Tom Mboya the ultimate politician (Tom Mboya and Politics as a vocation)

Distinguished Guests
Your Excellencies
Ladies and Gentlemen:

The last public position that Thomas Joseph Mboya held was that of the Minister for Economic Planning and Development of the republic of Kenya. As the current holder of that portfolio in the last twenty-three months, I stand in awe at the accomplishments of the founding father of my Ministry. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all the officers in my Ministry when I state that he set a standard of professional excellence in my Ministry that remains a challenge to all of us in Kenya to this day.

Tom Mboya distinguished himself as a leading thinker of development planning in Africa and the rest of the developing world. He published articles and books on development problems facing Africa that are still relevant today. He defended the development policies that Kenya adopted after independence with intellectual logic and an eloquence that is hard to match. His was always going to be a difficult act to follow. I therefore feel at once humbled and greatly honoured this evening to have been asked to speak at this occasion to commemorate the life of one of Africa’s most respected statesmen in the history of independent Africa, Thomas Joseph Mboya.

When the Kenyan Human rights Commission invited me to speak at this historic occasion in which we are honouring the memory of Tom Mboya, they suggested as the title for my lecture “Tom Mboya: The Ultimate Politician and role Model for Today’s Politicians”. I accepted the invitation to speak on that title.

But upon reflection, I thought the term “ultimate politician” as opposed to the “ultimate statesman” had the ring of a hard-driven political self-interest that was alien to Tom Mboya’s career as an African nationalist and Kenyan statesman. Ultimate politicians as just that; political power is their ultimate ambition. To them politics is the end all. I therefore chose the title “Tom J. Mboya and politics as a Vocation” in the sense that Max Weber uses vocation in a famous essay entitled “Politics as a Vocation”. In this context, vocation refers to a personal calling to serve a cause a greater cause than oneself; a call that is driven less by what we normally call politics, and by a noble social goal.

This is what I see in the public life of Tom Mboya. A person with a sense of vocation, which motivated him to, serves a cause because it was the right thing to do, irrespective of the personal risks involved. This sense of public service on the basis of moral principle is now sadly, alien to a large section of Kenya’s political class. It is sad for our country that we now have a young generation whom this idea is foreign, to whom public service without personal profit sounds outlandish even cynical.

Mboya had the calling to do everything he could to restore African dignity at a time when colonialists, racists and imperialist – for that is what he called them – had doubts about an African’s entitlement to full human dignity, to the political rights that were enshrined in the constitutions of our colonial rulers, and that Africans knew before colonial rule. Before and after independence, Mboya told us that tribalism stood in the way of this mission. For that he paid with his life. That is the ultimate price for any leader who believes in a vocation. Abraham Lincoln paid that same ultimate price. So did Mboya’s close friends, the late President John F. Kennedy of the US, and the late Dr. Martin Luther King.

Tom Mboya in the World Stage:

In Julius Caesar the conspirators who would assassinate Caesar express their envy of him and their frustration in the following words:

“Why, Man, He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus

And we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonoured graves”

In their personal insecurities, petty men and underlings think that eliminating a political colossus will solve their problems by elevating their stature in world stage. It never works that way. Brutus was not rule Rome. He perished in desolation, in a dishonoured grave, hounded by the ghost of the Roman emperor he had murdered.

But to describe Tom Mboya as an African colossus, a statesman who stands above his peers in African history would do be just another cliché and it would do a great injustice to the finer details of his legacy, which we celebrate this evening.

When the world looks at the history of post-independence Africa, it will pay tribute to Tom Mboya for the role he played in making that history. Tom Mboya was the most polished and most articulate spokesman of African nationalism to the rest of the world in the 1950s and 1960s. He explained to the sceptical and the cynical in the West, that the dramatic events unfolding in colonial Kenya under the emergency, the Algerian war of independence, and the struggle against apartheid were one of a kind. Colonial oppression based on white supremacy had pushed Africans to a corner, he said. When African voices were silenced and racial oppression increased, any violent resistance, which arose, should be a attributed to the oppressor not the oppressed. By and by the world came to rely on his clarity of thought in interpreting the new Africa to it. All this before he was thirty years old!

