Search This Blog

The Kenyan tragedy of Joe Murumbi, an art lover


JOSEPH ZUZARTE MURUMBI
In 1965, unidentified assassins murdered the Kenya-Goan nationalist, Pio Gama Pinto, in the drive-way of his home, in his car with his infant daughter in the back seat of the family car. In everything but the straightness of his hair and his light chocolate coloured skin, Pinto had morphed into a full-blood Kenyan in every sense of the word. He played a full-frontal role in the fight for independence, provided arms and money to the Nairobi chapter of the Mau Mau, was detained by the colonial government, was respected by many of the emerging Kenyan politicians including Jomo Kenyatta. He and his family of three daughters lived off the earnings of wife; his own wages as a journalist went towards the fight for independence. He was both Russia’s and China’s link with Kenya.

Pinto was a brilliant political strategist and wrote many of the speeches for the likes of Kenyatta and others. His reserved his best political brains for working behind the scenes. He was all, totally, for the landless and poor Africa which was also the catch-cry of any black politician worth his salt. Just before Independence, Jomo Kenyatta slip-streamed Kenya into western capitalism as opposed to African socialism (a type of communism). In the process, Kenyatta and his Kikuyu clansmen grabbed most of the choicest farming and the expensive coastal lands, took their pick of the most successful businesses and became overnight millionaires. Pinto and the Luo leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who were of one socialist mind, found themselves virtually marooned from mainstream politics.

As Kenya was on the brink of being formally adopted as a Western democracy in Parliament (thanks to an American drawn Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965), Pinto and Kenyatta almost shattered the ceiling of Parliament House as they engaged in a very loud confrontation … one allegation was that they called each other “bastard”. Pinto and Odinga had intimated that they would move a “No-Confidence” motion against Jomo Kenyatta that is why all hell broke loose. What happened next was predictable. Pinto was shot dead. Odinga left the ruling Kenya African National Union (his position of Vice Chairman of the party had also just been erased) and formed his Kenya People’s Union.  What’s this got to do with Joe Murumbi? Well, Murumbi had just returned from completing his education in India when Pinto took the youngster under his wing and the mutual admiration blossomed into a political partnership in which the pupil utterly devoted to his mentor.

 Like Pinto, Murumbi was a natural politician. When Kenyatta and other prominent African leaders were placed in detention, Murumbi filled part of the vacuum and was soon recognised as a major driving force for the independence struggle. He too had to flee Kenya to the United Kingdom via India where he made a good impression on Indian politicians who promised to assist along the road to independence. In the UK, Murumbi (with Pinto providing him with propaganda material and other strategies) won many hearts and minds for Kenya’s independence. He achieved even more with the first of freedom, more of that later.

Murumbi was a star rocketing up the political ladder.

Problem was: Murumbi was a half-caste, the product of a Goan father and a Maasai mother. It was his father who encouraged him to adopt the ways of Maasai rather than take up the Goan mantle which was stained with the history of Portuguese, both in Africa and Goa. For all intents and purposes, Murumbi was a full-blood Westerner, even though he might not have known it himself at the time. Yet he was a nationalist, strongly believed independence meant a share of the confiscated colonial lands for all, as well as a share of the spoils of the national coffers where appropriate. Like Pinto, Murumbi was for the people.

There was only one thing wrong with him: He was not a Kikuyu. And he was only half Maasai. Yet the strain of Maasai (Kikuyu women were the prize for many Maasai raiders) runs in much Kikuyu blood. How long would they allow Murumbi to remain as Vice President of Kenya?

Vice President Joe Murumbi feared he would be killed

THE first shards of division between President Jomo Kenyatta and the Luo leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga appeared at the 1963 Lancaster House Conference on Kenya’s Independence when Kenyatta reneged on previous promises of resettling the landless and instead opted for the principle of willing seller, willing buyer to appease the colonial government and the white settler community and, more importantly, saw it as the ideal opportunity to promote the wealth of his own tribe, the politically dominant Kikuyu.

