Tom Mboya monument adored and desecrated by fanatics

Tom Mboya's monument in Nairobi [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

On July 5, 1969, two men who had known each other since their youth met by chance outside a pharmacy along Government Road, now Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

Barack Obama Sr, father to former US President Barack Obama, had jokingly told Tom Mboya what a bad driver he was by parking his car wrongly and that he could be liable for a fine.

“Mboya laughed and walked into the pharmacy,” writes Sally Jacobs in the book, The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father.

As soon as Mboya walked out, gunshots reverberated outside the shop. Mboya was the target. Barack Obama Sr, one of the last people to see Mboya alive, would later testify against Nahashon Njenga, who was accused of the murder.

Njenga was later hanged at Kamiti Maximum Prison.

With the bullet, the dreams and ambitions of the 39-year-old, multi-faceted political strategist literally crashed on the cold pavement on Moi Avenue.  It took 42 years for the Government to recognise Tom Mboya by erecting a Sh20 million monument in his honour.

On the eve of the first Mashujaa Day celebrations in October 2011, retired President Mwai Kibaki unveiled the statue of the former trade unionist and cabinet minister 20m from the spot where Mboya was assassinated. Among the features on the monument were some flamingos whose wings symbolised the famous African students airlifts to America organised by Mboya. Barack Obama Sr was a member of the airlift generation.

The statue depicts Mboya wearing the trademark Ghanaian Kente dress that was gifted to him by President Kwameh Nkrumah due to the former’s crusade for workers’ rights. In the statue, Mboya’s right hand was depicted making a sweeping gesture. He was a charismatic orator who addressed mammoth crowds, hence the gesture.

Sadly, Mboya’s diehard followers, including fans of Kenyan Premier League club Gor Mahia, a football club he co-founded, could not let his bronze statue ‘rest in peace.’ They were accused of vandalising the monument in their regular pilgrimages to the “shrine” they saw as a spiritual charm before and after a match.

Numerous media footage would show members of the “Green Army”, as Gor Mahia are popularly known, atop the monument, with some hanging precariously on Mboya’s hand, with activist Boniface Mwangi admonishing them to “show some respect for Tom Mboya” in a tweet.

On several occasions, it took a few teargas canisters to clear the unruly mob that had turned the monument from adoration to desecration. However, Charles Okumu, a tour guide who also acts as a custodian for the monument since it was erected says Gor Mahia fans should not be blamed entirely for the desecration of the monument.

“We cannot solely blame it on Gor Mahia fans since Tom Mboya was among those who started the club. He was the patron in 1968. The location had become a favourite spot for hawkers who erected tents and blocked those intent on viewing the monument. That also paved the way for vandals,” says Okumu.

Okumu says majority of Kenyans respect the national values symbolized by the monument. Gor Mahia fans, he says, cannot to go to the statue of Dedan Kimathi or Jomo Kenyatta since the issue that matters to them is football. The statue had also become the lurking place of frogs and other ungainly creatures owing to the accumulation of urban filth and dirty water.

Last September though, the statue was pulled down and taken to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), custodians of Kenya’s national monuments, for renovations in a project that cost Sh4 million. It has since been returned to the spot and awaiting official unveiling.

According to Samson Malaki, an architect with NMK, it will be challenging to scale the monument that stands at 6.5 metres. Okumu says the restored monument will still attract hundreds of Kenyans on a daily basis since the location, commonly known as ‘Commercial’ has been a meeting point for decades.