18 September 2010

Kenya: Why Kitili Family Dropped Private Probe

Nairobi — When Kitili Mwendwa died in a road accident in September 1985, the then Attorney-General, Matthew Guy Muli, instituted a judicial inquest to probe the matter amid widespread suspicions of foul play.

The public hearings conducted by a Nairobi court were delayed until after the subsequent by-election occasioned by the MP's death, reportedly to give the Mwendwa family a chance to participate at the inquest.

However, unbeknown to the country, the family decided to launch a private investigation soon after the burial to find the suspected killers. They felt that the government-driven public inquest was "a mere public relations exercise which would validate a possible cover-up of the truth".

The first time

His widow, Mrs Nyiva Mwendwa, has for the first time disclosed how she hired a private detective to conduct investigations parallel to the public inquest proceedings.

"I wanted to know the truth about my husband's sudden death as all the circumstances surrounding the accident suggested foul play. Besides, it was very difficult for us as a family to reconcile with his demise," she told the Sunday Nation in an exclusive interview.

Mrs Mwendwa recalls how the late AG, a close family friend, read Kitili's eulogy at the burial and promised that the government would leave no stone unturned in unravelling the mysterious death, but she still felt compelled to seek justice through alternative means.

She says she contacted a retired senior police officer who ran a private investigations firm and gave him the onerous task of finding the identity of those she suspected to have killed her husband.

"Having lost my husband and best friend of over 20 years, it was a very difficult and trying moment for me, and I just had no faith in the public inquest," she said, adding that the private sleuth was intent on getting to the bottom of the matter.

Curiously, on the first day of the inquiry, Mrs Mwendwa's brother-in-law, Kyale Mwendwa, who had replaced her husband as MP for Kitui West, was appointed the minister for Water Resources by President Moi.

"We got the news of his appointment as Kyale, who was the first witness, took to the stand. There were mixed feelings with some people seeing it as a consolation to the Mwendwa family while others saw it as an attempt to scuttle the whole exercise," she says.

Details of how evidence gathered by the private detective sharply contrasted with the findings of the public inquest have remained a close family secret since Kenya's first African Chief Justice died 25 years ago.

However, Mrs Mwendwa's search for justice and truth was abruptly cut short when the investigator was suddenly killed in a mysterious car accident before he was done with his assignment.

The detective, the only remaining hope for the Mwendwa family to know the truth, died in circumstances similar to those in the case he was working on.

"I was scared, shocked and felt completely intimidated. The guy's sudden death was a clear warning to me that my steps were being closely monitored and I had no choice other than to give up," the former minister recalled. "When the court finalised its own probe, I was not surprised when the inquest concluded that it did not find evidence to suggest foul play in Kitili's death," she added.

Mrs Mwendwa says she decided to move on with her life and for the sake of her children forgave whoever was involved in the suspected killing but still hopes one day the truth will come out.

Viewed suspiciously

She traces the troubles her husband had with the government to the detention of leaders of the outlawed opposition party Kenya People's Party soon after the assassination of minister Tom Mboya.

"Having served under then Vice-President Jaramogi Odinga as his permanent secretary, Kitili was viewed suspiciously by Kenyatta's inner circle. They had become great friends," she explained.

After being released from detention in 1970, Mr Odinga telephoned his friend, Mr Mwendwa, and sought an appointment to see the Chief Justice.

"Kitili later learnt that his telephone line had been tapped and their planned meeting been leaked to high places when then Attorney-General Charles Njonjo warned him against hosting Jaramogi for a courtesy call in his office," she said.

According to Mrs Mwendwa, Kitili narrated to her the episode of his tapped telephone conversation with the former VP and the government's attempts to frustrate their meeting, and said he would not shy away from meeting his friend Jaramogi.

Fresh from detention, Jaramogi, then a thorn in the flesh of Kenyatta's regime, went ahead to pay the courtesy call on the CJ against the wishes of the President's inner circle.

"We even hosted the KPU leader at our Nairobi home and, though Kitili was not called to account for his open defiance, we knew that the die was cast and all manner of schemes would soon be unleashed to punish him," said Mrs Mwendwa.

She added that despite all the accusations that flew around, President Kenyatta had a soft spot for Kitili, and he respected her close friendship with First Lady Mama Ngina.

"When accepting Kitili's resignation from government, the late President regretted the turn of events and surprisingly implored him not to allow political passions to strain or break our families' bonds of affection," Mrs Mwendwa recalled.

The former Kitui West MP, who became the first female minister in Moi's administration, remembers with gratitude how Mama Ngina intervened and defended the CJ before Kenyatta when he was accused of attempting to overthrow her husband's government.

Criminal charges

This helps explain why Mr Mwendwa was allowed to resign in 1971 without criminal charges being preferred against him and why Mrs Mwendwa joined elective politics soon after in 1974 when the political atmosphere was still hostile to the family.

"Mama Ngina stood with us during our most trying moments when other friends avoided us like the plague. We've maintained our friendship to date and I have a lot of respect for her," she said.

Coincidentally, Mrs Mwendwa was with the former First Lady in Zurich, Switzerland, when Kitili died, and Mama Ngina is the one who broke the news to her after being telephoned by her daughter, Christine Kenyatta.

The two families also shared glorious moments such as the 1969 opportunity the young CJ got to swear in President Kenyatta after that year's General Election. A photo taken during the swearing-in ceremony hangs at his mausoleum.

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