Jeremiah Kiereini – Taking the heat at the helm of the Civil Service

As Kenya approached independence, a young Jeremiah Kiereini was employed by the colonial government as part of a ‘pipeline’ constituted to ‘rehabilitate’ Mau Mau detainees. This was 1955 and marked the beginning of a government career that would span three decades and see him rise through the ranks to ultimately occupy the highest post in Kenya’s public administration sector: Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

While in the employ of the colonial government, theoretically Kiereini and his co-rehabilitators were charged with the task of transforming the minds of detainees from anger and feelings of oppression and subjugation. However, many of these so-called rehabilitators terrorised the Mau Mau, and most were considered traitors to the cause.

Kiereini would rise to the position of District Commissioner (DC) in the colonial administration and, after independence, continued to be promoted within the civil service although many still viewed him with suspicion because of his role as an employee of the colonial government.

“Unfortunately, that stigma remained with me. There might be people who still label me a collaborator. Although I was senior to other officers, it took me a long time to be promoted to the senior position of Permanent Secretary. Initially, (President Jomo) Kenyatta would not even shake my hand despite the fact that I was the head of the provincial administration”, he confessed in his autobiography titled A Daunting Journey.

Nevertheless, Kiereini was undoubtedly one of the most experienced administrators the newly independent nation had, and when the Permanent Secretary for Defence retired in 1970, Kenyatta appointed him to the position. The Ministry of Defence at that time was headed by Kenyatta’s bosom friend, James Gichuru, whose health was declining. The PS was personally tasked by the President with giving all the necessary assistance to his successor and to consult Kenyatta whenever the need arose.

As PS for Defence, Kiereini was also supposed to work closely with Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who at that time chaired the National Security Committee. In 1971, the PS moved into a government house in Woodley Estate next to the Nairobi Golf Club along Kabarnet Gardens. His next door neighbour was Moi.

Kiereini would often drop in for a cup of tea at Moi’s house, and the VP would similarly visit him and share a meal with his family. They frequently spent time together talking about various issues concerning the country. This friendship would culminate in Moi appointing Kiereini as Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet when he became President after Kenyatta.

Kiereini also developed a close friendship with Attorney General Charles Njonjo, to the extent that the two went into business together. They became so close that when Kiereini married his second wife, Eunice Muringo Githae, Njonjo was his best man. The two were among the government elite that included Moi, G.G. Kariuki and other senior officers who habitually enjoyed an occasional lunch at the renowned Red Bull Restaurant in the heart of Nairobi. Initially, however, Kiereini was chummier with Duncan Ndegwa, Kenya’s first Head of Civil Service, whom he supported in the Kiambu-Nyeri political squabbles of the 1970s.

When some of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) officials decided they wanted to change the constitution to prevent the automatic ascension of the VP to the presidency in the event of the President’s death, Kiereini, in spite of being from the Kikuyu community, stood with the pro-Moi forces. He joined the ranks of his friend and business associate Njonjo and his not-too-close former student, G.G. Kariuki.

“I was among the few Kikuyu senior government officials who stood by Moi during this trying period. I had never been close to GEMA leaders and I did not approve of their motives for rejecting Moi,” he asserted in his autobiography. Kiereini was convinced that G.G., a man he had taught and whom he later served under in the Ministry of State in charge of Security, was aloof towards him because of his political elevation.

Kiereini found it despicable that some of those who wanted the constitution changed showed open disrespect to the VP. On one occasion, the Rift Valley provincial police boss went as far as ordering that Moi’s car be stopped and searched as he travelled along the Nakuru-Nairobi highway. Kiereini could not see the sense in such contemptuous treatment. He knew Moi as a humble and staunch Christian who was unswerving in his loyalty to Kenyatta; an ethical man of values who had served exceptionally as Chairman of the National Security Committee. “(He was) a generally good person and our friendship had never been influenced or affected by the fact that we came from different tribes. I decided to stand by and support him,” he stated.

At the time of Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, Kiereini was holidaying in Mauritius with his family when the news reached him. By the time he was able to catch a flight back home three days later, Moi had been sworn in as Acting President and the PS and others were left with the task of preparing for Kenyatta’s funeral.