Take the victims of torture in the Mau Mau detention camps here in Kenya. From about 1956 onwards, he used his position as a member of the Legislative Council to forward evidence from detainees to sympathetic Labour MPs like Barbara Castle and William Bottomley. A bond based on trust developed between his activism for nationalism in Kenya, Labour Party and the anti-colonial movement in the United Kingdom. The colonial authorities in Kenya privately complained that the opposition “Labour Party in Britain will say nothing in Kenya unless they have consulted Tom Mboya”. So they tried as best as they could to destroy his personal integrity and standing with the Labour Party. But they failed.

It was not only colonial brutality in Kenya, which concerned him. When the Sharpeville Massacre of 1961 took place, Tom Mboya was among the first African leaders to call for the immediate expulsion of apartheid South Africa from the Commonwealth. He and other African leaders prevailed. South Africa was booted out of the Commonwealth that year.

In considering the Tom Mboya’s performance at the international state in the cause of African nationalism, however, nothing stands out in those early days as his election as chairman of the All-Africa Peoples Conference in Accra, Ghana, at the age of only 28. This conference has been called by the first president of independent Ghana, the late Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, to adopt a strategy to accelerate decolonisation in Africa, and to chart the way towards the unity of the new independent African states. This meeting was the precursor to the Organization of African Unity, which was born five years later in Addis Ababa. It was attended by the “who is who” in African nationalism at the time – Frantz Fanon representing from FLN from Algeria, Gamal Abdel Nasser from Egypt, Joshua Nkomo from the then Southern Rhodesia, Patrice Lumumba who was to become the first prime-minister of independent Congo, Holden Roberto of Angola, and many others.

At a very young age, Tom Mboya was already presiding over African nationalist history in the making. Books are still being written on what that conference meant for African.

Colin Legum, the dean of the African press corps at the time made acquaintance with Mboya and respected his opinions for all time. Mboya had come to the notice of the world. It was after this event that one of Africa’s premier journalists in Britain Alan Rake wrote his short biography of Mboya entitled, Tom Mboya: Young Man of Africa. Notice that fame came to him. He did not go out to publicize himself, or to demand adoration from sycophants and praise-singers which later came to be the norm here in Kenya.

Every subject that concerned African peoples whether in Africa or the diaspora became an issue of personal concern to him. He made contacts with the late Dr. Martin Luther King when he was waging his campaign to register African-Americans to vote in Montgomery Alabama in the late 1950s. he was close to the African-American trade unionist A. Philip Randolph and Jackie Robinson the first black American to play for a national baseball club in that country. He was a friend of Harry Belafonte and dozens of others. All of them played a major in the Kenya Student Airlift programme starting in 1958. In laying the foundation of the trade unions movement in Kenya as we know it today, he linked it to the world’s labour movement in the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) in Brussels and the AFL-CIO in the United States.

To the ire of the colonialists in Kenya, exposed their shenanigans to the international press. He wrote for The New York Times and The Washington Post and also gave interviews to countless regional newspapers in the United States of America. In the political arena, his debating skills in the colonial Legislative Council and in the Parliament of independent were widely acknowledged as among the world’s best – even by his opponents. He had a rare intellect — as a writer on Kenyan and African nationhood, African socialism, the problems of economic development and poverty, non-alignment and the international economic relations between ex-colonial territories like Kenya, and the developed world. He was at home in the quietness of his family, nation-building in Kenya, the politics of Africa, or as the first African guest on American television in the NBC programme, “Meet the Press”. As Cicero would have it, he was neither a kenyan Luo nor an African politician, but a citizen of the world.

