When he died this week, just as Moi was being buried, Wanguhu Ng’ang’a may as well have been forgotten.
Yet, as he told me over a cup of tea, he was the one who gave Moi a copy of Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous book, The Prince, and underlined for him the specific must-dos to rise to, and retain, power.
“I think it helped him, but not the country,” Ng’ang’a, who would later become a critic of the Moi regime, told me.
Ng’ang’a had earned Moi’s friendship when the latter was Jomo Kenyatta’s minister for Home Affairs, and which included the prisons portfolio. (I will tell you why in a moment.)
He recounted to me how he and Moi would drive in the dead of night when he was acting as one of his media handlers. Wanguhu was a well-known journalist in the 60s, and was the first secretary general and founder of the Kenya Union of Journalists, then known as National Union of Kenya Journalists. Trained in Czechoslovakia, thanks to scholarships awarded by the Communist bloc to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was trying to outdo Tom Mboya’s airlifts to the US, Ng’ang’a returned to Kenya with a diploma in journalism.
Ng’ang’a was employed by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation as a sub-editor before he was in early 1965 picked by Odinga to become the deputy principal of Lumumba Institute, a Communist-bloc funded college that was to teach the lower cadres of the ruling party, Kanu. The Principal was Mathew Mutiso, a political science graduate from New Delhi University.
US ambassador William Atwood was much concerned about Lumumba Institute especially after a life-size statue of Patrice Lumumba, the face of communism in Africa, had been erected in the compound. They reached out to their Kenyan ally Tom Mboya, whom they convinced that Lumumba Institute was another “sinister” effort to topple Kenyatta.
According to the CIA, the institute was to be used as a springboard to make Kenya a Socialist state. The board of governors, selected by Mr Odinga, read like a Socialist roll-call. The chairman was Bildad Kaggia, while other members included Pio Gama Pinto, Achieng Oneko, S. Othigo Othieno, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, F. Oluande, Paul Ngei and Joseph Murumbi. Apart from Ngei and Karumba, all the others were socialist sympathisers.
I once asked Ng’ang’a whether indeed they were under the control of Mr Odinga.
He said: “Although we were all leftists, and had leftist ideologies, we were independent of Odinga and were not under the thumb of anybody.”
But before he joined the Lumumba Institute, Ng’ang’a had in 1963 organised the first union for local journalists.
With most of the newsrooms still in the hands of expatriates – and with just a handful of trained local journalists – Ng’ang’a had in November 1963 formed the National Union of Kenya Journalists to fight for the rights of local journalists. This was after he returned from the Pan-African Union of Journalists in Accra, Ghana, and after he resisted pressure from the expatriates who were members of the local chapter of National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom. Initially, Ng’ang’a wanted to register rival Kenya African National Writers Union.
It was a bold step that gave local journalists a platform to agitate for better pay.
His vision was for a “non-political, professional society” – and that is how he settled for a journalists’ union – which was finally banned in April 1967, through the machinations of Charles Njonjo – the former powerful Attorney General.
Jomo Kenyatta who, with Mr Odinga, was a trustee of the Lumumba Institute, didn’t know the fine details of Lumumba Institute and which the West saw as a communist plot to train radicals who would later stage a coup within the ruling party, Kanu.
They said it was Mr Odinga’s chance to kick out the West-leaning Kanu leaders.
Then on July 16, 1965, some 16 days after the first batch of 84 students graduated from the institute, Wanguhu Ng’ang’a staged a ‘coup’ at the Kanu headquarters, then along Nairobi’s Mfangano Street, and ostensibly “removed” the entire Kanu leadership apart from Kenyatta and Odinga.
He then installed himself as the Kanu Secretary General in place of Tom Mboya. It was the first coup within Kanu.
To what extent this was masterminded by Chinese undercover agent Wang Te Ming, who travelled on a diplomatic passport and masqueraded as a journalist, is not clear but he was one of the first people to be deported for that.
Also in the mix was a South African communist, Hosea Jaffe, a Cape Town University-trained engineer who was teaching mathematics at the Duke of Gloucester School, now Jamhuri High School. Jaffe was deported on the orders of Njoroge Mungai.
On paper, Lumumba Institute was an innocent project and as its chairman Bildad Kaggia said, its aim was to “elaborate” the spirit of harambee: “The task of national reconstruction required an institution dedicated to the inculcation of the spirit of Harambee in relation to all aspects of social, economic and political effort.”
Shortly after that coup, Charles Njonjo ordered the arrest of all the “officials” who had barricaded themselves inside the Kanu office.
It was the only case that Mr Njonjo personally prosecuted and Ng’ang’a was jailed for several years. It was while serving his prison term that Daniel arap Moi came across Ng’ang’a in prison uniform.
“Everyone knew me. It was Moi who organised for my release and we became friends,” he told me.
