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How Ben Gethi Led JM Kariuki to his Murderers

Why JM Fell Out with Mt. Kenya Mafia and Why He Had to Be Killed 
To understand the animosity between JM Kariuki and President Kenyatta’s bodyguard, Arthur Wanyoike Thungu, is partly to unravel the motives of the killing which nearly brought down Mzee’s government. Wanyoike was among the top security men gathered to question the Nyandarua North MP at the Kingsway House Special Branch headquarters on Sunday March 2, 1975, the day JM disappeared and was later found murdered. It was he who had drawn JM into a bad-tempered argument over missing foreign funds. The exchange resulted in the MP being shot on the arm by Ben Gethi, the GSU commandant.

But what united different people in Kenyatta’s court against Josiah Mwangi Kariuki? What traits of his character set them so firmly against a man, who, like them, was a former Mau Mau detainee and a veteran of the freedom struggle? The Nation’s investigations show that JM left a trail of of bitter and powerful enemies wherever he worked.

His first job in independent Kenya was as a private secretary in charge of political affairs in the office of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, later President of the new Republic, between 1962 and 1964. Kenyatta had first heard about JM while in prison. The young freedom crusader, who was detained between 1953 and 1960, had made a name as a spokesman for victims of colonial oppression, even in prison. On his release in 1960, JM visited Kenyatta, who was still in detention at Maralal. The two men hit it off instantly. JM then left the country for Oxford University and returned to become Kenyatta’s private secretary.

Mzee trusted JM so much that all delicate missions, like securing overseas training for the President’s security men, were handled by him. Kenyatta also used JM secretly to negotiate for compensation to victims of the Mau Mau liberation war. Thungu had two reasons to dislike JM for life; one was personal and the other communal. Kenyatta’s security when JM became his private secretary was dominated by men like Thungu, who hailed from the President’s Gatundu village. Many of these had been youthwingers of Mzee’s Kenya African Union (KAU) party, (Kenya African National Union’s) KANU’s predecessor, before Kenyatta’s imprisonment in 1952.

JM was strongly opposed to Kenyatta’s choice of bodyguards, none of whom had proper police training or formal education. He proposed that a National Youth Service be set up to absorb the former KAU youth and Mau Mau fighters for vocational training. Over the question of Kenyatta’s security, he found stauch allies in then newly-appointed director of Police Intelligence, Bernard Hinga, who would later become the police commissioner, and the head of the Prime Minister’s Escort Guard, Sir Alex Pearson.

At the intervention of the three officers, Kenyatta dropped the idea of taking all his former youthwingers as bodyguards but refused to be separated with a few from his Ichaweri neighbourhood. He instructed that they be sent overseas for training. Thungu was among those selected few. He never forgot that he had narrowly missed the chop. For that he would never forgive JM. But JM had an even bigger problem, He came from Nyeri District. Kenyatta’s State House was largely a Gatundu-Kiambu affair. JM was a stranger. A palace campaign was launched to discredit JM in the eyes of Kenyatta. Matters were not helped by the fact that JM was openly ambitious and pushy. Slowly, Kenyatta began to mistrust JM.

In “Politics of Independence of Kenya”, historian Keith Kyle recounts an incident where Kenyatta sent JM to secure six training slots for his bodyguards in Israel. However, he turned to Dr. Gikonyo Kiano, who was not a State House employee, to decide who would have the scholarships. So vicious was the anti-JM campaign at State House that a young woman he was in love with and for whom he had paid half dowry as dissuaded from marrying him. The girl was later married to a member of Kenyatta’s security who is today a Cabinet Minister.

In early 1964, Kenyatta was finally prevailed upon to drop JM as his private secretary and to scrap the job altogether. JM was moved to the newly-formed National Youth Service (NYS), the same place he had wanted to dump Thungu and company.  As National Leader of the NYS, JM toured the country, overseeing recruitments and inspecting project sites. But a new set of trouble awaited him. The NYS Act ranked the force’s National Leader together with Commanders of the Air Force, Navy, and the Army, allowing JM to sit in national security meetings. The Kiambu clique that had hounded him out of State House were uneasy with this situation. They resolved to strip him of this new post as well.

JM played right into their hands when one day in 1968 he entered Parliament in full NYS uniform. He was then MP for Aberdares Constituency, later renamed Nyandarua North. Immediately JM entered the Chamber, a Cabinet minister prompted by Attorney-General Charles Njonjo asked the Speaker whether it was in order for JM to enter the House in forces uniform. Speaker Humphrey Slade ruled there was nothing wrong with it as long as the uniform did not include a cap. The matter didn’t end there. Some ministers took it to the Cabinet and complained to Kenyatta that JM had gone to the House in uniform to rival the Commander-in-Chief, the only person known to have entered the Chamber in military uniform. A few weeks later, JM was sacked as NYS National Leader and the post scrapped.

Yet Kenyatta still had a soft spot for his former secretary. He appointed JM an assistant minister in the ministry of agriculture, with Special Duties. This vague post meant he could rival his own minister. JM’s role in the ministry of agriculture soon got him on a collison course with the Cabinet member in charge, Bruce Mackenzie, and his friend Njonjo. In early 1969, JM took advantage of the minister’s absence from the country and sacked by notice two expatriate directors of agriculture and five other senior expatriates in the ministry. Mackenzie cancelled his trip and flew back home in a rage. He immediately raised the matter at a Cabinet meeting. Kenyatta supported JM, arguing that he had the powers of a minister and was covered by the rule of collective responsibility. The Cabinet couldn’t disown the decision.

