To describe ‘Sir’ Charles Njonjo as immaculate would be how the sky might attempt to describe the colour blue. It seems pointless and wasteful. But he seems to wear that adjective on his cuffs, doesn’t he?
At 95, he still remains regal and enigmatic — not to mention a celebrity; Kenya’s first Attorney-General for over 15 years, Member of Parliament for Kikuyu Constituency, minister for Constitutional Affairs in Daniel arap Moi’s government and, more recently, chairman of the East African Wildlife Society. Not to mention the prominent businessman tag.
Njonjo, who featured prominently (and powerfully) in the post-independence politics of Kenya, was known for his “hawkish” brand of politics and is often touted as one of the wealthiest men in Kenya.
In person, despite being five years shy of the centenarian tag, he refuses to be bowed by age (or man, for that matter). He remains resolute in his signature pinstripe suits and a blue checked shirt that he had on when I met him in his Westlands office.
On his wrist gleamed an understated Patek Philippe timepiece. He was amusing, unapologetic, a straight-shooter, deliberate and astute. Shrewdness radiated through his very being, and when you held his unwavering gaze and looked deep into his rheumy eyes, you couldn’t help feeling like a ball of wool in the paws of a cat.
What’s the story of that odd-looking bracelet on your wrist?
Oh this? This is an elephant bracelet. It’s a celebration and support of elephants. I wear it because I believe in the conservation of elephants. I believe we all have to save these animals for future generations.
What kind of a person were you in your prime; standing at the elbow of the bearded Jomo Kenyatta – the first Attorney-General of an independent republic, well-scrubbed in your pinstripe suit?
You know, I miss the discipline of that time. I miss the power I had, power that I could use for the common good. I miss the nation that we had then, a strong nation. There is nothing that went on that we didn’t know about; we had the proverbial long arm of the law.
We were always two steps ahead, we knew what conversation you had in your house the previous night. What happened in Garissa recently would never have happened because we had total control of security.
What has changed over time for you, socially and politically?
What has really changed is this new Constitution that we have. It is good but at the moment, because we don’t understand it, it’s bad and it’s dangerous. It has brought a lot of misunderstanding, ambitions and greed for power.
All these governors and this paraphernalia that go with it; motorcade riders. It’s brought ugliness and pretence. The whole intention of our Constitution was for government to be closer to the people. That hasn’t been the case.
Are you happy with the work of the Judiciary now?
No. (Pause) I think we have a lot of people there who are inexperienced. This is because of appointment of people who are not seasoned.
You were once a very powerful man. What did you learn about power and influence?
That you can use it and misuse it. I used it for good, I could have used it to destroy.
Did power change who you were?
No, it made me humble. Power can make you arrogant and ruthless.
How do you manage to maintain yourself like this at 95?
I look after myself. I swim daily, I used to do 12 laps, now I do only seven. I also have a bicycle which I ride for 10 minutes daily, on top of the treadmill which I do for 10 minutes daily. I’m also careful about what I eat; I don’t eat nyama choma, I eat a lot of veggies.
What is your greatest struggle in life now?
(Pause) I’m struggling about you and your Press. I get my paper at 6am and I read it until 7am and I just get depressed with what I read. Then I wonder why I bother reading this newspaper, to depress me? It’s a habit though.
Look, you have done well for yourself in life, but you still wear a suit every day and come here to work! When will you say this is enough, I won’t come to work any more?
Maybe when I’m cremated. Otherwise I will wait until I cannot move a limb. As long as my feet can carry me, I will come here daily.
Do you think about death, do you fear dying?
No. Death is something you can face, why fear it? I don’t engage in that kind of thought and I don’t want anyone to raise money when I die... friends meeting at the cathedral... I don’t want any collection of money.
Just how much are you worth? Do you know?
I’m a poor man. I’m not worth anything.
Do you drink alcohol?
I don’t drink much... if I’m to drink, it will be just a bottle of beer and maybe a cider, that’s it.
Ok, so you don’t drink. What’s your sin then?
My sin? (Thinks). I don’t sleep enough. I’m unable to do eight straight hours of sleep... that I regret because I’d love to have a deep sleep.
And why can’t you?
Because I’m thinking... and I’m worried… (Pause)... I’m thinking of things... you know, like what will you write about me after this? I debate with myself in bed.
What do you least like about Sir Charles Njonjo?
(Pause). I like myself... no, I really do.
Have you been a good father?
How do you figure?
Because I have looked after my kids well, I have seen them through their education; one is a barrister, the other is a scientist and one is a veterinary doctor. They have turned out well, I think. I have given them what my father gave me, an education.
What was your limitation as a father?
