Why Mboya is the man Kenya should not forget

There was no fanfare for politician Tom Mboya when he made a six-hour stopover at Orly Airport in Paris in August of 1960. No visits to the Foreign Office on the Quai d’Orsay. No informal meetings with Government officials. France was busy entertaining the newly minted Cameroonian Head of State Ahmadu Ahidjo with these very honours and was not about to break protocol to meet a firebrand leader from a British colony. Not even for a leader by then being touted by international news magazines as “a sure bet to be Prime Minister” of Kenya when the wind of change sweeping across Africa was done.

One nation eager to make sure they had the right friends as the balance of power changed in Africa had no such qualms. During Mr Mboya’s wait for a connecting flight, he was kept company by a lone American official, eager to be of use to a man seen as “America’s strongest ally” in Kenya. This simple fact says plenty about how Mboya’s meteoric rise came to be seen by his political rivals in subsequent years. America’s naked enthusiasm for the young man, who by then had endeared himself to members of at least two prominent political families in the United States, would later come to be the reason for his undoing politically and perhaps for his assassination.

‘Cold War’ politics

One US newspaper’s report of the Orly Airport meeting chided the French for their reluctance to reach out to Mboya. The report makes clear how strongly ‘Cold War’ politics was a factor in Africa at the time: it praises Mboya’s respect for the US and his “hatred of Soviet imperialism”, two factors key in ensuring property rights were respected when Kenya eventually became independent.

At the time of the Paris stopover, the 30-year-old former trade unionist was the most famous member of Kenya’s Legislative Council. He was Secretary General of the Kenya African National Union, a political party barely six months old set to lead the country into independence. He had made a name for himself as an impassioned orator and African nationalist, earning the admiration of Ghanaian president and Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah and other world leaders. He was also in the middle of the famous Airlift Africa project, a $1 million fundraising effort, through which 81 Kenyans would eventually travel to study at American universities. For this he had already earned the support of American baseball player Jackie Robinson, musician Harry Belafonte and future President John F Kennedy among others.

At home, he was a national hero rallying people from all communities behind a push for greater political participation and constitutional reform. Time magazine had him on its cover just five months earlier and had written dozens of stories about his impassioned defence of the Kikuyu and others suffering under colonialism. Around the world and at home, he was seen as a leader in waiting. Others, however, saw him as trouble.

According to his biographer, David Goldsworthy, Colonial Governor Evelyn Baring had once described him as a “completely indoctrinated man”, seeing the influence of British Labour Party official Barbara Castle and a left-leaning group in the party called the Bevanites. The Labour Party had paid for Mboya’s education at Ruskin college in the United Kingdom.

“He sees himself as the Kenyan Nkrumah and is only just 27,” Mr Baring wrote despairingly in one letter. Baring was alarmed at the aggressive demands for the end of white rule and retributive justice. Like others in his Government, however, he seemed to believe Mboya’s extreme remarks in speeches were only to keep up with the rhetoric of fellow politicians Argwings Kodhek and Oginga Odinga, all of whom were competing for popularity in a highly-charged anti-colonial atmosphere. He, however, held out hope Mboya may someday be a moderate politician the British could work with. “One day he may be brought round but at present he is pretty sinister and evil”. Given Mboya’s influence across ethnic communities, the colonial Government took no chances with him. Whenever the Nairobi African representative addressed political rallies, it was under police supervision, with officers hired to tape record his every word and search the tapes later for evidence of subversion. Indeed, when he eventually landed in Nairobi, the colonial police would probably be waiting for him. After a similar trip to the United States about one year earlier, he was met at the airport in Kenya with a search warrant that led to a two-and-a-half hour search of his luggage. Police were then concerned about a stopover in Tunis to meet other African leaders in a conference organised by Nkrumah. It would later emerge, after a US intelligence-sponsored ouster of the Ghanaian leader, he was in Tunis to counter the influence of other socialist-leaning African leaders.

Mboya could also expect to be met by thousands of supporters. Just a few months earlier, after returning from London, he was carried shoulder-high to address a crowd of 20,000 at the African Stadium (now the Nairobi City Stadium). The event was later described as “the biggest African political rally in Nairobi’s history”. He had earned their love and loyalty with regular Sunday afternoon speeches at the Makadara hall, attended by Kikuyu and Luo alike. He had spent most of his early working life defending Kikuyu interests and his appeal went beyond ethnic boundaries.

In his biography ‘Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget’, Goldsworthy wrote: “For (his audiences at the Makadara hall) Mboya represented hope. Here was a leader who could stand up to the Europeans and take them at their own games… a man who cared about the common people and understood their grievances.”

At this point in his life, both Mboya and the country he was fighting to liberate held the potential for greatness. Like the Thika-born son of an Abasuba sisal worker who had made his name fighting for the right of the Kikuyu, Kenya could have been blind to ethnic differences in its quest for self-determination. But while the former trade unionist lived up to some of his potential, the country he believed in fell far shorter than he hoped. The ideological wars he was busy fighting would eventually fester into ethnic rivalry and, ironically, explode into a dangerous rift following his killing in 1969 by a gunman whose masters remain unknown.

Personal rivalries

Mboya’s attempts to rally Kbackenyans around a nationalist vision were playing out in a political field rife with personal rivalries and ethnic suspicion. His arrogance rubbed some people the wrong way, with some accusing him of taking too much credit for things achieved collectively. The prospect of independence also sparked fears the Kikuyu and Luo, the two largest ethnic communities, would quickly dominate smaller ones. Indeed, even as he sat in Orly with his American friend, these fears were already taking formal shape.

Kanu had just been born five months earlier, with Mr James Gichuru as president, Mr Oginga Odinga as Vice-President and Mboya as Secretary General. Seen as representing the Kikuyu and Luo, the party was spurned by Kenya’s smaller communities, which formed the Kenya African Democratic Union three months later. Kadu, which had Masinde Muliro as President, Ronald Ngala as Vice-President and Daniel arap Moi as Chairman calling for the creation of a federal state (majimbo) to avoid the dominance of the Kikuyu and Luo. With the Kenya colony’s white settlers also angling for a say in how the country would change, it came down to tense negotiations over the new Constitution. Mboya was instrumental in resolving these differences, but the promises made – soon broken by the Kenyatta Government – sowed the seeds for the disharmony that caused tribalism to flourish in post-independence Kenya.

In 1969, Mboya was shot dead by an assassin in the heart of Nairobi. The man named as the actual gunman was Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, a Kanu youth activist who not only denied pulling the trigger, but also told a court Mboya was his longtime friend.

“Big man”

Njoroge, who was not caught at the scene, spoke of a “big man” who ordered the killing. Police say he was executed at 3am on November 8, 1969, taking the name of the big man with him to the grave. In a 2006 interview, Njenga’s brother Mr Elijah Njuguna claimed to have visited him in jail three years after the alleged execution.

Former Kasarani MP Nahashon Muchiri also claimed in Parliament in 2000 that Njenga had been secretly spirited out of jail and settled outside the country. These tales compound the mystery of the last chapter in the life of one of Kenya’s most remarkable leaders. It was recalled he had spend his life fighting to awake a Kenyan nationalism and to end tribalism. Such irony then that his death awoke tribal animosity that is yet to die down to this day. “The obscure trade unionist of today may well be the president or prime minister of tomorrow.” Remark by American politician and ICFTU Director George Cabot Lodge, believed to be in reference to Mboya.

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