Murumbi’s Legacy Part Two: The ‘Reluctant Politician’
By KAREN ROTHMYER @thestarkenya
The second of a three-part series drawn from Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity, to be launched 22 June.
The Joseph Murumbi who returned to Kenya from England in 1962 was a considerably different person from the one who had left Kenya for India nine years before. At the time of his departure, he was an impoverished representative of a little-known freedom movement, a man who’d never before addressed an audience or been on a plane. But by the time of his return he was a polished speaker, an urbane Londoner who collected art and books, and an acquaintance of world leaders from Nehru to Nkrumah, many of whom he counted as friends.
Murumbi had also gone from being a political neophyte to a sophisticated player, someone who understood not only the politics of Kenya but, thanks to his travels and contacts, the politics of Africa and the world at large. This made him valuable to Kenyatta and his fledgling government in a variety of ways, but perhaps most of all as someone who could get things done.
But what he hadn’t acquired, it would seem, is a taste for the rough and tumble of political life.
Cyprian Fernandes, a Kenya-born journalist, describes Murumbi in his memoir Yesterday in Paradise as ‘something of an introvert…He found it difficult to talk about himself and even more difficult to talk about the various strands of politics prevailing in the country at the time. I even got the feeling sometimes that he was a reluctant politician.’
Fernandes’ remarks are echoed by veteran journalist Joe Kadhi, who never dealt with Murumbi in person but edited many political stories involving him. ‘In a way he was apolitical,’ says Kadhi. ‘But he was able to be elected to Parliament because people were very loyal to political parties and he was sponsored by KANU.’ He adds that Murumbi was ‘highly respected by journalists’ and regarded as far brighter than most of his peers.
Such comments suggest that Kenyatta’s keenness to recruit Murumbi to assist him may well have been in part because of Murumbi’s very lack of political ambition: Kenyatta never had to worry that Murumbi was operating in his own interest rather than that of Kenyatta or of the country at large.
The period of Murumbi’s active political life in Kenya—1962 through 1966—was the most pivotal in Kenya’s history, a time when key decisions were being made about what direction the country would take politically and economically. The differences of opinion about these issues between the Odinga wing of the party and the Kenyatta wing are hinted at in the manifesto overseen by Murumbi and issued by KANU before the 1963 pre-independence elections. As one example, the manifesto states that Kenya will have a firm policy of non-alignment and a ‘socialist society’—but it also states that ‘The Marxist theory of class warfare has no relevance to Kenya’s situation. Attitudes which were appropriate when we were fighting for independence have to be revised.’
One critical event that pushed Kenya toward the Western camp was an army mutiny that occurred the month after independence. ‘That is where, in my view, things began to unravel,’ Professor Godfrey Muriuki says. ‘Kenya was forced by circumstances to seek assistance from Britain but that assistance came with strings attached, one of which was that Kenya would be pro-Western as opposed to supporting the socialist countries.’
While Western officials obsessed with the Cold War saw Murumbi as too friendly with the Russians and Chinese, Murumbi is probably best described as a European-style social democrat, a moderate socialist with no interest in communism but a keen awareness of inequality and the needs of the poor. ‘Welfarism was his cup of tea; do something for the [Mau Mau] fighters,’ says historian Macharia Munene. ‘He would have been a supporter of corporate social responsibility.’
IN MURUMBI'S WORD
Mzee Kenyatta wanted me to take over the KANU party headquarters, and reorganize it, and also to be treasurer of the party, because we were going to have elections [in mid-1963.]
Once I got the office into some working shape, the next thing was to begin to prepare for the elections. The settlers were fully backing KADU. People like Daniel arap Moi, Masinde Muliro, and others were completely under the thumb of these white settlers. The settlers felt that there would be greater security under a KADU government than a government under President Kenyatta—that is, a KANU government. And to a certain extent they were supported by the British Government.
We felt that any form of regional government, which KADU supported, would not promote unity. We could have overcome that by limiting the powers of the regional assemblies and making the central Government a federal body and leaving some of the powers locally—for instance those involving development. Land would have been controlled by the local bodies. We were influenced by the support of the Europeans for regionalism; we distrusted their ideas. But we were wrong because the Kikuyu took advantage of this.
Odinga, Tom Mboya, and others who were generally of the idea that we should have a unified government worked towards it, they supported it. But they began to see this discrimination. Those who spoke up were penalized. This eventually formed the break so that Luo leaders like Oneko and Odinga formed the Kenya People’s Union. There were other non-Luos like Waiyaki and others who also supported it.
The elections came finally and KANU won the election. I stood for Parliament, for Nairobi South, and I won the elections with a pretty good majority. After the elections we were in the interim Government for six months before independence. I was appointed Minister of State. After a year I was made Foreign Minister.