(Laughs) You know, sometimes these kids argue with me, saying dad, this is not right, this isn’t supposed to be like this... my son was arguing with me last night from the UK. He doesn’t agree with what I say and I can’t force him, because that’s his position.
But him arguing or not agreeing with you isn’t your limitation, is it? What is yours?
That I can’t flog him… (chuckles)... I mean I can’t beat him up.
You would prefer to beat him up?
(Chuckle) No, I prefer to talk to him but he wasn’t listening, but in the end, I won the argument! (Laughs).
Do you have an inheritance plan in place, or will we be treated to a public circus of kids fighting for their father’s wealth when he’s long gone, like we have witnessed in the Kirima and Karume cases?
Yes, yes... we have sat together and they know what they will get and inherit. There is a will they can’t challenge and I advise our people to write wills because what we witness with the people you have mentioned is sad. If they were to come back to life today, I don’t know what they would say!
Why did you marry so late?
Because I couldn’t find a girl I could live with.
You? All those girls you must have met in Kenya and abroad? Not one single one you could live with?
All those girls [and] I couldn’t find one I could live with. It took me a long time but eventually, I found one and I married her at All Saints Cathedral... she was in the choir.
Were you looking for a choir girl?
No, she just happened to be in the choir. (Laughs).
Is Kenya better or worse now than it was in the 1960s?
Yes, even your shilling is worse off.
Your suits are an urban folklore. Is it true that you once had a suit that had your initials – CN – inscribed in the stripes?
Yes, I used to have that suit; bought it in London, tailored in London.
That’s what I like — not a plain one like yours. (Grins)
I don’t even wear blazers, I did all this for you. Don’t you think I have tried?
Yes, you have tried but next time you come here without a tie, I will show you the door.
How many of those suits do you own?
I don’t know, maybe 20?
What has been your greatest loss in life?
My greatest loss was the death of President Jomo Kenyatta. There was a man I followed and trusted and that’s the man who used to lead the country with a rungu (club) but at least we were united. I could go to North Eastern and come back. You try and do that today, you’ll be back a corpse.
Who is your closest and most trusted friend?
Today? (Pause) I trust myself. It’s difficult to say, apart from my own family, the only man I trust is Richard Leakey. I hope he saves our wildlife with his new appointment (as chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Services). (Pause) Who is the editor of your paper?
Rhoda Orengo, why?
That’s a lady...no, this is not the man who I’m thinking of who writes for you people, a nasty fellow who wrote an untrue story about my involvement in the CMC scandal.
You see, CMC Motors was a company started by Europeans to sell vehicles and the way they were doing it in those early years was that European employees used to get paid part of their salaries here and part in England to supplement their salaries and to maintain their way of life, but also to keep them interested in working here.
Some directors were being paid from overseas but your people picked that and said that was wrong. But it wasn’t only CMC that was doing it during that time. Many companies in East Africa were also doing it to maintain their European staff.
You must be referring to the audit report by Webber-Wentzel. I’m not acquainted with the facts of this report but I’m informed that it basically said that you were involved in a scheme with some directors at CMC Motors to over-invoice imported vehicles and funnel the funds in offshore accounts...
The audit by the South African company? (Dismissive wave). No, nothing to do with that. That money was kept in England and was done by the book. I didn’t take trouble replying to that news report, I treated it with contempt.
What is the most common question people ask you when they meet you?
They don’t ask me anything, they are usually intimidated. But you are a brave young man, asking me all these questions, I commend you for that. Thanks.
Are you a romantic?
I’m not, I’m a factual man. I don’t imagine romance. I’m not going to engage in fantasies and things like that, nothing.
When you once went to Ronalo Foods in town for lunch with Raila, a cross-section of your tribesmen felt, at that time, that you were jumping in bed with the enemy, they felt betrayed….
(Long stare) Don’t Kikuyus eat ugali?… (Pause) Don’t they? Why can’t I eat ugali with Raila without it being turned into a cinema?
What are you reading now?
I stopped reading books.
How do you fill your time?
I visit my coffee farm in Kiambu every evening. I also have a goat farm for milk. That occupies my time.
Do you watch TV?
Are you on Facebook?
What is Facebook?
Where the devil lives, you don’t want to be on Facebook.
No, what is it though?
It’s a social media platform where people connect with friends and share things.
Is it a gathering of people at night? I don’t know these modern things. I don’t even know how to use a phone like this one you are using to record me... my phone only keeps numbers.
How much do you have on you right now?
What do you mean? As we speak?
Yes, in your wallet. I want to know how much a man like you walks around with in cash.
Let me check….[fishes out a wad of cash — guesstimate Sh10,000 — held together with a silver money clip].
Money clip! Sexy!
(Laughs) Okay, this interview is over. You have enough.