Paul Joseph Ngei had a burning, often-expressed ambition to succeed Kenya’s first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. This yearning for power would later become his albatross when he was a Cabinet Minister under President Daniel arap Moi.
Due to his close association with Kenyatta spanning nearly 20 years, Ngei regarded himself as second only to him and, therefore, the obvious heir-apparent despite Moi’s position as Vice President and the constitutional provision on Kenyan presidential succession.
Ngei was so sure of himself that in 1976, when Kenyatta’s health started failing, he joined the ‘Change the Constitution’ group fronted by Kiambu politicians, Njoroge Mungai and Njenga Karume, as well as Nakuru kingpin Kihika Kimani to introduce an amendment to the Constitution barring Moi from automatically succeeding Kenyatta upon the latter’s death. The group’s campaign reached a crescendo when it held a charged rally in Nakuru at which Ngei shocked the nation by asking Kenyans to give him the reins of power for just three days, after which he would never relinquish the position.
The group’s scheme was successfully thwarted by the combined force of Moi supporters fronted by Attorney General Charles Mugane Njonjo and Minister for Finance Mwai Kibaki.
Two years after Kenyatta’s death and Moi had taken over and formed his government, he retained Ngei in the Cabinet for purely strategic reasons; he needed to consolidate his power and authority among all communities in Kenya and could ill afford to antagonise any of them so soon after taking the reins of power.
Moreover, Ngei was the undisputed ‘King of the Akamba’, commanding a large following in Ukambani region and drawing respect from many other communities in the country for the role he had played in the struggle for Kenya’s independence. He had served a jail term in a colonial prison during the Mau Mau liberation struggle as one of the ‘Kapenguria Six’ alongside Kenyatta, Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba and Achieng’ Oneko. These were widely regarded as the ‘Fathers of the Kenyan Nation’, and Moi dared not play political poker with any of them so early in his presidency.
When Ngei, who gained a reputation as the man with nine lives, worked under Moi as Minister for Lands, he cut a rather forlorn figure compared to the flamboyant, boisterous, self-assured and powerful Minister he had been under Kenyatta. In this new dispensation, the rest of his life and political career was destined to head south.
Born in 1923 in Kiima Kimwe near Machakos Town, a mere 60 kilometres from Nairobi, Ngei’s family moved and settled in the fertile, mountainous Mbilini Village in Kangundo District in 1929. Ngei enrolled in the District Education Board Kangundo Primary School in 1932 and later Kwa Mating’i Africa Inland Church Primary School near Machakos Town in 1936. He then joined the prestigious Alliance High School in Kikuyu Town and thereafter Uganda’s Makerere University, where he studied journalism and drama.
From Makerere, Ngei, like many young men at that time, was recruited into the colonial King’s African Rifles for a four-year stint. He left after realising that he was not cut out for rigorous military discipline. There is no record that Ngei was deployed in any active battle in or outside Kenya.
He tried his hand as a reporter for the East African Standard but soon tired of it. In 1952, as the Mau Mau war raged and a State of Emergency was declared by the colonial government, he jumped at the opportunity to become editor of the Kamba newspaper, Wasya wa Mukamba (Voice of the Akamba), which had a two-pronged mission: to highlight Kenya’s liberation struggle and to champion the rights and cause of the Kamba Nation.
In what would become his trademark as a daredevil character, Ngei, a descendant of the legendary Kamba Chief Masaku, had a heated argument with a white colonial officer and did the unthinkable: he punched him in the face, earning himself a three-month jail term. The three months turned into a long and nightmarish prison detention when it overlapped with that of the other members of the Kapenguria Six, who were rounded up and detained at the Kapenguria detention camp following the declaration of the State of Emergency.
This daredevil character was honed in prison where Ngei, the youngest and most educated of the prisoners, often came to Kenyatta’s aid whenever other prisoners intended to beat him up, especially Nakuru District’s KANU maverick, Kariuki Chotara, who had made Kenyatta his punching bag and was reportedly intent on throwing the old man into a boiling pot. Kenyatta’s relationship with Ngei blossomed even more when he stopped a colonial jailer from caning the old man and instead offered himself for the caning.
