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Kiereini: The oligarch who bestrode Kenyatta and Moi eras

Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini,
Former head of civil service and businessman Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini, who passed on at the age of 90 on tuesday, May 

Former head of civil service and businessman Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini, who passed on at the age of 90, reigned over the public and private sectors in a way that few Kenyans ever will.

At the peak of his powers during his tenure as head of civil service under the then President Daniel arap Moi, former Busia South MP Peter Okondo told Parliament that Mr Kiereini wielded so much power that he seemed like a Prime Minister yet he did not answer to the House.

When he retired from the civil service and became executive chairman of Kenya Breweries Limited, Mr Kiereni’s name became synonymous with the beer maker’s products in a reflection of his larger-than-life image. The satirist, Wahome Mutahi, in his newspaper column, Whispers, often referred to “Jeremiah’s waters”.

Kiereni found a comfortable home in the boardrooms of blue chip companies after quitting the civil service in 1984 at the age of 55.

Pioneer technocrats

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He was among a group of pioneer technocrats on whom founding President Jomo Kenyatta relied heavily to run his government, and effectively set up the civil service following the transition from colonial rule.

His peers included the likes of Duncan Ndegwa, Simeon Nyachae, the late John Michuki, the late Kenneth Matiba and the late Geoffrey Kariithi.

Kiereini served President Kenyatta as defence permanent secretary at a time when the Kenyan military had to quickly find its feet to counter the Shifta threat in the North Eastern region and occasional belligerence from Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Prior to independence, he had served in the provincial administration, rising to the post of district commissioner.

In all, he served in the civil service for over 30 years until his retirement when he retreated to private business and coffee farming.

It is his role in public service that those in power today remember him most for.

President Uhuru Kenyatta in his condolence message Tuesday said the many reforms that Kiereini initiated while at the helm of the civil service have yielded the current gains in the public sector.

“His sterling performance at the helm of the public service gave us the foundation upon which the successes we are witnessing in the sector today are anchored,” said President Kenyatta in a statement.

'Key cornerstone'

Retired President Moi described Kiereini as “a key cornerstone among the building blocks of service delivery to the people of Kenya.”

For more of the younger generation, however, the late Kiereini will be remembered more for his presence in the boardrooms of some of Kenya’s most storied companies, in which the often uncomfortable alliance between politics and business plays out.

While a good number of his contemporaries — notably Mr Matiba, Mr Michuki, Mr Nyachae and Mr Kariithi — ventured into elective politics after quitting the civil service, Mr Kiereini remained largely averse to politics and to some extent politicians.

However, he still worked with politicians as investment partners, most famously teaming up with retired president Moi in an investment vehicle called African Liaison and Consultant Services (Alico) which made a series of corporate acquisitions in the 1980s.

Others who held a stake in Alico included former attorney general Charles Njonjo, Julius Gecau (former Kenya Power CEO), the late Asian businessman P.K. Jani, Kenyatta- and Moi-era spymaster James Kanyotu and former police commissioner Ben Gethi.

In his autobiography, A Daunting Journey, Kiereini detailed how he made his first private sector investment in Unga Group (using part of his pension lump sum) on the advice of former Central Bank governor Phillip Ndegwa, whose family still controls a significant stake in the listed miller.

The well-connected elite entrenched themselves in business as they were well-placed to move in and occupy the space left by Europeans and Indians who were being edged out as a result of the 1970s indigenisation policy that was meant to loosen their grip on the economy.

Common ownership

Mr Kiereini further explained in the autobiography how he invested alongside Mr Njonjo, a long-time friend, thus explaining their common ownership in firms such as CMC and Stanbic.

As a member of the business elite, Mr Kiereini became chairman of EABL in 1988 and held onto the post for a record 24 years.

He was also on the board of auto dealer CMC Motors for 16 years until 2011 (the last 10 as chairman), and also spent 17 years on the board of CFC Stanbic Holdings (now Stanbic Holdings) before quitting in 2012.

His exit from CMC under allegations of being a beneficiary of illegal offshore payments from the auto dealer would prove a blot at the tail-end of the life of the suave civil servant and businessman.

Kiereini’s family announced Tuesday that he will be interred in a private ceremony Thursday, with a memorial service to be held at a later date.

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