Mboya’s murder and the return of one-party State

HILLARY NG’WENO recounts the murder of Cabinet ministers Tom Mboya and its aftermath

On the morning of July 5th, 1969 Tom Mboya, President Jomo Kenyatta’s Minister for Economic Planning and Kanu’s secretary general, arrived at Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport from Addis Ababa where he had been attending a meeting of the Economic Commission for Africa.

He was accompanied by his permanent secretary, Philip Ndegwa, and his brother, Alphonse Okuku Ndiege. He had dropped them off at his office, and then before 1pm went to Channi’s Pharmacy on Government, today Moi Avenue, to buy some lotion for dry skin. After chatting with Mrs Mohini Sehmi Channi for a while, Mboya stepped out of the shop.

Outside, only two or so metres from the door, was a young man in a dark suite, holding a briefcase in his left hand. His right hand was in his pocket. In a few seconds two shots rang out. Mboya slumped over. Despite efforts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation Mboya was dead on arrival at Nairobi Hospital.

Political leadership

Within hours, there were riots and demonstrations in Nairobi and in towns and villages in Luoland. The experience of the KPU had given most Luo the feeling that the Kikuyu were out to deny them any position of political leadership. They had pushed Oginga Odinga out of the ruling party Kanu. Now they had killed Mboya, and Luo suspicions appeared to be confirmed when on July 10th, five days after the murder, a young Kikuyu named Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge was arrested and charged with the murder.

Njenga’s trial began with a preliminary hearing on August 11th. On September 10th he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His appeal against the verdict and sentence was rejected by the East African Court of Appeal, and on November 8th, it is reported, he was hanged in secret at Kamiti Maximum Prison. T

here have since been reports that Njenga was in fact never hanged, that he was spirited off secretly to Ethiopia, where he lived out the rest of his life under an assumed identity. What is not in doubt, however, is that during the preliminary hearing after his arrest, Njenga had asked a senior police superintendent who testified at the trial: “Why do you pick on me? Why not the big man?” When asked who the big man was, Njenga refused to say. Who was the big man, if ever there was a big man, would remain the subject of rumour and conjecture for years.

And for good reason; the trial never established a motive for Njenga killing Mboya. Someone must have had a motive. Who that someone was has remained a subject of conjecture ever since.

Mboya’s murder shook Kenya’s politics as nothing had ever done before since Independence. The entire Luo community now closed ranks around Odinga, taking on a markedly anti-Kikuyu stance in all their utterances.

Other Kenyans were taken aback too. Doubts about Kenyatta’s government began to emerge, especially in the Coast Province and to a lesser extent in Western Province, and doubts turned into worries when reports started circulating that the Kikuyu community had taken up widespread oathing primarily aimed at ensuring their unity in the face of growing opposition to Kenyatta’s rule, particularly from the Luo.

There was enormous pressure within the Kikuyu community to close ranks around Kenyatta, just like the Luo had done around Odinga. By August, the pressure was so great that Bildad Kaggia, vice president of the KPU, and almost the entire Central Province membership of the party, were forced to rejoin the ruling party Kanu. The split between the two former senior members in the Kanu tribal coalition – the Kikuyu and the Luo – was now as complete as it could possibly be.

The situation called for some action on the part of Kenyatta who had gone uncharacteristically silent since Mboya’s death. In September, he began to summon elders from various communities to discuss the situation with him at his home in Gatundu.

Little General Election

The next General Election would be coming soon, and he was anxious that Kanu perform in Luoland better than it did during the Little General Election against Odinga’s Kenya Peoples Union (KPU). So, in October Kenyatta set off on an electoral tour of Rift Valley and Nyanza intending to demonstrate that he was back in control of things.

On October 25th he was in Kisumu to open the Russian built hospital, which was the only Soviet, project in Kenya. Luo crowds greeted him with jeers and shouted KPU slogans at him. There were placards in the crowd asking, “Where is Tom?” Kenyatta reacted with anger. In his speech, he attacked the KPU and threatened Odinga, who was with him on the platform, with detention, calling him a “noise maker who is good for nothing”. Oppositionists, he said, would be “crushed like locusts”.

It was the crowd’s turn to be enraged. As Kenyatta’s motorcade was leaving the hospital grounds, the crowd surged towards it menacingly. The police opened fire. Seven people were killed and scores injured as Kenyatta left Kisumu hurriedly.

Two days later, on October 27th, Odinga and all other KPU leaders and MPs were arrested in a pre-dawn swoop and put into detention. Among Odinga’s associates to be placed in detention was Achieng Oneko who had been jailed and detained with Kenyatta by the British for nine years before Independence. On October 30th, the KPU was banned. Once again, Kenya had become a de-facto one-party state.

The new one party state was different from the one that came into existence in December 1964 when the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu), dissolved itself and its members joined Kanu. Then there had been some effort at building national unity that if it did not quite negate ethnic boundaries at least operated on the basis of a coalition of all tribes.

Pretense of a coalition

Now, there was one major community outside the one ruling party, and in that party, there was no pretense of a coalition any more. After his ugly experience in Kisumu, Kenyatta was in no mood for sharing any power; the inner circle around him encouraged him into believing that no coalitions of any kind were needed any more.

On the 6th December 1969, Kanu held its primary elections. In the absence of any other party, these primary elections amounted to the final general elections. The results surprised many. Even in a one party state, it seemed, those in control of Kanu were powerless against a public who had become disgruntled by the goings on of the previous two or three years. Seventy-seven sitting MPs out of a total of 158 – almost fully one half – lost to newcomers.

Serious implications

Of interest and serious implications to Nyanza and Western Province, was the fact among them were four of the five defeated ministers, and nine of the fourteen defeated assistant ministers. Most of them were Mboya’s political allies: Odero-Jowi and Samuel Ayodo in Luoland; Lawrence Sagini in Kisii and Joseph Otiende in Western Province.

But among the losers too was Bildad Kaggia. Just as the voters in Luoland had not forgiven anyone who had sided with the Kikuyu’s, and Mboya’s allies in Luoland were so perceived, similarly kikuyu voters were in no mood for forgiveness towards anyone who had sided with forces they perceived to be under the control of the Luo. Kaggia, though he had recanted and rejoined Kanu, was not about to receive forgiveness from Murang’a voters. He was handsomely defeated by Thaddeus Mwaura who had defeated him at the Little General Election.

Kaggia would thereafter retire from politics to live a simple and frugal life, almost forgotten by generations of Kenyan leaders who were born long after Kaggia’s battles with the British and Kenyatta governments were over.

He died in 2006 and was buried in his beloved Murang’a where the government later built a mausoleum in his memory and that of hundreds and thousands of freedom fighters like him who had given their all in the cause of Kenya’s Independence.

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