The following were the signposts to a complete separation of the two men:
There were allegations of an attempted coup by Odinga and a ship laden with arms arrived at Mombasa but was sent back to the Soviet Union.
Kenyatta despatched Foreign Minister Joe Murumbi to spy on Odinga while on a visit to Beijing and Moscow.

Tom Mboya masterminded the dethronement of Odinga as Vice President of Kenya. First at the Limuru conference of KANU, the post of vice chairman was abolished, thus delivering a somewhat mortal blow to Odinga’s position in the party. As Odinga walked out of the Limuru Conference, he warned Tom Mboya and others: “I can see you guys pushing me out but be assured these people won’t let you eat.”

In another interview he said: The writing was on the wall. It was either I remain in government as a lame duck vice-president or quit and form another political party.”

Pinto’s assassination meant that the Communist element was left rudderless. Odinga was forced to resign the vice presidency, breakaway from KANU and the government and form his own party, the Kenya People’s Union… the first steps towards dereliction as a political force.
Kenyatta turned to the only man he thought best for the job of Vice President of Kenya, Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi.

Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was an enigma: he tried to be both a Western capitalist (the arts, especially African art and books, prized collectibles) and an African socialist (a man of the landless and the poor) at the same time. He seemed to me he was always at war with himself, never the sum of one ideology although the capitalist in him was always going to be dominant in the end.

Yet, he was the man Jomo Kenyatta (who came to love the British Westminster system during his time there) trusted most besides his own Kikuyu Mafia colleagues Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange (US educated), Attorney-General (at the time) Charles Njonjo (a close British ally), his physician and nephew Njoroge Mungai. Murumbi was educated in India.

For one thing, Murumbi was a man without a tribe: the product of a Goan Indian man and a Masai mother. The Goan part of him had no value in independent Kenya. The Maasai were not as large in number or as powerful as the dominant Kikuyu or the challenging Luo. Murumbi did not pose any political threat but he appeared to be more in Luo leader Oginga Odinga’s camp politically than in Jomo Kenyatta’s Western capitalism.

Yet, though he did not realise it at the time, he was never accepted as a full-blood Kenyan … because he was a half caste. As a Kenyan leader he did not have the backing of any one tribe… or any one ideology because he could not stomach the ideology that was in power, the Western capitalist way. However, his stomach ulcers were caused by fact: he did not want the Kenyan poor cheated out of their share of the fruits of independence.

In a way, Murumbi’s inner conscience went to war with itself at the Lancaster House Conference where Jomo Kenyatta appeased the British government and the Kenyan settler community by opting for the willing seller, willing buy principle instead of the government buying all the land and sharing it out to as many landless as possible. That was perhaps the first heart attack of his life.
Joe Murumbi fled to India and the UK while he was Secretary General of the Kenya African Union. The KAU was left leaderless after Jomo Kenyatta and others were arrested on charges of leading the Mau Mau. Kenyatta appointed Murumbi his personal assistant after the colonial ban was lifted. After independence, Murumbi was appointed Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and later Foreign Minister.

FROM the moment he learnt of the assassination of his good friend and mentor Pio Gama Pinto (February 25 1965), Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi went into a state of shock that never really left him, ever. It is common knowledge that he would wail quite loudly every time Pio Gama Pinto’s name was mentioned. A mutual friend once told me that Murumbi’s death wails reminded him of the howling of a hound for its dead master
.
Why?

·         Jomo Kenyatta and his Kikuyu dominated Cabinet had chosen to take Kenya down the Capitalist path, reneging on the somewhat socialist promises before independence of sharing the fruits of independence more equitably.
       
          Pio and Kenyatta’s perennial opponent Oginga Odinga were socialists who were supported financially by both the Soviet Union (then) and China.
·         The instrument of capitalism in Kenya was drawn up by an American: Sessional Paper No. 10. Both the US and Britain played a huge part in keeping Kenya out of the hands of the communists.
·         Pinto and Odinga conspired publicly to oppose the Sessional Paper in Parliament. They even planned to move a motion of “no confidence” in Jomo Kenyatta.

