Retracing Tom Mboya’s last days - Daily Nation

Retracing Tom Mboya’s last days

Sunday July 1 2018

Tom Mboya.

The president of the World Bank Mr George Woods (left) and the Kenya Minister for Planning and Economic Development Mr Tom Mboya in the early 1960s. PHOTO | FILE. NATION

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Forty-nine years ago this week, one of Kenya’s most influential leaders, Tom Mboya, was assassinated.

Mboya, the economic planning minister who was widely seen as a future president of Kenya, had foreseen his killing three months earlier.

In March 1969, Mboya was in New York attending a United Nations conference when he expressed the fear of being assassinated to three American friends. This took place on Long Island in the house of Robert Gabor.

He said the danger to his life had increased after the decision by President Jomo Kenyatta to call for a General Election in which he was expected to play a leading role as Kanu secretary-general. He believed his enemies in the party would want to use the chance to get rid of him.

"I don't want to dramatise it. But I was sitting directly opposite him and I had the distinct feeling that I had never seen him more apprehensive or concerned. He was embarrassed to be showing his feelings, Tom was usually a stoic guy,” recalled Frank Montero, one of the organisers of the student airlifts to the United States in the early 1960s.


The third American in the room was William X Scheinman, who funded the first airlift.

Two months after returning from the US, Mboya told his friend, Sir Michael Blundell, about the frustration he was undergoing in government.

He thought of resigning as a minister for a job at the United Nations headquarters, but Sir Michael urged him to stay on since he was still young. Two weeks later, on July 5, he was shot dead as he stood in the doorway of Chani’s Chemists on Government Road, now Moi Avenue in Nairobi.

Messages of condolence and outrage came from all over the world.

President Richard Nixon said, "We deplore this senseless act of violence against an outstanding African leader who has contributed so greatly to the building of the Kenyan nation and to the solution of the problems of developing Kenya.”


Mboya’s personal documents, currently kept at Stanford University in California, show the dream he had for Kenya.

His meteoric rise took place following the forced exit from the political scene of the "old guards", among them Jomo Kenyatta, after the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952.

When his activities became a major concern to his employer, the Nairobi City Council, where he worked as a sanitary inspector, he resigned and became fully involved in the affairs of the Kenya African Union (KAU), which was headed by his future father-in-law, Walter Odede, following the arrest of Jomo Kenyatta. When KAU was proscribed, leaving Africans without a political voice, Mboya, who by then had already gained a foothold in trade unionism, used the labour movement as a platform to air the plight of Africans.

In 1955 Africans were allowed to form political parties but on the district level. The first to be formed was the Nairobi African District Congress (NADC), headed by Argwings Kodhek.

Mboya joined the party but following a power tussle with Kodhek in the run-up to the 1957 elections he vied for the Nairobi LegCo seat as a worker’s candidate, defeating Kodhek, who stood on NADC.


After the elections, his allies, who included Dennis Akumu, Arthur Ochwada, Aggrey Minya and John Abuoga, left NADC to form the Nairobi People's Convention Party (NPCP), which was unveiled on May 12, 1957.

Although Mboya took no part in the formation of the party, he was the dominant figure directing its activities behind the scenes.

It was not until March 1958, after visiting Ghana, that he openly took control of the NPCP. Apparently, Kwame Nkrumah had advised him that freedom could only be brought by a strong well-organised political party.

Mboya embarked on expanding the influence of NPCP beyond Nairobi. Since African parties were restricted to districts, he travelled all over the colony convincing other parties to affiliate with the NPCP.

There was no doubt that Mboya's star was on the rise. However, the re-entry of Kenyatta on the political scene threw him off balance in his race to become the leader of Kenya. He was particularly not happy when Oginga Odinga described Kenyatta as the leader of Africans in the LegCo in 1958, but decided to play along for fear of being called a traitor.

Even though he took to the “release Kenyatta” campaign with gusto, he made great efforts to understand who Kenyatta really was.

During a flight to Rome he suggested to a British MP for journalists to be sent to Lodwar with the intention of extracting information on specific subjects from Kenyatta.


He also approached Nyerere to write an open letter to Kenyatta with a hidden motive of getting his views on racial relations in Kenya and the question of an East African Federation.

Just like in post-independence Kenya, Mboya's main rival during those early years was Odinga. In the open, Mboya supported Odinga but secretly undermined him. Odinga, on the other hand, viewed him as a young man with no respect for his elders.

To curtail the influence of Mboya’s NPCP, Odinga in 1960 teamed up with Gichuru to form Uhuru Party. In less than a week, Mboya managed to head off this assault on his leadership by convincing them to dissolve the party and form Kanu.

Mboya was appointed minister for labour in the coalition government between Kadu and Kanu in 1962. After engineering Kanu’s victory in the 1963 elections, he was appointed minister for justice and constitutional affairs to lead negotiations for independence. After independence, he was appointed minister for economic planning to steer Kenya’s growth.

Kenyatta never trusted Mboya, although he appreciated his abilities. Mboya knew this and had already given up hope of Kenyatta appointing him his successor.


His close friend and Cabinet colleague Bruce McKenzie confided in the Duke of Devonshire that Mboya’s Plan B was to prop up Samuel Gichuru to succeed Kenyatta.

Mboya believed he stood a better chance of succeeding Gichuru since he was the only one among the Kikuyu within Kanu who was hesitant to hold a knife behind his back. For the plan to work, he had to eject Vice-President Odinga out of the government.

However, the exit of Odinga left Mboya more vulnerable to intrigues within Kanu.

His assassination caused anger and anxiety among the public, with many demanding to know its instigators. This frustration swelled up in Parliament on July 16, 1969 when MPs demanded to know why no arrests had been made.

Unknown to the MPs, Nahashon Njenga had already been arrested and was “helping the police with investigations”. He told the officers that he had bought the weapon from a Kisii man called Jimmy at Sh500.

On the day of the assassination, Njenga claimed he had gone to Zenith Printers to order some Kanu leaflets before proceeding to Gatundu, where he met presidential guards named Peter Kimata, Samuel Gichia and Kimotho Thiga before returning to Nairobi.


Njenga's brother-in-law James Ndungu confirmed to the court that he had driven Njenga to Gatundu but got a puncture in front of the President’s gate and the two had to return to Nairobi. He did not mention whether they met the presidential guards.

The prosecution summoned the three guards who were on duty at Kenyatta’s residence to give their evidence. All denied seeing Njenga and the judge accepted their evidence. Of the three, only Thiga denied knowing Njenga.

Njenga would later change his statement, claiming that it was obtained under duress. He claimed that after leaving Gatundu, he drove to Nairobi, where he went to some bars and later to a party in Wangige.

The next day he met members of Odinga's Kenya Peoples Union, among them Munyui Kahuha, who gave him the gun and not the man called Jimmy as he had alleged in his first statement.


At one time, he said he was acting on orders of the “big man.”

After reviewing the evidence given by Njenga on how he obtained the gun, Justice Simpson said, “None of the explanations given by the accused for the possession of the gun I consider to be truth.’’ The judge sentenced Njenga to hang based on circumstantial evidence.

A voice of reason was silenced, but Mboya will always be remembered as the architect of the three key pillars that supported post-independence Kenya, namely the Kenya Constitution, the Kanu manifesto and sessional paper No 10 of 1965.