Mama Ngina Kenyatta: Witnessing Kenya’s State Building & Political Legacy
Mama Ngina Kenyatta witnessed the remarkable transformation of the young Kenyan state from within. She will celebrate her 90th birthday on June 24, 2023.
Mama Ngina stood steadfastly by her husband’s side throughout the struggle for independence and the subsequent tumultuous years. Despite Kenyatta’s polygamous nature, it was Mama Ngina who assumed the responsibilities of the first lady.
At the tender age of 19, Ngina married Jomo Kenyatta in 1952. Around that time, Kenyatta was arrested and later imprisoned on charges related to his involvement in the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprsing. During his years abroad, particularly in England, he embraced anti-colonial and Pan-African ideals.
Upon his return to Kenya, Kenyatta became the president of the Kenya African Union (KAU) and eventually emerged as the prominent figurehead of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party that played a pivotal role in leading Kenya to independence.
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Ngina’s marriage to Kenyatta marked his fourth union. Previously he had married Grace Wahu in 1920, Edna Clark in 1942, and Grace Wanjiku in 1946.
The significance of his last marriage to Ngina was its political implications. Ngina was the daughter of Muhoho wa Gatheca, a senior chief holding a position of significant influence. This alliance secured Kenyatta’s association with an important clan, further expanding his political base.
Mama Ngina often appeared in official photographs of the early days, affectionately guiding their young children within the walls of State House. Their firstborn, Christine Wambui-Pratt, now an advocate for people with disabilities, was followed by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who went on to become Kenya’s fourth president from 2013 to 2022.
Their third child, Nyokabi Muthama, pursued a career as a businesswoman and philanthropist. Muhoho Kenyatta, the youngest and most private of the siblings, is reputed to be the driving force behind the Kenyatta family’s business empire.
Beyond her family responsibilities, Mama Ngina actively supported various Harambee projects. However, little was known about her personal life and political influence during that period.
Although not a frequent public speaker on political matters, Mama Ngina has consistently demonstrated her interest in politics. In 2022, she publicly campaigned for Raila Odinga, the preferred presidential candidate of her son, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Additionally, she sought to align herself with the Mau Mau independence struggle, seemingly aiming to counter popular sentiment against the Kenyattas among the Kikuyu community.
Following Kenyatta’s passing on August 21, 1978, Mama Ngina’s response to the news indicated her preparedness for political survival. With succession battles intensifying within the divided Kenyan political elite, Mama Ngina and her stepsons Peter Mogana and Peter Muigai discreetly informed their political allies.
According to a report from the reputable Weekly Review news magazine, one of the first individuals notified was Daniel Arap Moi, the vice-president at t he time and constitutionally the next in line to assume the presidency. The move propelled Moi into the forefront of the succession struggle despite opposition to his automatic succession.
Peter Mbiyu Koinange, a longtime comrade of Kenyatta and a prominent minister, was the second one to be informed of Mzee’s death, along with Kenyatta’s other children.
After the succession, Mama Ngina opted for a low-profile existence as she inherited a vast and continuously expanding business empire. Presently, her holdings encompass not only extensive land but also shares in diverse industries such as banking, real estate, hospitality, mining, insurance, airlines, education, energy, dairy farming, transport, and telecommunications.
According to news reports, President Moi rewarded her for her role during the political transition bu extending political support to her son.
Protector of “Our Son”
In 2013, Mama Ngina made a remarkable comeback to the heart of Kenyan politics, becoming the first woman to hold the dual roles of spouse and mother to a sitting president. The achievement seemed unlikely when Uhuru Kenyatta faced charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, stemming from the post-election violence of 2007-2008, where Uhuru and William Ruto were on opposing sides. However, with Mama Ngina’s substantial financial backing, the two formed an unexpected alliance that propelled them to power in 2013.
The planning of the alliance began in April 2011, when Mama Ngina appeared at rallies where prayers were offered for the indicted duo. The Daily Nation reported that she played a pivotal role in brokering the coalition between the two politicians. She financially supported the promotion of “our son” as a presidential candidate in the Mount Kenya region, inhabited by her own ethnic group and related tribes.
Uhuru’s ICC case was dropped in 2014, followed by Ruto’s in 2016. However, the relationship between the two eventually soured, with Ngina attributing the rift to Ruto. In her eyes, this absolved Uhuru of any blame for breaking his 2013 campaign promise to support Ruto after his own term.
Now, for the first time, Mama Ngina finds herself with little to no influence over State House affairs. Moreover, the Kenyattas are viewed as being opposed to the government, marking a departure from their previous image since independence.
The Unsettling Legacy of the Mau Mau
Recently, Mama Ngina came to the defence of the Kenyattas, who have been accused of neglecting the freedom fighters and their families, who believe they did not receive their fair share of post-independence allocations.
Mama Ngina has attempted to align herself with the Mau Mau, even claiming to have been one of the women fighters associated with the movement. There is, however, no archival evidendence to substantiate this claim, and her husband, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, denounced the Mau Mau before independence. The group remained banned throughout his presidency and the subsequent one, only being lifted in 2003.