·         There was a much reported slanging match between Jomo Kenyatta and Pio Gama Pinto in which the word “bastard” was very audible. Unconfirmed reports said that when Pio was asked why he called the Father of the Nation a “bastard”, he replied:  He called me a bastard first (undocumented but part of the local legend no doubt).

In private, many people in the corridors of Parliament House were convinced that “something” would happen to Pio Gama Pinto, there was no way he was going to get away with calling Kenyatta a “bastard” as had been alleged. The late Tom Mboya, the chosen capitalist of Western interests, at great risk to his own person, called Pinto and told him to get out of Nairobi or even the country because an unspecified “they” (perhaps there was no need to specify) were going to kill Pio Gama Pinto. (I have harboured this thought for a very long time: Was the fact that Tom Mboya warned Pinto of the impending doom that got him killed him in the end? Did those who killed him consider him a traitor to the Cabinet/Kikuyu cause?)

·         Pinto went to the Kenya coastal town of Mombasa and waited for friends to give him the all clear. It was Joe Murumbi who called him and told him that it was safe to come back to Nairobi. The story was that Murumbi was confident that he would be able to convince Kenyatta to forgive Pinto. He told Pinto that Kenyatta was not the kind of man who would assassinate a fellow freedom fighter.

Within a day or two of returning to Nairobi, Pinto was assassinated and Murumbi went into a kind of genuine mourning and wailing which, if you did not know Murumbi, you would be forgiven for mistaking the melodrama for the stuff of a Hollywood B Grade movie. Remember, Murumbi was a large man, with a very big heart, an even bigger smile and a booming laugh. He usually greeted his friends with open arms and a hearty handshake. Socially, he held a lit cigar in one hand and a single malt Scotch or a classy cognac in the other. If it was not a cigar, it would be one of those tough tobacco Rooster cigarettes, which cost next to nothing a pack. It would not be long before this version of Murumbi would be wiped for ever.

Many years later, while researching my debut novel, I became more and more convinced that Pinto had not been Kenyatta’s favourite person for a long, long time. Again, although there is no written evidence, I became convinced that Kenyatta refused to allow Pinto to visit him in detention. However, Pio did visit him, sneaking in as part of the Goan East African League which met with Kenyatta at Maralal. There is not even a skerrick of a smile on any of the faces in the photograph taken that day. In fact, everyone it would seem was thoroughly miserable, especially Kenyatta.
Murumbi was never convinced that Kenyatta had anything to do with Pinto’s death. He would not tolerate anyone raising the subject, reminding even his close friends that they would be “bordering on treason.” Murumbi was, however, absolutely certain that it was “those around Kenyatta” who were responsible and, by extension, Kenyatta benefitted from the dastardly deed. “It was not Kenyatta,” he told me once confidentially.

So, why did Murumbi accept Kenyatta’s invitation to the Vice Presidency to which he was sworn in on 13 May 1966 and served until 31 November 1966 (Murumbi had in fact handed in his letter of resignation in July)? According to his business partner, and the man who had stood by Murumbi and wife Sheila until their deaths, Alan Donovan:  “Murumbi was willing to give Kenyatta his services due to their unique relationship to help him out and Murumbi told Kenyatta that ‘this was the last job he would do for him’.”

After all, Murumbi was the man who took over the reins of the Kenya African Union in 1952 when the association’s leaders including Jomo Kenyatta were arrested. Murumbi went on to play a pivotal role in setting up the legal team to defend Kenyatta and the other five members of Kapenguria Six. He fled to London and with Pinto’s help did a sterling job in exposing and turning British opinion against the colonial atrocities. He also played a key role in the Lancaster House Conference on Kenya’s independence. After Uhuru, Murumbi single-handedly, without supervision, went about setting up Kenya’s diplomatic missions, appointing diplomatic staff and making sure that Kenya was well represented wherever the world and the United Nations met to discuss issues. Jomo Kenyatta was very impressed with the man. What’s not to like?

Hence, as far as the President of Kenya was concerned, he had found the ideal candidate for the Vice-Presidency.


