Parallels between Tom Mboya's assassination and ongoing protests

A man stands his ground along Tom Mboya street during demonstration against the Finance Bill 2024 on June 2nd, 2024. [Kanyiri Wahito, Standard]

I’ll depart from the regular sketch to reflect on this momentous occasion. On this day, 55 years ago, one of the nation’s foremost politicians, Tom Mboya, died under a hail of bullets from an assassin.

Mboya’s bronze monument towers only metres from the spot where he was felled, and it has become the centrepiece of ongoing protests fronted by Kenyan youth.

This week, the youths adorned a face mask on Mboya and placed a teargas canister in one hand, and a bottle of water in the other.

These acts of artistic beautification (or defilement) do not transmogrify the freedom hero into a subversive element, even though placing a canister in Mboya’s hand has sinister echoes of violence.

The stronger symbolism, however, is the face mask that seeks to shield him from harm. Or the bottle of water to restore him.

There are many parallels between Gen Z in the streets and the life of Mboya.

More than two dozen youths and children have been cut down by police bullets.

Mboya’s assassin, Nahashon Njenga Njoroge, who was convicted of the murder, was unrepentant in court, demanding to know why police were harassing him, instead of the “Big Man” who assigned him.

To this day, it is unclear if “Big Man” was shorthand for Jomo Kenyatta or his top lieutenants.

Young Kenyans who have been shot in recent weeks are victims of State-approved violence.

Mboya was a Big Man in his own right, even though he came from a politically insignificant community known as the Suba. The community is linguistically and culturally distinct from the Luo.

Not that it mattered; Mboya grew up in different parts of the country, including Kilimambogo, where his father worked on a sisal plantation.

He spoke several local languages, but even this ability to morph and reconstitute himself was seen as an act of survival in an age when politics was organised around ethnicity.

If Mboya was an outlier in our national politics, as he records in his memoir, ‘‘Freedom and After’’, he was Kenyan first and pan-African second, which mirrors the “tribeless” youth who refuse to be identified by their last name.

Mboya was 38 when he was murdered, so he’d legitimately fit the “youth” moniker that applies to Gen Z and Millennials. That means he rose to the peak of national politics while still in his 20s, the same age as the youth in the streets.

And even though Mboya’s formal education was short-circuited by the grinding penury on the home front, his self-education never stopped.

He and Mwai Kibaki were the brains behind the economic blueprint popularly known as Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism.

He also organised students’ airlifts that sent hundreds of Kenyan youths to the US in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ideologically, that placed Mboya’s political leanings in the West, as did Kenyatta and many of his comrades, in contrast with those in the opposition, like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and JM Kariuki, who faced East.

Similar contestations are still vibrating through the nation, with Prezzo Ruto’s dalliance with the US giving rise to the claim he’s sold the nation’s sovereignty.

The return of IMF and the World Bank is seen as external meddling that could stoke civil strife.

But the element that connects Mboya’s life and Gen Z is his pan-Africanist credentials that saw him connect Kenya’s struggles with that of the rest of the continent and his renunciation of racial subjugation from the 70 years of British occupation of Kenya.

The colonial history is a vital connection between Mboya’s short life and the present moment. Some explanation can be found in Caroline Elkins’ 900-page tome, ‘‘Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire’’, published last year.

Reading through the text, one begins to understand why the police, even with so many other options to stop the protesters, from teargas to rubber bullets, still opt to use live bullets on fellow citizens.