Kariuki, J. M.

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J. M. Kariuki


Politician, activist

Decades after his assassination in 1975, J. M. Kariuki remains one of Kenya's most admired political personalities. A major figure in the struggle for his country's independence, including the violent—and violently repressed—Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, Kariuki worked closely with Jomo Kenyatta, who became independent Kenya's first president in 1963. Kariuki, meanwhile, became a member of parliament, where he soon gained a reputation for eloquence, and wrote an important book on Great Britain's repression of the Mau Mau movement. Tensions with Kenyatta soon arose, however, and many Kenyans hold the first president and his associates responsible for Kariuki's murder.

Josiah Mwangi Kariuki was born March 21, 1929, in a small village outside Nakuru, in the Rift Valley region of Kenya. His parents, Kigani and Mary Wanjuku Kariuki, were not natives of the area. In 1928 the British colonial authorities, under pressure from white farmers in need of labor, forcibly relocated a number of native families from the distant tribal region of Chinga to the Rift Valley, Kenya's agricultural heartland. The Kariukis were among these deportees, and the bitterness of their experience was to have a profound influence on their son's political development.

Once in the Rift Valley, the Kariukis settled on a small piece of land within a white farmer's holdings, providing labor for their landlord in exchange for wages. The young Kariuki's early schooling was erratic, for the family often lacked the money for school fees. In 1946, however, after winning a sizeable bet at a horse race in Nakuru, he was able to complete his high school education at King's College Budo, a well-known secondary school in Uganda. He would later study for several months at Oxford University.

At Budo, Kariuki met fellow students from across eastern Africa, many of whom had their own stories of colonial injustice to share. The single most important event in Kariuki's political awakening was undoubtedly the day he first heard Kenyatta speak, in 1946. Kenyatta, a powerful orator, had been campaigning on behalf of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, since the 1930s, principally in Europe. His return to Africa spurred the growth of the Mau Mau movement, and his arrest by the British in 1951 provoked intense anger and open rebellion in large areas of the country. In October of 1952 the British declared a state of emergency just as Kariuki was returning home from school in Uganda.

Mau Mau was a complex, secretive, and predominately Kikuyu movement that used violence, and the threat of violence, to intimidate white settlers. While just over thirty whites are known to have died at the hands of Mau Mau insurgents, roughly two thousand Kikuyu were killed for refusing to take the loyalty oath that held the movement together. Kariuki, himself a Kikuyu, immediately took the oath and began working for the movement, providing Mau Mau fighters in the field with needed supplies. In response to charges that the Mau Mau regularly extorted financial contributions from civilians, Kariuki told the BBC in an audio interview that "I was only helping those freedom fighters in the forest … with food and ammunitions."

Kariuki's activities did not escape the notice of the British authorities, and he was arrested in 1953. In one of the most notorious aspects of the rebellion, the British arrested and detained thousands of Kikuyu men—only some of whom had connections to the Mau Mau—in a network of extremely harsh and primitive camps. Kariuki would spend seven years in these camps (1953 to 1960), and his experiences would become the basis of his well-known book "Mau Mau" Detainee: The Account by a Kenya African of His Experiences in Detention Camps, 1953-60, which was published to widespread acclaim by Oxford University Press in 1963.

Kariuki's release from detention in 1960 coincided with the end of the Mau Mau movement and the beginning of the negotiated settlement that would lead to Kenya's independence three years later. Because Kenyatta was still in prison, however, a need arose for capable administrators who could consolidate his movement, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and prepare for independence. The most prominent of these new administrators was Kariuki, who obtained Kenyatta's permission to open a KANU office in the important city of Nyeri. After independence, Kariuki was elected to parliament and served as Kenyatta's personal secretary until 1969, when the two disagreed on issues of corruption. As in many other newly independent states, in Africa and elsewhere, the prospect of sudden wealth through bribery and embezzlement proved too tempting for those in new positions of power. Kenyatta and his family were increasingly implicated in scandal, and Kariuki openly expressed his dissatisfaction. He retained his government posts, however, and in 1974 won reelection to parliament as the representative for the district of Nyandarwa North. As rising oil prices and the global recession of 1973 and 1974 lowered living standards across the country, Kariuki's eloquent expressions of support for the nation's poorest citizens brought him widespread popularity at Kenyatta's expense. Kariuki became famous for saying that he did not want Kenya to be nation of "ten millionaires and ten million beggars."

On March 2, 1975, Kariuki was last seen leaving the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi in the presence of a police officer and Kenyatta's head bodyguard. His body was found, riddled with bullets, several days later. A fifteen-member parliamentary commission later issued an exhaustive report on his death, but its recommendations for further investigation were not heeded, and no one has ever been convicted of the crime.

Kariuki was not without faults. There is strong indication, for example, that he may have used one of his government positions, the chairmanship of the Betting and Lotteries Licensing Board, to enrich himself. If so, the charges of corruption he so eloquently made against others lose much of their force. There is no question, however, that he felt the problems of Kenya's poor to be his own, and that he gave voiceless, disheartened people new confidence in themselves and their nation. On the thirty-second anniversary of his death, a new political party, Chama Cha Mwananchi (CCM), was established in the slum of Korogocho. "We are launching CCM on J. M. Kariuki Day," announced the party's manifesto on its Web site, "because JM is our patron saint and CCM's only task will be to complete JM's dream of liberating the poor."

At a Glance …

Born Josiah Mwangi Kariuki on March 21, 1929, near Nakuru, Kenya; died on March 2, 1975, in Nairobi, Kenya; son of Kigoni and Mary Wanjuku Kariuki; three wives; at least two children. Religion: Protestant. Education: Attended Oxford University, 1961.

Career: Worked as a farmer, schoolteacher, and bookstore and hotel manager; held a number of government posts following Kenya's independence in 1963, including National Youth Service director, assistant minister of agriculture, assistant minister of tourism and wildlife, chair of Betting and Lotteries Licensing Board, member of parliament, and personal secretary to the president.

Selected memberships: Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, board of directors; Pyrethrum Marketing Board, board of governors; Egerton Agricultural College, board of governors.

Selected writings

"Mau Mau" Detainee: The Account by a Kenya African of His Experiences in Detention Camps, 1953-60, Oxford University Press, 1963.

J. M. Kariuki in Parliament (two volumes), edited by Kareithi Munhue, Gazelle Books Company, 1975-76.



Wandibba, Simiyu, J. M. Kariuki, East African Educational Publishers, 2004.

Widner, Jennifer A., The Rise of a Party-State in Kenya: From "Harambee!" to "Nyayo!" University of California Press, 1993.


Africa News Service, March 21, 2005.

Nation (Kenya), March 7, 2000.

Newsweek, June 16, 1975, p.35.


(Includes audio interview) "Case Study: Kenya," The Story of Africa: Independence, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/14chapter8.shtml (accessed February 24, 2008).

"CCM Launched: Speech at the Official Launch of CCM at Korogocho Football Field on 2nd March, 2007," Chama Cha Mwananchi [Social Democracy Party],http://chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com/launching-speech/ (accessed February 24, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler