I was introduced to Njuguna by Najib Balala, the Founder Trustee of the Citizens Forum Trust, an initiative we founded together with Issa Timamy, the immediate former Governor of Lamu County, Z K Nderu a veteran hotelier, Yusuf Aboubakar a lawyer, and Shamsa Miran a businesswoman. I worked under the tutelage of Njuguna and these comrades to offer operational leadership to the Trust whose vision was to transform Mombasa to be the model of sustainable urban development and economic growth.
When I was asked to pen a short tribute in memory of Njuguna Mutonya I agreed without second thoughts because this is a man I only met in person in 1999 but had been associated with as a comrade in the liberal class for much longer as he defended artistic expression with a social purpose, opposed the destruction of reformist, radical movements and practiced journalism devoid of the new sloganeering of mass communication qualities which led him to a vicious assault by the capitalist establishment.
Njuguna Mutonya was arrested in Mombasa in 1986 and accused of sedition for allegedly being part of an unlawful movement known as Mwakenya at a time when he had just been promoted to head the Government’s district Information team in the then Kwale District. A search in his house yielded his nephew’s class essay titled ‘Alexander the Sick Man of Europe’, that the security agents claimed were codes in reference to Moi. Mutonya spent three years behind bars a journey which started out at the infamous Nyayo torture chambers.
Njuguna wrote what he wanted, he took public positions that defied conventional mores and established structures - that is why he sat on the Board of one of Mombasa’s most political projects – the Citizens Baraza while still in office as the Bureau Chief at Nation Newspapers. We knew this but he told us media too must stop assuming the role of disinterested and impartial observers in the face of human suffering. Njuguna tells his story in his satirical and humorous commentary Crackdown in ways no one could ever parallel.
Colleagues of the late Mutonya know his love for stories much more deeply than I could pen here and Kariuki Waihenya is spot on when he says ‘Njuguna had a penchant for hyperbole, was witty and folks around him were completely well-padded, what with his contagious laughter’. The late Patrick Mayoyo and Catherine Gicheru saw Njuguna’s zeal and commitment, Waihenya confirms. I remember partaking of his many forays at the Little Theatre Club and losing sense of time as he shared his stories that ranged from sports to history to movies to women to theatre. These deep discussions always left Njuguna’s audiences with the paradox that Bullard wrote eloquently about that ‘Truth and Falsehood are arbitrary terms. There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other…there are lifeless truths and vital lies…. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little whether it is true or false’.
I would have related the Mwakenya story as an activist who lived in that era and worked with Tirop Kitur, Kangethe Mungai, Oduor Ongwen and other comrades who were picked up during the crackdown, but I leave that to inspiration and conjecture. Mutonya inspired many with both facets of truth and lies. One place that Waihenya and colleagues may have missed is the one where the late Odindo Opiata and I often spent long nights known as Buxton Bar. At this pub Njuguna’s name changed to ‘Onjuguna’ in a gesture that will forever memorialise this man from Muranga as a ‘Pan-Kenyan’.
To Susan Wanjiru and your son and daughter, Njuguna has gone physically and I know the deep pain that the family has to bear, we pray that God gives you fortitude to manage this trying time. In our hearts as his comrades and the entire liberal class he remains the quintessential liberal, a champion of human rights and media freedom who placed his conscience above his career. We shall always remember him.