The fallout between Kenyatta and Ngei was about secret love letters that Ngei used to write to Kenyatta’s eldest daughter, Margaret Wambui.
By current standards, the 1965 maize scandal was equivalent to the current National Youth Service (NYS) scandal or Anglo-Leasing.
Ngei was part of a maize syndicate operating in the country and he was its leader.
Ngei took more loans from commercial banks and never repaid.
By the time he died in 2004 and in penury, veteran politician Paul Ngei was a dejected man.
His was a classic from grace to grass fall; an awful dramatic tumble.
At the gates of Parliament, Ngei, whose legs had been amputated as a result of a troubling diabetes condition, would at times sit for hours confined to his manual wheelchair looking for help from his fellow politicians.
At best, they would ignore the bankrupt and ailing politician and, at worst, they would easily roll-up their windows and drive past.
In the evening, he would be driven back to his Garden Estate house, left bare by auctioneers who had squeezed out the last of his possessions.
On Thursday, on the occasion of Mashujaa Day, President Kenyatta unveiled a statue of Ngei in Machakos – perhaps to solidify his place as a national hero.
It was ironic because archival records indicate that Ngei was the man who used to bully the elder Kenyatta while in prison, accusing him of being a “thief and had been nothing but an agriculture labourer in England.”
He also made sure the other Kapenguria prisoners isolated Kenyatta, who later sunk into depression, according to Leslie Whitehouse, the man in charge of the jail, and who befriended Kenyatta.
The falling-out between Kenyatta and Ngei, according to Kenyatta’s biographer Jeremy Murray-Brown, was about secret love letters that Ngei used to write to Kenyatta’s eldest daughter, Margaret Wambui, who was Jomo’s confidante in the years he was in jail.
Once Kenyatta discovered the love affair, he confronted Ngei – then in his thirties.
Interestingly, some sources say, Wambui was of much influence later in Ngei’s appointment into Kenyatta’s Cabinet and survival.
But was Ngei a national hero or one of the politicians who epitomised corruption of the Kenyatta-I regime?
Only history will judge.
But here is a man who once walked into a showroom, drove away a brand-new Mercedes Benz and refused to pay for it.
We shall come to that later.
CHOSE WEALTH AND VANITY
Boisterous and crafty in his halcyon years, Ngei is a case-study of the evolution of freedom fighters who chose wealth and vanity in place of people empowerment and economic growth.
Having looked at the records of the Ministry of Lands and Settlement in the 1960s and 70s, the only politician who did not participate in the land grabbing spree and scramble for wealth was Bildad Kaggia, who was the only politician who protested as early as June 1963 about the allocation of land to Kenyatta’s henchmen.
All the other modern-day heroes — and the records are there at the archives to confirm — took advantage of the Land Bank and the Settlement Fund Trustee to get huge tracts of land starting with Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mbiyu Koinange, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, JM Kariuki, Paul Ngei — an endless list of what went wrong.
Ngei secured for himself a 3,000 hectare ranch and several plots in Nairobi.
But Ngei was in a class of his own.
He is said to have called Kaggia, who had fallen into poverty after he opposed the land grabbing spree, and told him: “Why do you live in poverty when you fought for freedom in this country?
“Today I give you permission to get into this farm here (Thika’s Del Monte farm). Allocate yourself as many acres as you want. If anybody asks you a question, tell them to go and see Ngei at Ardhi House. I will sort them out for you.”
Kaggia didn’t and continued with his humble life in Nairobi’s Eastlands – surrounded by heaps of newspapers and books.
FIRST MAJOR SCANDAL
It was not long before the first major scandal of the Kenyatta government involving a Cabinet minister broke.
It was about Ngei.
By current standards, the 1965 maize scandal was equivalent to the current National Youth Service (NYS) scandal or Anglo Leasing.
Ngei was by then the Minister for Co-operatives and Marketing, and the maize marketing docket was under this ministry.
The story starts during the crop year of 1961/62 when Ngei, who had just finished his sentence over Mau Mau links, was appointed a member of the Maize Marketing Board.
Kenya was by this time on the road to independence.
By October 1965, he had been appointed the board’s chairman and appointed a Cabinet minister.
This was a lucrative ministry and Kenya was going through a debilitating maize shortage.
As Kenyatta’s prison mate and one of the celebrated Kapenguria Six, Ngei had mixed his superior status with ego and some bits of hubris.
The country was by that time importing thousands of tonnes of yellow maize from the US to ease the 250,000 bags shortage.
Part of the problem was that Kenya had exported its maize to Japan at a time when Ngei was the chairman of the Maize Marketing Board.
When he was challenged in Parliament about it, he accused MP J D Kali of being “ignorant”, arguing that “negotiations had been made to ship maize to Japan before I took over the chairmanship of the Maize Board.”
What Ngei did not say was that he had been a member of that board — although everyone knew.
“It cannot be said truly that the export of surplus maize to Japan created the current shortage of maize in Kenya.
“The surplus maize was exported because no shortage was foreseen at the time and the cost of holding maize in Kenya stores for long periods would probably have been very high.”
It was a lie.
Ngei was part of a maize syndicate operating in the country and he was its leader.
MAIZE RESERVES DEPLETED
They had depleted the country of its maize reserves through the Maize Marketing Board, the predecessor to the National Cereals and Produce Board.
This shortage led to a national uproar; after all Kenya had always had excess production.
As a result, Kenyatta appointed his first commission of inquiry to probe corruption in Ngei’s ministry and at the Maize Marketing Board.
