Mboya up against Kenyatta’s tough inner circle

There had always been the question of What next after

Kenyatta? Or rather, Who after Kenyatta?

writes HILARY NG’WENO in today’s instalment of ‘The Making of a Nation’

President Jomo Kenyatta’s closest ministers, the inner circle made up of Koinange, Njonjo and Mungai, and sometimes James Gichuru and Julius Kiano, had been concerned at first about Oginga Odinga, the country’s first Vice President. Odinga had charisma, nearly as much as Kenyatta; he was a man of the people, and he was a fighter, like Kenyatta.

The inner circle, or the Gatundu Group, as they were sometimes referred to, worried about Odinga taking over from Kenyatta, should the old man die or become incapacitated.

With Odinga safely out of the way after he had been forced out of the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) and into the opposition Kenya Peoples Union in 1966, Kenyatta’s inner group now worried about Tom Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning and Kanu’s powerful secretary general. The prospects of Mboya stepping into Kenyatta’s shoes became an obsession for them. Part of their concern had to do with ethnic considerations.

They were determined to ensure that the presidency, and its now enormous powers, did not slip from the grasp of the Kikuyu, and most certainly not into Mboya’s hands.

They feared Mboya because of his frightful intelligence and his organisational skills. But there was more than fear involved. There was resentment. However intelligent, however astute a politician, academically Mboya was simply not the equal of any of the three top men in Kenyatta’s inner circle.

Social credentials

Koinange, senior most of the circle, was a person with outstanding academic and social credentials. Born in 1907 to Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, Koinange was sent to the US for education when he was barely 20, becoming the first Kenyan African to be educated in the US.

He first attended Hampton College in West Virginia, then the University of Columbia where he received a BA degree. He proceeded to the University of London and got a diploma from the university’s Institute of Education before moving on to the London School of Economics from which he obtained a Masters degree in 1948-the first Kenyan to get an MA.

On coming back home the following year he set up the Kenya Teachers College at Githunguri and managed it until 1946 when he turned it over to Kenyatta who had just come back after nearly 15 years in England and Europe. The two men had known each other in England and had kept in touch while they were separated.

Now a strong bond developed between them, becoming even stronger when Kenyatta took for his second wife, Grace Mitundu, Koinange’s younger sister.

In 1947 Koinange would return to England for further studies but was prevented from returning to Kenya by the outbreak of the Mau Mau rebellion and the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952.

In exile, Koinange expanded his political activities to embrace Pan African gatherings and demonstrations in England. He made contact with Kwame Nkrumah who after Ghana’s independence invited him to work at the newly set up Bureau of African Affairs in Accra.

It was from Accra that Koinange was invited by KANU and KADU leaders meeting in London at the first Lancaster House constitutional conference.

The invitation was the idea of Odinga who was trying to pressurize the British government to release Kenyatta. Odinga figured that Koinange’s presence would put added pressure on the British, and it would embarrass Mboya who was then not yet as forthright about Kenyatta’s release. Koinange would come back home soon after that meeting, run for parliament and be elected as MP for Kiambaa in 1963, when Kenyatta appointed him to the Cabinet.

The second most powerful man in the triumvirate was Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General. Like Koinange, Njonjo was the son of a senior chief in the colonial government. His father Josiah Njonjo was able to send him to the best schools of the time. Alliance High School, King’s College Budo in Uganda, Fort Hare University in Cape Town and Exeter University in England where he did post graduate studies in public administration finishing in 1947.

From 1947 to 1950 he attended the London School of Economics and then studied law for four years before being admitted to the bar at Gray’s Inn, one of England’s most prestigious inns of law. His long stay in England had a tremendous influence on him; he absorbed British culture and British mannerisms, down to the wearing of striped suits and bowler hats. In later years these British mannerisms would earn him the nickname of Sir Charles.

On returning to Kenya in 1954 Njonjo joined the colonial attorney general’s office and rose quickly from being a registrar to registrar-general. In 1961 he was a senior state counsel, and one whole year before Independence he had been promoted to the powerful job of deputy public prosecutor. At Independence he was named attorney general. The following year, with Kenya’s change to Republican status, the attorney general became an ex-officio Member of Parliament as well as the cabinet.

Six years younger than Njonjo, Mungai did not have a chief or senior chief for a father, but what he lacked in genes he more than made up for in upbringing. He too went to Alliance High School, leaving in 1945. Like Njonjo he attended Fort Hare University from 1948 to 1950.

In South Africa, Mungai had his first taste of apartheid. That experience was to shape his future political views and general mistrust of white people. From South Africa Mungai proceeded to Stanford University, then, as today, one of the top universities in the world, where he obtained a BA degree in 1952 before going to Stanford Medical School, and later to further medical studies at Columbia University.

With his string of qualifications, Mungai came back to Kenya in 1959 and set up the Chania chain of clinics around the Dagoretti area of Nairobi from which he dispensed affordable medical treatment. When Kenyatta was released from detention in 1961, Mungai became his physician. But even before that, Mungai was already immersed in politics, serving as the secretary to the preparatory committee that gave birth to KANU in May 1960. It was on that committee that Mungai first worked closely with Mboya.

Kenyatta’s inner circle was therefore made up of highly educated and sophisticated men, who by dint of their birth, education and training considered themselves to be natural leaders. On that account alone, and not even on ethnic grounds, Koinange, Njonjo and Mungai for different reasons, must have found Mboya difficult to take.

Mboya was born in 1930, and was therefore four years younger than Mungai, ten years younger than Njonjo and a whole 23 years younger than Koinange.

But by the time they started interacting with him, the older men must have been awed by his enormous organisational skills, sharp intellect, and sheer determination. The awe must have given rise to a sense of resentment when in the three or four years leading to Independence, Mboya made himself almost indispensable in the general nationalist struggle.

He was by far the most articulate leader in the country. He hogged the press, both local and international, and was on the cover of TIME magazine before Independence. Then as now, making the cover of TIME was something even Americans envied.

Mboya’s energy, charisma, his organisational and tactical skills made him indispensable in the bruising battle against Odinga and the radicals within Kanu.

The man to watch

And for some time at least Njonjo built up a close friendship with Mboya during their joint effort, at Kenyatta’s behest, to shove Odinga out of the ruling party. But Kenyatta and his top lieutenants had Odinga more or less under control. The man to watch now was Mboya.

Barely a year after forcing Odinga out of Kanu they would set about trying to do to Mboya what they had done to Odinga so successfully, except that they would now have to do their battles without or against Mboya’s enormous organisational skills, financial resources and a reputation for political fighting.

Until then Mboya had never lost any major political battle; but then, neither had Kenyatta and the men who made up his inner circle.

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