Old Budonian: Life and times of Kenya’s Sir Charles Njonjo

Saturday January 25 2020

Tourist. Sir Charles Mugane Njonjo is carried around by guides at Mgahinga National Park to track gorillas as one of the activities leading to the celebration of his 100th birthday last Sunday. COURTESY PHOTOS

On January 23, Sir Charles Mugane Njonjo, Kenya’s former Attorney General, minister and power broker turned 100 years.

Born to Josia Njonjo, a colonial chief of Kabete in 1920, Njonjo and his brother James (born 1922) were sent to Kikuyu CMS Primary and Junior School and Alliance High School in Kenya.

Both Charles and James Njonjo were admitted in 1939 to King’s College Buddo; then the best school in East and Central Africa and fondly referred to as “The Eton of Africa.” Eton is the leading public school in the UK and has been attended by generations of British and foreign aristocracy, including 20 British prime ministers.

At Budo, Njonjo was placed in the same class with Sir Edward Muteesa, later Kabaka and first president of Uganda; Alex Odonga, a surgeon and former dean of Makerere Medical School; Lutaaya Kaganda, the father of Brig Andrew Lutaaya and Ms Ruth Kavuma. Others were Geresm Nkonge, the father of Justice Alex Nkonge, registrar Agnes Nkonge Muwonge; Dr Justin Were, Late Katuramu, the former Bunyoro Kingdom prime minister; Late Rubombora; and late Prof Mbabi Katana, former professor of music at Makerere University.

Njonjo meets Mutesa

In 1938, Buganda Government hired Captain Freddie Chritenden as Mutesa’s personal tutor, and both Charles Njonjo and Edward Mutesa learnt English etiquette and mannerism from this tutor. No wonder the Baganda used to refer to Mutesa as a Black English King as Kenyans referred to Njonjo as the Duke of Kabeteshire.
Njonjo thus enjoyed an exclusive league of hundreds of foreign students who have studied at Budo.


These included Lord Nico Hemingford (Member, UK House of Lords); Richard White (former Wildlife Conservation head, Lesotho); Prof David Rubadiri (Malawi’s former UN Permanent Representative); Dr Bhima (UK-based Malawian physician); J.M Kariuki (late Kenyan MP); Tiisa Aggrey (former South Sudan Finance minister); Others were Ms Ane Tto (South Sudan’s Representative to EALA); Udo Udoma (former senator in Nigeria); Emmanuel Ndahiro (former Rwandan security chief); and Maj Gen Karenzi Karake (former commander of UN Forces in Dafur).
From Budo, Njonjo proceeded to Fort Hare in South Africa, and onto the University of Exeter, UK.

The green and pleasant Royal Budo Coronation Hill has breezes that breathe longevity to those exposed to the hill and so it was with Njonjo, who joins other Old Budonians who have hit the 100-year mark. Tom Makumbi died at 101 years, Nelson Sebugwawo at 103, and Dr Emmanuel Lumu at 103 years old.


Awarded. Charles Njonjo was awarded “The Budo Merit” in 2010, the highest civilian award by the board of Governors of King’s College Budo.

Njonjo the kingmaker
From 1963, when president Jomo Kenyatta sought him to replace A.M.F. Webb, QC, as Kenya’s Attorney General, Mr Njonjo bestrode Kenya’s legal and political landscape, scheming on Kenyatta’s succession before his own downfall in 1983.

Mr Njonjo was widely suspected to have been plotting to succeed President Kenyatta, which placed him at odds with other contenders from central Kenya, who felt they were better suited for the job.

Ostracised by fellow politicians from Mount Kenya region, Njonjo formed an unlikely alliance with vice president Daniel arap Moi, who was generally held in low regard – as a passing cloud – by the schemers around President Kenyatta. The contenders came up with a plot to lock out VP arap Moi from automatically succeeding president Kenyatta.

First, they formed a coterie under Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Alliance (Gema), which was initially sold as a cultural movement to unite the three communities that inhabit the region around Mt Kenya.
But Gema soon became a political behemoth that threatened to eclipse president Kenyatta’s prominence in the region.

Led by former Kiambaa MP and billionaire businessman Njenga Karume and former Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani, they started what was termed as the “change the constitution movement” whose sole aim was to block VP Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency upon President Kenyatta’s death.

Seeing his “project” (arap Moi), threatened by powerful Gema Forces, Njonjo neutralised them with a single masterstroke: he decreed that it was treasonable to imagine death of the President and, therefore, all those agitating for constitutional changes had committed a crime punishable by death.

“Therefore, Nyonjo said, those who had called for constitutional changes had not only imagined the death of the President, but had stated it outright, through the use of loudspeakers,” said Mr Karume in his 2000 biography, Beyond Expectations: From Chair-coal to gold.

“They (Gema leaders) were on record for having uttered words that insinuated the president’s death, and Njonjo told the press that he had a watertight case against them. No doubt Njonjo was congratulating himself as he spoke. His counter-attack was ingenious,” he wrote.

Scholars argue that Njonjo’s edict, and many other tweaks to the constitution, which he engineered to ingratiate himself with Kenyatta, ultimately reinforced the imperial presidency which was to haunt Kenya for decades.

Although president Kenyatta never took the treason charges seriously, the Gema members found it increasingly difficult to articulate their clamour for change openly without being seen as disrespectful to the president. By the time Kenyatta died in August 1978, the group had largely fizzled out.

Moi assumed office following Kenyatta’s death without a legal hitch – thanks in large part to Njonjo’s scheming. But in the classic Machiavellian manner, Moi set in motion events to cut his “kingmaker,’ his attorney general, to size.

About Njonjo

Background. Njonjo was born Jan 23, 1920, and served Kenya as Attorney General from 1963 to 1979. He was also Minister of constitutional Affairs from 1980 to 1983. Mr Njonjo spent a large part of his life in the United Kingdom, where he studied law before returning to Kenya and serving as the country’s first attorney general for 17 years.

1982 attempted coup

In the 1980 snap elections, Njonjo quit his post as attorney general and ran for and won the Kikuyu Constituency parliamentary seat. President arap Moi then appointed him Minister for Constitutional Affairs.
In August 1982, a group of soldiers, mainly from the Kenya Air Force, staged an unsuccessful coup against president arap Moi.

Njonjo’s name was heavily mentioned in the planning of the coup, although the Justice Cecil Miller-led commission that investigated these allegations found little evidence in Njonjo’s involvement.
Njonjo has always denied any involvement in the coup plot, telling one newspaper in 2006 interview that had he planned the coup, it would have succeeded.
Nonetheless, Njonjo was forced to resign as an MP in 1983. He then kept a low profile, largely concentrating on his vast business empire.

Njonjo was awarded “The Budo Merit” in 2010, the highest civilian award by the board of Governors of Kings College Budo in recognition of his service to the Kenyan public, assistance to the Ugandan refugee community in the 1970s and having added value to the Budo Brand.

Dr Edwaadi Kayondo is president Emeritus Old Budonians Club