Kiereini would be appointed to the powerful position of Head of Civil Service in September 1979 to replace Geoffrey Kareithi, a man he had deputised several times. Kiereini did not, however, attribute this promotion to his close association with Moi, but rather to his competence.

“I had vast experience in the civil service, having risen through the ranks from 1955. Secondly, I was already holding a senior position and I had worked in an acting capacity as deputy to Ndegwa and Kareithi”, he explained.

It is worth noting that Kiereini was a Njonjo ally, and that most of those appointed to senior positions after Moi took over – especially those from central Kenya – were associated with the Attorney General in one way or another. But Kiereini was also a shrewd operator. When the time came for Moi to shake Njonjo off, he easily distanced himself from the AG. In fact, Kiereini was required to help Moi to ruthlessly purge civil servants associated with Njonjo after he fell out of favour.

Unbeknown to him, an awkward situation was brewing. As was his habit, Moi would hire and fire senior government officials through the 1pm Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) radio news bulletin. The announcement that Kiereini had been appointed to replace Kareithi was made in this way and presented an embarrassing situation for the former when the two met for lunch at the Red Bull Restaurant on the material day. Kiereini knew about the impending announcement but his boss Kareithi did not.

For the king to rule without looking over his shoulder, the kingmaker had to go

As the two, accompanied by Attorney General James Karugu and Principal of Kenyatta College (later Kenyatta University) Joe Koinange, walked back to their office after lunch, people started congratulating Kiereini – and that’s how Kareithi found out that he had been replaced.

From pre-independence days, Moi had been a proponent of majimbo (regionalism) and only accepted the idea of a unitary state after KADU – the Kenya African Democratic Union political party that he was affiliated to – was assimilated by the Kenya African National Union (KANU) in the 1960s. Moi felt that some parts of the country were not receiving the allocation of resources they deserved in terms of development. So when he became Head of State, he asked his bureaucrats to look for ways to ensure that the marginalised and under-developed parts of the country caught up with the others.

The District Focus for Rural Development was conceived as a vehicle for this agenda under Kiereini’s watch, although it was executed under Simeon Nyachae, who replaced Kiereini as Head of Civil Service in 1985. According to the design of this new system, planning would be done at the district level and finances to implement the projects would then be sought from the National Treasury. But the arrangement was in several instances frustrated by the Ministry of Finance, which either delayed or failed to disburse the funds.

The idea was refined by Muriuki Karue when he introduced the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which was eventually enhanced by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 through devolution.

The government’s latest exercise to reform its basic education structure seeks to overhaul a system that was put in place by the Moi administration under the leadership of Kiereini in the civil service. He is credited with head-hunting Professor Colin B. Mackay, who recommended the 8-4-4 system. Professor Joseph Mungai, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, was tasked with drawing up an implementation report. In his autobiography, Kiereini stated, “He came up with an excellent paper (suggesting that) the system be implemented slowly and carefully one year at a time.”

However, Moi directed that the system be implemented immediately. The directive caught the education sector by surprise as teachers had not been trained, classroom facilities were inadequate, and neither syllabus nor learning resources had been produced.

At the start of his tenure, Kiereini would be part of most of the presidential delegations abroad, but this practice was later changed for security reasons.

“After a few security issues cropped up back home when we (himself and Moi) were abroad together, we decided this was a risk that was not worth taking,” Kiereini explained.

He was, however, among the more than 60 people in a presidential delegation that once flew to Washington DC aboard a Concorde to seek donor funding. This was at a time when visits abroad were a very big deal for Kenyan politicians; in exchange, some of them would be sure to sing his praises to their local communities when they came back. Kiereini had not factored in how American media would read the situation, especially given the delegation’s luxurious mode of transport. On the morning of their arrival in the US, the Washington Post carried a banner headline screaming, “Beggars arrive in Concorde”. The delegation was hard put to conduct its ‘begging’ mission as a consequence of the ensuing embarrassment.