Little wonder that when they were all released nine years later, in 1961, the two developed a strong personal and political bond that made them almost inseparable. Both carried fly whisks and wore matching black leather jackets.
This bond was strongly tested soon after they went their separate ways upon their release. In what was said to be the result of supremacy fights with Tom Mboya within KANU, Ngei left the ruling party in a huff and formed the Akamba People’s Party (APP), forging links with Moi’s Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), a move aimed at denying KANU the Kamba support. Ngei was then elected Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
In that capacity, he led highly charged political rallies in the whole of Ukambani, making a habit of insulting Kenyatta and his government. He became quite an asset in the Opposition that mainly comprised minority ethnic groups in Kenya whose leadership complained about what they saw as Kikuyu/Luo hegemony.
Like a bush fire, Ngei’s campaign in the fledgling Opposition was fierce but brief. He soon folded up APP after Kenyatta persuaded him to do so and offered him a job. Those in the know say Kenyatta was genuinely alarmed by Ngei’s intentions which, he feared, could fracture the country. Kenyatta had witnessed first-hand not just Ngei’s mercurial temper while in prison, but also his penchant for fisticuffs as well as his organisational skills. For Kenyatta, therefore, it was a question of his own survival according to the adage ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.
Kenyatta would have dropped Ngei from the Cabinet like a hot potato had they not had a special relationship born of mutual respect and based on mutual suspicion. This bond was perhaps what saved Ngei’s political career multiple times. In 1966, for instance, he was suspended as Minister in charge of the Maize Marketing Board on charges of smuggling maize and causing a shortage of the staple commodity. He was soon cleared of the charges and reinstated, yet the maize was eventually discovered at his wife’s shop, Emma Stores, in Tala Market, Kangundo, only a stone’s throw from their Mbilini home.
More famously in 1975, he was found guilty by the High Court of having committed an election offence. Kenyatta ordered the Attorney General to hurriedly table a Constitutional Amendment in Parliament empowering the President to forgive an MP found to have committed such an offence. The successful petition had been lodged at the High Court by Ambassador Henry Muli, Ngei’s perennial rival for the Kangundo parliamentary seat, who proved in court that Ngei had administered an oath to voters in the constituency, binding them to vote for him. The amendment sailed through and Ngei was forgiven.
When Karume, a wealthy and influential businessman, demanded that Kenyatta explain why Ngei was receiving preferential treatment, Kenyatta reportedly answered: “I cannot allow a situation where I don’t know where Ngei is. I sleep comfortably only when I know Ngei has gone to bed. If I lose him as a Minister, I will not be in a position to control him. You know what that man is capable of doing!”
Ngei went on to enjoy a 27-year uninterrupted stint in Parliament as a Minister. During this time he acquired massive wealth, which included a mansion on five acres in the prime Garden Estate suburb in Nairobi, a 3,000-acre ranch in fertile Donyo Sabuk near Thika containing thousands of head of cattle, and a prime beach property in Malindi.
Eloquent and dashing, Ngei was the most powerful politician in Ukambani and politicians generally kow-towed to him, unwilling to bear the consequences of getting on his wrong side. During Kenyatta’s sunset days, however, he became the centre of supremacy wars with certain politicians and KANU functionaries led by Mulu Mutisya, chairman of the powerful tribal association known as the New Akamba Union (NAU). During their numerous public tiffs, Mutisya, who was a nominated MP in the National Assembly, would label Ngei as an arrogant, good-for-nothing maize smuggler while Ngei would dismiss Mutisya as an illiterate homeguard, a reference to Kenyans who were recruited and used by the colonial government to suppress Africans during the pre-independence liberation struggles. To be called a homeguard, especially in Central Province, was a most demeaning political label.
When Kenyatta died, Ngei’s efforts to succeed him were thwarted and Moi was sworn in to act for 90 days after which presidential elections would be held. After a choreographed chorus of support from all corners of the country and delegations visiting him at State House Nairobi, Moi had no rival for the presidential seat and was eventually sworn in as the second President of the Republic of Kenya.
