Kenya: The Secret 1977 Gema Plot to Make Oginga Odinga Kenya’s President

On March 10, 1977 and as the Jomo Kenyatta succession hit home stretch, a plot was hatched by Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (Gema) mandarins Njenga Karume and Njoroge Mungai to bring back Kenya’s first vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga into the fold.

Had they succeeded, Jaramogi would have become the man to inherit the presidency after Jomo Kenyatta’s death.

American diplomats in Nairobi, perhaps wary of Jaramogi, watched the development keenly and reported back home. That cable is now available.

By then Odinga had gone through political humiliation, detention and economic ruin but had remained the only person who could lead a group that did not coalesce around Daniel arap Moi – the man who was favoured by a camp led by the well-tailored Charles Njonjo and the economist Mwai Kibaki.

That cable is interesting as it shows Jaramogi would have become a beneficiary of the Change-the-Constitution group, and not the Gema clique as has previously been suggested.

It is worth noting that Achieng Oneko, a key Jaramogi supporter, was conspicuously present during the Change-the-Constitution rallies.

90 days

Karume and Mungai were, by then, the faces behind the 1977 Gema-led Change-the-Constitution, whose objective was to prevent Vice President Moi from assuming the presidency for the constitutional 90 days upon Jomo Kenyatta’s death.

As Kenyatta’s physician, Mungai knew Jomo’s health was deteriorating fast. On September 26, 1976, the anti-Moi group held a rally in Nakuru where speakers derided his leadership.

The loose-tongue of this group was land broker Dickson Kihika Kimani, the chairman of the powerful Ngwataniro Mutukanio Land Buying Company Ltd and whose unschooled political emotions, absurdity and unsophisticated vision was unmatched in the 1970s.

What we know is that the meeting between Mungai and Karume was attended by key Jaramogi advisers, who included his lawyer Otieno Ambala.

They were urged to convince Jaramogi to announce his candidacy for Kanu vice-president position and take on Moi – mostly on their behalf.

Jaramogi then called a press conference on March 3, 1977 to announce his return to active politics.

The media ignored the presser and within the Moi camp, it was thought he was coming to help the Njoroge Mungai group at the national elections.


During the press conference, Jaramogi accused Kanu acting Secretary General Robert Matano and National Organising Secretary Nathan Munoko of being “tools of a small clique whose intention is to bar my participation in politics of this country.” The “clique” had Njonjo, Moi and Kibaki.

Jaramogi also lamented that his efforts to reach the president had been frustrated.

A US cable about the press conference noted that this “was a calculated move to support the Mungai group” but wondered why even the East African Standard, then under Mungai’s nephew Udi Gecaga had given the story a near-blackout.

The only reason would be, by that date, the Mungai group had not thought of Jaramogi.

The Daily Nation, then edited by Njonjo ally George Githii, did not carry the story.

It was a week after the Odinga press conference that the Mungai team met his advisers.

Details of this meeting were contained in a confidential cable authored by the US ambassador to Kenya Anthony Marshall, who had befriended Ambala in order to get intelligence reports on Jaramogi.

Ambala would later, and much to the chagrin of the Jaramogi family, befriend and marry Jaramogi’s daughter Beryl – a union that would end in domestic violence, divorce and exile in Zimbabwe.

Ruling party

The meeting between Ambala and Gema leaders, though unreported, would now explain why a Jaramogi group petitioned the High Court seeking to invalidate the 1977 Kanu grassroots election in his Siaya base and, if successful, give him a political platform in the ruling party.

“If allowed to run,” the US ambassador wrote on Jaramogi, “he will be a formidable competition for Moi than his only other announced opponent, Education minister Taita Toweett. If, in fact, Kikuyu group supports Odinga’s candidacy, Toweett may well withdraw before April 3.”

For more than a decade, Kanu had not held elections.

The December 1976 to January 1977 Kanu grassroots polls were the first since the 1966 Limuru Conference which had been staged to cut then Vice-President Jaramogi down to size and remove his supporters from the party.

Previously, and since the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) ban in 1969, Jaramogi had unsuccessfully attempted to return to Kanu.

He had been blocked by the Njonjo camp. Jaramogi was in 1975 and 1976 elected Siaya district Kanu chairman but the party headquarters and the registrar of societies, who was under Njonjo’s office, refused to ratify the elections.

