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Charles Njonjo, the first Attorney General of independent Kenya, died earlier this year at the age of 101. Writers of obituary essays have rendered competing verdicts on his life. The activist John Githongo warmly remembered Njonjo as a “steadfast friend and a man of his word”. The politician Miguna Miguna, by contrast, gave a dark valedictory: “Rot in hell, Charles Njonjo”, he wrote. “You represent all the problems Kenyans want and must rid themselves of”.

Njonjo saw himself as a stalwart defender of Kenyans’ liberties. In his day, he was a prolific contributor to political conversation: his speeches from the floor of Parliament were said to be second only to Tom Mboya’s in their length. His favourite theme was the relationship between law and liberty. On one memorable occasion, he lectured parliamentarians for an hour and 45 minutes, insisting that preventative detention—the incarceration of people pre-judged as dangerous to the political order—was entirely constitutional. The legal and administrative regime that he defined and defended was meant to guard the security and prosperity of Kenya’s wealthy and entitled upper classes. It was a regime that was paranoid about dissent, scornful of the poor, and focused on the security of property. It was a regime where—in the name of the common good—many categories of people found themselves incarcerated.

That is why it is worth inquiring again into Charles Njonjo’s life. It is not to humanize a man who disregarded the humanity of so many people. It is that, in unpacking the human history behind Kenya’s political institutions, we can see—and also challenge—the logics that uphold injustice in our contemporary times.


Charles Njonjo’s father, Josiah Njonjo, was a divisional chief under Kenya’s colonial government and one of the founders of the Kikuyu Association, an early political party. He was by no means a pliable tool of British colonial policy. When in 1933 the government appointed a commission to investigate Gikuyu people’s complaints over the loss of their hereditary lands, Chief Josiah testified at length about the injustices that had attended the onset of colonial rule. British settlers had appropriated “land which was ours and on which they now plant coffee and make themselves rich at the expense of the Kikuyu owners”, he said. African farmers taking their cattle from one part of the Gikuyu reserve to another were forced to pass through European farms, risking fines and imprisonment. He asked the government to rectify the injustice:

Seeing that both we and the Europeans are children and subjects of the King, surely it is only fair that all the children should be given equal justice? We are as loyal as the Europeans and are as prepared to work for the sake of Her Majesty as the Europeans are.

Chief Josiah’s appeal was framed within the logic of conservative loyalism. He sought to level out the racial hierarchy that structured colonial Kenya’s politics, insisting that Africans, like white settlers, deserved justice from the British crown.

It is not surprising that Chief Josiah’s son would become a lawyer. In the late 1940s, Charles Njonjo was in England, studying at Exeter and the London School of Economics, where he chaired the East African Students’ Union. He applied for a post in the colonial civil service, but insisted that the terms of his employment should match those offered to Europeans. When Kenya’s government refused, an indignant Njonjo entered Gray’s Inn to study law. By the early 1950s, he was living with a young Harry Nkumbula—later a leading Zambian nationalist—in a London flat provided by the Communist Party. According to British intelligence, he was friendly with the Caribbean activist George Padmore, and was involved in Fenner Brockway’s Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism. He returned to Kenya in January 1955 to take up his first government post: as temporary Assistant Registrar General. British intelligence operatives thought him possessed of an “anti-European outlook” and “potentially very dangerous”. He was popular among African students in London because of his “personality and pleasant manners”, but capable of “cool, calculated reasoning to achieve his ends”. When he landed in Nairobi, he was found to have in his luggage a prohibited publication: George Padmore’s Africa: Britain’s Third Empire, a vituperative critique of Britain’s colonial project in Africa.

Njonjo applied for a post in the colonial civil service, but insisted that the terms of his employment should match those offered to Europeans.

Here is one way to see Charles Njonjo. Formed by his father’s conservative loyalism and by his own experiences with colonial racism, he spent his career wielding the tools of English culture and identity to demand recognition, respect, and authority from European and American brokers of power. By 1963, he was Kenya’s Attorney General, the first African to hold the post. He was famously fastidious in his manner, appearing always in a three-piece Saville Row-tailored pinstripe suit, with a watch chain looped across his waistcoat and a red carnation in his buttonhole. He complained on the floor of Kenya’s Parliament about politicians who “dressed like shamba men [garden boys]”. It was “disgraceful”, he said. He attended the ceremonies in London marking the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and told the Kenyan press that “the Magna Carta is part of our tradition, too”. He was patron of the East African Library Association, and once told an audience that “libraries are sacred spaces and librarians are very holy people”.

