Bwana Tom Goes to Court

In their earnest efforts to hold on to Kenya—and to establish some sort of permanent peace between the races—the British have run into two kinds of obstacles. Once it was the Mau Mau terrorists; now it is a new kind of impatient black nationalism led by an aggressive 27-year-old labor leader named Tom Mboya. who wants nothing less than to set up in Kenya the same sort of black republic that Kwame Nkrumah runs in Ghana.

A Luo tribesman who spent a year at Ruskin College, Oxford, Mboya has become increasingly strident in his complaints against British attempts to bring about a gradual “multi-racial” government in Kenya. Insisting on “parliamentary democracy for the African masses.” he lashed out at the Colonial Office’s 1957 constitution, which for the first time gave the 6,000,000 Africans the same number of elected seats in the Legislative

Council as the 57,000 whites. Nor did he like another British plan to divide an extra twelve special seats equally among Africans. Arabs and Europeans. When a group of moderate Africans agreed to run for these special seats. Mboya and six of his henchmen denounced them as “stooges, traitors and quislings.” With that, the Crown haled Mboya & Co. into court for conspiracy and criminal libel.

When the trial began in Nairobi, it seemed inevitable that it would provide Mboya with the kind of martyrdom that is so invaluable in nationalist politics. The first day, Bwana Tom (as his idolatrous followers call him) arrived ostentatiously wearing a Ghana toga of kente cloth. Wherever he went, his followers trailed him crying the Ghana chant: “FreeDOM! Free-DOM!” His new People’s Convention Party, modeled after Nkrumah’s party, organized an effective boycott of buses, beer and tobacco, staged such wild demonstrations that the police had to call on Mboya himself to stop them.

Mboya’s leftist London lawyer, D. N. Pritt, Q.C.. the defender of Mau Mau Leader Jomo Kenyatta (now in prison), got the conspiracy charge thrown out on a technicality, and set forth to destroy the reputations of the moderate African nominees who appeared as witnesses for the prosecution. At one he thundered: “Do you hate Africans, or merely despise them?” But somehow, the fireworks did not go off.

Far from being European stooges, some of the Africans emerged from hard cross-examination (as the judge remarked at the end of the trial) as simple, frank and engaging men. Last week the court declared Mboya & Co. guilty of criminal libel, slapped each with a token £75 fine, not enough to make martyrs of them. Outside the courthouse, where thousands of Bwana Tom’s followers had demonstrated only a few days before, one native forlornly waved a placard saying EIGHT MILLION AFRICANS ON TRIAL, for the benefit of the small, halfhearted crowd—and the Nairobi police phlegmatically waited to quell the riot that never came.

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