It was headed by Justice Chanan Singh, another pre-independence freedom fighter and lawyer.
It emerged that during his tenure as chairman of the board, Ngei had appointed his second wife as “personal secretary to the Chairman” and when challenged by the Commission of Inquiry whether that was the case, Ngei refused to answer that particular question.
But there was already evidence that on October 23, 1963, Ngei had made the appointment and given her an annual salary of £660.
While there was no law prohibiting his wife’s appointment, the commission said “it does not seem desirable nor wise that she should be given employment in the office of her own husband”.“We think it would be a good rule to follow that if the wives of influential politicians and highly placed civil servants seek employment, they must not do so in the offices of their husbands and must seek it elsewhere … we think Mr Ngei acted unwisely”.
But a bigger scandal was waiting.
At Tala Market in his Kangundo Constituency, Ngei’s first wife Emma was running a family maize milling business that they had purchased for Sh10,000 from Machinery Services Limited in May 1962 – just about the time Ngei had joined the Maize Marketing Board.
Initially, he had bought this business as “Paul Ngei and Partners Limited” and he was supposed to pay the owners in instalments.
But after paying a deposit of Sh2,000 and four monthly instalments of Sh668, Ngei defaulted or rather, according to him, the company defaulted.
Ngei took advantage of the hire-purchase law and in April 1963, he personally entered into a new hire-purchase agreement with Machinery Services Limited promising to pay the balance that he and his partners had not paid.
As he would claim before the quasi-judicial commission of inquiry investigating him for corruption, his wife Emma had given him the money to pay the balance and since Machinery Services Limited had repossessed the mill after the default, he saw no need to refund his partners their initial contribution.
CONNED HIS PARTNERS
In effect, he conned his partners and ended up with the mill.
How do we know that?
On June 25, 1963, when Ngei was a board member of the Maize Marketing Board, he applied for the registration of Uhuru Millers.
He signed the forms and indicated that his co-director was Emma P Ngei.
Actually, the miller registration certificate No 169 was made under Ngei’s name.
The following day, he used his office to get a very crucial certificate: Authority to Issue Movement Permits.
This was granted to him and his wife, meaning they could authorise movement of maize and maize products within 30 miles radius of Tala Market free of any restriction.
By then all maize had to be purchased from the board and any maize received from outside at a cheaper price, the price differential had to be paid to the board.
Though there was evidence Ngei would use his permits to allow his Uhuru Millers to purchase and transport maize this way, he refused to admit any mistake and told the commission of inquiry “to bring the FBI in for investigation to prove that we have ever bought maize.”
That was vintage Ngei.
He had also managed to have his wife appointed an agent of Maize Marketing Board through her Emma Stores — the major supplier of maize in Eastern Province.
Since Emma was also the proprietor of Uhuru Millers, it was becoming very hard for sub-agents to get maize from her.
Even the Machakos District Commissioner Isaiah Cheluget found it difficult in dealing with stores owned by a Cabinet minister.
A local MP, W M K Malu — who once had a physical fight with Ngei — told the inquiry that Eastern Provincial Commissioner “expressed the same feeling that it isn’t very easy for a PC to deal with a store belonging to a minister.”
Traders in Kangundo, for instance, were not allowed to get supplies from Nairobi, yet Emma Stores could not sell to them at wholesale price and they had nowhere to report.
A meeting called on September 13, 1965 between the various traders, the PC and Emma Ngei had agreed that the weekly supply of 2,000 bags should be divided between Emma Stores (1,000 bags) and other traders take the balance.
Mrs Ngei later reneged and continued to receive the 2,000 bags and sell at retail price.
UNABLE TO DO ANYTHING
Mr Cheluget wrote to the General Manager of the Maize Marketing Board, Mr E A Andere, “who told me point blank he was unable to do anything about it.”
Traders who had posho mills in Kangundo could not get maize from the board and were always told to await improvement in supplies — yet Emma Stores continued to receive maize.
Ngei had also appointed a local agent to buy maize locally, and circumvent the Board.
He also passed on similar favours to relatives and friends.
It was a clear case of abuse of office.
The story of maize ended with his return to the Cabinet after a second inquiry purported to exonerate him.
But that was not the only one.
Take the case of Cabinet Minister Mbiyu Koinange.
One day, outside the Cabinet office, he asked Ngei if he could get 100 bags for his poultry.
Ngei said yes and he was given Sh2,500 to pay to the Board.
When Koinange called the Board, he asked for his order and they called Ngei who admitted he had indeed received Sh2,500 from Koinange.
Some 60 bags were delivered to Koinange but Ngei refused to pay.
His lawyer said this was a private transaction between Ngei and Koinange.
NEVER PAID LOANS
Enough of maize; Ngei took more loans from commercial banks and never repaid.
He took a Mercedes Benz from DT Dobie and never paid.
It was the only item that auctioneers spared in Ngei’s yard because it had sentimental value to him.
He had taken it for a road test and never returned it — the longest road test in Kenya.
The law finally caught up with Ngei on June 14, 1990 when he was adjudged bankrupt, thus ending his political career.
The man who regaled himself as a political cat with nine lives; a man who had the Constitution changed to accommodate him, was finally out of politics and into hopelessness.
Ngei died in misery.
His story is also the story of the king of graft in Kenyatta’s Cabinet.
As a pre-independence hero, Ngei had a place in history and had been marked for threatening a witness during the trial of JM Kariuki.
For being arrested and jailed with Kenyatta, he earned some other accolades.