Mama Ngina Kenyatta Has Spoken. Now What?

Mwalimu Mati, is a lawyer and governance consultant with over 25 years of work experience in the fields of economic governance, anti-corruption, research, advocacy and publication. Mwalimu’s life mission is to empower citizens to demand accountability by sharing knowledge.


Mama Ngina Kenyatta Has Spoken. Now What?

There are national subjects that require assemblage of evidence and closure. The land settlement deals with the British and the fate of the Mau Mau are prime candidates as we continue to write the official history of Kenya as a nation. The origin of our upper economic echelons is another. So, I believe, it is healthy to discuss the Jomo Kenyatta Estate fortune empirically, without emotion, and definitely stripped of politics. 

Mama Ngina Kenyatta is mythologized as a freedom fighter and intensely criticised on social media, but at the root of her lightening-rod nature is vast wealth.  She is said to be as rich as Croesus; a huge landowner who even merited special reportage in the ICIJ Pandora Papers. Global interest In her money  is evidenced by repeated references in leading publications such as the New York Times and the New Scientist.  But, locally, Mama Ngina Kenyatta has hitherto enjoyed protected status in the mass media despite past controversies. 

Just under ten years ago, at the very last moment the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission fell apart – much like the IEBC did on 15 August 2022 – three Commissioners went public objecting strongly to surreptitious deletion of five  paragraphs of the final report’s land chapter.

The deleted paragraphs primarily concerned Kenyatta landholdings in the Coast region. One of the Commissioners, Ronald Slye, has created an entire corpus of online material related to the TJRC  but pride of place is reserved for a detailed exposition of the lengths that senior state officials went to in sanitising the Kenyatta name in the Final Report of the TJRC .

The 15 year long Jomo Kenyatta government birthed many a fortune for its supporters, hence the defensive tone adopted whenever the Kenyatta family’s personal wealth is at issue.  As Jimi Wanjigi recently told a church congregation, Kenyatta money is ‘‘a live wire” topic. Many in our upper class were, or are related to,  acolytes of the Kenyattas and they see accountability demands as heralding a purge of their own fortunes. They may well be right to fear.  We have a history of new presidencies, such as William Ruto’s, haunting the status quo as a device to gain popular legitimacy. 

Somebody’s got to lose in such times.

I’ve observed intense curiosity amongst the new generations of Kenyans as to how the rich became so. The young would like to emulate their economically successful elders. The trouble is the Kenyattas are hard pressed to explain how their fortune was arrived at outside the obvious conflicts of interests that characterized the 1960s and 1970s years of Jomo’s 15 year reign. The Ndegwa Commission of 1971 proposed laws on conflict of interest that were never enacted, indeed the report was twisted into a rationalization of the idea that it was quite in order to do business with government whilst in government – sanitizing this aberration by the confessional device of declaring one’s conflict of interest. For the next five decades, this compromise facilitated the immoral amassing of fortunes by government officials who kept winning government contracts, progenitors of the methods Deputy President Rigathi  Gachagua is today pilloried for exploiting.

The Jomo Kenyatta Estate wealth was initially land-based, or rather generated through land speculation, at a time when the president was the final word on issuance of land titles. Abuse of this role was deprecated in the Ndungu Land Report which states that “the powers vested in the President to make grants of freehold or leasehold on un-alienated government land have been grossly abused over the years both by the President and successive Commissioners of Lands”. Numerous biographies of people who worked for Jomo – including Duncan Ndegwa’s – document this phase of primitive accumulation.

Forays into financial services and communication infrastructures are rather recent and were re-investments of the super profits made from mining and land deals from the 1960s to the 1990s. Ultimately, the interest and curiosity surrounding the fabled Kenyatta wealth is based solely on the belief that it would not have been, but for the presidential career of Jomo Kenyatta, one of our country’s founding fathers. There is also the scale of the fortune to consider. Within days of his death in August 1978, the American CIA found it fit to analyse the economic stake of the family as a matter of national stability in a now declassified review.  

It will take courage to ask the hard questions, no doubt, but placed in the Kenyatta family’s shoes, I am sure it requires bravery to ponder the logical conclusion that some of what their patriarch and matriarch did, decades ago,  is indefensible in today’s world. 

Take for example the allegations of complicity in the devastating (but then legal) trade in elephant and rhino ivory documented in Appendix I of Ian Parker’s 1976 Ebur Report.  Parker was writing at the beginning of our understanding that Kenya’s elephants and rhinos could be hunted to extinction for their tusks and horns, with no benefit from ivory sales accruing to wananchi in whose names national game parks had been created. His study of customs reports around the world found that the official Kenyan ivory trade was dwarfed by an officially protected smuggling racket of massive proportions. 

For instance, the Parker report records that during the 15 year period studied, overall Hong Kong’s ivory imports from Kenya were 117% greater than Kenya’s claimed exports to Hong Kong. Apart from a list of 39 corrupt acts, nothing came of Parker’s work, except harassment by the police, abandonment by the US and British embassies, and a veil of silence drawn quickly to end the episode. 

So it is sad to see political leaders, including Raila Odinga, Martha Karua and Kalonzo Musyoka, tripping over themselves to urge Kenyans to forget and remain silent. As  Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor aptly notes, the template of silence and amnesia has worked for decades, but I fear that a new generation won’t be as readily cowed by respect or fear. They will ask questions across the board.

A British family, the Trevelyan’s, is making news for proffering reparations to the people of Grenada because their ancestors were slave owners on that Caribbean island. This is a moral gesture, not compelled by anyone.  In my humble opinion, some measure of moral reparation is necessary to allow the Kenyattas to move into the next generation without having to pretend that they can’t hear the constant whispers in society about the how of their wealth. It will forestall even more radical voices that may arise out of our depressed economic circumstances that may not stand on ceremony and take precipitate action.

Views expressed in the piece are the writer’s. The editor welcomes responses.

Share This Post

Mwalimu Mati, is a lawyer and governance consultant with over 25 years of work experience in the fields of economic governance, anti-corruption, research, advocacy and publication. Mwalimu’s life mission is to empower citizens to demand accountability by sharing knowledge.

Most Popular