At the peak of his political career in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, so close was Godfrey Gitahi (GG) Kariuki to President Daniel arap Moi that it became habitual for commentators to refer to the relationship between the two in derogatory terms.
In the initial years of Moi’s leadership, the second president of Kenya gave the convincing assurance of his intention to follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps and work with the men and women that the late president had elevated to positions of power. But as he consolidated power and gained confidence, he started being perceived as being antagonistic towards the Kikuyu elites. However, Kariuki and Attorney General Charles Njonjo, both from the Kikuyu community, regularly rode in his presidential limousine and were viewed as being among the most influential insiders of the Moi administration.
But even with these two, Moi was just biding his time and soon enough Kariuki and others of his ilk found themselves out in the cold, some hunted down like wild animals. The first major casualty was Njonjo when, in an elaborate scheme, he was fingered as the much-vaunted “traitor” who was planning to use his “foreign masters” to unlawfully overthrow the popularly elected government of Moi. Kariuki could not escape the trap that had been laid for the “friends and associates of the traitor”.
Kariuki’s political association with Moi dates back to 1964 when the latter, who had been the Chairman of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), defected and joined KANU. “During the next 15 years, we worked side by side in the service of KANU and the nation. In the process, we also became close friends,” said Kariuki. However, as the saying goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
Kariuki was elected to the National Assembly as a Member of Parliament (MP) in May 1963, but even before his election he had actively fought for the rights of the landless in Laikipia. He continued to advocate for the landless, leading to his appointment as Assistant Minister for Lands, Settlement and Physical Planning in October 1970 at only 33 years old. Although this was a big honour, this appointment was a cause of considerable apprehension for Kariuki, as he had been a critic of the government’s policy on land matters, a policy he was now expected to carry out.
“Many of my friends teased me about how I would behave now that I was on the other side of the fence,” Kariuki would write years later in his autobiography entitled Illusion of Power. In the Lands ministry, he served under veteran and ageing Meru politician Jackson Angaine who was not averse to giving the younger man responsibility. In the 1970s, land matters were critical as the government sought to settle as many landless people as possible. Serving under a minister who allowed him a free hand enabled the Assistant Minister to get very close to the forefront of Kenyan politics.
During the 1974 General Election, Kariuki was opposed by the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) Laikipia District Chairman, F.K. Mbuthia, a man whose candidature he had supported for that position two years before. By that time, Kariuki had been noted as a Moi supporter which irked some among the GEMA community who did not want him to automatically ascend to the presidency, hence the opposition.
However, apart from assisting the Kikuyu in his constituency in matters of land and schools, Kariuki also assisted the Nandi community to settle on Lorian Farm. He helped the community build schools in the corner of his constituency where they were the major ethnic group. The support he received from this group, which also sought the backing of other non-Kikuyu members, was critical for the Assistant Minister. “Vice President Daniel Moi, a Tugen and my long-time political associate, visited my constituency as a demonstration of support for me,” said Kariuki.
However, Moi’s visit was not appreciated by the Nandis at the Lorian Farm because of the disagreement between Moi and their (Nandi) leader Jean-Marie Seroney, a fierce critic of the KANU government. Kariuki was, however, re-elected and continued his association with Moi and those who were supporting the VP to succeed Kenyatta.
Kenyan politics were volatile in the late 1970s as the Kenyatta succession was taking shape. Several people were averse to Moi automatically taking up the highest office, even temporarily, upon the death of the ailing president, while others like Kariuki fully backed a Moi presidency. In March 1975 the MP for Aberdare Constituency, J.M. Kariuki, was assassinated by what many believed were forces fearing that he was gunning for the presidency once Kenyatta died.
A Parliamentary Select Committee was formed to investigate the circumstances under which ‘JM’ disappeared and was later murdered. “During the debate on the parliamentary select committee, Moi, Njonjo, Arthur Magugu and I, went to see Kenyatta at State House. Our mission was to inform Kenyatta of the gravity of the matter under consideration in Parliament and suggest some amendment to the motion that would allow the government to investigate the murder professionally under the auspices of the Attorney General,” Kariuki narrated in his book.
By this time, Kenyatta’s health was declining, a factor that motivated the ‘Change the Constitution’ move aimed at preventing Moi from directly ascending to power if and when Kenyatta died. This move was spearheaded by political heavyweights including Angaine, the Minister of Lands; Paul Ngei, Minister of Cooperative Development; Njoroge Mungai, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Njenga Karume, nominated MP and chairman of GEMA; and Kihika Kimani, KANU branch Chairman for Nakuru District.
Between 1976 and 1977, this group went round the country trying to convince people about the need to change the Constitution to avoid the automatic accession of a vice president to the presidency in case of the death of the president. However, a small group of Moi supporters, including Njonjo (the Attorney General), Stanley Oloitipitip and Kariuki opposed the move.
This group convinced Kenyatta that the debate on changing the Constitution was chaotic and could adversely change the course of the nation. It was then that Njonjo made the famous, if short, speech warning “anyone who was imagining or contemplating the death of the President would be doing so at their own peril”. The debate fizzled out.
“For my part, I was convinced that any citizen as long as he or she had the people’s mandate, should lead this nation. (And) as the debate on the constitutional change continued, competition for favour, tribalism, money and parochial politics superseded national vision or patriotism, while the government neglected many of its functions,” Kariuki wrote.
