Few witnessed the building of the young Kenyan state from within as did Ngina Kenyatta, the widow of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Mama Ngina, as she is known, will mark her 90th birthday on 24 June 2023. She was by her husband’s side when Kenya won independence 60 years ago and for many turbulent years thereafter. Although Kenyatta was polygamous, it was the younger Mama Ngina who took on the roles of first lady.
Ngina married Jomo Kenyatta in 1952 at the age of 19. That year, Kenyatta was arrested and subsequently jailed on charges of masterminding the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising. By then, he had spent years abroad (mainly in England), where he embraced anti-colonialist and Pan-African ideas. Back home he was elected president of Kenya African Union, before becoming the front figure of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party that would go on to lead Kenya to independence.
Kenyatta’s marriage to Ngina was his fourth. He had married Grace Wahu in 1920, Edna Clark in 1942 and Grace Wanjiku in 1946. The last marriage had political significance because Ngina was the daughter of a senior chief, Muhoho wa Gatheca, who held an administrative position of great influence. By then, Kenyatta was expanding his political base, so this marriage secured an alliance with an important clan.
Mama Ngina is to be seen in many official photographs of the early days, protectively herding their young children in State House. The first-born was Christine Wambui-Pratt, who is today an advocate for people living with disability. The second was Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who became Kenya’s fourth president (2013-2022). The third was Nyokabi Muthama, now a businesswoman and philanthropist. Muhoho Kenyatta, the reclusive last-born, is reputedly the engine of the Kenyatta family business empire.
Away from family, Mama Ngina was often involved in supporting various Harambee (community development) projects. Yet very little was known about her and in particular her political influence during this period.
She was, and still is, certainly not uninterested in politics. Though not a frequent public political speaker, she has spoken out in defence of her family. In 2022, she publicly campaigned for Uhuru Kenyatta’s preferred presidential candidate, Raila Odinga. She also sought to associate herself with the Mau Mau independence struggle in an apparent attempt to counter popular sentiment against the Kenyattas among the Kikuyu.
Kenyatta’s death and after
The way she handled the news of Kenyatta’s death on 21 August 1978 suggests she was preparing her political survival. At that time, jockeying for succession was fierce and the Kenyan political elite was profoundly divided over it. So as the Mzee (“old man”) – as he was called – died, Mama Ngina and his stepsons Peter Magana and Peter Muigai informed their political allies with great discretion.
According to a report by the authoritative Weekly Review news magazine, one of the first to be informed was Daniel Arap Moi, then vice-president and constitutionally next in line to act as president. This placed Moi in the lead of the succession battle at a time when some were opposed to his automatic succession. Only thereafter was Peter Mbiyu Koinange, Kenyatta’s long-time comrade and a prominent minister, informed, along with Kenyatta’s other children.
Mama Ngina took a low profile after the succession. She was inheriting a huge business empire which continued to expand. Today, the holdings include land as well as shares in companies in banking, real estate, hospitality, mining, insurance, airlines, education, energy, dairy farming, transport and telecommunications.
Her role during the political transition was rewarded with political support by President Moi, according to news reports.
Protecting “our son”
In 2013, the matriarch bounced back to the centre of Kenyan politics, the first woman to have been spouse and now mother of a sitting president. That would not have seemed likely when Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. The charges stemmed from the 2007-2008 post-election violence, in which Uhuru and William Ruto were on opposite sides. With Mama Ngina’s financial muscle behind them, the two formed the unlikely alliance that swept to power in 2013.
Planning began in April 2011, when Mama Ngina appeared at rallies where prayers were said for the indicted duo. According to the Daily Nation, Mama Ngina brokered the coalition between the two. She also bankrolled the promotion of “our son” for president in Mount Kenya region, inhabited by her co-ethnics and related tribes.
Uhuru’s ICC case was dropped in 2014 and Ruto’s in 2016. They soon fell out. Ngina blamed Ruto for the rift. This in her eyes meant Uhuru was not to blame for breaking his 2013 campaign promise to back Ruto after his own term.
Now, for the first time, Mama Ngina has little or no influence over proceedings in State House. What’s more, the Kenyattas are seen as anti-government for the first time since independence.
Mau Mau uneasy legacy
Mama Ngina recently came to the defence of the Kenyattas, who are accused of sidelining freedom fighters and their families. The historical grievance is that they did not benefit from post-independence allocations.
Ngina has sought to realign herself with the Mau Mau. She has claimed that she was among the Mau Mau women fighters. There is no archival evidence to support this, and her husband denounced the movement before independence. The group remained banned under his and the next presidency. It was finally lifted in 2003.
It’s more likely that in an election campaign heavy with economic empowerment promises, this claim was her way of identifying with the marginalised, on behalf of the Kenyattas’ candidate. She can be counted on to defend the family name, in good times and bad.
Anaïs Angelo, Elise Richter Fellow, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher, Universität Wien
Catheline Bosibori N, Adam Smith Fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University