Why British preferred Mboya-Ngala deal to Kenyatta-Odinga pair

KADU leader Ronald Ngala.
A pre-independence plot by the British to force Coast independence hero and KADU leader Ronald Ngala to work with KANU’s Tom Mboya would have changed the course of Kenya’s history had it gone through. 

Revelations in Keith Kyle’s The politics of the independence of Kenya show the grand plans the departing colonisers had for the two men whom they considered “golden men” moderates who could steer Kenya to a more glorious future than their comrades. 

Both men would later die in controversial deaths at different times; Mboya by a bullet in open streets and Ngala in a lonesome highway. 

According to a brief prepared by Colonial Secretary Reggie Maudling on the eve of the second Lancaster Conference that ran between February 15 to April 6 1962, Kenyatta and Odinga were extremists of KANU and would undoubtedly turn out tribal to the core. 

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“I think it is fair to say that their approach is essentially tribal in character and if they come to power (and I would expect them to use any means of doing so) we can expect a determined effort to assert Kikuyu domination under Kenyatta’s leadership throughout Kenya,” he wrote. 

According to the secret missives reproduced in Kyle’s book, Mboya was deemed more national but could not be sold out well without merging him with KADU elements like Ngala.

Michael Cary, Macmillan’s Deputy Private Secretary held similar views. He considered Kenyatta and Odinga “dangerous and unreliable” and recommended that “it would be much easier for us, both before and after independence to work with the government of the centre under Mr Mboya.” 

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Kyle says in their assessment of personalities, the British had reached a halfway point in the swing of the pendulum. They had started aiming to separate ‘moderates’ like Ngala from the ‘extremist’ Mboya and now they were trying to split the ‘moderate’ Mboya from ‘extremist’ Kenyatta and Odinga. 

But the men the British wanted to pair up had no love lost for each other. Kyle says Ngala had a particular disregard for Mboya, deeming him the epitome of the KANU dictatorship. Mboya, on the other hand, was obsessed with KANU’s might and preferred a post-independence coalition. 

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Moral courage

They had come a long way together as LegCo members. In fact, at the first Lancaster House conference, the British had singled out the pair as leaders of the Kenyan delegation, Ngala chairing and Mboya as secretary. 

Muliro and Odinga who were at the time presidents of the then existing political parties, KIM in Odinga’s case and KNP in Muliro’s were left out.

At the actual conference, Mboya outshone Ngala, leaving no chance to portray himself leader of the delegation. “If Mboya misbehaves after we have formed the government, we know where to put him,” said Ngala once quipped of Mboya’s tendency abrasive nature, which earned him description of the man with verbal facility, little patience for endless talk but lacking in moral courage. 

“He is completely unacceptable to KADU under all circumstances. We honestly, sincerely and firmly reject Mr Mboya as a person. For seven years I was a member of Legco. The one man I have learnt never to trust is Mr Tom Mboya”. 

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When the conference ended, the British had managed to somehow elevate Ngala to the same stature as Kenyatta. Despite everything they had done to elevate Mboya, they had come to sell Mboya, including “showing him kingdoms of the earth” they realised he would never be accepted.

In the coalition government that was formed, Kenyatta and Ngala became ministers of state, indicative of where power lay. They both shared the constitutional affairs docket. But the fixation with elevating Ngala was so apparent that in Maulding memoirs he mistakenly refers to both as Joint Premiers even though there was nothing of the sort. 

The other KANU and KADU luminaries - Moi, Mboya, Muliro, Gichuru and Mackenzie shared the other dockets. One notable however missed out in this sharing of spoils: Odinga. 

Despite being Vice President of KANU, Maulding would hear none of Kenyatta’s pleas to give Odinga the finance docket, claiming he could not accommodate in a government a man who was in “regular receipt of large sums of money from communists”. 

In pre-independence days, Ngala’s KADU struck such stubborn tone that Blundell is said to have grumbled that they were in such a “highly emotional and non-constructive mood that it is almost impossible to get them to see reason on anything. 

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Its leaders earned a few epithets, Moi described as “showing little enthusiasm for political restraint,” and Muliro being “thoroughly difficult and uncooperative”. Moi was to later earn accolades from the British, who described him “easily the most important KADU figure after Ngala and even including Ngala.” 

When the 1963 independence elections were held, KANU floored KADU by 72 to 32 in the House of Representatives and 20 to 16 in the Senate. Both sides won three of the six regional assemblies that took part in the election. 

Ngala eventually became President, but of the Coast Regional Assembly, as Moi became the Rift Valley President. 

When the Kenya National Museums finally erects the statue of Ngala in Nairobi, in a street named after him, it would be completing the ironic time warp for the inimitable harbinger of regionalism. 

In his time, when Kenyans were consumed in the euphoria for independence, Ngala - together with others like Moi staked out for a devolved government structure appreciative of Kenya’s tribal outlook. 

And although they were later swallowed by the might of the independence government, the fears they had raised would plague Kenya for over 50 years before Kenyans came on their knees in 2010 and returned a version of Majimbo through devolution. 

And all the ideals they stood for - including legal appreciation of regions and tribes - have found expression in the 2010 Constitution through provisions on devolution and regional balance in appointments. 

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