Mzee used to ring me up and ask me what the newspapers were saying, and I had to get the papers so I was able to brief him. But I don’t think he was very much interested in foreign affairs.
Whenever I had to attend either the United Nations General Assembly or a Non-Aligned Conference, or even the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference to which on two occasions I led the Kenya delegation, I always went to the President and said, ‘This is the agenda for the meeting, this is the line I think we should take. If you disagree, tell me.’ Invariably, he told me, ‘Joe, you go ahead, I know you will do the right thing.’
My principles, the principles which have guided me in foreign affairs, were first, the interest of Kenya was paramount. Secondly, we were members of the Organisation of African Unity, and therefore we should work closely with the OAU and more or less have our policies in foreign affairs in line with the OAU policies. Thirdly, we were members of the United Nations, and we should give the United Nations all our support. And lastly, we were a non-aligned country and therefore we should be able to choose our friends without dictation or interference from any country saying whom we should be friends with and whom we shouldn’t be friends with.
At that time there was a strong feeling of Pan-Africanism. We took united actions at times, supported each other, and we more or less dominated the OAU. Later on, things deteriorated.
There was no necessity for the murders of J M Kariuki [the MP killed in 1975], Tom Mboya [killed in 1969] and Pio [his friend Pio Gama Pinto, killed in 1965]. I think that particularly in the case of Mboya and Kariuki it was because they had political ambitions. I think they represented a threat to the interests in the establishment.
Well, let people have political ambitions. There’s nothing wrong with political ambitions. Every man must have ambitions to rise, to achieve the highest position he can. But the interpretation is that these people may be a threat to the position of others and therefore they have to be eliminated.
Pio was a man who never did any harm to anybody. As a matter of fact, he helped everybody from the President downwards. I would never accept that Pinto was aiding the communists or was a communist himself. I know Pinto had no contact with the communists at all.
When KANU had the Limuru Conference [in March 1966] it was quite clear that they were out to eliminate Odinga. I knew what they were aiming at, and I didn’t attend. I didn’t know I was being appointed to replace Odinga as Vice-President. I was at a Cabinet meeting when it was announced that I was the next Vice-President and I just looked surprised.
I would have liked to have stayed on as Foreign Minister, but nevertheless, if one is a Minister, one has to accept any movements. I think I was getting a bit too controversial in my handling of foreign policy, which was not to the liking of the Americans and the British. And I think certain pressures were put on the Old Man to get rid of me as Foreign Minister, and the Old Man thought of the brilliant idea of kicking me upstairs. This is what I just surmise, I have no clear proof.
My mind was made up to leave Government when I was still Foreign Minister, after I got offered a job in the early part of ’66 as chairman of Rothmans’ new Kenya subsidiary, but it was not finalized until about May or June. Mzee announced my resignation at a Cabinet meeting as soon as he’d received my letter of resignation, but he did not want me to resign immediately. So I accepted that.
What influenced me mainly to leave Government was to see the change in people’s minds that was taking place at that time. I realized that all the original good intentions we had of how to run the country, and how to look after the people who were poor or who had no land, had no jobs, these things were being forgotten. It was the personal interest of people which was paramount. I didn’t want to be associated with a Government which was going to let down the people—not the educated people so much but the poor Kikuyus and members of other tribes who had taken part in the struggle, and who had faith in Kenyatta and all of us that we were going to give them a better deal. Freedom is not just saying you are free; freedom is bread and butter, improvement in the lives of the people. People looked up to us for hope. So that’s why I felt I shouldn’t stay in the system.
And the other factor which made it easier for me was that I was never involved in corruption. If you are, it’s better to stay within the system because that’s your protection. I was able to get out clean, and without any complications.
I have never looked back and regretted the day I left politics. Never.
I feel I have a certain loyalty to Mzee; I wouldn’t like to hurt him in any way by being too critical. He could have been a great leader in the sense of maintaining the balance which he maintained in the beginning among the tribes. But then he allowed himself to be influenced by certain elements amongst the Kikuyu and we have the situation which we have today, which could be dangerous. He has allowed himself to be influenced by other people, particularly members of the family—it’s called the ‘Royal Family’.
And, there are people who take advantage of him. I remember once in Mombasa, I was talking to him about corruption and Ministers and civil servants not being in their offices. ‘Well, Joe,’ he said, ‘I know all about that. But you know, I’m in a difficult position; Ministers no longer tell me the truth.’He could have stopped it before, some time ago, but not now. It’s gone too far.
‘Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity’ will be launched as part of the Samosa Festival on Friday, 22 June, at the Alchemist, beginning at 4pm. It will retail at Sh1,000 during the Festival and at Sh1,200 after 11 July. It will be available at Bookstop at Yaya Centre and other locations.