Marking Tom Mboya’s 50th Anniversary And Why Kenyatta Hated Him

    It was Tom Mboya who had warned me that Pio [Gama Pinto] was in danger. If, given the concerted efforts to sideline him, he thought he might now be the one at risk, he did not show it.

    Perhaps under the surface he was very afraid, but there was no sign of him bowing out of politics. If anything, he seemed more audacious than ever, as witnessed during a party held at State House.

    The guests included a glittering array of international VIPs, among them [Pandit] Nehru. On arrival, Tom, who seemed to have been drinking and already knew many of the visiting dignitaries, proceeded to take Kenyatta’s arm and lead him around the room, introducing him to everyone in a grandiose manner, as if he himself were the President and Kenyatta the underling. Kenyatta was obliged to grit his teeth and endure the humiliation.


    The following day, I found Kenyatta in a foul temper, calling Tom Mboya all the names under the sun, saying how he wanted to crush him, and to emphasize the point, grinding his foot into the floor. A moment later, the door opened and Tom walked in. Kenyatta immediately smiled, greeting him warmly and heartily like a long-lost friend. Once again I thought, what a fantastic actor!

    In 1966, to oppose Kanu, Oginga Odinga formed his new socialist party, the Kenya People’s Union, with Achieng Oneko and Bildad Kaggia among its members. In June, 1966, a series of by-elections were held. Kanu won more seats, but the KPU took more votes overall. Bildad Kaggia, who had been elected in Murang’a, was ousted in a re-election the following day. The whole thing was stage-managed.

    There was no way anyone else could win. Tom Mboya, always a brilliant organizer, did everything, and behind him were the Americans and their money. I remember Tom once asking me to fetch something from the boot of his car and making a point of telling me not to disturb anything else there. But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked in a suitcase and found it packed with several thousand dollars. A key election held at Tigoni was a blatant fraud, paid for by the American Embassy. They had people at the Mayfair Hotel, a White man handing out cash notes to all the delegates, giving them free rooms and paying for everything.

    It was 1969, and Tom, increasingly short of funds, was begging and borrowing. He would ring me quite often to ask for a loan, but I had nothing to spare. On the morning of July 5, I parked my car on Government Road as usual, and was walking towards my office when, passing the ground floor pharmacy, I saw a figure standing close against the wall, his arm outstretched.

    I carried on and went up to my office. A while later, I heard gunshots. A man had been hit twice as he came out of the pharmacy. While crowds quickly gathered at the scene, an ambulance rushed the patient to Nairobi Hospital. But it was no good. Tom Mboya was dead.

    Kanu youth winger Nahashon Njoroge, later arrested for the crime, denied pulling the trigger, claiming he had long been a friend of Mboya. His statement to the police was short but memorable: “Why don’t you go after the big man?” It was assumed he meant the President, but as with Pio, I found it hard to believe Kenyatta would condone such an act.

    I knew Tom visited the pharmacy regularly, and knew the family that ran it. He would also park his car in the same place, by the nearby Ismaili Hotel. His assassins also knew this. I went to the pharmacy and spoke to the family. One young woman was still in shock. She had been greeting Tom, who was very popular and had friends everywhere, when, as she embraced him, she heard someone shout, ‘Tom Mboya is here!’ Seconds later, a bullet had passed by, touching her hair. The next one had hit Tom.

    Mboya’s funeral was a big affair, and this time, unlike Pio’s, who had been a nobody in the eyes of the public, Kenyatta would be attending. The feeling among Luos, Tom’s tribesmen, was that Kikuyus should stay away. With emotions running high, scores of police and soldiers had been drafted in, lining the roads as the mourners, led by his widow Pamela and the children, arrived at Holy Family Cathedral.

    Kenyatta was flanked by a tight group of security men. There was quite a crowd, with Kenyans of all faiths coming to pay their respects. Among them was Jeremiah Nyagah, a great friend of Tom’s. But he was also a Kikuyu, and when some Luos spotted him, they lost control. Surrounding his car, they began banging on the windows, shouting abuses and threatening to kill him. I rushed up and urged them to be calm, and that if they wanted to punish anyone, it should be whoever killed Tom.

    It was fortunate I was not a Kikuyu, and eventually the protesters dispersed. After the moving service, as the congregation filed out, trouble flared again. Suddenly, people were running everywhere, some crying, not from grief now, but tear gas fired by the security forces, lashing out with batons to disperse the crowd. Around the world, newsreels showed Tom Mboya’s funeral ending in scenes of chaos, anger and violence.

    On October 25, 1969, just months after Tom’s death, Kenyatta arrived in Kisumu to officially open the new Russian Hospital, a project that Odinga had set up. It was believed he wanted to signal his authority in this Luo-dominated area. Teachers and children were waiting to sing and read poems for the President. Also waiting were a contingent of angry Luos with placards that read: ‘Where is Tom Mboya.’

    As Kenyatta and Odinga began a heated exchange of words, the mood quickly turned hostile, violence broke out, and Government troops opened fire into the crowd. When the shooting stopped, 11 people were dead, with hundreds more injured. Odinga was arrested and placed in detention.

    On November 8, before sunrise, Njoroge was hanged for the murder of Tom Mboya. In the aftermath of the Kisumu massacre, the Kenya People’s Union was officially banned. Kenya was now a one-party state.

    By Fitz de Souza, Courtesy, Daily Nation 

    De Souza was Jomo Kenyatta’s lawyer and member of Parliament.

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