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He set his sights on the throne, but lost to powerful hawks

In terms of sheer political brilliance and performance, Thomas Joseph Mboya, TJ to his friends, has never been replaced. Add to that the fact he died 34 years ago and it becomes clear that Mboya was a genius, who could only be stopped by the only method that could silence him once and for all — assassination.

 

In terms of purpose, it was clear that TJ had his sights on the Presidency, a fact that both alarmed and angered those close to founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, especially the so-called Kiambu Mafia or simply the Court.

Alarmed because he was only 39 when he was shot dead on July 5, 1969, but was clearly, too intense, too focused, too brilliant a player whose performance turned his peers into pigmies.

Angered because Mboya was increasingly popular, had an enviable nation-wide base in the vibrant trade union movement. This, too, was his launch pad into national politics and he appeared born or destined to lead — at their expense.

Mboya was born a Luo, who hailed from Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up on sisal plantations at Kilimambogo, Ukambani, but he died a national leader and political icon.

At the time of his death, Mboya represented Nairobi’s then Kamukunji East constituency, was Minister for Planning and Economic Development and Secretary-General of the governing party, Kanu.

At the time he died, Mboya was already an achiever, an accolade not even President Kenyatta could lay claim to. Here’s why.

As a teenager — at only 18 — Mboya was the president of the 1,000-strong student body at the then Jeanes School, Kabete, now called the Kenya Institute of Administration.

At 23, he was secretary-general of the Kenya Federation of Labour, which means that he was the undisputed king of the trade union movement in Kenya.

Turning 28, he was already a leading pan-Africanist, for he was chairman of the All-Africa People’s Conference.

That put him at par with the great and good of the African continent, such as Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

As he died, Mboya had been a full Cabinet minister since independence in 1963. Style was rather like Mboya’s other name and this was not confined to the political plane. His wedding in 1962 to Pamela Odede was without doubt the social event of the year, remarkable for its style, glitterati guest list and splendour.

On the political front, Mboya was as ruthless as he was brilliant; as arrogant as he was a strategist and an unrelenting schemer and master hatchet man.

To historian and great admirer, Prof E.S. Atieno-Odhiambo, TJ was simply sungura mjanja (the cunning hare) of the Kenyan political arena.

It did not matter that this elitist politico lived on Convent Drive in the plush Lavington neighbourhood, but represented Kamukunji, famed for grinding poverty.

TJ spoke six languages fluently, including Suba, Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba, Swahili and English and, believe it or not, the Abanyole, a sub-tribe of the Luhya, claim he was one of their own, and had only migrated to South Nyanza.

Mboya dazzled both the workers of Eastlands and the emergent bourgeoisie in their grey suits and seemed to epitomise the aspirations of young Kenyans.

When Kenyatta wanted to clip the wings of his Left-leaning Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, it was to Mboya he turned to to scheme the whittling down of the V-P’s power and stature.

And Mboya came up with a master stroke. Odinga was Vice-President of the Republic and Kanu. Mboya Kanu secretary-general came up with a plan to change the party’s constitution and provide for seven vice-presidents from each of the country’s provinces.

It was this devious scheme that was formalised at the infamous Limuru Conference at which Odinga made up his mind to quit Kanu and found the Kenya People’s Union in 1966.

Odinga and his supporters planned a vote of no confidence against the Government, but only after defectors had trickled to the opposition benches in a slow and orchestrated fashion.

It was to Mboya again that Kenyatta turned for another scheme to deal with his old nemesis. Of course Mboya knew that Kenyatta was sending a Luo to finish a Luo, but he had a stake in finishing Odinga.

Parliament was recalled from recess. It had to pass a new legislation. The House was asked to change the Constitution so that defecting MPs had to go back to the electorate to seek a fresh mandate.

The defections stopped. Faced with the prospect of expensive election campaigns, MPs opted to stay put. Mboya had scuttled Odinga’s plan.

Mboya not only scuttled Odinga’s no-confidence plan, but was the man called upon to defend the new piece of legislation in the House.

Nobody could beat Mboya’s flamboyance and brilliance at the dispatch box, no matter how unpopular a cause he was fronting.

But Mboya could not always win his wars or those he fought on behalf of others. In the Little Election that followed the Mboya legal master-stroke, Odinga’s candidates walloped Kanu’s in Nyanza.

Nyanza? Exactly. The Kenyatta Government fought tooth and nail to confine KPU to Nyanza and to demonise and typify it as a Luo party.

Kenyatta himself went to the home of Mr Bildad Kaggia, a freedom fighter and World War II veteran, who was Odinga’s chief ally in Central Province, to demonise and "finish" him and KPU in the area.

Kenyatta reminded Kaggia of many of Kenya’s emergent political and economic elite and asked him why he was not doing anything for himself.

At the back of Kenyatta’s and Mboya’s minds was the Government’s misleading but powerful propaganda line that KPU sought free amenities — including wives! — from the Government.

Contradictory Mboya? But, of course. In 1965, the government had put out a famous document titled: The Sessional Paper No 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.

In the words of Atieno-Odhiambo, thanks to sungura mjanja and this paper, Kenya became a capitalist society with a socialist label. And why not, Kenya’s friends in the West would be happy with the contents of the paper as would the Left-leaning politicos.

Friends from the West? Kenya was a capitalist society and Mboya, too, had friends in the West or was actively courted by them.

Indeed, at a private meeting of the Kanu Parliamentary Group in March 1968, then Attorney-General Charles Mugane Njonjo launched a vicious attack on Mboya.

The centre-piece of Njonjo’s diatribe was that Mboya was a stooge of the Americans. The veracity or otherwise of that claim notwithstanding, Njonjo’s attack was seen in the light of the Kenyatta succession.

True or not, it is a fact that Mboya remains to this day the only Kenyan politician to have visited Hyannis Port, the Kennedy residence in Massachusetts.

Here TJ held discussions in 1959 with Ambassador Joe Kennedy and his son, who later became President John F. Kennedy on matters of mutual interest.

It is also a fact that Mboya was given money by American friends, possibly including the Kennedys, with which he helped get many Kenyans into American colleges and universities. These are what came to be known as the Tom Mboya airlifts of the early 1960s.

Even though Mboya was an author (Freedom and After), and the Industrial Court was one of his myriad brain children, he was not a brilliant pupil or student.

He is not remembered at St Mary’s School Yala, for brilliance and is thought to have joined Mangu High School because of his Catholic faith than performance in class.

He did not go beyond Form II for lack of fees, but went on instead to train as a health inspector at Jeanes School, Kabete.

In 1955, TJ was a student at Ruskin College, Oxford, in the UK, but even here he did not pursue a specific discipline, but delved into economics, administration, labour relations and politics.

Who does that kind of background remind you of? One who had a mediocre academic background but whose achievements later in life were truly astonishing? Winston Churchill, Britain’s war-time premier.

TJ did not become president, felled as he was by Nahashon Njuguna Njenga’s bullet outside Chhanis Pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue).