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Why Tom Mboya, JM Kariuki remain elephants in the room

By Dominic Odipo | May 27th 2013

By Dominic Odipo

He was flamboyant, articulate, highly intelligent and, as most ladies would agree, very handsome. He had left formal schooling only in Form Two but later ended up at Ruskin College, Oxford and rose to become the most effective parliamentarian this country has ever produced.

He could speak six languages on the trot in one public meeting even though by extraction he was a Luo who sprang from Lake Victoria but was born in the sisal plantations that still dot the Kilimambogo foothills.

This other one was also flamboyant, intelligent, handsome but, as most people who knew him would agree, not quite so articulate. But he was a true son of Kenyan soil who was born in Nyeri but today rests in eternal peace in Nyandarua.

He was a true walking contradiction: a millionaire racehorse owner and landowner who crisscrossed the country in his own light plane, gambled at international casinos but was loved by millions of the country’s poorest and landless.

A Kikuyu by extraction, he is the closest we have ever come to a truly Kenyan Member of Parliament.

You probably already know who we are talking about here. The first was Tom Mboya who was shot down in broad daylight on a Nairobi street in July 1969 while the second was Josiah Mwangi Kariuki whose badly mutilated body was discovered in the Ngong Forest in March 1975.

Of all the political assassinations that have just been documented by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), it is those of these two that fascinate the most.

Even though all death reminds all of us of our own mortality, there are certain deaths that remind us much more poignantly than others.

Those of TJ and JM, as these gentlemen were generally known, certainly fall in this later category.

Will the TJRC proceed to help us find out what actually happened to these two illustrious sons of our soil? Shall these TJRC revelations lead us to the men who actually ordered the deaths of these two men?

I doubt it. Not only have most of the trails gone cold but there are some people in this country still in very powerful and influential positions today that would certainly prefer to let these dogs lie. God bless them. In any case, that is not really our subject today.

Our subject today is just a little bit of informed speculation revolving around this seemingly straight-forward question: What would have happened if both TJ and JM had lived?

At the end of the day, all speculation is speculation. The difference is that some of it is based on fact while the rest is based on fantasy or fiction. What follows here, we believe, is based on the hard facts that were ruling in those times.

At the time of his death at the age of 39, Tom Mboya was, without doubt, gunning for the presidency of Kenya. He evidently saw himself as the best placed and the most qualified man to replace President Jomo Kenyatta upon his death or retirement. And, as the most effective parliamentarian in the country and the Secretary General of the ruling party, Kanu, he had no shortage of critical platforms from which to spring when the time came.

The only problem was that virtually all the other senior politicians within the ruling party at the time saw exactly what Mboya was trying to do.

Kiambu Mafia

If Mboya had been alive at the death of President Kenyatta in 1978, it is very difficult to see how he could have been stopped. As Secretary General of Kanu, he would have moved immediately to control the party and ensure his own nomination for the presidency.

One or two masterful eulogies in Parliament, or outside it, would have had the rest of the country weeping with, and for, him. And as a non-Kikuyu who could speak English, Kiswahili, Luhya, Dholuo, Kikuyu and Kikamba, he could almost certainly have got the rest of this country behind him before the Kiambu Mafia around Kenyatta knew exactly what was going on.

The bottom line is that, if Mboya had been alive in 1978 when Kenyatta died, Vice President Daniel arap Moi would probably never have become President. By default, therefore, probably no single Kenyan benefited more from Tom Mboya’s death than Moi.

What about JM Kariuki?

Whereas Mboya was apparently waiting for Kenyatta to exit the political stage before he struck, JM was ready and willing to take Kenyatta on directly. During the run-up to the general elections of 1974, JM was banned form addressing any public rally in his own constituency of Nyandarua North. Nevertheless, he romped back into Parliament with a landslide. Hardly a year later, he was assassinated.

If a free and fair election had been held in this country in 1975, there is no doubt that JM Kariuki would have defeated Kenyatta.

JM would have run away with almost all the rest of our tribes along with most of the non-Kiambu Kikuyu vote. Therefore, whereas JM threatened Kenyatta’s hold on power directly, Mboya did not.

The more intriguing question is this: What would have happened if both Mboya and JM were alive and very much in the political mainstream at the time of Kenyatta’s death in 1978? What would have happened?

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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