The day city hitman felled political icon

On the morning of Saturday July 5, 1969, the East African Standard carried a photograph of Tom Mboya taken at Embakasi Airport the previous day.

Resplendent in a business suit, he was striding briskly across the tarmac towards the camera. The men accompanying him were not identified in the caption, but were recognisable as his Permanent Secretary Philip Ndegwa and his brother Alphonce.

The team was coming from an Economic Commission of Africa meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Had he wanted to, Mboya could have stayed at the airport and boarded the next plane to London. He had been invited to attend a conference at the University of Sussex on “The Crisis of Planning”, due to begin on Monday July 7.

Official paperwork

But Mboya had gracefully declined the invitation, citing pressure of work.

At 9.30am, he arrived at his office at Treasury Building, Harambee Avenue. With his private secretary Otieno Nundu by his side, he became immersed in official paperwork.

But he also made time to finish writing a seven-page letter to William Scheinman, dealing frankly and rather worriedly with current politics.

Of the President’s efforts to reduce tensions among his ministers, Mboya wrote: “Outwardly this will ease matters, but the factions remain.”

Chiefly, however, he was concerned with the forthcoming round of Kanu primary elections. His enemies, he wrote, had raised a great deal of money to fight the primaries and he would need at least half as much — a minimum of £50,000 or $140,000 (about Sh10 million) — to ensure his supporters were secure.

“I am unable to appeal to any foreign government nor do I think that I should do this. Ironically people who receive money from foreign sources have levelled accusations against me. Ever since my trade union days and the students airlift, I have lived with a label of help from America. Sometimes I wish this were true!”

At midday, Mr J.D. Otiende, Minister for Health, passed by to say goodbye before he left for an overseas trip.

Shortly before 1pm, Mboya and Nundu left the office. Down in the Treasury car park, Mboya told his driver to go home, got into his car and drove off alone. A few minutes later, he pulled up on Government Road, outside Chhani’s Pharmacy.

The shop had just closed for the weekend, but Mboya was a regular at Chhani’s and often called there at this hour on a Saturday.

Indeed, the proprietors, Mr and Mrs Sehmi Chhani, were family friends of the Mboyas. As Mboya got out of the car, a man he knew, a freelance photographer, asked him casually what he was doing there at that time of day.

“Just shopping,” Mboya replied. He was well-dressed as usual in a suede jacket and a red shirt.

Mrs Mohini Sehmi Chhani opened the shop door for Mboya, and closed again behind him. He bought a small bottle of Alpha-Keri lotion, then stayed at the counter for some 10 minutes chatting up Mrs Sehmi and a pharmacist.

When Mboya was ready to go, Mrs Sehmi accompanied him to the door and opened it. They talked briefly; she was eager to know when he and Pamela would next be able to come to the Chhani home for dinner.

Window shopping

Outside the shop, seven or eight feet from the door, stood a young, slightly-built man in a dark suit, holding a briefcase in his left hand. His right hand was in his pocket. He appeared to be busy at window shopping.

Mboya said good-bye to Mrs Sehmi and shook hands with her. He then stepped out. Then two gunshots rung out.

“Tom, Tom, what is wrong? cried out Mrs Sehmi,” as Mboya slumped against her and they staggered back towards the shop.

“I saw blood on his shirt, which was red anyway, and I realised what had happened. He never uttered a word. He fell into my arms and began to slump to the ground.

I now had his blood on my hands and we managed more or less to break his fall and we helped him to the floor . . . I closed the door and called the pharmacist and said the police must be called in, as well as an ambulance.

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