At a time when most African states were hastily placing Africans in the topmost positions of the civil service and the military, Njonjo insisted that British policemen, soldiers and civil servants were essential. “Should we lower our standards . . . just because a man has a black face?”, he asked. He scorned cultural nationalists’ efforts to make Swahili Kenya’s national language. Kenyans should not be ashamed of speaking English, he told parliamentarians, because it was “not an Englishman’s language but an international means of communication”. Swahili was a concoction of Arabic phrases, with an inadequate vocabulary. To speak Swahili on the floor of Parliament would “make this House like that of Babel, because nobody would understand whatever the other said”. He insisted that Kenyans should “avoid as much as possibly an attempt which would make us narrow in our outlook”.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that Njonjo was a consistent defender of Kenyan women’s liberties. He derided the nationalist impulse to calcify public culture in the name of traditional morality. In neighbouring Tanzania and in Uganda, governments were adopting laws prohibiting the wearing of miniskirts and wigs. It was, according to activists, a way of defending African women’s morals against foreign influences. Charles Njonjo derided this cultural defensiveness. When in 1966 a parliamentarian introduced a motion to bar women from wearing slacks and tights, using lipstick, or straightening their hair, Njonjo took the floor and pointed out that the mover was wearing headgear that was inconsistent with traditional attire. Women should be allowed to exercise the “right to choose their own fashions and makeup and men should not interfere”, he averred. In 1972, politicians called for a ban on lurid films from Kenya’s cinemas. Njonjo insisted that parliamentarians “must respect the intelligence of our people. Kenyans should be intelligent enough to judge for themselves”.

American diplomats found Charles Njonjo to be “svelte, dapper, articulate, informed, and totally incongruous in the black African context”. Njonjo saw himself as a legatee of the Anglophone tradition of legal and political reasoning. It was a source of moral authority, an instrument that he could wield against other Kenyans—and against Europeans and Americans, too. When the American newspaper magnate Katharine Graham—publisher of the Washington Post and Newsweek—was late for a meeting, Njonjo scolded her for her lack of punctuality, then brusquely turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

The Kenya that Njonjo sought to create was meant to be—in his words—the “greatest living example of democracy, justice and peace”. But there was no space for the poor. They were disreputable, a danger to the public good. In 1968, Njonjo pushed through a new law giving authorities the power to remove prostitutes and beggars from cities and send them to work for their parents on the land. He called beggars “lazy people who think they can enrich themselves at the expense of others”. Under Njonjo’s tenure, punishments for crimes of property were disproportionately harsh. In August 1963—a few months before Kenya’s independence—Njonjo warned “thugs” that assault and theft would be punished with “the severest sentence”, including public flogging. He insisted, “Kenya must get back to the stage where people can leave their homes and property without worry and where they will feel secure”. A few years later Njonjo again waxed nostalgic about an imaginary past, telling parliamentarians, “Kenya should go back to the old way of life where a person could leave his house unlocked and not be worried that thieves would break into it”.

Njonjo saw himself as a legatee of the Anglophone tradition of legal and political reasoning.

Here was the political theory that lay beneath the growth of Kenya’s security state. Over the course of his nearly twenty years in public service, Njonjo insisted that “a strong popular government must be ready at all times and in all circumstances to protect the security of the state and the liberties of the people”. The incarceration of dissidents, detention without trial, the expansion of prisons—all of this was, for Njonjo, a means of guaranteeing Kenyans’ freedom. The “liberty of individuals could only be protected by protecting the state”, he told parliament in 1966, while defending a new law allowing for the long-term detention of criminals. The “law means nothing if it were not to ensure liberty, but liberty could only exist when protected by law and legal process”, he said in 1971. Law and liberty “stand hand in hand, as equal partners in the fight against their common foes of anarchy and oppression”. In 1977, while defending the detention of dissidents by government, he warned, “Kenya’s freedom could disappear overnight if adequate public security was not provided”.

It was, among other things, a rationale for expanding the power of Kenya’s president. When in 1968 opposition activists pressed for the creation of a new post—a Prime Minister, who would control and advise President Kenyatta—Njonjo called the proposal “misconceived, meaningless and pitiful”. Eight years later, Njonjo warned Kenyans that it was a “criminal offence” for anyone to “compass, imagine, devise, or intend the death or deposition of the President”. The mandatory sentence for any such offence was death.

A great many people lost their lives and their freedom in those years. A great many people spent years in prison as a guarantee for the security and liberty of Kenya’s rich and propertied classes. Some of the detainees were well known. Raila Odinga—now a leading contender in Kenya’s presidential elections—was detained from 1983 to 1988, from 1988 to 1989, and from 1990 to 1991. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. Martin Shikuku, Kenya’s most consistent parliamentary critic of government corruption, spent three years in prison. The famous novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was detained in December 1977 for “activities and utterances which are dangerous to the good government of Kenya”. Other people suffered anonymously. They were caught up in a carceral system that was geared to the punishment and confinement of the poor. When in 1969 Kenya’s courts sentenced a 19-year-old man to ten years in prison for snatching a bag from a pedestrian, Attorney General Njonjo defended the sentence, arguing, “Young offenders who commit cold and calculated crimes deserve severe and long term punishments”.

