Why Mboya grew even more popular in death

Tom Mboya. [File, Standard]
There is nostalgia manifesting in the form of memorials for the departed powerful. The memorials are public functions for the living, not the dead, and the reasons range from attempts to relive memories, self-legitimisation, or expressions of despair over what might be happening. Ali A Mazrui captured this phenomenon when he wrote about dead heroes becoming very popular as long as they stay dead.

The living shower praises on men whose killings they might have played a role. Few dead heroes could out-do Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese firebrand who became the focus of political adulation. Memorialising Lumumba became a ritual and a source of inspiration even to Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu. Ritualising memorialisation is also a sign of despair as things go wrong and the participants tend to deify and turn the dead into super heroes. If only so and so had not died, things would be different. He would know how to fix current troubles.

Similarly, Kenya has its heroes and ritualised memorials, and some could be a result of public despair. This would be a consequence of daily bombardment of high level misdeeds, clergy lost in spiritual wilderness, greed and seeming loss of sense of public service on the part of elected officials, judicial decisions that defy ordinary common sense, and accusations and counter-accusations within the executive branch of government. They give an impression that all is not well and hence a feeling of desperation that finds hope in ritual memorialisation of select heroes.

Political schemer

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Among such heroes was Tom Mboya who, having been killed in July 1969, receives ritualised memorialisation 50 years later. Mboya, the politician, and Mazrui, the political scientist, had a few things in common, besides brilliance. Both were British protégés, especially of Margery Perham at Oxford, overcame initial handicaps to become stars in their fields, and attracted Euro adulation.

It was Mboya, the skillful political schemer, who became the acceptable face of African leadership which disturbed other African leaders such as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.The rivalry between the two men regarding who would replace Jomo Kenyatta in case a vacancy occurred, dominated Kenya in the years of transition from colonialism to republicanism. Mboya’s Euro connections gave him an edge over Odinga in a Kenya that was openly capitalistic and pro-West. Initially, in 1958, Odinga had pricked Mboya’s power balloon. Mboya returned the favour by constitutionally kicking Odinga out of presidential succession. He, in turn, was manipulated into another world.

The 1960s were chaotic and assassins killed young political firebrands, like Mboya. The decade had started with the killing of Lumumba in January 1961 and followed in June 1963 by the death of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Five months later, John F Kennedy, Mboya’s friend died in November 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Independent Kenya witnessed the death of Pio Gama Pinto in Nairobi in February 1965, the same month that Malcolm X died in New York. In his Africa tour, Malcolm had reportedly met Pinto in Nairobi.

White House

Malcolm had also warned Martin Luther King that they were in the same death boat; Malcolm died first. Mboya’s American friends, King and Robert Kennedy, were shot dead in 1968; King in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy in California. By then, Mboya’s star was already dimming domestically and globally. Then Richard Nixon, a man who had a beef with Mboya and had no liking for Kennedy’s friends, occupied the White House in January 1969. Nixon decided to cultivate his own African leaders who did not include Mboya. Symbolically the last to die in a decade of political turmoil in July 1969, Mboya’s mythical stature skyrocketed.

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Lumumba, Evers, Pinto, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Mboya had short lives, all dying before the age of 40 and each having big global impact. Their reputations grew in death. The July 2019 Mboya memorials after 50 years, for instance, attracted Kenyans of stature or their representatives, admirers and Mboya’s frenemies. The media hyped up the memorial with appropriate inaccuracies, albeit inadvertent, arising from poor research or adoration. Accuracy was irrelevant to the adulation and effort to make Mboya the probable absent saviour in times of despair.

Few people could equal Mboya’s scheming talents and ability to engage global power brokers. He worked hard before relaxing in popular places. His power rivalry with Odinga was ideological, generational, and personal. The Euro acceptable face of African leadership, he reportedly warned Joe Kadhi to find out whether he was hurting his own people in order to receive excessive mzungu praises. He was unique, memorable, and fits into euphoria.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU 

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