It was during the course of this friendship that Wanguhu gave Moi a small book, The Prince, underlining all what he needed to do.
About three years ago, Mr Njonjo invited me to his Westlands office for a chat. I had apparently written stuff on the Lumumba Institute and his attempts to stop motor vehicle thefts in the 60s.
It turned out that he wanted me to help him trace Nairobi politician Wanguhu Ng’ang’a for him – and for a reason.
Mr Njonjo, perhaps remorseful for all the toes he stepped on as a powerful AG, had been looking for some of his victims and explaining that he was only doing his job.
I called Wanguhu and we met at a parking bay outside Njonjo’s Westlands office. His eyesight was failing, though he was still the radiant, self-confident man.
I escorted him to Mr Njonjo’s boardroom overlooking Waiyaki Way and after a three-minute wait, Mr Njonjo walked in. Both had something in common: some fading memory of the 60s and 70s and I acted as the trigger, the archive.
Njonjo: “Uturaga ku, Ng’ang’a? (Where have you been, Mr Ng’ang’a).”
Ng’ang’a said he was currently engaged in farming – and Njonjo explained he also has some dairy goats in Kibichiku. Then we started the 1960s talk on Cold War politics and Njonjo would chide Mr Ng’ang’a: “You were a Communist?”
“Is that why you jailed me?” Ng’ang’a asks before both burst out in laughter.
“I was only doing my job …”
The reason Mr Njonjo had met Wanguhu was to touch base with people he had targeted. He explained that he had travelled to the Rift Valley to see the late Chelagat Mutai, a young MP that Mr Njonjo had forced into exile, together with James Orengo.
Wanguhu had just completed his epic book and he challenged Mr Njonjo to write his autobiography. “Never!” he said with some finality.
As we took coffee, Mr Ng’ang’a recounted the events of July 16, 1965 when they staged a “coup” at the Kanu headquarters, after Kenyatta and Odinga failed to hold party elections.
“You should thank me. I was the one who floated the idea of both Kenyatta and Odinga in the new line-up,” he told Mr Njonjo. All the other delegates had wanted to remove both Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga from the party, which could have thrown the country into a crisis.
“What happened to the institute’s land?” Mr Njonjo asked me.
“You are the one who allowed Mr Odinga to sell it.”
The statement seemed to surprise him.
Mr Njonjo had actually forgotten. “It was a long time ago,” he said.
As Wanguhu Ng’ang’a and his coup plotters were jailed, the Lumumba Institute was discussed in Parliament and it was ordered closed.
The Kenyatta government deported two Russian lecturers based at the institute, Alexei Zdravomyslova and Andrei Bogdanov. The two were teaching a course on ‘Principles of Socialism’.
This opened new battle lines between Jaramogi and Mboya and, after Odinga was detained following the 1969 Kisumu riots, some government officials attempted to sell the 20-acre land in Ruaraka or turn it over to the University of Nairobi.
This was the time everyone realised that the title deed was not in the institute’s name but Jaramogi’s and had been charged to the Bank of Baroda!
The Cabinet had approved the takeover of the land but they got a surprise. Odinga’s youngest son, Raila – then teaching at the University of Nairobi – wrote a letter in July 1970 instructing city lawyer, S.M. Otieno, to remind the Permanent Secretary for Education that “the plots and buildings (at Lumumba Institute) belong to (Oginga Odinga)”.
SM wrote: “My client who holds a general power of attorney from his father Odinga Odinga (sic) understands that your ministry intends to enter into and use the premises on the above two plots as residence for university students.”
Raila said he would “hold the ministry liable in damages should the intention be carried out”.
To cut a long story short, Jomo Kenyatta would later allow Odinga to sell the property after he made a personal plea to the President.
Wanguhu Ng’ang’a would later emerge in 1978 after the death of Jomo Kenyatta when he decided to run for the Gatundu seat, where he was whitewashed by Ngengi Muigai in the by-election that followed Kenyatta’s death. Mr Muigai polled 41,022, against Wanguhu Ng’ang’a’s 2,377.
He would make various attempts in Gatundu but, with the emergence of pluralism, he joined Kenneth Matiba’s Ford Asili and was one of the most vocal politicians of the early 90s.
Nga’ng’a was a radical voice and would organise press conferences at Chester House. In the 1992 elections, when Ford Asili eclipsed all the other parties in Nairobi, Ng’ang’a was the odd man out after he was beaten, nay rigged, in his bid for the Westlands seat, which was won by Kanu’s Amin Walji.
It was his best attempt to enter Parliament. In 2006, he published his book, Kenya’s Ethnic Communities but age, and shifts in politics, forced him into oblivion.
Ng’ang’a was the last of the Lumumba Institute rebels. A perfect gentleman.
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