All the activities Tom was involved with at the international activity were for a cause he believed in – not for money. Again this comes as a big surprise to a generation of Africans who have witnessed politicians fighting the most vicious wars to make money on the backs of poor Africans, at times even stealing money intended for starving refugees.

Such people have missed their vocation. And Africa is the poorer for it. What a contrast to the vision Tom Mboya fought for in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Genesis of Personal Commitment

After his studies at Mangu High School, Mboya went in 1948 to study for the job of a Sanitary Inspector at the then Jeans School, now KIA.

The Royal Sanitary Institute awarded the certificate for the course and he had no problems completing and passing the course.

But there is a story in his autobiography Freedom and After which, I believe, explains his life-long commitment to fight for African freedom and human dignity. At one point, as Mboya tells it, he was left by his European boss at the counter to inspect milk from the farms coming into Nairobi. Seeing a black man in charge of the station, she asked in anger “Is there nobody here?” meaning that he was nobody, the European boss was somebody. Fanon once wrote that in colonial societies whites colonialists looked at Africans as hard as they could but could not see a human being in them. Here is some evidence of this.

With such humiliation should we be surprised that Mboya took it upon himself to organize the first City Council of Nairobi African Staff Association? In later years his enemies were to accuse him of accepting western support. If anything he was offering his time and money free. Here and in later life, nobody paid him to unionise African workers. It came from an inner passion that abhorred colonial indignities African workers suffered in colonial Kenya.

This is the difference between him and your regular power-seeking politician, which I spoke about earlier.

The same applies to his personal sacrifice in founding work in the Kenya Local government Workers Union (which caused him to be fired by the City Council), and the Kenya Federation of Labour.

Into Nationalist Politics:

If we understand why Africans were pained by the “Is there nobody here?” colonial attitudes, then we can understand why in the case of tom Mboya, politics of unionisation led to politics of liberation from colonial rule. Again in Freedom and After, he narrates how during Operation Anvil in April 1954, he and other Africans were required to squat on the street (Victoria Street then), their hands above their heads for hours, while the police picked up Kikuyu for detention. I have already mentioned his work for the sake of those detainees. Giving the Mau Mau Emergency as an excuse, the colonial government did not allow the formation of African political parties until 1955. Even then these were restricted to district rather than national level.

Upon returning from a year at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1956, therefore Mboya went flat out to organize the Nairobi Peoples Convention Party. Notice that its title echoed that of Nkrumah’s Convention Peoples party. From the start it was strategically organized on a national basis, to make it easier to form a nationalist party when the right time came. In the following year, Mboya won the Nairobi African seat for the Legislative Council.

As we reflect on the political achievements of Tom Mboya tonight let us recall two significant observations that have never received as much public attention as I have always thought it should.

First, throughout his political life, Tom Mboya was elected to our national legislature, by voters who did not come from his ethnic group – the Luo. Secondly he worked hardest not for his social class which was the new African middle class that arose after the Second World War, but rather for those less privileged than he was – the working class and those who for some reason or other were unable to complete high school or university education. This is the sense of vocation I spoke about at the start of this lecture. Again, there was no money for him in any of these thankless tasks. No “kitu kidogo” that was to corrupt our country later. How many of our leaders today can boast of a record of public service like this?

Tom had that rare trait in Kenya politics today – the capacity to appeal to all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity or race. On the eve of our independence from Britain in 1963, KANU (which was a very different party from what it is today) decided to field Tom for the Nairobi Central seat – as it was then. This was to be the last constituency he represented in Parliament.

Why did KANU leaders – Kenyatta, Odinga, Gichuru and Chokwe — want Mboya to stand in Nairobi Central. It is because, as they judged rightly, he was the only African politician who could appeal to the Kenya Asian voters. As it turned out, they were right. He won the seat by a wide margin.

