Tom Mboya: What Kenya Lost By Taking Out Its Brightest Star
July. 15, 2020
July 1969 was a month when history changed forever. For much of humanity, eyes were firmly fixed on the skies. Far above them, for eight days starting on the 16th, three men left the bounds of earth, on their way to set foot on the surface of the moon. In Kenya, though, eyes and thoughts were not cast skywards. Ten days before the moon landing, all attention was on a little patch of ground on a small island on Lake Victoria. On July 10, 1969, Tom Mboya was buried on Rusinga Island. Five days before that, on a Saturday afternoon in Nairobi, Tom Mboya had walked into a chemist’s shop. He had bought a bottle of lotion and chatted to the Chhanis, the proprietors of the pharmacy. He had then stepped out, straight into a gunman who fired two bullets into him. Mboya was dead within the hour.
With his murder, Kenya was shaken as it had never been before, and hasn’t since. A certain innocence was shattered. There had been political murder before — Pio Gama Pinto had been shot dead four-and-a-half years before. But Mboya’s killing shifted something fundamental in the Kenyan political firmament. Before July 5, 1969, one could console oneself about the possibilities of reconciliation among a not-quite-fully-formed Kenyan political elite. After July 5, 1969, all myths were shattered. Whoever ordered the killing — and until today this mystery has never been solved conclusively — had decided that they were no longer taking chances on the succession of a president who was suddenly showing his mortality. Jomo Kenyatta had been stricken the previous year. Mboya’s biography, written a decade after his murder, is subtitled The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget. It is an apt title. Mboya is now, in the public imagination, merely a street and a monument. What is perceived as his memory is perhaps a misremembering? Who, then, was Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya? Why was it said of him that his death was when Kenya’s train came off the rails? Why, 50 years later, must we cast a gaze back with great interest? Mboya was a young man in a hurry. Even as he jostled politically with his cohort as Kenya came to independence and after, he stood head and shoulders above them. His politics was essentially forward-looking. He had used his positions of leadership in the labour movement to forge strong links within Africa and beyond, giving him access to powerful networks, significant amounts of financial resources, and an international profile that put him right at the forefront of global affairs.
He was on the cover of Time in March 1960, when getting on the cover of that magazine was a significant achievement. He was getting these international accolades more than three years before Kenya’s independence. He was Kenya’s foremost spokesperson on the international scene, leaving one with a lingering sense of loss and of what might have been. In Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget, David Goldsworthy outlines how nervous Mboya was becoming in the months and years before July 1969. While he had engineered Kanu to position himself to take over (he was Secretary-General), the enemies were circling. He was beginning to be regarded as an interloper by the ethnic praetorian guard forming around Kenyatta. They allowed for a Joseph Murumbi, who served a hapless seven months as Vice President because he was seen as a harmless dreamer. They allowed for a Daniel Moi because he was an even safer choice, seen as controllable by the far more urbane group around the President. Mboya, however, was none of this. He was ambitious and well-connected. He did, too often for his own good, show an element of arrogance and disdain for the parochial and the small-minded. At the same time, he was no longer trusted by the nascent opposition. The reason the vice presidency was serially vacant was because Kenyatta had decisively broken with his erstwhile ally, Oginga Odinga. But because Mboya had been, unfairly or otherwise, seen as a stalking horse for the conservative Kikuyu elements around Kenyatta, and because he had so brilliantly outflanked Odinga and his allies, he was not acceptable to Odinga’s group. It was then conveniently remembered that he was not quite Luo, seeing as his Rusinga Island antecedents were actually Abasuba.
From this precarious position, trying to thread the needle on a nervous political stage, Mboya approached the 1969 elections knowing that matters were coming to a head. His enemies were confident that they could diminish him further. And he knew that it was not just political annihilation they were after. There was a distinct possibility of physical danger. He confided in letters (which he was so sure were being surreptitiously opened and read) that political forces in Kenya were bent on cutting him down to size before fate made the presidential contest an open one. The obvious question then is why, if he was steadily losing influence, was Mboya important enough to kill? The reason, perhaps, lay in his character and political skill. He was by far the most talented politician and the best organiser in the country. He could call upon resources that few had access to. At this time, no one knew how long Mzee was going to stay alive, and thus whatever plotting was going on was, in essence, happening in the dark. You could try and isolate Mboya, but you knew that you could not keep him down. The decision was thus to get rid of him, permanently. What would have become of the man and his career had Mboya lived?
Would Mboya have stayed patiently biding his time as Kenya’s politics went through the sclerotic 70s — with rapacious personalities taking advantage of the infirmities at the top? Would he have participated in the intrigues and counter-intrigues of the middle of the decade, or would he have tired of these and sought to deploy his prodigious talents elsewhere? It is intriguing to imagine Mboya striding on the world stage, perhaps even as a UN secretary-general, and coming back to resume leadership in Kenya once the path was clear.
Let’s indulge in some further counterfactuals, and assume the inevitability of a Mboya presidency. How would he have performed? Would he have patiently consolidated democracy in the young nation, with all the messiness and compromises necessary? Or would he have been impatient to carry out an ambitious economic and developmental programme, ruthlessly casting aside those who were incapable or insufficiently committed? Of course, this would have depended on when he ascended. Had it been in the 1970s, a President Mboya would have had to deal with the oil shocks and economic slowdown. Would Kenya have avoided the paranoia and lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s? How would a former President Mboya have behaved as an elder statesman? A creature of the global elite, traversing the world on missions large and small, or a homebound sage, dispensing political wisdom? Or would he have tired of the ceaseless decades of endless activity and retired quietly to an undisturbed dotage? But counterfactual history is just that — the fertile imaginings of what could have been. What is that Kenya’s greatest political talent was murdered 50 years ago. The man who designed Kenya’s flag, named Banki Kuu ya Kenya and founded Kanu, was shot dead on a July afternoon before he reached the full flowering of his colossal political, organisational and strategic power. One fateful month. When humanity reached for the heavens. And Kenya snuffed out our brightest star.
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