How much the ailing Kenyatta knew about these camps in Kanu and how far he was manipulated is not clear. What we know is that the anticipated 1977 elections had divided the ruling party into “Kanu A”, associated with the Karume-Mungai team and “Kanu B” of Njonjo and Kibaki and which supported Moi.

US confidential cables appear to suggest that Jaramogi had the backing of Gema, which was insisting that all positions in Kanu – apart from Jomo Kenyatta’s – be contested.

But Moi did not like the Gema position and openly said “welfare organisations should serve wananchi in their areas, but should not be involved in political matters, otherwise they will be banned”.

Only Njonjo had the legal mandate to ban Gema. Moi then, must have been speaking at the behest of the powerful attorney-general.

The Njonjo camp had played its cards well and Jaramogi, once again, was been barred from contesting ostensibly by Moi-ally Matano.

This exclusion would only have helped the Moi faction. Other Moi supporters who held top positions in Kanu were his former Kadu allies Justus ole Tipis (Treasurer) and Munoko.

As such, Jaramogi had little chance. His only solace was with the Gema group, which had been contained by Njonjo.

On the other hand, Njonjo saw Gema as a threat to his plot to install Moi – whom he considered the weakest link to his rise to the presidency- and later on, most likely, dethrone him.

“Njonjo detested (Gema)… never attended (its) meetings nor did he want to see his name associated with it in any way. To my mind, Charles Njonjo was an arrogant self-conceited fellow who felt he was intellectually superior to those who were close to Kenyatta,” Karume says in his autobiography.

The 1977 Kanu grassroots elections had given the Change-the-Constitution group some new fillip after Mungai surprised the Njonjo camp by winning the Nairobi seat.

Dr Mungai, according to the plan, was to contest the post of National Chairman against Kibaki.

Matano was to face Paul Ngei or Masinde Muliro, who were members of the Change-the-Constitution group.

That way, they would manage the Kenyatta succession from within.

But the desire by Gema to have the Siaya elections nullified faced a final hitch when the High Court on March 31 rejected petitions to declare the results null and void.

Kanu elections

That way, Jaramogi’s group had been blocked from the national race and the Karume-Mungai faction had to find a new formula fast.

On April 3, as delegates assembled in Nairobi, Matano issued a statement calling off the Kanu elections.

There was no explanation but it is now speculated that either the Mungai faction sensed defeat and asked the president to intervene or that Kenyatta was ailing. No person knew Kenyatta’s health better than Mungai.

Three weeks after the collapse of the Kanu elections, a meeting was held in Oyugis on April 24, 1977 and came up with “Oyugis Declaration”.

It called on the Luo community to accept Jaramogi as its spokesman and that the Luo Union would work with Gema.

This was part of the machinations by the Mungai-Karume faction, which was trying to have Jaramogi back.

The Njonjo- Moi group was by then fronting the Isaac Omolo-Okero group, which had contained Jaramogi in Siaya since the 1969 mass detention KPU lawmakers.

The group that had emerged to rehabilitate Jaramogi had Mungai, Ngei and Muliro.

On July 13, 1977, or thereabouts, the US intelligence reported that Jaramogi had finally managed to have a meeting with Kenyatta at State House, Nakuru.

New constituency

This information was relayed to embassy officials by Peter Oloo Aringo and Onyango Midika. The two claimed the meeting was organised by Mbiyu Koinange.

Midika said Kenyatta had agreed to create a new constituency in Siaya and allow Jaramogi to run.

To cut a long story short, the elections were never held and neither Mungai, Koinange nor Karume brought back Jaramogi into national politics. Instead, the Njonjo camp managed the transition after Kenyatta died in the presence of Njonjo ally, Eliud Mahihu who called Moi and Kibaki that night.

A month after Kenyatta’s death, Njonjo surprised Parliament by claiming there was a plot to assassinate key government figures.

It was known that he was pointing the finger at those in the Gema camp that backed Jaramogi.

Worth noting is that the “Ngoroko” accusation came two days before the Kanu party elections of October 1978 and after a heated national debate on whether Jaramogi should be allowed to contest a political position.

But Moi was by then the president and slowly, he was cutting to size those in the Gema camp.

Soon, and with the help of Njonjo, he would proscribe the Luo Union and Gema – the most powerful entities that were behind Jaramogi.


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