Remembering the man Kenya wanted to forget

Mukalo Kwayera @kwayeram

Writing in an online publication two weeks ago, economist David Ndii reflected: “Anyang’ Nyong’o (Kisumu governor) recalls asking Lee Kwan Yew for his thoughts on how Singapore’s and Kenya’s development trajectories diverged, to which Lee Kwan Yew quipped that we had killed Mboya.”

This reaction prompts a few critical questions: How would Kenya be today had Tom Joseph Mboya lived? Would Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product be at par with those of the Asian Tigers as was the case at independence? What were his chances of becoming president? What made Mboya tower above political peers and even seniors?

Most of these and other questions remain unanswered today even as the world marks 50 years since the assassination of the astute Pan-Africanist.

In his book, Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted To Forget, biographer David Goldsworthy points to Mboya’s “American Connection” which has been interpreted to mean more than just casual links with the US and very possibly the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA).

Mboya’s assassin Nahashon Njenga Njoroge (middle) being escorted back to Kamiti Prison after hearing of the murder case.

Those are some of the contenting views and perspectives on the former Economic Planning minister.

Mboya has a street,  a labour college, university and probably thousands of children named after him. And there is a statue erected in his honour. TJ is a brand, a legend and an icon. His name will likely live in perpetuity. 

Described as dynamic, intelligent and patriotic, Goldsworthy refers to him as a multi-faceted personality.

Here is how he sums him:” An ambitious and ruthless power dealer, a sometimes arrogant elitist, a brilliant political strategist, a charismatic speaker who could move White and Black audiences with ease, a superb organiser and a political pragmatist, all rolled into one.”

These observations remain true as the fame and respect for a man, whose life was brought to an abrupt end by an assassin’s bullet aged just 39, still linger on. 

Eloquent debater

Etched in most memories is an urbane, crafty, globally exposed, well-networked and revered trade unionists who were an eloquent debater and a master schemer. He was widely considered one of the top contenders to succeed President Jomo Kenyatta. This was to emerge as his Achilles heel.

On July 5, 1969, exactly half a century ago today, Nahashon Njenga plunged Kenya into darkness when he fatally shot TJ, the ruling Kanu secretary general and Economic Planning and National Development minister outside the then Chana  Pharmacy on Government Road, now Moi Avenue.   

The first Kenyan to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, Mboya draws mixed reactions.

Mboya’s widow Pamela (second left) and brother Alphonce Akuku (centre) during his burial at Rusinga Island. Photo/FILE AND COURTESY

Right from his trade unionism days, Mboya worked closely with, and enjoyed the confidence of the then Senator of Massachusetts and later President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and former US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy (JF’s brother) to establish education avenues for young Africans to study at America’s institutions of higher learning.

As fate would have it all of them were assassinated within a span of five years: Kennedy (1963), King (1968), Robert (1968) and Mboya (1969).

Later known as the Mboya Airlifts, the initiative resulted in ineligible students in the 1950s and 1960s travelling to America for studies.

Mboya Airlifts

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, veteran journalist Philip Ochieng and former Nyandarua North MP Kimani wa Nyoike were some of the beneficiaries.

While Barack Obama Snr, the father of former US President Barack Obama, joined the Hawaii University at around the same time the airlifts were taking place, contrary to popular belief, he was not a beneficiary of the programme, having found his way into the US via a different scholarship.

A self-assured character, TJ has been identified with his acclaimed economic blueprint commonly known as Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965 in which he espoused development policies incorporating the principles of African Socialism. 

But Mboya has also been blamed for having contributed to the death of Majimboism (the equivalent of devolution) and the bicameral parliament, that the founding fathers including Mboya himself, had negotiated for at the pre-independence Lancaster talks at Lancaster, UK.

Historians also fault Mboya even if unwittingly, for masterminding introduction of the single-party political system, through behind-the-scenes machinations.

The first casualty was the opposition Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) and soon after stoking the decades-long bad blood between President Kenyatta and his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga by precipitating a crisis that prompted the      Limuru Conference of 1966.

Owing to fierce ideological orientations that defined the bi-polar   Communist Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on and the capitalist west by the United States, hitherto bosom friends, Jomo and Jaramogi fell out; Kenyatta looking West and Odinga East with TJ emerging as the catalyst, standing firmly behind Kenyatta in the standoff.

To tame Jaramogi, Kanu hatched a scheme orchestrated by Mboya that saw the creation of six new positions of provincial Kanu vice-presidents, reducing Jaramogi to just one of the several.

Not one to take things lying down, Jaramogi resigned from Kanu and, together with fellow freedom fighters Achieng Oneko and Bildad Kaggia, formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) to precipitate what later came to be known as the “mini-election.” Jaramogi was replaced by Joseph Murumbi as vice president.

Two years after the Limuru conference and with political ties between him and Kenyatta getting increasingly strained, Jaramogi was placed under house arrest following the bloody riots in Kisumu that saw scores killed when crowds stoned the presidential motorcade after Kenyatta had opened the provincial hospital (named Russia).

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