That, then, is another way to see the late Njonjo: as a ruthless defender of entrenched inequality, an architect of a legal and political system that advantaged the wealthy and criminalized the lives of the poor. In the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans had been tried and convicted of offenses committed during the course of the anti-colonial Mau Mau insurgency. After independence, many Kenyans expected—naturally—that their records would be wiped clear, that the new government would ignore or vacate convictions given under colonial jurisdiction. For Attorney General Njonjo there were no clean slates. He promised that “previous convictions of a political nature incurred by people in the fight for independence” would be ignored by independent Kenya’s magistrates. But earlier convictions were, however, always admissible as evidence in a court proceeding. “Theft under the colonial Government is still theft today”, he said.

The most cutting criticism of Charles Njonjo’s life came from the novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose satirical novel Matigari ma Njirũũngi was published—in the Gikuyu language—in 1986, six years after his release from detention. The novel features Matigari, a Mau Mau warrior who comes out of the forest to confront the injustices of post-colonial Kenya. In a pivotal scene the “Minister of Truth and Justice”—clad in a pinstripe suit, with a red carnation on the lapel and a white handkerchief in the breast pocket—confronts a restive crowd of workers and students. Having already arrested and detained their leaders, the Minister assures them that “without the rule of law—truth and justice—there is no government, no nation, no civilization”. There follows a self-revealing sermon about the law:

Niĩ ngĩrĩire wathoinĩ, ngarũmio na ngarũmia watho, ngathoomithio na ngoomithio watho, na ũmũũthĩ ũyũ nĩ niĩ mũigi, mũigĩrĩri, na mũgitĩri watho.

I was brought up in the law. I abide by the law, and the law abides in me. I have been taught the law, and I staunchly believe in it. I am the guardian of the law today. I make the law, and I ensure that it is kept.

In the Gikuyu original, the Minister mashes up the different functions of legal practice. The words slide together. There is no space, grammatically or vocabularically, for judicial independence. There is no separation of powers, no function of the law that is distinguishable from the person of the Minister himself. Ngugi’s satire reveals Charles Njonjo’s definition of the law to be tautologically self-interested, self-defining, and self-elevating.

Njonjo’s downfall, when it came, was swift. On 1 July 1983, he announced that he was resigning his position as Minister for Constitutional Affairs. He was accused of scheming, in the company of Kenya Air Force men, to oust President Daniel arap Moi. President Moi appointed a Commission of Inquiry to go into Njonjo’s affairs, and over the course of 109 days, Kenyans were transfixed as a parade of witnesses opened up Njonjo’s dirty laundry for public inspection. On average Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, dedicated six and a half pages per day to the hearings; and over the course of several months the newspaper published over a million words about Charles Njonjo’s private life. Sales rose dramatically: where the newspaper had been selling 150,000 copies per day, during the Njonjo inquiry it sold 200,000 copies.

Njonjo warned Kenyans that it was a “criminal offence” for anyone to “compass, imagine, devise, or intend the death or deposition of the President”.

Much of the evidence seems to have been introduced with the sole purpose of embarrassing Njonjo. The panel spent several days in January 1984 discussing the excess baggage that Njonjo shipped from London to Kenya on Kenya Airways. The baggage—which arrived in the airport every few weeks—weighed 240 kilograms on average. There were suitcases and boxes full of oranges, clothing and toys. There were regular shipments of Ribena. Njonjo never paid customs duties on any of it; neither did he pay the shipping costs to Kenya Airways. Four months later the panel listened to witnesses describe how Njonjo had funnelled money from the Association of the Disabled in Kenya to support the Kikuyu Constituency Development Fund. “Njonjo Diverted Disabled’s Money” was the newspaper headline.

There was more serious evidence too. Witnesses described how Njonjo had made plans with mercenaries from Israel and South Africa, planning a coup timed for early August 1982. Based on this and other evidence the judges ruled—in December 1984—that Charles Njonjo had set in motion “intrigues deliberately designed to undermine the position of the Head of State, his image, as well as usurp the power of the constitutionally established government”. President Moi pardoned him on the very day the verdict was announced. Njonjo duly repaid the funds that had been usurped from the Association of the Disabled, and thereafter he largely disappeared from public life.

The political and legal system that Njonjo built, however, has endured. In a recent article, the journalist Patrick Gathara has argued that contemporary Kenya’s prisons “carry the DNA of their forebears”. Today over 50,000 people are detained in Kenya’s prisons, crowded into buildings that are meant to house 14,000 at most. According to a 2015 report, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens than any other country in eastern Africa, outside Rwanda and Ethiopia. Today Kenya’s elite lives behind barbed wire fences, while—under the guise of counter-terrorism—Kenya’s police target poor and marginal residents of Nairobi. As Gathara argues, this is a legacy of colonial government. It is also a legacy of Charles Njonjo. In working to protect Kenyans’ liberties, he made the incarceration and punishment of the poor seem to be a moral necessity.