Kenya: How Odinga Sold ‘Communist School’

By John Kamau

Sometime last year, former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo invited me for a cup of coffee at his Westland’s office. It turned out that he wanted me to trace Nairobi politician Wanguhu Ng’ang’a for him — and for a reason.

I had written a piece about Mr Ng’ang’a and how he was jailed for several years in the only known case that Mr Njonjo personally prosecuted.

Ng’ang’a’s crime: Staging an abortive coup within Kanu. It appeared that Mr Njonjo, now 96, was regularly meeting people he thought he had wronged in his career.

Mr Ng’ang’a’s eyesight was failing him, and had insisted that I escort him and we were back to Mr Njonjo’s where we sat at the huge boardroom overlooking Waiyaki Way. Both Mr Njonjo and Mr Ng’ang’a exhibited one thing in common — fading memory of the 60s.

“You were a communist,” Njonjo told Ng’ang’a as a matter of fact.

“Is that why you had me jailed?” Ng’ang’a asked, displaying no anger.

“I was doing my work,” Njonjo responded courteously and both burst out in laughter.

Tea and biscuits were brought.

“Have some,” Njonjo offered Mr Ng’ang’a.

“No, I am diabetic… “

The debate veered back to the problematic 60s and Mr Njonjo recounted how Communists once donated Soviet-era, World War II tanks to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who had naively accepted them. “They were second-hand and massive. We went to see them with Dr (Njoroge) Mungai and rejected them on the spot,” he said.

While James Nyamweya, then minister of State, told Parliament that the government rejected the offer because the tanks were old, Njonjo said the tanks “could not pass on any Kenyan bridge”.

COMMUNIST PENETRATION

But he had much more fear of the Communist penetration into Kenya — within the military and the ruling party Kanu where an attempted takeover of the party had been planned via a Communist school set up in Ruaraka, Nairobi.

Mr Ng’ang’a, a journalist trained in Communist Yugoslavia, was the deputy principal of the school and was central to the planning before Mr Njonjo stopped them. Known as Lumumba Institute, the school dominated the 1960s politics than any other Kenyan institution. It was here that Tom Mboya and Jaramogi fell out after the US ambassador informed Mr Mboya about the clandestine aims of the institute.

Although President Jomo Kenyatta was the only other trustee of the institute besides Jaramogi, Kenyatta was unaware that the institute was part of a communist plot to train radicals who would later stage a coup within Kanu, to replace West-leaning politicians with a new group led by Odinga.

As we took coffee, Mr Ng’ang’a recounted the events of July 16, 1965 when they staged a “coup” at the Kanu headquarters, then at Nairobi’s Mfangano street, and overthrew the entire party leadership apart from Kenyatta and Odinga for failing to hold 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. Apparently, Mr Ng’ang’a had been “elected” the new Kanu secretary general replacing Mboya.

“What happened to the institute land?” Mr Njonjo asked.

“You are the one who allowed Odinga to sell it,” I seemed to surprise him.

“Really… .?”

Mr Njonjo had actually forgotten.

“It was a long time ago,” he said.

To end the Communist threat in Nairobi, 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”. It also deported a Chinese undercover agent, Wang Te Ming, who travelled on a diplomatic passport and masqueraded as a journalist in Nairobi.

The closure of the institute became a political power keg between Jaramogi and Mboya — two political titans who never saw eye-to-eye as their battle for supremacy was pegged on West-East alliances. With the detention of Jaramogi after the 1969 Kisumu riots, when Kenyatta’s motorcade was stoned, 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!

While the Cabinet had approved the takeover, Mr 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 will “hold the ministry liable in damages should the intention be carried out.”

By this time Njonjo and the Commissioner of Lands, Mr J. A. O’loughlin, were trying to sort out the legal puzzle and how to seize the property from Odinga without raising much dust — and perhaps compensate him.

The Kisumu riots changed the scenario. On Tuesday, June 23, 1970 Kenyatta called a meeting of ministers and assistant ministers at State House and it was decided that the property should be seized and given to the University of Nairobi.

According to correspondence by Geoffrey Kariithi, the powerful PS office of the President and Head of Civil Service “the property should be used for public purpose and there should be no compensation to anybody”.

KENYATTA NEVER QUESTIONED

Kariithi was one of the civil servants that Kenyatta never questioned. During the State House meeting Kenyatta was informed that the university had taken a lower number of students than expected. According to Cabinet records, “the ministers were of the opinion that the main problem is accommodation in hostels rather than lecture rooms.”

In a letter to Education PS Peter Gachathi by Mr Kariithi, but signed by Mr Paul Kihara, an undersecretary, Mr Gachathi was informed that the Cabinet had agreed to turn the institute into university hostels. Kihara, who later became Naivasha MP, copied his letter to Mr Njonjo and Simon Gathiuni, the acting permanent secretary for Lands.

