How Jomo’s Caribbean buddies entered Kenya’s hall of fame
Moving around the capital Nairobi, one comes across roads and lanes with names George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Ralph Bunche and Du Bois.
They are named after four nationals of Caribbean descent who Jomo Kenyatta met and closely associated with during his stay in Europe in the 1930s to mid 1940s.
In the case of two other friends with origins in the State of Guyana, Ras Makonnen and Cecil Miller, President Jomo Kenyatta gave them Kenyan citizenship, jobs and facilitated their permanent settlement in the country, where he wanted them laid to rest when the time finally came.
How and why did the Kenyan President come to have a soft spot for the six gentlemen from the Caribbean?
We begin the story at the beginning. Jomo Kenyatta didn’t start off a politician. In his youthful days, he was a happy-go-lucky man about town with zero passion for politics.
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After all, he was one of the very few Africans with a decent and well-paying job as a water-meter reader with then Nairobi town council.
He was also the only African moving around on a personal motorbike. He also ran a successful business in Dagoretti.
His biographer, Jeremy Murray-Brown, captures the Kenyatta of those days in the following words:
“He enjoyed the jazz life of the twenties (1920s). He walked with a swagger…He could afford to lend money to European clerks in offices and offer cigarettes all around. At weekends, he and his friends danced versions of the latest European steps … and followed the rage…dressing up in clothes stocked from Birmingham.
Kinyatta Stores (his business premises in Dagoretti) became a palace of fun never before seen in Kikuyuland. Why talk of politics when wine, women and song are available?”
Kenyatta’s induction to politics would come through his buddy in the days, one James Mbuthia from Murang’a, who had anglicised his surname to James Beauttah.
The latter had close links with the budding African political movement, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA).
When elders in KCA decided to send an emissary to air their grievances in London, they settled on Beauttah, who spoke good English and had adapted to European mannerisms.
However, he politely declined, citing family commitments, but suggested a suitable alternative in young Kenyatta.
Much as he didn’t have a taste for politics as yet, the adventurous spirit in him found the chance to travel to Britain irresistible and jumped at it.
In London, Kenyatta met with the motley group that saw his quick transformation to a political agitator.
It included left-wing British politicians sympathetic to the plight of blacks, as well as an array of black activists from British colonies in the Caribbean (then called West Indies) and from Africa.
Closest among his new friends was Padmore, whose parents hailed from western African but were sold as slaves in Barbados.
It is Padmore who eventually would bring together Kenyatta with other black liberation crusaders – Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bunche and Makonnen.
Towards the tail-end of his stay in England, Makonnen would bring together Kenyatta and a youthful countryman from Guyana called Cecil Henry Ethelwood Miller, who had just been discharged as pilot with the Royal Air Force and enrolled to study law in Britain.
While Kenyatta’s relationship with his London contacts was business-like and impersonal, that between him and Makonnen acquired a personal dimension.
Makonnen was an avowed communist but, ironically, a most successful entrepreneur and perhaps the richest black in the United Kingdom (UK) at the time, running a chain of lodges and hotels in London and Manchester.
But Makonnen was also a selfless man who committed almost his entire fortune to the cause of black liberation.
Jobless in London and with support from home running dry, Kenyatta found himself living on Makonnen’s generosity.
Besides occasional handouts, the latter got a publisher to handsomely pay for Kenyatta’s published works, but also secured him temporary jobs in his own restaurants and those of his friends.
In a memoir years later, Makonnen would write of the impression he got of Kenyatta in London: “He was more obviously marked for leadership. Something natural singled him out in a crowd…who simply wanted to talk to a seasoned revolutionary.”
Something changed immediately after the end of World War 2. The British government intensified its crackdown on suspected communist elements in the UK, more so those agitating for independence of the colonies.
Among the names in the list of blacks were Kenyatta and Makonnen, who were put on the radar of the British security agents.
Aware they were on surveillance, the two resolved to avoid personal contact as much as possible, but find an “innocent” intermediary. The youthful part-time law student Miller came in handy.
Like Makonnen, Miller was born in Georgetown, the capital of then-British colony Guyana.
At the outbreak of the World War, he was enlisted in the Royal Air Force and trained as a pilot.
On discharge from the military, he was employed as welfare office at the London Commonwealth office in charge of the colonies. At the same time he enrolled for law studies.
Makonnen had introduced Miller to Kenyatta “as a young man from home who we can trust to be our safe communication line”.
Kenyatta and young Miller immediately hit it off. In his spare time, the latter would be at London’s Hyde Park listening to Kenyatta’s fiery speeches, which had become a magnet to impressionable African students in London.
From Hyde Park, Miller, a bachelor with lots of disposable income, would take Kenyatta for refreshments: buy him dinner at a favourite Chinese restaurant and wind up with a night cap before escorting him to his digs at 95 Cambridge Street.