The Office of the Vice President in Kenya is not quite the poisoned chalice. It is, however, a nothing job (a lame duck vice presidency, as Odinga labelled it). It is very much more a ceremonial gig. There would be times when Murumbi expected that Kenyatta would ask him to taken on special task, especially highly confidential matters. Murumbi was among three or four ministers he trusted implicitly and in that respect, Murumbi must have convinced himself that his president needed him.

The people closest to Kenyatta were the Kikuyus: Dr Njoroge Mungai, nephew and personal physician, Mbiyu Koinange, Kenya’s first university graduate (Mr Clean) Minister of State and Kenyatta’s key confidante, and Attorney-General Charles Njonjo (Mr Even Cleaner). The quartet became known as the Gatundu (or in some instances, the Kiambu) mafia. The next person Kenyatta trusted most was Murumbi but more often than not outside the precincts of the Gatundu Mafia.

According to the CIA, which worked closely with Britain’s foreign secret service, the MI5, and the Kenya Government, it couldn’t establish the extent of Odinga’s involvement in the Zanzibar revolution and subsequent massacres. The CIA alleged that “as Minister of Home Affairs, Odinga did hide ‘Field Marshal’ John Okello (of Uganda, who led the coup) when he fled from Zanzibar” besides supposedly supplying him with money and a car “while professing complete ignorance of his whereabouts”.
The level of mistrust created by these allegations are contained in another declassified CIA document in which it was alleged that when Odinga left for Beijing and Moscow in April 1964 to look for funds, Kenyatta ordered Joseph Murumbi to accompany and spy on Odinga.
In Moscow, Odinga was accorded VIP treatment and given the honour of attending a May Day rally where he shared a dais with Ahmed Ben Bella (the first President of Algeria) and Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, despite being just a minister.
Murumbi would later disclose to the CIA that even though they shared a hotel, sometimes Odinga would disappear for two days.
I am convinced there must have been other instances when Murumbi took on similar confidential assignments but never revealed them anywhere, not even in his papers or interviews with Anne Thurston which is the sum of the book published by Alan Donovan: A Path Not Taken.
However, the book does provide another clue why Kenyatta and Murumbi were so close: “I remember when I was a minister, I would come home in the afternoon for lunch and I would get a call from him. ‘Joe’, Kenyatta would say: ‘I have got something to discuss with you. What are you doing?”
Kenyatta would ask Murumbi to abandon his lunch. “Come and have lunch at State House.”
“So I would go up to State House, have lunch with him, and he would tell me, ‘Now Joe, sit down here, order any drinks you want, coffee, tea, whiskey, anything you like. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Kenyatta would then disappear and Murumbi would be left sitting there for hours and then he’d suddenly appear.
“Oh, Joe, I forgot about you… wait a minute. I’ll see you in a few minutes”.
According to Murumbi, this would continue until half past four, when Kenyatta would leave for his Gatundu home.
“He’d get into his car and he’d go away,” Murumbi is quoted recalling.
And this was a norm. Murumbi had come to understand Kenyatta and his fears. He was a man who wanted to have people around him.
“He (didn’t) want to discuss anything with me, but he wants you to be around. He cannot be lonely. You know he has been in, kept under solitary confinement …and the effect of that (is) he cannot bear to be alone. He must have somebody around him. And I think that is the psychology behind these dances, people with him all the time.”
(Kenyatta loved evening tribal dances – and former President Moi in his own memoirs says that Kenyatta would call him at night and waste the entire evening watching traditional dancers alone while Kenyatta remained inside the State House, Nakuru. – John Kamau, Nation)
At one point Murumbi says he asked Kenyatta whether he knew about corruption in his cabinet and civil service.
“Well Joe” Kenyatta said, “I know all about that… but you know, I am in a difficult position that ministers no longer tell me the truth.”
According to Murumbi, people exploited Kenyatta’s age and took advantage of him. “The Royal Family takes more advantage of him, than he realises that, but he can’t do anything.”
Murumbi confirms the old story that Kenyatta often threatened to personally beat his ministers:  sheds some light on whether Kenyatta threatened to beat his ministers by recounting his own experience. “He threatened to beat me one day. But I walked out of his office and banged the door and disagreed with him. And I went to my office and was just waiting for a call: ‘Joe, you are sacked.’
But it never happened, perhaps showing another side of Kenyatta. After that episode, Murumbi met Kenyatta that evening at the Parliament buildings and apologised. Kenyatta once again picked his walking stick and said: “If you do that again, I will beat you… I appreciate your coming and apologising.”