Mr Gathiuni, who knew that the title was in Odinga’s name, thought he was being asked to make a compulsory acquisition. In a June 29, 1970 letter he sought to advise the Commissioner of Lands: “No proceedings for the compulsory acquisition should be taken before all the possibilities of purchasing on willing-seller-willing-buyer have been exhausted.”

War broke out at Harambee House when Kariithi saw the letter: “I have just seen your letter of June 29, 1970. You probably do not understand the history of the Lumumba Institute in view of your last paragraph… the government is not willing to buy this property because it is a public property, not private.

The money was donated by a friendly foreign country. The recipients were the leading nationalists in this country but because independence had not been given, the money had to be given to a certain individual. It was not his money. The trustees now include His Excellency the President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta; a few others are in detention. The property cannot therefore be bought from individuals who did not own the money”.

“The intention of His Excellency the President is that this property should now be used for a public purpose and there is no compensation to anybody. I would like you to show the Commissioner of Lands this letter to see how the legal complications can be gone round.”

Mr Njonjo’s office had studied the Lumumba files some three years back and he told Mr Kariithi that unless the Lumumba Institute Trust deed was “varied by an Act of Parliament” they had to compensate Jaramogi.

The next day, the Commissioner of Lands, Mr O’Loughlin, sent a senior valuation officer, L. M. Padya, to inspect Lumumba Institute records. It was he who discovered that Odinga had mortgaged the property. Mr O’Loughlin informed the Lands PS that they had carried out a valuation on the property and suggested that an outright purchase of the property starts. That was against Mr Kariithi’s wish.

The PS was informed that “although Odinga is the registered owner of the property I have reason to believe that many of the buildings were put up with funds subscribed for that purpose by the public or other bodies and it may well be prudent before taking a final decision in this matter to consult the registrar of titles and attorney general… “

It was this time that Raila got wind of what the ministry of Education was planning and asked S.M. Otieno to intervene.

I asked Mr Njonjo about Mr O’Loughlin. “Oh, he was a thorough man.”

Three years later, Raila approached the law firm of Hamilton Harrison and Mathews seeking to dispose the property to World Evangelism to start a teachers training college. What would have been an outright sale turned out to be a frustrating saga.

On receiving the letter the Commissioner of Lands wrote on March 7, 1973 to PS ministry of Lands: “This matter is complicated… I should be grateful if you would inform me whether the government wishes to take any particular action in this matter or whether the application of Odinga should be treated on its merits disregarding the previous history of the two plots and whether any public funds may have been spent on the erection of the building’s on Odinga’s land, which I assume only the Trustees of the Lumumba Institute would be in a position to determine”.

The PS handed this letter on March 9 to Jackson Angaine, the minister for Lands, and scribbled at the bottom: “May I please know whether Odinga should be left free to sell the property — Lumumba Institute?”

O’Loughlin knew that “according to the title, the government’s approval is not required and that if the transfer was presented for registration in my view the principal registrar of titles would be obliged to register it”.

The problem was that the properties were built with funds donated to Kanu. Mr Njonjo was being pushed to change the law to allow the take-over of Lumumba Institute.

ACCOMODATE STUDENTS

In August 1970, Mr Njonjo discussed the matter with Mr Kariithi and the two agreed that “it would not be possible to carry out the Cabinet decision” to accommodate students at the Lumumba Institute. Njonjo informed Kariithi in a letter that it was “uneconomic and impolitic to attempt to make any use of this institute. It is of little or no value to the Government, and the probable cost in money and political mischief, in my opinion brings us to the conclusion that we would be better advised to leave the place alone…”

“It has always been my fear that the institute was built with some of Odinga’s money (not necessarily very much), with 11,000 pounds of the Bank of Baroda’s money, and with other monies coming from other (probably foreign) sources”, Njonjo informed Kariithi.

Njonjo feared that “if these assertions are made by witnesses for Odinga, I have no means of refuting them… after weighing all the factors we should let sleeping dogs lie… “

On August 29, 1970, Kariithi wrote to Njonjo: “I have already agreed with Peter Gachathi that the university students should be found accommodation elsewhere… I thereforefore feel that we should now forget the institute for any purpose of development.”

Kenyatta finally gave way in 1970. By then, Odinga was almost bankrupt. Then, out of the blues, Kenyatta made an about-turn and stopped the sale.

On September 12, 1973, Jaramogi wrote to Kenyatta pleading with him. By this time, Bank of Baroda was demanding Sh403,914 from Odinga and threatening to auction the land. Odinga found himself on the verge of bankruptcy and he wrote to Angaine on August 18, 1975, saying time was not on his side.

“I am therefore appealing to you… to help me get out of this unwanted and undesirable problem,” Odinga wrote.

On September 10, 1975, the Odinga family was allowed to sell the property albeit with conditions contained in a letter from Angaine which read thus: “If there is any public or Kanu funds involved in the purchase or maintenance of the property, this must be recovered and Odinga (let to) retain the balance.” There are no records on whether Kanu got any money. Today, the former institute is Ruaraka’s Pan African University.

Source: All Africa