The Deliberate and Witting Sanitization of the Assassination of Tom Mboya.


By Washington Osiro

They say that “history is written by the victors” and this past July 5 was no different.

This month marks forty-nine years since the cold-blooded murder of one of Africa’s most brilliant and forward-thinking minds, and with the occasion came the annual cavalcade of media write-ups and analysis about the late Tom Mboya.

Predictably, the write-ups/analysis are rote in their attempts to sanitize Mboya’s murder and muddy the waters re: the political and ethnicized underpinnings of the act that eliminated a veritable national leader and counterweight to Jomo Kenyatta’s hyper-tribal rule while starving Mboya’s Luo/Nyanza community/region of any appreciable amount of developmental shillings – an act whose impact is still being felt to this day. However, thanks to the internet and Amazon, said victors and their acolytes no longer have a monopoly on history or sole possession of history’s bloodline (information) or the platform on which to spin/propagate their storyline of choice to wit:

No write-up on Tom Mboya’s life can be complete but more importantly, credible, without placing, front and center, the “Big Man” his alleged assassin Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, implicated shortly after he was sentenced to “die”.  Anyone spinning events of that day any other way, given the trajectory of Kenya since then, is either being disingenuous or doing so to serve an end – one that is more favorable to the status quo – especially given the current mood/progression of the country.

One of the penultimate books on the man “Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget” (David Goldsworthy) adds intrigue onto the machinations surrounding Mboya’s death and the ensuing court case around it. This the writer does by calling into question the official position that Njenga was “hanged in secret on Nov. 8. The case was closed”. (p284). Beyond the personal loss felt by the man’s family and Luo/Suba communities, Kenya, as summarized by Goldsworthy, “lost a leader of great intellectual brilliance, vast practical competence, fine judgement, great drive, courage and dedication.” (p290) And an unmistakable, undeniable and inconvenient truth is that July 5, 1969 marked a turning point in the trajectory of Kenya’s progression as a unified and cohesive society into a balkanized, disjointed and permanently distrusting collection of ethnicities whose allegiances were more to tribal chieftains and their ability to access and control the feeding trough (national treasury) than to the nation and to national development.

Andrew Morton, writing in “MOI: The Making of an African Statesman” wrote that in killing Tom Mboya, Kenya’s “swansong of tribal unity…..or the illusion of that unity” came to an end even as the paranoia of Kenyatta and his acolytes deepened. (p100) The visceral reaction to Mboya’s assassination, across the entire country save Central/Mt. Kenya region of Jomo Kenyatta, scared the aging first president and his “kitchen cabinet” and as most demagogues are wont to do, the man receded to the safety of his tribe – the Kikuyu – and circled the wagons. The oathing that followed the death of Mboya, oathing ordered by Jomo Kenyatta, only ossified the ethnicized and entitled tone of Kenya’s socio-political and economic culture; one that has become deadlier over the years and no amount of sanitizing or selective piecing together of the country’s history can and/or will change that.

Daniel Branch (Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011) writes that “(F)rom 1969, the president (Jomo) set out to establish a Kikuyu ascendency that dominated the main institutions in the country…..(with) many members of the circle that formed around Kenyatta…..drawn from the elite of…..Kiambu.” (p99). The foregoing sentiment is echoed by David Sandgren (MAU MAU’S CHILDREN: The Making of Kenya’s Post-colonial Elite). The professor of history (Concordia College) offers the open secret that “…..being a Kikuyu (during Kenyatta’s presidency) was a distinct advantage….as they found readily and easily found employment in a Gikuyu-dominated government….” (p96) Branch goes on to write that Kenyatta “turned to oathing in order to unify Kikuyu behind him…..(a move that) accelerated after Mboya’s murder…..” (p85)

The historian goes on to write that alongside oathing, with its historical roots in Kenyatta’s GEMA base, the country’s first president “placed too great a responsibility on private individuals and organizations for the delivery and management of key public goods…..” (p98). This was the beginning of official/grand corruption that has overwhelmed the first president’s son Uhuru. Former Head of Civil Service Jeremy Kiereini (A Daunting Journey) offered an equally dark prognosis on the “chai” or oathing that followed Mboya’s murder in a chapter aptly titled “Fear and Uncertainty” (p175-181).

