Dr. Josephat Karanja – The stop-gap Vice President

When Mathare Consistuency in Nairobi was left vacant following the exile of its MP, Andrew Ngumba, the seat was filled by Dr Josephat Njuguna Karanja, who was essentially a technocrat. Not long after that, in 1988, President Daniel arap Moi handpicked him out of the blue to replace Mwai Kibaki, a highly polished politician, as Vice President of the Republic of Kenya.

Karanja, who occupied the VP position briefly between 1988 and 1989, was installed by Moi reportedly to spite Kibaki and pit the Kikuyu community of Nyeri District against those of Kiambu District. The demotion of Kibaki from VP to Minister for Health was widely viewed as a slur on the Nyeri people, yet with Karanja as VP there was really nothing of benefit to the people of Kiambu either.

For the Kiambu people to feel a sense of ownership in the presidency, they would have preferred a better tested politician such as Charles Njonjo or Njoroge Mungai. Karanja did not have any significant impact locally or nationally since he was not politically savvy and was considered too aloof to play the tricky game effectively. On the other hand, while Njonjo might have been similarly detached before Moi humiliated him with the 1983 Judicial Commission of Inquiry, he had at least proved himself as a king-maker when he almost single-handedly ensured that Moi became the second President of Kenya. He was also effective during his term, albeit shortlived, as the MP for Kikuyu.

Before Karanja was persuaded to enter politics with promises of bigger things, he had been in the level-headed world of diplomacy and the ivory tower of university administration. He therefore did not know how to soil his hands. It is believed that Moi singled him out because he would be easy to shake off when the time came. Being a novice in politics, he did not have a solid base and following, which meant few people would stand up for him when push came to shove.

Just as he had pitted the people of Kiambu against those of Nyeri by appointing Karanja as his second-in-command, Moi used Kikuyu politicians in a plot to remove Karanja from office in 1989. A mechanic working with the Ministry of Public Works reportedly fixed Moi’s limousine when it broke down on the road. His name was Kuria Kanyingi.

Karanja will be remembered for his tenure at the university between 1970 and 1979, a period referred to as the heydays of the university during which black student enrolment increased by large numbers

In his signature dramatic style, Moi picked the mechanic literally from the underbelly of his limo and elevated him to the helm of the Motor Vehicles Inspection Unit. Here Kanyingi is reported to have transformed his fortunes and became a multi-millionaire within a very short time.

He used the money he amassed to spite Moi’s political enemies; his modus operandi was to outdo them at fundraising events and also to build the reputation of Moi and his government by becoming his fundraiser agent. He gained the reputation of being Moi’s ‘spanner boy’ and was used to bring down or cut down to size those Moi wanted kept in their place. Accordingly, when the Moi government decided the time for Kikuyus to occupy the number two slot was over and that Karanja had to go, Kanyingi was instructed to put a spanner in the works.

Taking advantage of Karanja’s reserved nature and obviously at the command of a higher authority, Kanyingi was the first to throw stones at the VP. He accused Karanja of acting like a god by demanding that politicians kneel before him. The short and slender yet aggressive mechanic-turned-politician from Limuru also allegedly accused the VP of imagining that he was the country’s President-in-waiting, since he had been left as acting President while Moi was travelling outside the country on official duty.

Having thrown the opening salvo, Kanyingi sat back while the battle to slay Karanja was taken in hand by other MPs – some even from his native Kiambu District. The main accusation against Karanja was that, like Njonjo before him, he was building an anti-Moi political machinery with the ultimate aim of removing the President from power. Of course everyone knew these allegations were absurd, and few mentioned the VP by name, but what the powers-that-be wanted, they got. Witch-hunting had been taken to another level.

The comical part of this whole saga was the introduction of Karanja’s wife Beatrice into the saga. Moi had for years been estranged from his wife Lena and the unwritten rule within his Cabinet and among senior government officials was that no wives accompanied their husbands to official or any other high-octane public gatherings.

Karanja, however, was an accomplished educationist and diplomat of high standing who had lived abroad and considered it proper and honourable to have his wife by his side during official ceremonies. His political enemies used this against him. Indeed, displaying the Ugandan beauty at a time when politicians’ wives were never seen or heard, was viewed as disrespectful. Few Kenyan politicians of that era could understand this seemingly ‘Western’ thinking.

