Posted Friday, March 19 2010 at 19:11
The history of Nation and that of Kenya is closely intertwined. In this first instalment of the newly-published book, BIRTH OF A NATION: The Story of a Newspaper in Kenya, the author discloses for the first time how Mzee Kenyatta’s bid to control the media house was politely but firmly rejected.
When the $3 million Serena Hotel in Nairobi was opened on 16 February 1976, there came a moment when four men found themselves together: the president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta; the leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims worldwide, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan; and two Kenyan businessmen, Udi Gecaga and Ngengi Muigai.
According to an executive on the fringe, Kenyatta addressed the Aga Khan: ‘This is my nephew, Mr Muigai. He has just come back from America and I was wondering if it was possible to find a position for him in your newspapers.’ The Aga Khan appeared taken aback but replied politely that he was sure that would be possible, but he would have to make enquiries. Gecaga and Muigai looked unhappy at this guarded response, but the Kenyan president nodded and the group split up.
In a dark suit, with an orchid in his buttonhole and a fly whisk dangling from his wrist, the revered father of the nation unveiled a plaque opening Nairobi’s most elegant hotel, and then at the celebratory luncheon graciously acknowledged a toast by the Aga Khan to his continued good health and long life.
The chic guests amidst the flowering jacaranda and bougainvillea were not to know that Kenyatta’s twilight years were approaching their end and that the prospect of his demise had already begun to influence the course of national politics, to which the cameo on the Serena terrace would add a significant footnote. Indeed, the meeting set in train a course of events which had an important impact on Kenya’s constitutional development and long-lasting effects on freedom of expression and the future of democracy.
The new 400-bed hotel on the edge of Uhuru Park was an investment by the Aga Khan’s Tourism Promotion Services Ltd, an offshoot of Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), which he established in 1963 as a catalyst for Third World development in partnership with private institutions and global agencies.
The newspapers to which Kenyatta referred were an earlier Aga Khan personal initiative, a publishing stable named the Nation Group comprising two English-language titles, the Daily Nation and the Sunday Nation, the Kiswahili daily Taifa Leo and Taifa Weekly.
The group started in 1959 with the purchase for £10,000 of a tiny Kiswahili weekly, Taifa (meaning Nation), from Charles Hayes, a former district commissioner in the colonial administration, and his business partner, Althea Tebbutt. Taifa was quickly turned into a daily, an English-language Sunday paper was launched in March 1960 and the Daily Nation appeared in October the same year. The first African editor-in-chief, Hilary Boniface Ng’weno, was appointed in 1964.
After investing more than £1 million in the venture (at least £12 million at today’s rates), the Aga Khan saw the group move into profit in 1968, and just a year later the daily overhauled its long-established rival, the East African Standard. In 1973, the group became a public company, with more than 8,000 mostly Kenyan shareholders, reducing the Aga Khan’s shareholding to 60 per cent.
This was later lowered to 44.73 per cent ownership and in 2003 the founder transferred his 23.9 million personal shares to the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which worked to bring jobs and services to poor countries.
At the time of the Serena opening, the Nation was selling more than 70,000 copies a day, double that of its rival, and the group was the unchallenged industry leader in East Africa. It was easy to see why the Nation was an attractive proposition for a young man with commercial or political ambitions in 1976.
The Aga Khan’s personal association with Kenya was a long one. During World War II, his father Prince Aly Khan was based in Cairo with the Free French forces and fought the German Axis armies in the North African desert. Prince Karim and his younger brother, Amyn, were sent to safety in Kenya and lived in a house belonging to their grandfather, the then reigning Aga Khan, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah.
The house in suburban Nairobi had a metal roof, and when the boys lay in bed at night they could hear the rain pattering overhead and occasionally the grunts of lions prowling outside. Returning to Switzerland, the country of his birth, Karim attended Le Rosey private school for nine years, then began reading for a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, switching later to Islamic History at Harvard University in the USA.
He was aged 20 and half-way through his course when his grandfather died in 1957, naming the young Prince Karim as the 49th Imam in direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, and leader of some 15 million Ismaili Muslims in 25 countries.