John Njoroge Mungai – The bus driver who aimed high

Among the young men who President Jomo Kenyatta chose as his Cabinet ministers at independence in 1963, Dr Njoroge Mungai was arguably the most ambitious.

Others suspected of harbouring aspirations to the presidency included Tom Mboya and Charles Njonjo, although it turned out that the latter would end up holding brief for Vice President Daniel arap Moi, while Mboya did not live to see the end of the Kenyatta administration. Mungai would serve in powerful Cabinet dockets including Defence and Foreign Affairs, gaining experience and connections that gave him the confidence to gun for the top job.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, he established good working relations with African leaders through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and leaders of liberation struggles in southern Africa where several countries were still under the colonial yoke.

Furthermore, Mungai had close family ties with Kenyatta and had built links with officials of the influential Central Province grouping known as the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA), particularly with its charismatic Chairman, Njenga Karume, with the prominent ‘king of Meru’ Jackson Angaine, and the colourful political heavyweight from Ukambani region, Paul Ngei. A type of ‘sibling’ rivalry simmered between Mungai and Njonjo, who led a separate group from Central Province to counter the succession schemes that were brewing in the Mungai camp. The Njonjo group flew the flag high for Moi, and Mungai had to contend with the cunning of his political nemesis Njonjo.

Mungai did not anticipate the rude interruption of his political career in the 1974 General Election. That year, Mungai was defeated by Dr Johnstone Muthiora in a hotly contested race for the Dagoretti parliamentary seat. Muthiora, however, died shortly after the elections, and ostensibly due to the political mud that was thrown his way following the death of his successor, Mungai did not vie in the ensuing by-election. It was won by one Francis Kahende.

Mungai would subsequently be nominated to Parliament by Kenyatta when his (Mungai’s) sister, Jemimah Gecaga, a nominated MP, died. From this position he would start a comeback, albeit cautiously. In 1976 he defeated Charles Rubia for the Nairobi KANU Branch chairmanship and began forming alliances with district KANU chairmen across the country, an indication that he was still aiming for higher things.

Mungai was instrumental in bringing the United Nations Environmental Programme to Kenya despite concerted opposition from several countries

However, he underrated the power and shrewd nature of Njonjo when he joined a group of crusaders seeking to change the constitution to ensure that the incumbent Vice President, Daniel arap Moi, would not succeed Kenyatta. Comprising members from the Kikuyu, Meru and Kamba communities, the group’s efforts would be scuttled when Njonjo – with the approval of Kenyatta – accused them of imagining the President’s death, which he equated to treason. This stopped them in their tracks.

But though cowed, Mungai was not done yet and appeared to be preparing to vie for the national chairmanship of KANU, the ruling party, come 1977. The elections did not, however, materialise and even if they had been held, it was obvious by then that those supporting the VP would win an easy victory over any opposition.

Mungai’s star continued to dim until Kenyatta’s death in 1978. There are those who claim that he tried to persuade a section of the Cabinet not to sign a resolution required for the VP to be sworn in as Acting President, but these efforts apparently also failed. He would make another comeback when he was elected MP for Dagoretti in 1979 but as expected, Moi kept him on the back burner and his parliamentary debate contributions up to the 1983 elections were minimal.

In early 1980, Mungai tried to defend himself against those associating him with anti-Moi activities, claiming that the media had been instrumental in grouping him with politicians opposed to Moi since he had been among the initiators of the 1976 ‘Change the Constitution’ lobby.  “I have been at various times the Minister for Health, Internal Security and Defence, and Foreign Affairs in the Government of Kenya,” he said. “I feel that this government (Moi’s) is the government I want. I will never sabotage it as long as it is democratic.”

Then, with his rival Njonjo out of the way following the infamous 1983 Judicial Inquiry into his conduct, Moi allowed Mungai some political leeway and even appointed him Minister for Environment in 1990. In 1992, he briefly defected from KANU to FORD-Asili but soon found his way back to KANU.

He retired from active politics in 1997 to oversee operations at his expansive flower farming and export enterprise, Magana Flowers, in Muthiga, Kikuyu.

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When Kenya became independent in 1963, the youthful doctor was appointed the country’s first Minister for Health, taking on the responsibility of developing the necessary facilities and personnel to cultivate good health, which was one of the three main development pillars of the young nation.

His focus was to create the infrastructure that would serve the hitherto neglected African population, equip health facilities and ensure that these institutions were adequately staffed. In a press interview decades later, he would recount how he travelled widely to the developed world to recruit medical personnel and solicit material support towards the establishment of a medical school.