When the battle went to Parliament, the government employed the services of another diminutive loudmouth MP by the name of David Mwenje, a self-styled champion of the landless poor city dwellers. On 25 April 1989, the former Embakasi MP stood on a point of order in Parliament and without provocation started attacking the VP. Mwenje told Speaker Moses arap Keino that he would move a no-confidence motion against Karanja. Other MPs referred to Karanja as a ‘kneel before me’, arrogant, corrupt leader who was anti-Nyayo (disloyal to the President).

Mwenje accused Karanja of scheming to overthrow Moi’s government with assistance from his foreign friends. The accusation that politicians were working with foreign people to overthrow the government was a common tactic used to remove people who had outlived their usefulness.

The VP was no different. Of course if asked to substantiate, his detractors would have pointed to the fact that Karanja had been a high-ranking diplomat in the West, where he had a large network of friends and fellow professionals. At that time, Western nations did not see eye to eye with the government.

As expected, the no-confidence motion against the VP was passed four days later. Addressing Parliament on the issue, a dignified if cowed Karanja termed the passing of the motion “… a sad day for Kenya”, noting that some politicians had lost “a sense of common decency and embraced political thuggery and vindictiveness”. These were Karanja’s parting words as he resigned from his position as VP immediately afterwards.

Born in February 1931, Karanja was the second VP to serve under Moi and the fifth since independence. He was replaced by another university don, Professor George Saitoti, who would similarly face Moi’s wrath only a few years after his appointment.

Although Saitoti was said to have some Kikuyu blood, he was primarily a Maasai; President Moi had effectively cut the cord that might connect the Kikuyu to the presidency.

Before moving his political base to Mathare, Karanja had given in to coercion by people in the regime to vie for the Githunguri parliamentary seat occupied at the time by Arthur Magugu. He had tried to win the seat twice without success. Magugu was known for his development record at the constituency level, and so despite the political powers behind Karanja, he was difficult to dislodge. The opportunity for Karanja to win a seat in Parliament presented itself when the Mathare MP went into exile in Sweden.

Andrew Ngumba, a former mayor of Nairobi and after whom Nairobi’s Ngumba Estate is named, was a very progressive MP who founded and grew Rural-Urban Credit Finance, a company that advanced unsecured loans to constituents interested in buying public transport mini-vans (matatus) plying the Nyamakima-Mathare route.

There have been claims that this unchecked loaning system led to the collapse of the credit finance company in 1984. Another school of thought had it that Rural-Urban was politically sunk for the role it played in providing financial assistance to people from a particular community.

Subsequently when Ngumba left the country, Karanja moved in and fought for the seat with the tacit assistance of the Moi regime and local leaders. His victory was greatly tilted by the influential Councillor Ndururu Kiboro (after whom Kiboro Primary School on Juja Road is named). His campaign coincided with the issuance of the ‘kobole’ (KES 5 coin), which Karanja is reported to have literally showered voters with. Once he won the election, the way was clear for Moi to appoint him VP in place of Kibaki. In 1992, Karanja moved back to his home constituency of Githunguri. This time – perhaps out of sympathy – the people voted him in.

At age 33 he had become the country’s first and youngest High Commissioner to Britain, a post he held between 1964 and 1970. Britain was then the most important economic partner of Kenya, its former colony. He then became Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi at age 40, replacing Dr Arthur Porter.

His lukewarm political career aside, Karanja will be remembered for his tenure at the university between 1970 and 1979, a period referred to as the university’s heydays during which black student enrolment increased by large numbers. His liberal and Western inclination opened the university to many changes, including encouraging women to acquire higher education.

At the university, Karanja had a reputation as a no-nonsense leader and administrator who managed with an iron fist. As a result, he was liked and loathed in equal measure. He was described in some quarters as brilliant and dedicated, but aloof and out of touch with the masses. However, he delegated skilfully and empowered those below him to take charge. He also fiercely guarded the independence of the university and got things done.

In 1993 as Moi cracked down on enemies of the State, Karanja was arrested and arraigned on charges of inciting the public against the government. It was obvious that the charges were fabricated since at the time he was in poor health and could barely attend parliamentary sessions.

Also at that time, many Opposition politicians were being detained without trial and had their wealth and tax status investigated. Some died in mysterious car accidents.

The 1993 arrests of Karanja and others were condemned by several foreign governments including the US, Britain, Germany and Australia. A few weeks later, the charges were dropped “for lack of evidence” as the government caved in to foreign pressure.

Karanja died on 28 February 1994, three weeks after his 63rd birthday.

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