Some 53 years ago today, Kenya lost Tom Mboya to bullets fired by an assassin in broad daylight in Nairobi. At 39, Mboya was immensely iconic, a towering Pan Africanist and Kenya’s charismatic Minister for Economic Planning and Development.
A lot has been said about the Mboya assassination that badly rocked the young nation. Did he ignore warnings that his life was under threat and that his death was being planned in high places by enemies determined to stop him in his tracks from succeeding ageing founding President Jomo Kenyatta?
Did he reject an offer by the United States to secretly beef up his security with black American bodyguards? Yet, with all manner of security gossip in the air, he paradoxically drove himself unaccompanied to the scene of his death.
The Mboya statue that stands a few metres away from where he was gunned down on what today is Moi Avenue in downtown Nairobi invokes many things about this super minister of his time, who literally dazzled all his peers. How did he manage to pull off so much so early in life?
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Here is a fleeting glance of the man whose bones repose under a bullet shaped mausoleum on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria after a life that impacted greatly on his motherland and Africa at large.
In 1958, aged only 28, Mboya was elected to chair the first All African Peoples Conference (AAPC) in Accra, Ghana. Five years earlier, in 1953, he became the first Secretary General of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL), the precursor of Cotu, at 23. He was independent Kenya’s first Cabinet Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs in 1963 aged 33 and until his death on July 5, 1969, was the Secretary General of independence party, Kanu from 1960.
I recently met two senior Kenyans, 78-year-old Ambrose Ahono Obadha, a retired telecommunications engineer who was a Commonwealth Scholarship student in London at the time of Mboya’s death and 80-year-old Walter Hongo Koriwa, a retired professor of geology and anthropology then studying at the University of Technology, Zurich in Switzerland. The duo wowed me with their singular insights into Mboya’s life and tragic death.
“Among the many things reflected in Mboya’s statue are the phases of the struggle that gave birth to Kenya as the sovereign nation that it is today,” says Obadha, his face brightening up with reminiscences of the man he considers Africa’s Martin Luther King.
“It customises the enduring disharmony between his Luo community and the Kikuyu that spawned at independence for purely myopic and selfish reasons, reaching a frightening crescendo at his death.
“Mboya was the quintessence of intelligence, charm, leadership and oratory who spearheaded the negotiations for Kenya’s independence at Lancaster House Conferences, set up the country’s key labour institutions and laid the foundation for Kenya’s capitalist and mixed economy at the height of the cold war,” narrates Obadha.
Barges in Koriwa: “His statue symbolises the post-independence political intrigues anchored deeply in the cold war era and ensuing maneuvers that have lingered on to date.”
Koriwa says the so-called Kiambu mafia could have been the face of the cold blooded killing by one Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, “but truth be told; the actual brains behind the brash murder were elsewhere”.
He conjures up a veiled link of Mboya’s death to that of Argwings Kodhek earlier that year, another Luo politician who at the time was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Kodhek died in a mysterious motor accident in Nairobi on January 29, 1969 along the road later named after him.
Koriwa says the plot to eliminate Mboya was part of a bigger scheme hatched by the Western powers soon after independence to contain the spread of communism in Africa.
“The elimination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo Leopoldville (DRC) in 1961, the overthrow of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 were part of that elaborate scheme,” he says.
He says Kenya was targeted with the aim of finishing the Kikuyu-led regime for fear that Mau Mau war veterans who hailed largely from the community would influence the government to adopt communist policies as revenge for what they went through.
Neutralised Soviet influence
“To that end, United States Ambassador to Guinea Mr William Attwood who had efficiently neutralised Soviet influence in that country and secured rich bauxite deposits for the US was posted to Kenya in 1964 as first US ambassador to watch over the new nation that had just become a republic,” relates Koriwa.
According to Koriwa, Attwood reached out to first British High Commissioner Malcolm MacDonald, who had served as Kenya’s last Governor and knew much about the fledgling nation, for advice on how to go about his covert assignment, only to learn that Jomo Kenyatta and his Kikuyu people posed no significant threat to Western powers in the cold war as initially perceived.
Obadha chips in at this juncture, citing Attwood’s book titled, The Reds and The Blacks, banned in Kenya in 1966 after it caused a huge diplomatic row between Kenya and the US by its ‘tell it all’ contents.
“I read the book in the United Kingdom in 1968 while studying at the College of Engineering and Science in London. The bits that irked the government included a section on skullduggery between Kenyatta and his Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” he recollects. Obadha says Attwood, in his book, divulges how MacDonald told him to forget about the Kikuyu and concentrate his energies on the Luo, a people known for their organisational prowess and charisma whose undisputed leader, Vice President Odinga, had an obvious soft spot for communist Soviet Union.
“MacDonald told Attwood, according to the book, that these were the people whose rank and file must be stopped by all means from ascending to power in Kenya or else entire East Africa would be fodder for communists,” he says.
Obadha says the British at the time believed that both Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Dr Milton Obote of Uganda were members of the larger Nilotic Luo ethnic outfit with ancient roots in the Sudan and Egypt.
A strategy to nip the Kenyan Luo clout in the bud starting with those in the Cabinet was agreed on, says Obadha, quoting Attwood’s book.
But Kodhek had to be taken out of the scene first before the prime quarry, Mboya who was fast positioning himself as Kenyatta’s likely successor, was brought down, Obadha claims.
He says Attwood portrayed the man who was Kenya’s first African lawyer as a darling of the Kikuyu for the way his law firm defended Mau Mau freedom fighters gratis, a personality deeply trusted by Kenyatta. As such, removing him violently was deemed inopportune; hence an arranged motor accident was settled on as the easier option in view of the fact that the minister always drove himself unaccompanied from a watering hole he frequented in the city.
“With Kodhek out of the scene without much furore, the Western powers went full throttle for Mboya, hiding behind the Kiambu mafia that dreaded and envied in equal measure his intellectual agility and nimbleness to assume power,” reflects Koriwa.
Obadha observes that curiously, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) carried news of Mboya’s death before Voice of Kenya (VoK).