It is true that Tom Mboya will be remembered for accomplishments that include the abstract and conceptual formulation of Kenya’s Constitution, the single-party rule embodied in the KANU Manifesto and Sessional Paper No. 10 – all significant accomplishments no doubt. (“Retracing Tom Mboya’s last days” Daily Nation, July 2018) However, just as the murder of a man most historians consider one the least tribal leader in the country’s history compelled Kenyans to wonder what might have been, a Kenyan version of Camelot if you may, it also set in motion a chain of events that continue to be real and palpable to everyday Kenyans.

Kenyans continue to pay a high price – literally and figuratively – because of a corrupt, incompetent and entitled leadership; one unafraid of any consequences because its legitimacy is predicated, much like Jomo Kenyatta’s was after the assassination of Mboya, on ethnic/regional loyalty. Colin Leys (Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economics of Neo-Colonialism) in a prescient analysis writes that “the Kikuyu bourgeoisie were well aware that many of their special advantages depended on their political dominance within the state apparatus….(and) so long as a critical mass of fellow tribesmen believed that then the numbers reinforced the elite’s position of power while repulsing any (internal) threats/challenges to that dominance (p205).

There is slight difference between the eloquence embodied in Uhuru Kenyatta’s words – weeks after unleashing his forces on innocent Kenyans – and his father Jomo’s elegant words in the “Foreword” he penned for the book “Tom Mboya: The Challenge of Nationhood” in September 1969, less than three months after the death of the author (Mboya) in circumstances implicating persons linked, directly or indirectly, to Jomo Kenyatta himself. Indeed, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Mboya’s death also exposed the hypocrisy of Jomo Kenyatta; a trait the father shared with the son. In their book “Decolonization & Independence in Kenya: 1940-93”. B.A. Ogot and W.R. Ochieng point out that Jomo and associates “preserved what they most needed from the colonial state…..particularly law-and-order…..even retaining the services of European officers…..” (p93).

The same man who decried the divide-and-conquer machinations of the colonizers resorted to the same underhandedness in a desperate attempt to mollify the Luos, checkmate Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the then-undisputed leader of the group (now that Mboya had been murdered) AND yes, divide-and-conquer the group as well. Kenyatta “recalled Odero-Jowi” from the East African Community” to become the new Minister for Economic Planning and Development at the same time two other Luos were promoted to the government.” (p285 – D. Goldsworthy).

While an understandable, indeed timely approach to aid the nascent polity’s smooth transition into independence, this reliance on foreign know-how and the (military) power they brought to bear belied the man’s (Jomo) talk of “sovereignty”; “nationalism” and “independence”. It also set the stage for the dangerously prominent levels of reliance on foreign aid/debt the son has now saddled Kenya with only that this time, China has replaced the former colonialists Great Britain.

As repeatedly pointed out by many including then-visiting US President Barack Obama (in 2015), Mboya’s Kenya was a country that was seen by most developmental economists as among the next independent countries to follow in the footsteps of the Four Asian Tigers of the late 70s/early 80s. This was based on the legacy of the British: A well-educated base, infrastructure that was the region’s best, government institutions that worked relatively well, a president with broad national support and overwhelming international goodwill.

Along with the avarice that “began in 1961 after Kenyatta returned from detention….” (Joe Khamisi – “Kenya Looters and Grabbers: 54 years of corruption and plunder by the elite: 1963- 2017” (p49), the circling of the ethnic wagons and balkanization – hastened by the assassination of Tom Mboya – sent Kenya into a tailspin of political-power-by-any-means-necessary ethos not to mention an it’s-our-turn-to-eat “hi pesa si ya mama yako” recklessness that has only gotten worse as evidenced by reports of the last several months.

In the end, Kenyans may never know who exactly killed Mboya or ordered the hit. This fact is reiterated by David Goldsworthy. The investigation into Mboya’s murder, much like the ones conducted by subsequent (Kenyan) governments – JM, Ouko, Msando – was suspect and shrouded in partisan incompetence and official cover-up. Notwithstanding, the effect of Tom Mboya’s death is still being felt to this day and it behooves Kenyans who profess (a) love of/for country and of its history to place under intense scrutiny, the actions of the government of the day and her progenies before, during and after events of July 5, 1969.

Because as presciently noted by philosopher George Santayana and repeatedly demonstrated by Kenya, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it; those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Washington M. Osiro is a Kenyan based in Northern California. He went to Nairobi School and later studied Political Science at University of California in San Diego’s John Muir College; while writing for The Voice & Viewpoint, then-San Diego’s premier African-American newspaper. He is the author of the books “WUODHA: My Journey from Kenya to these United States” and the “Malo’s Amazing Adventures!” series (co-written with his son) all published by Friesen Press.