TRANSITION: Former shadowy spy
to be buried with the country’s most kept secrets
Story by MUGUMO MUNENE
14. Feb. 2008
Kenya’s longest serving spy master James Kanyotu has passed on at
71, taking with him Kenya’s best-kept secrets about some of the
most gruesome and trying moments in the nation’s history.
The shadowy and burly spy who headed the Directorate of State
Intelligence, then known as the Special Branch for 27 years, died
at the Nairobi Hospital where he was undergoing treatment for an
Mr Kanyotu ascended to the prestigious but challenging position of
intelligence chief in January 1965 at the tender age of 28 to take
over from Mr Bernard Hinga who had been named commissioner of
Mr Kanyotu served for the remainder of the Kenyatta presidency and
for 13 years during the Moi reign until he retired at the
beginning of 1992 when multi-party democracy was gaining momentum.
At the helm of the Intelligence community, Mr Kanyotu served in a
capacity that simultaneously gave him exclusive information about
the country’s security status and unfettered access to the
President for briefing sessions.
In keeping with the character of the spy that he was Mr Kanyotu –
a tall and heavily built man who loved golf to his sunset years –
remained secretive and shadowy and few knew anything about one of
Kenya’s most influential personalities since independence.
Apart from his exploits in the world of intelligence, Mr Kanyotu
was a wealthy businessman with expansive interests in the hotel
industry, banking, aviation, real estate and large-scale farming.
For his almost all the years he served as Kenya’s spy master, the
enigmatic Mr Kanyotu, an Alliance High School alumni, was a
private man and few had any idea what he actually looked like.
Mr Kanyotu’s secrecy cover was only blown at the inquiry into
Kenya’s worst financial scandal – the Goldenberg Affair - where he
was named as one of the co-founders of the two companies at the
centre of the multi-billion shilling fraud. The inquiry started in
2003 and lasted for two years.
He had co-founded Goldenberg International in 1990 and Exchange
Bank in 1991 along with businessman Kamlesh Pattni, but apparently
kept off the running of the companies which were found to have
siphoned billions of taxpayers money in fictitious gold, diamond
and foreign exchange dealings that lasted three years.
At the close of the inquiry in 2005, Mr Kanyotu said he regretted
the Goldenberg Affair. He was subsequently charged in court
alongside four others with conspiracy to steal Sh5.8 billion in
only one aspect of the scandal that lasted between 1990 and 1993.
The case is pending before court.
Dread defined the Directorate of Security Intelligence – which was
renamed the National Security Intelligence Service and
restructured in 1999 - that Mr Kanyotu headed. The Special Branch
– as it was commonly referred to – was an arm of the Police Force
and its officers had the powers to arrest, interrogate and
During the Kenyatta and Moi administrations, it was the DSI that
hunted down those who opposed the establishment, often
interrogating, torturing and detaining suspects without trial. The
lucky ones were released with dire warnings about engaging in
dissenting political activities, then viewed as subversion.
Those who were not lucky disappeared for good in the hands of the
fearsome Special Branch officers.
Like the unit he headed, Mr Kanyotu’s name was often mentioned in
whispers for fear of the reprisal.
The legendary Special Branch was believed to have officers and
informers in every sphere of life and government criticism was
often considered the unthinkable and open invitation to trouble.
In its early years, the Special Branch then based at Kingsway
House at the junction of Muindi Mbingu Street and University Way
and it was from that building that Mr Kanyotu oversaw the
organisation play its hidden hand in some of Kenya’s most critical
and trying historical moments such as the assassinations of
leading politicians Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, JM Kariuki and
Mr Kanyotu also bows out of life’s theatre with many more secrets
about details of major national events like the 1971 and 1982
attempted coups and the Kenyatta succession.
Few would know what Mr Kanyotu knew about the 1969 assassination
of Tom Mboya, the man some touted as Kenyatta’s successor and
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s political nemesis.
It is Mr Kanyotu, the man with the country’s intelligence on his
fingertips, who was best placed to understand why Mr Mboya was
killed and who had detailed the gunman. However, much he knew
about the assassination, he kept mum to the last day.
Then came the mysterious assassination of populist politician J.M.
Kariuki in 1975, one of Kenya’s most prominent and long-drawn
Mr Kanyotu must or should have known about the seven Special
Branch men who interrogated J.M. before he was found murdered;
what information they had been assigned to dig out and what they
came away with from the politician.
Mr Kanyotu, who often had lunch with President Kenyatta’s inner
circle, also oversaw the transition to the Moi administration in
1978 following the founding president’s death.
It appears that soon after, he switched his full loyalty to the
new Head of State and its little wonder that he was retained as
the powermen of the Kenyatta era such as Charles Njonjo and G.G.
Kariuki fell out with President Moi in the early 1980s.
Mr Kanyotu’s tenure underwent another major catastrophe in August
of 1982 when a section of the Kenya Air Force staged a coup in an
attempt to overthrow the President Moi’s government.
Little is known on whether the Special Branch had any information
about the possibility of a coup but the fact that it was averted
may have meant that if Mr Kanyotu’s unit had any intelligence, it
was not conclusive.
After the attempted coup, President Moi moved to consolidate
political power and the Special Branch became handy in crushing
It was in 1983 that Nyayo House was built, complete with the
torture chambers in the basement and on the top floor, that were
used exclusively by the Special Branch for interrogation and
torture of political dissidents. The torture chambers marked one
of the darkest blots in the Moi presidency since they epitomised
the intolerance of the administration in the period between 1983
and 1992 when multi-party politics was reintroduced.
It was Mr Kanyotu’s men who exclusively used the chambers
especially in the mind and late 1980s and survivors only lived to
tell horrid tales of terror in the dark basement cells.
Right about the mid 1980, there rose to power a permanent
secretary in charge of Internal Security named Hezekiah Oyugi.
It is said that Mr Oyugi - whose waterloo was the death of
one-time Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko - had developed a
parallel Intelligence system that excluded the normal channels and
therefore, Mr Kanyotu.
Dr Ouko’s gruesome murder marked dark moment in Mr Kanyotu’s
career and that of the nation. On February 13, 1990, the
State-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, quoting family sources,
announced that the minister had gone missing from his home in Koru,
near Kisumu town.
Three days later, the minister’s half-burnt body was found dumped
at Got-Alila, three kilometres from his farm in what was an
obvious case of murder.
Fingers were immediately pointed at powerful individuals in the
Moi administration and the government subsequently invited
Britain’s Scotland Yard to investigate the murder.
Detective inspector John Troon who led the probe, hinted after
three months of work that Special Branch agents may have known or
were involved in the plot to kill the minister and the subsequent
Mr Kanyotu’s departure from the helm of the Intelligence in 1992
is reported to have had something to do with the Boxing Day 1991
resignation of the then Health minister Mwai Kibaki who left
government and Kanu to found Democratic Party at the onset of
It is reported that President Moi was unhappy that Mr Kibaki’s
resignation had caught him by surprise and his spy master had not
given prior information. Mr Kanyotu’s friends, speaking to the
Nation in interviews in 2001, denied the reports and indicated
that Mr Kanyotu might actually have been out of the country at the
Whichever the case, Mr Kanyotu goes down with 27 years of Kenya’s
best-kept secrets, exclusive information and a sizeable chunk of