, there was a sudden Matiba wave that spread across Murang’a and Kiambu and all the DP candidates were defeated at the polls. Moi had accused DP of being GEMA in disguise, with KANU leaders suggesting that Karume was the real DP leader. The party was seen as conservative and elitist.
Karume lost his Kiambaa seat to a newcomer, Kamau Icharia. For the first time since 1974, when Karume was nominated by President Kenyatta into Parliament, he was now out and he decided to concentrate his business enterprises.
After losing two elections on a DP ticket in 1992 and 1997, Karume decided to abandon the party as Moi prepared to exit from power. Already, Moi had identified the young Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor while the Opposition had now joined hands and endorsed Kibaki as their candidate.
While the press regarded his departure to KANU as a betrayal of his friend, Karume’s relationship with Kibaki did not wither, as such and he would later become an important cog in Kibaki’s survival.
As Kibaki faced rebellion within NARC, he turned to KANU members in Kiambu for support. He called a leaders’ meeting at the Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology at which the leaders explained that they had no ill-will by supporting KANU.
Later, President Kibaki appointed Karume Minister for Special Programmes and after a few months transferred him to the Ministry of Defence.
During his tenure Karume renegotiated the training of British troops in Kenya. By that time, the relations between the British troops and the Samburu community had been damaged by media reports alleging rape and injuries caused by unexploded munitions left over from decades of exercises in Samburu and Laikipia.
As a Cabinet Minister, Karume had become one of the trusted allies of President Kibaki, cementing a friendship that has started many years before.