The calculating Ngei warmed up to Moi, who appointed him Minister for Lands. Ngei’s appointment to that docket was somewhat appropriate as he was a farmer, albeit an absentee one. At one time, he boasted 1,000 head of cattle and 25,000 goats on his Donyo Sabuk ranch, in addition to an enviable coffee plantation at his Mbilini farm.
Ngei was not called “Bwana Mashamba” (Mr Farmlands) for nothing. During the pre-independence political rallies held by the Kapenguria Six and others following their release, Ngei specifically spoke about the need for Africans, who were deprived of their mashamba (land) to wrest them back from the white colonial grabbers and return them to their rightful owners.
At one such rally in Ruring’u Stadium, Nyeri District, when Ngei was given an opportunity to pray at the end of the event, he beseeched “the God of Africans to urge the God of Whites to leave to Kenyans the land they occupy and go back in Britain in peace”. For this, Ngei was charged with incitement and charged KES 500. Enthusiastic crowds quickly raised the money, harambee style, and stuffed the currency notes in his pockets while carrying him shoulder high.
As Minister for Lands, Ngei busied himself with solving the many land problems bedevilling the country. In December 1983 during a debate, he surprised Parliament when he enumerated the plethora of problems faced by his ministry as it struggled to deliver services to farmers and landowners. He reported, “Owners of parcels of land, surveyed and adjudicated eight years ago, are still waiting for their title deeds.”
Ngei tried to resolve these land problems because as a farmer he knew them well; but he also needed to impress his boss, the President, not wanting to give him the slightest excuse to sack him. But Moi was unforgiving. Their old rivalry soon reared its ugly head. First, Moi tried to remove him from his long-held Kangundo parliamentary seat.
In 1988 Moi, then a budding ‘professor of politics’, sought to not only cut General (rtd) Jackson Kimeu Mulinge’s umbilical cord from the army by introducing him to politics, but also to use him to neutralise Ngei’s influence in Ukambani.
Mulinge, through entreaties from Mutisya, was prevailed upon to contest the Kangundo seat; a strange proposal as it was not his native Kathiani Constituency where he would have had a walkover in any election.
In the end, Mulinge agreed to contest the Kangundo seat where he faced off with Ngei, a veteran politician who had held the seat since independence. It was a titanic battle and after an acrimonious, widely publicised campaign in which the veteran politician hurled all manner of epithets denigrating Mulinge, the general was felled. Ngei won the seat by a landslide, leaving Mulinge not only badly bruised but also humiliated, as were the sponsors of this political misadventure.
Moi then went for Ngei’s political fulcrum: his chairmanship of Machakos District KANU branch. When Ngei lost the coveted position to his nemesis, Mutisya, his political stature in the district and in the country was significantly diminished.
Then debtors started catching up with Ngei. The debts were Ngei’s undoing and were the result of his legendary profligacy via women and booze, which caused him to blow all the wealth he had accumulated and exposed himself to perennial debt, a weapon that was used liberally by his detractors.
Ngei ended up losing all his property, including his posh home in Garden Estate, which was auctioned over a KES 38 million debt owed to Consolidated Credit Finance.
In 1991, he was declared an undischarged bankrupt by the High Court and could therefore no longer hold public office. As a result, he was forced to relinquish his positions as Member of Parliament for Kangundo and as a member of the Cabinet.
The former Minister eventually developed a severe case of diabetes, which led to the amputation of both legs and rendered him wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Thus was the former freedom fighter reduced to a life of penury, wheeling himself in and out of Parliament Buildings where MPs engaged in almost comic escapades to avoid him.
Ngei died in August 2004 of complications arising from diabetes while admitted at MP Shah Hospital in Nairobi. He was 81 and was buried at his Mbilini home where the Government erected a hero’s monument in his honour. Many Kenyans condemned the high and mighty who trooped to Mbilini to bury Ngei, saying the best they could have done was to bail him out of his financial woes.
The Government under President Uhuru Kenyatta would later put up a statue of Ngei in Kyumbi, at the strategic Mombasa-Machakos road junction, to honour a man who was undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most powerful and controversial politicians.