52 years since assassin cut short industrialist Tom Mboya’s life

Tom Mboya [centre] and Jomo Kenyatta [right] meeting the Governor in January 1963 [Courtesy]

It is 52 years today since Tom Mboya’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullets on July 5, 1969 a few metres from the statue of a leader many Kenyans living today never got to know.

Still miffed by his lofty achievements in just 39 years of life, pundits wonder how he managed to pull off so much so fast. Mboya was Minister for Economic Planning and Development when he was suddenly stopped in his tracks.  

We take a fleeting glance at the man whose bones repose under a bullet-shaped mausoleum on Rusinga Island, Homa Bay County.

At only 28, Mboya was elected to chair the first All African Peoples Conference (AAPC) in Accra, Ghana in 1958. Five years earlier, in 1953, he had become the first Secretary-General of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL), now Cotu, at 23.

He was independent Kenya’s first Cabinet Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs in 1963 aged 33 and until his death, was the Secretary-General of independence party, Kanu from 1960.

Ambrose Ahono Obadha, 77, 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 share rare insights into Mboya’s life and tragic death.

“Among the many things reflected in Mboya’s statue on Moi Avenue are the phases of the struggle that gave birth to Kenya as the sovereign nation that it is today,” states Obadha, his face brightening up with reminiscences of the man he considers Africa’s Martin Luther King. 

Lancaster House

“Mboya was the quintessence of intelligence, charm, leadership and oratory who spearheaded the negotiations for Kenya’s independence at Lancaster House conferences,” adds Obadha.

Koriwa chimes in: “His statue symbolises the post-independence political intrigues anchored deeply in the cold war era and ensuing manoeuvres that have lingered on to date.”

Koriwa adds after a pensive pause: “The so-called Kiambu mafia could have been behind the killing brazenly executed on July 5, 1969 by one Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, but truth be told, the actual brains were elsewhere."

Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta join other KANU supporters in celebrating election results on May 1963 [Courtesy]

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 that today carries his name.

He says the plot to eliminate Mboya was part of a larger scheme hatched soon after independence ostensibly 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,” deems Koriwa.

He opines that Kenya was targeted with the aim of getting rid of the Kikuyu-led regime in fear that Mau Mau war veterans who hailed largely from that community would influence the Government to adopt communist policies as revenge for what they went through.

“To that end, United States Ambassador to Guinea 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 American envoy '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 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 citing Attwood’s book titled ‘The Reds and The Blacks’ that was 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 recounts.

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.

A strategy to nip the Kenyan Luo clout in the bud started with those in the Cabinet 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.

Mboya, together with his brother Alphonce Okuku who worked in Addis Ababa at the time, and his Permanent Secretary Phillip Ndegwa flew back to Kenya on Friday, July 4, 1969 and was gunned down in broad daylight the following day inside a pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue). Unprecedented chaos and turmoil that erupted left a nation shaken to the core.

Curiously, noted Obadha, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) carried news of Mboya’s death before the Voice of Kenya (VoK), now KBC, did.

Related Topics

Tom Mboya