Within a few weeks in office, any reasons he might have kidded himself about remaining in office began to disappear. According to Alan Donovan, “there were no major issues with his (Murumbi’s) health when he resigned on 16 November 1966” which was the reason he offered Kenyatta. When he first handed the President his letter of resignation, the Jomo Kenyatta turned his back on him. Much later, Murumbi, according to Donovan, did receive a “nice letter” from Kenyatta.
The reason he resigned was because “he was getting paranoid about his safety.” There were several reasons for this.  One was, of course, that he could not stomach the fact a Kikuyu elite was enjoying most of the benefits of Uhuru (freedom). Kenyatta and his family had bought large tracts of top quality farm lands as well as prime land along the beaches of Mombasa and his Cabinet colleagues and senior civil servants were doing the same. With every day, as more land, more businesses, more opportunities for financial advancement became evident in a one-tribe traffic, Murumbi became more and more agitated, thus increasing his fears for his own safety.

Murumbi wrote in his papers: Jomo Kenyatta “had no political will to direct the Settler Transfer Fund (STF) to the benefit of millions of landless African as had been stated in the KANU (Kenya African National Union) manifesto at Independence”.
The STF “had been hijacked by a few African elites who were loaning themselves money meant for the landless and were acquiring huge tracts of land at the expense of the majority of the poor”.

According to Alan Donovan: “Personal security was the main reason Murumbi quit and, as he said many times, he would rather collect stamps with his lovely wife rather than be underground.  It was made clear to him by several in the Government that he was not welcome and should get out.  He never served in any capacity after that except as Chairman of the National Archives.

“Yes, the assassination of Pinto played into these fears, of course, and shook his faith in Government and in Kenyatta; although he never wrote the book he had planned to examine this and refrained throughout from being negative about Kenyatta. His loss of trust and faith in Kenyatta must have been very painful.

“He was never a politician in the sense that others were.  He was always regarded as an “outsider” of course by the rest of the Cabinet and others. I was not privy to much of what went on but I know Joe did receive direct and indirect threats from the Kikuyu circle around Kenyatta and they treated him as an interloper and were not happy with Kenyatta’s special relationship with him.”

I was told one minister told Murumbi jokingly to “not get too comfortable in that seat (meaning the Vice Presidency)” and another said to him “don’t think you will be President if anything happens to Mzee Kenyatta.”

(Many years later former Vice President Daniel arap Moi faced opposition from the Kikuyu after Kenyatta’s death but he succeeded in becoming President. thanks to the efforts of the former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo in upholding the Constitution. Former Foreign Minister Njoroge Mungai and members of the Gikuyu, Meru, Embu Association group made a harrowing attempt to stop Daniel arap Moi. Ironically, it was a fellow Kikuyu, Njonjo, who won the day.)

Kenyan Constitutional lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee was to observe many years later: “The assassination of Pinto illustrated to Murumbi the shocking extent to which the new government had departed from its promises. His feeling, evidently, was that these were not the values for which so many had suffered, and (from then on) his departure was effectively only a matter of time.”
So, who killed Pinto and Mboya? Donovan says that “Murumbi thought it was people who had an interest in the presidency. But not Kenyatta.” When a relative asked Murumbi why he resigned, he said: “Politics is a very dirty business.”
Murumbi smoked his favourite cigars and Rooster cigarettes almost till his last breath. He did suffer from diabetes, gout, and several other complications. He did have a drink now and then but largely he was too sick at the end. For a while, away from politics, life appeared to seem good. Outwardly, he even appeared to be enjoying himself. Inwardly, all was not well. He did walk away from it all and he did seem to find a new peace … but only for a very short time. New nightmares were soon to torment his every night.