Mboya’s capacity to win the confidence of voters from racial and ethnic groups other than his own was already evident in the 1957 and 1961 elections when he won the Nairobi East seat (as it was then) even though the voters were predominantly Kikuyu. In 1960, Kenyan nationalists brought from Lancaster House the MacLeod Constitution. It provided for the first election, which brought Kenya an African majority parliament the following year. His opponents in Nairobi East tried to use tribalism to campaign against him. It backfired. Campaigning with the symbol of “Ndege” to symbolize his achievements in sending Kenya student airlift, he won the election with a landslide – 29,000 votes against his opponents 3,000. This landslide came from those Kikuyu ex-detainees he had defended in the 1950s, and the “mama mbogas” of Eastlands, the Luo, Kamba, Luhya and Mijikenda labourers who knew the record of his work from the days of the Local Government Workers union, and the KFL.

In view of the ugly tribal conflicts that arose after his assassination in 1969, it is worth remembering that ordinary wananchi in Kariakor, Majengo, Hamza, Bahati, Ofafa Kunguni, Mbotela and Kariobangi had no problem at all voting for him. As always, we see that tribalism was a disease that started from the top of the political ladder. It is still is. As we try to rebuild our country from the ashes of decades of dictatorship and tribal conflict, we should never forget this. We as leaders have the capability to unite or divide our people – be they Africans, Asians or Whites, Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Tom chose unity and he showed us the way in word and deed.

Having found it impossible to continue into university education after Mangu, Tom was determined to do as much as he could to ensure that those in similar social circumstances did not suffer his fate. Not that he stopped his education when he left school. After Jeans School and Oxford he read prodigiously. He could hold his own in debates with the best of scholars. His withering on-stage demolition of the anti-Africanization report by 18 economists at the University College, Nairobi, in 1968 is still remembered as one of finest intellectual debates in Kenyan academic history.

He did not have the insecurity that some politicians have of people better educated than they are. He was not part of the PhD (i.e. Pull Him Down) brigade – that is those who treat their intellectual betters with fear and who always try to pull them down to the lowest common factor.

That is why he went to great lengths to ensure that Kenyans who lacked university education at home could get it abroad, and especially in the US where he had friends like the Kennedy Foundation and African-American Association. Today, Kenyans seem to respect anyone with money no matter how he or she earned it. Let us never forget that under our best nationalist leaders like Tom Mboya what you knew mattered more than what you owned. Knowledge not money is what pushes a country forward. The sooner we retrace our steps to what Tom taught us the better for Kenya.

By Way of Conclusion:

I do not want to leave you with the impression that as a politician, Mboya had no faults. All great statesmen do. For all his greatness, Churchill was compulsive and he meddled unnecessarily with the armed forces. Saint that he was, Ghandi would not hear of partition in India even when it was a reality. Mboya had very little patience with ill-informed, ill-read politicians who loved empty slogans with no substance behind them. He was such a sharp debater that he often left his opponents licking their wounds and made no apologies for it. Yet in spite of all that he served his country well.

That is why this evening we are commemorating one of the saddest moments the history of post-independence Kenya and indeed of Africa – his death in the hands of an assassin in 1969, at the tender age of 33. For when he was shot the sound rang around the world. Radio stations in the US broke the news with shock and disbelief. He had just returned from an US tour. In the following morning, his assassination was front page news in The New York Times, The Times of London, Washington Post, Le Monde and the Times of India – to mention but a few. Television stations around the world extensively covered it. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) lead item in its international news that day was the following: “One Africa’s youngest and most brilliant politician, Mr. Tom Mboya of Kenya has been assassinated”. And the BBC has never been accused of hyperbole.

The world mourned his passing. And all those who loved him wept with his young family.

Upholding the dignity of Africans in the world.

Nationalism and Nation-building.

Public service without discrimination.

Fighting tribalism and racism at once.

Cultivating one’s intellect as a virtue in its own right.

African development and African socialism.

The benefits of a mixed economy as he called it.

These were the watchwords of a world statesman who took politics as a calling, not as a business.

“Here was a man take him all in all”

we shall not behold the likes of him again”


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