The President blamed the humiliating headline on the Kenyan envoy in Washington, insisting that he should have anticipated the story and stopped it.

The following year Parliament, at the behest of Moi, created the position of Chief Secretary, elevating the position of Head of Civil Service to the level of a Cabinet minister. Some Members of Parliament were opposed to the creation of this post, claiming it was too powerful and that office holders could misuse it.

“We are lucky that Kiereini is not a power-hungry man. Just think of what would happen if this post was given to someone with greed for power,” MP Peter Okondo said in the House.

Kiereini became the first holder of this position and through it created the unquestionably authoritarian provincial administration and civil service that served purely at the mercy of the President. During that era, you remained and were promoted in the civil service depending on your perceived or real loyalty to the President or his ‘Nyayo philosophy.’ Kiereini is credited as being one of the senior government officials who, led by Police Commissioner Ben Gethi, helped to quell the August 1982 attempted coup led by a number of Kenya Air Force soldiers. With Vigilance House as the government command headquarters they, together with senior police and intelligence officers, coordinated the forces battling the rebels.

The attempted coup was a definitive turning point for Moi. He ruthlessly embarked on consolidating his authority following this incident. In A Daunting Journey, Kiereini described Moi as a man who had been reasonably tolerant of differing opinion. “… but after this incident, his character changed to become almost unrecognisable. Suddenly, he began imagining enemies everywhere. He became paranoid and suspected any person whom he felt might have a motive to act against the presidency.”

Kiereini was not personally mentioned with regard to direct involvement in the coup attempt, which evoked an avalanche of misinformation and rumours, and cast suspicion on many innocent people especially from the Kikuyu community. Despite this, Moi no longer appeared to be comfortable with him and rarely discussed anything important with his Chief Secretary. “Things were never the same between us,” wrote Kiereini in his autobiography.

Gethi, who Kiereini acknowledged as being instrumental in handling the counter-attack against the rebels in a highly professional manner, was retired by Moi two weeks later and thereafter detained. The detention of the man who had fought tooth and nail to save Moi’s presidency shook senior civil servants to the core. It became quite apparent to Kiereini that not even he was safe.

The axe would fall closer to home, and devastatingly so, when Njonjo, Kiereini’s friend and business partner – and hitherto Moi’s confidant – was fingered as the traitor who wanted to overthrow Moi’s government. Those close to Moi and Njonjo knew this was a baseless accusation, but in order to have free rein, Moi had to get rid of Njonjo who was viewed as the man who had handed him the presidency on a silver platter. For the king to rule without looking over his shoulder, the kingmaker had to go.

In the meantime, although no longer the trusted servant that he once was, Kiereini continued having to do Moi’s dirty work, which included sacking senior government officers – some of whom were his friends. Gradually, politicians took over the running of the civil service and Moi stopped consulting Kiereini on such decisions as appointments and dismissals. Kiereini confirmed that he too heard the announcements on the radio along with everybody else.

Kiereini’s last few years as Chief Secretary were consequently full of frustration without the trust of his boss and without cooperation from the political class. Politicians were grabbing land left, right and centre using the President’s name. Corruption was rife and neither the Chief Secretary nor any other well-meaning Kenyan could do anything about it.

Finally, after several unsuccessful requests, he was allowed to retire in July 1984. So relieved was he that when the announcement was made over the radio, he is quoted as saying, “That night I slept like a baby.”

Apart from owning various parcels of land in Nairobi and central Kenya, while in the civil service Kiereini engaged in private business that would end up making him a billionaire. In the 1970s, along with 20 other senior civil servants, Kiereini formed the company Heri Limited, a vehicle they used to buy shares in blue-chip companies.

He and his contemporaries would end up becoming the majority shareholders of these companies.

On retirement he took on the role of Executive Chairman of Cooper Motor Corporation (CMC), a company in which he and Njonjo were major shareholders. He later served as Chairman of East African Breweries Limited (EABL).

Kiereini had married Esther Njeri in 1954 and had four children with her. He later married Eunice Muringo Githae in 1971 and had two more children with her. He died in May 2019 aged 90 years.




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