By Njonjo nipping the change the Constitution debate in the bud, he enabled a smooth transition from Kenyatta to Moi when the former died in August 1978. Later that year Kariuki played a crucial role in the KANU election of national officials which was necessary to confirm transfer of power. Years later he wrote, “On 6 October 1978 I convinced about 22 branch chairmen to sign a declaration of support for my proposed slate of party officials to be elected at the national conference of KANU delegates planned for 28 October 1978. Moi was unanimously confirmed as president of the party”.
Kariuki, the close associate of the new Head of State, was attracting a lot of attention and his campaign meetings in 1979 were huge affairs, some of which were attended by Moi. When the elections were over and Kariuki had been duly elected MP, Moi appointed him Minister of State in the Office of the President in charge of National Security and Provincial Administration.
As a trusted confidant of the President, Kariuki had expected a Cabinet post, but the one he ended up with was somewhat overwhelming in scope and responsibility. He soon, however, realised that his power was just in letter but not in deed. “I soon realised that my authority was theoretical and far from reality.”
He found out, for example, that the Special Branch department that was supposed to be under him, reported directly to the President, and although he had to sanction the department’s expenditure, he had no say regarding how the money was used. “In effect, the minister was just a figurehead; real power rested with the president who hired and dismissed officers at will.”
On many occasions the minister in charge of Security learned of decisions made on security matters through the press. Kariuki was supposed to be in charge of the provincial administration, but the department’s officers were “direct agents” of the President. The other headache he had to deal with was the indiscipline within the police force, a department that was under him. This problem, Kariuki surmised, was as a result of the Ndegwa Commission report of 1971 that allowed for civil servants to engage in private business while still serving as public servants.
“(When this report was implemented), the chain of command within the law enforcement machinery broke down, as the basic duties of policemen were left to junior police officers who could not compete in business. When police officers are engaged in private business, the temptation to misuse their authority to further their business interests increases, casting doubt on their capacity to enforce the law with impartiality,” said Kariuki.
After a short and frustrating stint as the “powerful” Minister of State in the Office of the President, during which Kariuki realised that power can be an illusion, he was transferred to the Ministry of Lands, Settlement and Physical Planning in May 1982. “The closer I got to the centre of power (as the minister for state), the more I found my initiative stifled. Power became measured in terms of what would serve the immediate interests of the inner political circle rather than what could be accomplished for the Kenyan people.”
So the escape to the Lands ministry where he had earlier served as Assistant Minister was most welcome. As an assistant and later substantive minister, he played a crucial role in the settlement of the landless in Laikipia, previously part of the white highlands.
While the government favoured the land transfer policy of willing buyer, willing seller, in the initial days Kariuki had proposed the compulsory acquisition of all land owned by foreigners to be used for settling the landless.
When the ‘traitor’ issue that resulted in Njonjo being taken through a tedious Judicial Commission investigation, two camps emerged: those who had to be removed from the centre and those who wanted to come in.
Loyalty was measured by the volume of the voice shouting “nyayo” the loudest. Kariuki, like many others associated with Njonjo or because of their tribal affiliations, had to go.
Any innocent statement made by these anti-nyayo elements was taken out of context and used to victimise them. In mid-1983 at the height of the ‘traitor’ issue, while attending the opening of a church in Nyeri, Kariuki commented that Kenya’s presidency would not be gained through tribal manipulation and groupings. He added that the country was full of rumours, falsehoods and jealousy that could cause chaos. “I refused to discuss the traitor issue and termed it a creation of politicians and newspapers.”
His position was, however, challenged by a section of MPs and KANU officials who insisted it was counter to the President’s assertion that there did indeed exist a traitor within the ministerial ranks. During campaigns for the 1983 General Election, Kariuki was frustrated by junior administration officials to the extent that he could barely hold public meetings, though he still believed he commanded about 90 per cent of the electorate. The election was, however, manipulated, resulting in Kariuki losing by a large margin to J.G. Mathenge.
From then on Kariuki was subjected to a systematic witch-hunting campaign and was probed for all imaginable sins of commission and omission before finally being named in the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry.
Councillor Emmanuel Maitha of Mombasa told the Commission that Kariuki was supposed to be appointed a Minister for State in the government Njonjo would form after the overthrow of Moi. Kariuki was subsequently expelled from KANU on 14 September 1984.
Even after reprimanding him in public on several occasions, Moi rehabilitated his ‘friend’ and former minister in November 1988. He “magnanimously” nominated Kariuki to Parliament in 1993, a capacity in which he would serve until 1997. Kariuki also served from 1993 to 2000 as Chairman of the Betting Control and Licensing Board. He was re-elected MP for Laikipia West in 2002 serving up to 2007, after which he was elected Senator for Laikipia County in 2013.
After falling from grace, Kariuki went back to school and studied accounts, graduating with a certificate from the Institute of Administrative Accountants in 1985. He then completed a Master’s degree in International Relations and in 2016, got a PhD in International Relations from the University of Nairobi.
He was a martial arts (Taekwondo) enthusiast, a sporting activity he engaged in for the better part of his life. He served as an official of local and international Taekwondo associations.
Senator Kariuki died in June 2017 at the age of 78.