There were several attempts to kill charismatic Cabinet minister Tom Mboya before he was finally cut down at a Moi Avenue pharmacy in 1969.
Indeed, just months before his death, Mboya left the country briefly as rumours of an impending assassination attempt spread. His success in fighting the ideological battles of the day drew admiration for him and animosity in the Kenyatta and Odinga camps in Kanu.But after the defeat and ouster of the Odinga camp from Government in 1966, the greatest threats came from corrupt officials close to President Kenyatta and foreign agents smarting from their loss of influence.
Details have emerged about a series of security mishaps that may have set the stage for the assassination that shocked the world and drove the country into the throes of tribal animosity. Whether these incidents were related to his assassination remains a mystery.
Suspicions that foreign agents may have worked with Mboya’s Kanu colleagues to eliminate him also raise questions about how his killing was related to the 1965 murder of Jaramogi Oginga ally and specially elected MP Pio Gama Pinto.
Mboya, who was the MP for Kamukunji and Minister for Economic Planning was gunned down on July 5, Saturday afternoon, as he left the Chhani pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue). He was only 39. The man arrested for the killing was Nahashon Njenga Njoroge, a former waiter and watchmaker who was later employed as a Kanu youth activist and errand boy for various politicians. Njenga, who described Mboya as a friend, denied pulling the trigger and was keen to claim he did not act alone.
His cryptic questions to a police superintendent investigating the case – “Why do you pick on me? Why not the big man?” – have long tortured Kenyan minds with many people latching onto the most obvious suspects.
However, the list of people who may have conspired to kill Mboya, or been involved in the unsuccessful attempts, has always been much longer than most Kenyans realise. Information pieced together by the Standard on Sunday shows Mboya was a marked man from as early as 1962. Close associates say there were several apparent attempts on his life, which he chose to shield from the public for fear of alarming his supporters.
The most daring attempt came in early 1969, when an Administration Police officer guarding the minister’s home in Nairobi’s Lavington Green area opened fire at him, missing his chest by a whisker. The incident was one of three attempts narrated to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission last year.
Mboya’s former Private Secretary, Otieno Nundu, 75, says he remembers the incident at the Convent Drive residence clearly.
“It was a few minutes to 7pm and the AP officer called from the gate to report that an unidentified man wanted to see Mboya,” Nundu told The Standard On Sunday. “He insisted that the minister come out to meet the visitor who claimed he had an urgent message, but Mboya declined. When the policeman was persistent, Mboya became apprehensive and sent one of his relatives to meet the man. By this time, the AP officer was walking towards the main house. There was a sudden burst of gunfire forcing Mboya to run back into the house as the relative dived under a parked car.”
Convinced he had hit his target, the policeman swiftly disappeared into the darkness. The only casualty, however, was the minister’s Mercedes Benz, which took two bullets. Nundu believes the officer had planned to lure Mboya out of the gate and into the hands of an assassin. It was never established who the stranger was.
The policeman was arrested three days later, Nundu says. He was not charged with attempted murder, but instead disciplined for the lesser offence of wilfully damaging Mboya’s car. Nundu says the man was jailed for a paltry six months and was still serving his prison term when Mboya was eventually assassinated a few months later.
Nundu said Mboya was shaken by the incident, but chose to play it down.
“It was scaring. The AP later claimed to have acted under the influence of alcohol, but we were convinced he had been paid to kill Mboya. Investigators never sought to know the identity of the strangers, who wanted to see Mboya at the gate,” he says.
In another incident about a year earlier, a man armed with a panga walked to a function in Siaya and tried to reach Mboya at the VIP dais. Freelance journalist Odera Omolo, who was at the event, says it took the quick action of nearby Kanu youth-wingers to disarm the man. His motive was never established as police abandoned investigations claiming the suspect was mentally ill.
“Mboya did not want the incident reported because it would cause unnecessary tension,” says Omolo. Associates like Nundu say Mboya’s reluctance to speak up about the threats to his life and his failure to engage round-the-clock bodyguards may have helped his enemies to execute their plans with ease.
“Tom was eliminated by people who feared he was headed for the presidency,” Nundu says. “They killed a great man who would have driven this country to greater heights. Kenya would be a much better country today, with Mboya’s leadership.”
Nundu’s conclusions about the killing may be right, but the question of who ‘they’ were is not as clear-cut.
Mboya was a national leader of Kanu. The fact that his alleged assassin, Njenga, was also a Kanu man informs the conclusion the assassination was motivated by a power struggle inside the party. Yet the struggle to succeed Kenyatta was not the only power struggle going on – or even the most immediate one.
According to a Time magazine report from the day, “Kanu had just been dealt a reeling blow in a parliamentary by-election (in May) for a vacant seat in the Luo constituency of Gem… The district gave a lopsided victory to the candidate of the Kenya People’s Union, the opposition party headed by Luo leftist, Oginga Odinga. Realising that many Luo tribesmen had come under Odinga’s sway, President Kenyatta asked Mboya to undertake an emergency reorganisation of Kanu before national elections, which must be held before next June. Mboya, a member of Kenyatta’s Cabinet and a possible, if not likely successor, was hard at work when he was shot.”
The report notes that Mboya’s task in the final months of his life was to find new candidates for the party and unseat its more corrupt elements. Did Kenyatta’s request that Mboya clean house to strengthen Kanu against KPU put the minister on a fatal collision course with the corrupt cabal around the president?