Finance minister who chewed blackout on Budget Day

James Gichuru

The recent death of Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery reminds one of James Gichuru, in whose honour a road is named in Nairobi.

James Gichuru Road (previously St Austin’s Road) was named in honour of Kenya’s first Finance minister

— before he was moved to the Defence docket after his alcoholism saw him sharing Cabinet secrets with fellow tipplers.

Gichuru was one of two politicians that founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta feared and could not fire. The other was Paul Ngei, with whom he served seven years with hard labour as part of the (in)famous ‘Kapenguria Six.’

Gichuru vacated the Presidency of Kenya African Union (KAU), the forerunner to Kenya African National Union (KANU), for Kenyatta after his return from England in 1946.

This paved Kenyatta’s entry into active politics, for which he always had a soft spot for the Limuru MP, whose restless constituents sent a delegation to the president’s Gatundu home where Gichuru was always served cold beers.

Gichuru, the first from a brood of nine, attended Alliance School and Makerere College in Uganda, but unlike educated Kenyans of his time, was pretty down to earth.

One-time Kiambaa MP and billionaire businessman the late Njenga Karume, ran a beer distribution venture with Gichuru. In his 2009 biography, Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold, Karume remembered Gichuru as a politician who eschewed the trappings of power and curiously for someone born in Central Kenya, felt no burning desire to accumulate wealth.

His government colleagues, like Foreign Affairs minister, the late Dr Njoroge Mungai, steam-bathed in five-star hotels, but Gichuru would be at home at Karai Bar in downtown Nairobi.

Duncan Ndegwa, the former Governor of the Central Bank, recalls in his 2006 bio, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story, that Gichuru’s  drinking problem was such that government documents would be found under the tables at Karai Bar.

His casual running of The Treasury saw him delegating the donkey work to under-secretaries; the late, no-nonsense John Michuki and the tireless John Butters.

More memorable was Gichuru missing the State opening of the Central Bank of Kenya  on September 14,1966 after chewing a blackout, and Dr Mungai had to frantically search Gichuru’s office for his written speech.

Gachuru’s transfer from the Finance ministry came after the 1969 budget in which Michuki had him rehearsing, but Gichuru still fumbled in front of President Kenyatta and diplomats. He could not finish reading the budget and a “half time” had to be called for Gichuru to ‘top up’ what we now call “kutoa lock!”

Ndegwa notes that Gichuru had “good common sense, but lacked focus” and his swilling for which he said, “I work very hard, so I have to drink” sped up his death at 68 in 1982.


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