We can’t vote for Tom Mboya in August, but we can learn from him

Tuesday July 11 2017

Just last week, I passed by the Tom Mboya statue on Moi Avenue, next to Standard Chartered Bank, for the umpteenth time.

And for the umpteenth time, I could not hold my anger at seeing his monument — abandoned and desecrated.

Since February, 2017, the statue has been ringed with mabati (iron sheets) apparently for renovations. But these renovations seems to be a long time coming — what with the country in the heat of general election campaigns.

On August 8, the electorate will vote — to either retain their leaders that they choose in 2013 — or pick new ones, from the President to the local member of the county assembly (MCA).

The fact that the country is in the grips of “do or die” high-octane electoral campaigns does not even begin to explain why the statue of an icon of Kenya’s struggle for independence has been left to stand as a sore thumb in the city centre.



The statue was erected in October 2011 during the reign of former President Mwai Kibaki, Mboya’s bosom buddy in the heady days of the 1960s.

At one time, Mboya was Kibaki’s boss in the ministry of economic planning and development, with Kibaki serving as Mboya’s assistant minister.

Together, they were the architects of the now famous Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965.

I crossed the road — Moi Avenue — and passed exactly outside where Mboya was gunned down by the assassin. The street was then called Government Road. Mboya had a Sikh friend, Mr Channi, who ran a chemist, Channi’s Pharmacy.

On the fateful day of July 7, 1969, shortly before 1.00pm, TJ, as he was fondly known to his friends, walked into the pharmacy and bought some skin lotion, but not before he had banter with Channi and his wife — as he usually did.


As he walked out of the chemist, Mrs Channi heard some commotion outside and rushed to see what was happening. It is believed that as the killer, who was waiting for Mboya at the exit of the chemist, pumped bullets into the minister, he collapsed on the laps of a screaming Mrs Channi.

It is Mrs Channi who called the ambulance that took Mboya to Nairobi Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Who was Tom Mboya? Why was TJ such a force in the Kenyan political arena? As the country gears up for elections in a month’s a time, what lessons can we draw from the short life of Mboya, 48 years after his death?

Born on August 15, 1930, on a European sisal plantation in Kilimambogo, about 70 kilometres southeast of Nairobi, Mboya grew up away from his ancestral home on Rusinga Island, in Lake Victoria.

This growing up far away from among his Luo people was to shape Mboya’s attitudes, conviction and philosophy later in his life.


His father was a farmhand in the British settlers’ sisal estates. Witnessing first hand his father’s exploitation under the cruel, harsh and racist settlers, it is not for nothing that TJ, later in his adult life, would become a fierce trade unionist, honing his skills as a labour rights leader.

TJ, who always remembered that he had missed getting a good education because of his parent’s abject poverty, started an educational initiative whose footprints will forever remain etched on the sands of time.

Imbued with great charisma, between 1959 and 1961, he charmed John F. Kennedy, who was then running for the US presidency on the Democratic Party ticket, into donating money towards Kenyan students who had been offered scholarships, but did not have airfare.

Described as a renaissance man by Harris Mule — himself a renaissance man — and one of the finest Permanent Secretaries that independent Kenya has produced, TJ remains to date the most cosmopolitan politician in post-independent Kenya.

Because of being brought up among other people of different ethnic communities, TJ was at a vantage point to appreciate the importance of multiplicity of cultures. Detribalised from an early age, TJ was also easily one of the most widely travelled Kenyans of his day.


For instance, TJ lived with a Kamba teacher for three years in Kabaa, as a member of the teacher’s family and indubitably learnt the Akamba language. This was before he went to St Mary’s School Yala, in Central Nyanza.

“From my travels as a schoolboy among the Akamba, Luo and Kikuyu tribes, and my years at Jeanes School (in Kabete), where students of all tribes were learning together, I had unusual advantages in looking at this vexed question of tribalism,” wrote Mboya in his political autobiography — Freedom and Afterpublished in 1963.

Tom Mboya could see far ahead, and see far he did. In October 1962, he wrote a letter to his friend Colin Legum, then the Commonwealth correspondent of the Observer newspaper in London. It read in part:

There is the fear that when the regions are established, the Kikuyu will be driven out by the Kalenjins tribes in the Rift Valley. Many of these Kikuyus have lived in the Rift Valley all their lives and they are afraid they will be removed from their shops, their land and their property.

Legum would later write about his friend, describing him thus:

“...freed from narrow tribal thinking, he (Tom Mboya), was able to see current problems in a wider context.” That is why, said the correspondent, “he never submitted to the temptation of retreating to a safe seat in South Nyanza, preferring instead to build a political base in Nairobi.”


Mboya was first elected as an MP in the present-day Kamukunji constituency, then called Nairobi Central constituency.

“I could also see the dangers of negative tribalism and learnt clearly how harmful to Kenya was the man who only saw the good in his people and only evil in those of other tribes,” Mboya observed in his autobiography.

TJ had as many friends as he had foes. In its editorial of July 7, 1969, the East African Standard said: “Tom outwitted the British with his intellectual skills and skirmishes.

"Doing so, he acquired an international fame and, with that curious characteristic the British have of admiring their foes, in no country was he more respected than in Britain.”

We are again caught neck deep in vicious electoral politics, but electoral politics awash with ethnic innuendoes and subterfuge. Can this election produce a politician of TJ’s sophistication? A man who was dashing, easy-going, urbane, young and truly a Kenyan renaissance politician?

As we ponder the life of Tom Mboya, half a century later, it behoves whoever is elected as the next Nairobi County governor to take as a priority the little matter of restoring TJ’s neglected and vandalised statue.

Twitter: @KahuraDauti