INDEPENDENT KENYA’S FIRST ATTORNEY GENERAL DIES AT 102

By Ramnik Shah, retired English solicitor, legal expert on immigration and author of Empire's Child: My Writings 1967-2017

Njonjo and FamilyIn his trademark three-piece suit, a rose on his lapel, a watch strapped to his waistcoat, Sir Charles Njonjo, a man of the ruling Kikuyu ethnicity, cut the image of a colonial Englishman. It was an image he loved and assiduously cultivated.

Sir Charles Njonjo wasn’t really Sir Charles. He wasn’t knighted by the Queen of England though he could have been. But what else to call this man who was so English and so pro-European and had little respect for his fellow Kenyans. Although he was Attorney General, he cared little for constitutional niceties.

As the Attorney General Njonjo wasn’t really a member of the cabinet and only attended its meetings by invitation. But he happily went around in his official car that prominently displayed the proud emblem: Cabinet Member.

It was his closeness to independent Kenya’s first leader Jomo Kenyatta that gave him an edge in the power game. Njonjo was adept at keeping others away from Kenyatta. He antagonized a lot of us young lawyers with his unstinted support for colonial era judges and magistrates, and his disdain for young and aspiring African lawyers.  He was an authoritarian figure who brooked no opposition. 

In 1970 the newly elected President of the Law Society took us, members of the Council, on a courtesy call at the chambers of the Attorney General.  I remember the occasion as a sycophantic presentation to a figure all powerful in legal matters. 

Charles Njonjo’s wife Margaret and my wife had something in common. They had been teachers together at the prestigious Kenya High School, which is where Njonjo, who was chairman of the board of governors, had met Margaret and the two of them had hit it off.

My wife tells the story of how at a school assembly, Njonjo berated African school girls who had complained of racial discrimination at the school, in very scathing terms, using the kind of language that colonial era whites used to use against non-Europeans. 

“How dare you complain about your treatment when you are privileged to be here, and the government pays your bursaries” Njonjo told the girls.

It is remarkable that Charles Njonjo has lived to the ripe old age of 102. One imagines that through all this time he must have changed. It would be wrong to pass judgment based on what he was like in those early years.  One must admire him for his strict instruction to be cremated straight after death, without fuss or fanfare. That shows moral strength.  For him to have survived for so long in Kenya`s turbulent politics shows he was a man of character, who held his own counsel, and stood on what he thought was right. Farewell Charles.