Mackenzie and Njonjo never forgave JM. Kenyatta later transferred JM from the ministry of agriculture to the ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. The 1969 General Election gave JM a chance to demonstrate his organisational capabilities and the respect he commanded among colleagues. By now JM had set his sights high. At a victory party JM hosted for his supporters and friends after the 1969 elections, he confided in them that he would be going for “big things”. It was the beginning of the increasingly radical JM projected through word and deed, snipping at the Kenyatta government at every opportunity.

Speaking during a student graduation at Highridge Teachers College in early 1970, he said that the Kenya Government had betrayed the vision of the freedom fighters. Colonial white settlers had only been replaced by black settlers. He told a stunned crowd: “I believe firmly that substituting Kamau for Smith, Odongo for Jones and Kiplagat for Keith won’t solve what the gallant fighters of our uhuru (freedom) considered an imposed and undesirable social justice”. A few weeks later he received a standing ovation at Nairobi University when he declared: “It takes more than a National Anthem to create a nation”.

Later he hopped to Uganda’s Makerere University and declared Kenya’s policy on African Socialism a hoax. JM was now the man to watch. A GEMA delegation called on Kenyatta to complain about the MP. But Kenyatta dismissed their worries, saying JM was “just a young inexperienced bull that doesn’t know from which side to mount a cow”.

But clearly others did not think so. A scheme was put in place to slow JM by denying him permits to hold or address meetings. The restriction was extended even to innocuous gatherings like family parties. A birthday party he had scheduled for March 21, 1971, aws cancelled at the eleventh hour by the State. And on January 1, 1972, a huge rally he had organised to be attended by a number of cabinet ministers and MPs was cancelled at the last minute. An incensed JM later told Parliament: “This anti-JM campaign is now bordering on stupidity”.

Denied a chance to speak outside Parliament, JM turned to the House to air his views. The then deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Munyua Waiyaki, recalls: “JM would call and ask me not to miss Parliament as he was preparing a bombshell. He particularly liked the days when I was in the Chair as he knew I wouldn’t deny him a chance to say whatever he wanted”. JM’s other strategy was to give generously to development projects. The contributions aroused suspicion that he was being externally funded by foreigners who preferred him as a future president of Kenya.

JM countered the rumours by saying that it was not how much money he had but how generous he was at heart that mattered. But the suspicions grew, as JM had no known sources of income to support the large sums he gave away. At the time he died, his known businesses included a shareholding in the Rift Valley Trading Agencies, which he co-owned with Vice-President Moi and Moi’s brother-in-law Eric Bomett. He also owned a tour company with Israeli businessman Ernest Kahane, a mining company with his brother-in-law Harun Muturi and two restaurants in the city. Many thought those investments could not finance JM’s private race horses and his ostentatious casino gambling habit.

It was whispered that the Chinese were behind JM’s seemingly endless resources. But his widow Terry denies that JM had any forign backer. “For all the time I lived with him, he never held a secret bank account. In any case, the government had the machinery to uncover such an account had it existed”, she says. JM’s political enemies went on the offensive in the 1974 General Election. All his campaign meetings, except one, were cancelled. He was virtually banned from visiting his constituency during the campaigns. In the meantime, Nakuru’s Mayor, Mburu Gichua had camped in Nyandarua North with instructions to ensure that JM didn’t go back to Parliament. To the great chagrin of his detractors, JM retained the seat with three times more votes than the combined total of his opponents.

During the swearing-in of the new Parliament in November 1974, MPs gave JM a standing ovation. It rivalled the applause they had just given Kenyatta, who was in the Chamber. It was about this time that secret meetings began in Nakuru and in the city on how to stop JM. Taped speeches of his addresses were played to Kenyatta but Mzee was not alarmed. He only suggested that the MP should be warned to change his ways. According to the the Nakuru Town MP, Mr. Mark Mwithaga, the State House clique that wanted JM eliminated were themselves interested in keeping a hold on the presidency after Kenyatta. Which is why they held meetings in Nakuru and resolved that JM must die on March 2.

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10 Comments on How Ben Gethi Led JM Kariuki to his Murderers

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    Imeet Hon.J.M kariuki as astudent leader in ateahers college in 1973 he was charismatic n very focused friendly person down to earth an dlikeable I had no idea two years latter he was to die last year I visited the spot where they murdered him it is wasting away any family members kindly do something for the memorial site many of the names mentioned are long dead save for my friend Hon,Mark Mwithaga

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    For JM Kariuki’s bravery in colonial detention read “Britain’s Gulag” by Caroline Elkins.

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    Kenya leadership rotten to the core. And to think we have these murderous snakes’ offspring sitting in top leadership today, no wonder were facing the plight we do as a country. From terrorism, to corruption, land grabbing, mega scandals you name them.

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    Amazing revelation,good history.

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    Amazing…Well written and equally well researched.

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    It’s high time we rewrite our history

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      Sure. I think its good that the true facts of our history be preserved for future generations to read so they don’t make the same mistakes.

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    Good piece of story i have learned a lot about kenyan young age and the plight of leaders like JM who wanted to walk the talk in leadership

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