It is Makonnen and young Miller in his capacity as welfare officer for immigrants from the colonies, working in liaison with Kenyatta’s buddy, Mbiyu Koinange, in Kenya, who quietly worked on Kenyatta’s grand return to Kenya after 17 years of stay in Europe.
The two Caribbean friends escorted Kenyatta from Manchester to London, then to Plymouth and waved him bye as he boarded the ship, Alcantara, back home.
For a take-off gift, they packed for Kenyatta a carton of revolutionary literature as donation to Kenya Teachers College in Githunguri, and gave him 1,000 British pounds as seed money to launch a political career back home.
The two Caribbean nationals would clandestinely come back to Kenyatta’s life during the Kapenguria Trial.
The prosecution side was desperate to prove a communist link in the trial and use it to scuttle the defence case by lead Kenyatta lawyer, Dennis Pritt, a world-renowned Queens Counsel suspected to be pro-communist.
Highly suspicious of Makonnen to be the London link between Kenyatta and Pritt, three agents from the British intelligence arm, M15, confronted him one morning with a search warrant to find out whether there was anything that could adversely be used on Kenyatta at the trial. They found none.
Years later, Makonnen would reckon in his memoir that British investigators found no evidence to implicate Kenyatta or his lawyer because communication between him and Team Kenyatta in Kapenguria was through “bush drum”.
The “bush drum” was the secret communication channel Makonnen and other liberation crusaders in London had opened with Kenyatta’s defence lawyers through a lawyer of Caribbean extraction who practiced in Dar es Salaam, one Dudley Thompson, and youthful Miller in London.
To avoid detection by British intelligence, Makonnen would secretly communicate with Thompson through Miller, who British security presumed “harmless” by virtue of loyal service in the military and admission as a barrister at the London Middle Temple.
In Nairobi, a youthful lawyer of Asian extraction, A.R. Kapila, was recruited as the link between lawyer Pritt in Kapenguria and Dudley Thompson in Dar es Salaam.
The “bush drum” operated by the duo of Makonnen and Miller would serve as the link between the Mau Mau and London-based black liberation movements.
At one time, the two, who had since relocated to Ghana and Nigeria, respectively, received information that Senior Chief Koinange, the father of Kenyatta’s bosom friend Mbiyu Koinange, who was in colonial detention in Baringo, was seriously ill.
But the younger Koinange, who was in self-exile in London, couldn’t return to Kenya for fear of being detained as well.
Miller, who had links with the colonial office in London, where he previously worked as welfare officer, managed to secure younger Koinange’s secret but brief return home just to see his ailing father and be back in London.
Makonnen paid for the trip. The younger Koinange flew from London to Kampala, from where he was sneaked in a police air wing plane to Kabarnet town for only 30 minutes with his father, and flown back to London via the same route.
On becoming Head of State, Kenyatta didn’t forget the two Caribbean friends and returned a hand of favour.
When a High Court was established for the new republic in 1964, Kenyatta sent for Miller, then working in Nigeria, and appointed him the first black judge in the country.
At the time, no indigenous Kenyan had practised for seven years, which was mandatory requirement for appointment as judge of the High Court.
Justice Miller would rise to be judge of the Court of Appeal and ultimately Chief Justice.
And just as his friend President Kenyatta had wished, on his death in September 1989, he was interred at his farm at Cherangany in Trans Nzoia. His son, Cecil Miller Jr, runs one of the largest law firms in Nairobi.
Makonnen, too, at the insistence of President Kenyatta, settled in Kenya and worked as a senior official in the Ministry of Tourism.
Upon his death in 1983, he was laid to rest at Lang'ata Cemetery.
Not long before his death in October 2003, I had a conversation with lawyer A.R. Kapila, who knew and closely worked with Justice Miller for many years since the days of the Kapenguria Trial.
He regretted that the former CJ is largely remembered only as a man who served at the height of the oppressive single-party Kanu regime in late 1980s, and not for much else.
He singled out a positive but secret contribution Miller made to Kenya’s liberation struggle - his reformist agenda as chairman of the Kenya Law Reform Commission and his crusading role for full Africanisation of the Kenyan judiciary, which came to pass during his tenure as CJ.
Lawyer Kapila drew parallels between CJ Miller and former US defence secretary Robert S. McNamara, who is more remembered for the folly that was the Vietnam War, but hardly as the man who saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis.
It is McNamara who advised US President J.F. Kennedy to ignore provocation by the Russians as well as counsel of his hawkish advisers, who wanted him to order direct strikes at the missile sites Russians were setting up in Cuba, but instead mount a naval blockade on the islands to give Russians the soft landing option of cancelling the operation.
It saved the world from nuclear annihilation. Nobody remembers to credit McNamara for it. Only Vietnam is remembered!
This article was published in the Nation on May 20, 2020