Paul Joseph Ngei is one of the most controversial and most powerful political figures to have straddled Kenya’s political landscape. Born in 1923 at Kiima Kimwe, near Machakos town, 60km east of Nairobi, he was educated at the DEB Kangundo Primary School and Alliance. He later studied studied journalism and drama at Makerere.

Ngei was one of the famous Kapenguria Six — a reference to six prominent Kenyans detained by the colonial government at the outbreak of the Mau Mau nationalist war 1952 for being instigators of the rebellion. The others were Jomo Kenyatta, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Achieng’ Oneko and Bildad Kaggia. Ngei was the youngest and best educated. Kenya’s political historians recognise the six as the fathers of the nation. Agitation for their release from detention forced the British to initiate the Lancaster constitutional talks in 1960. Independence was eventually won in 1963.

In 1952, the armed struggle broke out around Mt Kenya. The colonial authorities reasoned that detaining leaders would tame, if not suppress, the war. A state of emergency was declared when the Kapenguria Six were arrested.

A descendant of the legendary Kamba chief Masaku, Ngei owes his fame to his daredevil character. One day, at a detention camp, Ngei stopped a colonial jailer from caning Kenyatta, and instead challenged the officer to whip him. Ngei also saved Kenyatta many times from the wrath of fellow inmates, particularly Kariuki Chotara, who one day grabbed Kenyatta by the neck several times and attempted to throw him into a boiling pot.

But even more interesting is the way Ngei ended at Kapenguria in the first place. When he served, one day, as editor of the Kikamba newspaper Wasya wa Mukamba, Ngei punched a colonial officer during a heated argument. This was unheard of during the colonial days, and Ngei was charged with assault and jailed for three months.

Unfortunately, for Ngei, this coincided with the declaration of Emergency in 1952, which led to a heightened crackdown on the Mau Mau leaders. Being a well-known Mau Mau activist, Ngei was included by the colonial administration in the Kapenguria Six, thus paid even more dearly for assaulting a European.

It is no wonder, therefore, that a strong bond developed between Ngei and Kenyatta. So strong was it that, after detention, Ngei donned the same kind of leather jacket, carried a similar flywhisk and walking stick as Kenyatta’s. When Kenyatta became President, he proved quite an asset to Ngei’s stormy political career.

When in 1966 Ngei was suspended as the minister in charge of the Maize Marketing Board on allegation that he was involved in smuggling, resulting in a shortage at the stores, Kenyatta intervened. He set up a commission of inquiry, which found Ngei innocent. It turned out that the maize was taken to Emma Stores in Kangundo, a cereal shop run by Ngei’s wife Emma.