In Summary
  • Kenyatta had known Murumbi’s organisational skills since the Second Lancaster talks in London, when he managed all the delegates’ appointments and did all the typing required.
  • Murumbi was at a loss as to why Kenyatta had allowed the two to lay siege to the Kanu party and wondered why Kenyatta was failing to intervene.

Despite all the historical bravado that Jomo Kenyatta had inherited a strong and well-organised party, Kanu, some new archival evidence indicates that there was general panic within the party, with insiders worried that Kanu could lose the May 1963 elections.

Political parties have a way of displaying their pseudo unity in public, but at the headquarters they are usually small Towers of Babel.

Let me illustrate with three letters found in Jomo Kenyatta’s personal file.

In January 1963, Mr Kenyatta appointed Joseph Murumbi as Kanu national treasurer and asked him to reorganise the headquarters, which was torn between the Tom Mboya and the Oginga Odinga camps.

Of all things said about Murumbi, nobody could doubt his integrity.

One of the few politicians who could tell Kenyatta off, he took this assignment with a lot of gusto and wrote a report that suggested the lines along which he wished the headquarters could be organised.

He included the estimated cost and handed the report to Kenyatta, who was then eyeing the position of prime minister.


Kenyatta had known Murumbi’s organisational skills since the Second Lancaster talks in London, when he managed all the delegates’ appointments and did all the typing required. He also replied to letters on Kenyatta’s behalf.

It was one incident, now recounted in Karen Rothmyer’s book on Murumbi, that earned him Kenyatta’s trust.

“One day, Mzee had his drawer full of letters which hadn’t been answered. He asked me to take them all out and see what answers I could give. I took all the papers out and I found two bundles of notes, one of them £5 notes. I didn’t know what the amount was but I said, ‘Mzee this money was left in the drawer.’ ‘Oh yes,’ said, ‘I’ve been looking for this money, I didn’t know where it was’.”

Although Murumbi was more of a socialist, this was the beginning of a journey of trust that later culminated in his appointment as vice-president.

Back at the Kanu headquarters, if Murumbi had expected Mboya and Odinga, the two men running the show, to approve the money required to reinvigorate the party, he was shocked.

It now appears that the two did not want Murumbi to politically upstage them and that is when they began to sabotage the party from within.


Murumbi, who easily got fed up, decided to report them to Kenyatta.

“To date,” he wrote to Kenyatta in a secret note dated February 13, 1963, “I have not received a penny for reorganisation… I sincerely appreciate the confidence you have in me and it was my intention to do all in my power to see that the headquarters functioned efficiently.”

But it appears that Murumbi had underestimated the row between Mboya and Odinga and he was caught in between.

He was also at a loss as to why Kenyatta had allowed the two to lay siege to the Kanu party and wondered why Kenyatta was failing to intervene.

In his letter, he told Jomo: “I am really disappointed with you personally and with the (Kanu) Vice-President (Mr Odinga) and Mr Mboya as you all exhibit no desire, particularly when we are faced with an election, to see that the headquarters functioned efficiently.”

He went on: “Yesterday, I met Mr Odinga and asked him whether any funds had been allocated to the headquarters. He told me he had written a note to Mr Mboya and I should find out from Mr Mwangi as to the former’s reply.”


It is not clear which Mwangi Murumbi was referring to, but one of the Kanu insiders then was Mwangi wa Thayu, a youth winger who later became the Kangema MP.

When Mboya was asked about the money, he told Murumbi that he had settled the telephone bill “and I should see to it that the telephones (are) installed”.

But Murumbi was not asking for petty cash, rather he wanted money to help invigorate the party headquarters and scatter the Mboya and Odinga camps.

He then managed to meet Mboya and he was shocked by his reaction: “He sneered at me when I mentioned funds for re-organisation,” Murumbi told Kenyatta.

“I am afraid that if the top officials of the party are so lukewarm in their attitude towards party organisation, it is fruitless for me to merely sit in an empty office and be expected to perform miracles.”

Kenyatta had apparently asked Murumbi to order what was required for the head office with a promise that he would see that payment was made later on.

Murumbi thought about the matter and decided to ignore Jomo and told him as much.

“I know from experience how difficult it will be to get the three top officials of the party (Kenyatta, Odinga and Mboya) to later agree to the payment of outstanding bills. Secondly, I do not want to start my work in headquarters by piling up bills.

Thirdly, as you are well aware the reputation of Kanu is pretty low, both in Nairobi and elsewhere, with regard to the non-payment of bills and it is almost impossible to get credit facilities from merchants.”


It is true that Kanu was notorious for non-payment of rent, water and electricity bills – bad manners that would emerge when it took charge of the government.

And then came the shocker: “In the circumstances, I regret to inform you that I wish to resign from the two appointments. I take great interest in my work and feel that I can make no contribution towards assisting the party if funds, which I know exist in various accounts, are not forthcoming for the good of the party.”

And before he went, he reminded Mzee Kenyatta how he was being short-changed in the election by his own people, who were sponsoring their own candidates for the 1963 elections.

“I know of individuals who are spending large amounts of money from their personal accounts to sponsor their own candidates. This is being done for obvious reasons,” he told Kenyatta.

It now appears that Kenyatta had been informed about these happenings but did nothing.

“You have been informed of these reasons, which are intended to undermine your authority. In spite of this, you appear to be totally oblivious to the realities of the situation,” Murumbi said.

Why Kenyatta was trying to play safe is not clear, but it appears that he did not want to take on the two most powerful politicians – Mboya and Odinga – who were plotting their survival in a post-Kenyatta era.


Kenyatta knew that Mboya was a workhorse and, some months earlier, Mboya had told him that in order to win the elections, “Kanu must approach this on a businesslike basis with 100 per cent.

I feel that we should begin to have a research committee that will be responsible for the drafting of Kanu election documents and compiling together such points as we consider are going to be used in the election campaign.”

Whether it was as a result of this that Kenyatta appointed Murumbi to reorganise the headquarters is not clear.

Also, why he did not entrust this to either Mboya or Odinga is also not known. But reading through Mboya’s letter to Kenyatta, it is clear that he wanted to come up with some party rules and he wanted Kenyatta to append his signature to them.

“I suggest that it would be very useful for the party if very soon you could put out a paper under your signature, laying out the rules that will govern Kanu’s nomination of candidates and the instructions that will be given to all Kanu branches.

This will eliminate one source of misunderstanding and fear that seems to reign in the party at the moment, as various people begin to put out feelers to find out whether they will be candidates or not… if you will allow me, I could, perhaps produce a draft on the kind of thing I have in mind for your approval.”


Postscript: Kanu went on to win the polls and Murumbi was appointed independent Kenya’s first minister for Foreign Affairs.

But Mboya and Odinga continued with their supremacy wars, which led to the 1966 resignation of Odinga and his defection to the Kenya People’s Union.

Murumbi replaced Odinga as vice-president only to resign after nine months. @johnkamau1