Donovan told me: “Joe was optimistic but certainly his treatment by the Kenya Government and his former colleagues must have taken a huge psychological toll and led to his strokes.  The last stroke, he suffered at his house at Intona, caused severe irreparable repair to the nerves in one arm.  One of the doctors treating him made a mess of it while trying to repair the damage. This left Joe in incredible pain for the rest of his life. He had a small box on his shoulder from which a drip fed codeine into his system.

“Joe was very frustrated at this stage. He would constantly abuse the drip and shout for Sheila. 
“Some folks have always maintained that what finally killed Joe happened when he went to his Muthaiga House the last time. He was in his wheel chair when he peered through the gates and discovered all his beloved indigenous trees had been cut down and three awful houses being constructed on the site of his house. He wailed and wailed at the sight. That this is what killed him.  He suffered his last stroke shortly after.” 

President Daniel arap Moi was one of the few former Government colleagues who visited Joe in the last year of his life. Joe was congenial and polite.

Donovan knew nothing about Cecilia (Joe’s first wife, a Somali and their son Jo Jo) until he interviewed Fitz De Souza for the book. “I knew they existed but Sheila refused to ever acknowledge that and she and Joe never spoke about them in my presence.  Sheila was adamant about this. Fitz looked after Cecilia who was destitute till she went back to Somalia.”

According to Donovan: “Sheila, like all of us, had her faults and her attributes. She was a loyal loving partner but they did have some major fall outs along the way which, I suppose, was normal.  Her main shortcoming was that she refused to think of whatever she did not want to accept or thought was unpleasant.  She caused me a great many problems because she never wrote a will, even after haranguing me many times to get my will done! 

“She died intestate. I was shocked to have to find relatives of hers (whom she hardly knew and did not like) to become administrators of her estate whom the judge recognized instead of myself and David Blackhurst who were acting as administrators of her estate. 

“That was a horrible time and her heirs cleaned out what they wanted and left the containers of “African” items for the Museum/Archives and I spent 14 years after the government looted and damaged much of what she left behind. These items are now on display (permanently I hope) at old Provincial Commissioner’s (PC) Office in Nairobi. 

“However, the much larger collection he sold, along with the house, to the government in 1976 suffered a much worse fate and I spent many years rehabilitating and replacing items where possible. The Government takes no interest in this, especially the library and stamps which are now resting in deplorable condition.”

Donovan said that he tried to move them to a wonderful space in the old Rahimatulla Trust Library near the archives. He is still hoping to pursue that battle but with little chance of success. 

 “Mainly, Joe and Sheila were like two peas in a pod, which is phenomenal considering their totally different backgrounds.  They loved cooking (each had their own stove), thrived on each other’s interests which they mutually enjoyed: books, of course as Sheila was the librarian who helped Joe catalogue his collection, art, politics, stamps (which Sheila brought), and DOGS (which were their children). So they were a great couple when at their best,” Donovan explains.

“Sheila’s proclivity for procrastination was disappointing but I will always admire how she rose to the occasion after Joe’s last strokes when he was calling on her 24/7 and she spent her life in service to him without any complaint.” 

“I went to Vice President Moody Awori and got him to help me to retain the remaining containers that the heirs had not already shipped out. These containers sat near the airport at the shipping company for over a decade before they were released on a “Deed of Gift” to the people of Kenya (Museum and Archives) after which they suffered a terrible time of abuse, damage and pilfering.  Now what is left is safely ensconced in the old Provincial Commissioner’s Office and the National Archives, with the sculpture garden at their gravesites.

“The Maasai relatives are also looters and continue to blackmail me with thinking somehow I have access to any of Joe’s money or properties.  This goes on. One relative, Ruth, has married the former US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, with whom I have good relations.” 

So like many before him, Murumbi has taken secrets to his grave and history and the people of Kenya are poorer for it.