Mungai was born in Gichungo Village on the border of Nairobi and Kiambu on 7 January 1926 to pioneer Christians George Njoroge Singeni ole Mbachucha and Leah Gathoni wa Kung’u wa Magana. His father came from Narok and his mother from Gatundu.

He started his education at the Church of Scotland Mission Primary School in Thogoto, Kikuyu, before joining Alliance High School for his secondary education. His classmates at Alliance included Mbithi Mate, who would become Speaker of the National Assembly, Kyale Mwendwa, Robert Matano, Julius Kiano and Munyua Waiyaki, who would all serve in the Cabinet, and Julius Kariuki Gecau, who would later head the Kenya Power and Lighting Company.

He first met Kenyatta in 1946 at his home in Dagoretti. “He (Kenyatta) was a very impressive man with big red eyes. He carried a walking stick in one hand and a fly-whisk in the other,” he recalled.

Between leaving Alliance High School in 1945 and joining Fort Hare University in South Africa in 1948, Mungai plied the Nairobi-Kikuyu-Mutarakwa-Limuru route ferrying passengers.

“On getting my public service vehicle (PSV) licence in 1946, I drove a 60-seater Chevrolet bus between Limuru and Nairobi,” he revealed. “Prior to that, I worked briefly for the British Overseas Airways Corporation.”

Mungai later joined Fort Hare University and subsequently Stanford University in the United States where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. He then joined the Stanford Medical School for medical studies at the Columbia University, also in the US.

The newly qualified Mungai came back from America in 1959 and immediately set up a chain of affordable medical clinics – the first in Thika, then Embu and Riruta in Dagoretti. He also ran a mobile clinic where malnourished African children were treated.

“We were just coming out of the (state of) Emergency and there was a lot of suffering. Many Africans could not access medical care and most children were malnourished and had skin diseases. I raised money from my friends in the United States and this made it possible for my clinics to give affordable and even free medical services,” he reminisced. Mungai chose Thika as the location for his first clinic so that people from Ukambani, Murang’a, Embu and Kiambu could easily access it.

Apart from setting up the chain of clinics, Mungai also became involved in politics and served as Secretary to the preparatory committee that gave birth to the Kenya African National Union (KANU) in May 1960. He recalls how the Central Province KANU Council collected money to buy Kenyatta a car before he was released from prison by the colonial government.

“He had been in prison for so long, with nothing to his name, so we decided to get him the means of transport that would enable him to meet the people once he was released. We bought him a Mercedes Benz 220SE and delivered it to his Gatundu home,” recounted Mungai, who personally drove the car from Nairobi to Gatundu. The registration number of the car was KGZ 110 and it cost a princely sum of 1,750 Pounds Sterling (about KES 35,000 as per exchange rates obtaining then).

Mungai became Minister for Foreign Affairs at a time when South Africa and Mozambique were still under colonial rule, and he remembers moving a motion at the OAU against the supply of arms to the Boer regime in South Africa and Portugal.

Mungai was also instrumental in bringing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to Kenya despite concerted opposition from North America, Europe and some Asian countries.

In 1960, Mungai together with doctors Waiyaki, Likimani and Nesbitt, visited Kenyatta in detention in Maralal and independently examined and found him physically and mentally fit. British propaganda had declared him mentally and physically unfit to lead independent Kenya.

The minister regularly accompanied the President on trips that were mostly made by road as Kenyatta hated flying.

“I particularly recall a trip we made to Dar es Salaam to attend Tanganyika’s Indepence Day celebrations in a rented Pontiac,” he said. “The driver, a man from Kipsigis, and I would take turns driving but it rained so hard on our way back that we had to wait long hours for the seasonal rivers to subside. At one point we could not cross at all and had to be rescued by the British army. Yet Kenyatta would not agree to travel by air.”

Mungai remembers the Kenyatta cabinets as a close-knit group made up of men who respected each other and were courteous to the President and the people of Kenya.

“Whether in Nairobi, Mombasa or Nakuru, we met every Thursday. Cabinet decisions were never discussed in public.” Concerning the 1976 ‘Change the Constitution’ campaign against Moi, he explained that he was only crusading for a clause to be inserted in the Constitution to limit the President’s term and not to bar Moi from ascending to power. He accused his “enemies in the media” of poisoning his relationship with Moi, a man he claimed to have continued working with even after his retirement from politics in 1997.

Mungai briefly resurfaced from retirement in 2002 to support the ‘Uhuru for President’ campaign.

The former minister had five brothers, one of whom was a High Commissioner in Kenyatta’s government, and one sister, Jemimah Gecaga, who was Kenya’s first nominated female Member of Parliament.

Mungai died in 2014 at the age of 88.


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