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Mboya, Lumumba, Biko: Great yet forgotten martyrs of Africa

here are two national holidays in the United States to celebrate birthdays of religious figures. One such holiday is in honour of the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The other holiday is in honour of Jesus Christ. The annual salute to Reverend King’s birthday occurs in January; the extravaganza saluting the birthday of Jesus is in December. The latter birthday is, of course, Christmas.

Reverend King was assassinated. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ was executed by the Romans. In this maiden essay in this column, let us add a less known victim of political violence, Tom Mboya of Kenya, who was assassinated in 1969. Mboya represents the less celebrated martyrs of Africa’s liberation, unsung heroes like Patrice Lumumba and Steve Biko.

Perhaps the most honoured Black man after his death is Dr King. One of the least honoured Black heroes of the twentieth century is Mboya. In spite of all the racism of the American society, the US has risen to salute its fallen son, Dr King. In spite of Kenya’s appreciation of the fruits of freedom, Kenya has not risen to salute its most brilliant campaigner for uhuru, Mboya.

In my own memory the names of Mboya and King have been inextricably linked. I first met Mboya when I was an undergraduate student in England in the 1950s. I first met Dr King when I was a graduate student in the US in the 1960s.

In my young and imaginative years I thought of King as the nearest thing to a Black President of the USA. If America had been a less racist society, he would have stood a chance of becoming President.

I also thought of Mboya as a possible future President of post-colonial Kenya. Impediments in Mboya’s way were, firstly, the British who still colonised Kenya. In those early years, I also thought of Jomo Kenyatta as a probable future rival to Mboya’s political prospects.

Mboya’s skills helped remove the British impediments to Kenya’s independence. On the international and diplomatic fronts of Kenya’s struggle for uhuru, Mboya played a bigger role than Kenyatta. Kenyatta was, after all, behind bars during most of the final decade of British colonial rule. Mboya fought hard for Kenyatta’s release, as well as for Kenya’s independence.

Interestingly, Mboya and Kenyatta never became adversaries for the office of President or Prime Minister after independence; indeed the two leaders became partners. The real divisive issue was the prospect of political succession in post-Kenyatta’s Kenya. Mboya was killed partly because he was perceived to be a truly outstanding candidate for the Presidency when the time was ripe.

Coincidentally, the main topic that Dr King raised in 1961, on learning that I was a Kenyan, was that of Mboya. King knew Mboya personally and the two leaders clearly admired each other as comrades-in-arms in the struggle for Black dignity. Their success was seen as a threat to others. They paid the supreme price. They were assassinated within a couple of years of each other.

But a major difference occurred after their deaths. Dr King was seen as a martyr, and he rose higher and higher in the esteem of his fellow Americans. A Museum in his honour was established in Memphis, where he was killed. The US Congress passed a law declaring his birthday a national holiday. Every January his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech is repeated on television, radio and at ceremonies to mark his achievements. Many Americans who might have resented or hated Dr King at the time he gave that famous speech became his admirers after death.

Dr King did not become President of the US, but he has been honoured more than most Presidents of that country. Apart from Abraham Lincoln, no former President in America has been honoured with a separate national public holiday.

What a difference between King’s posthumous rise to prominence and Mboya’s descent to oblivion. King’s country knew how to thank him after death. Mboya’s country drifted into amnesia. It is in this sense that Mboya is like Biko in South Africa and Lumumba in the Congo: heroes of only fitful memory and occasional conversation.

Three Kenyans were crucial in the struggle for uhuru. Kenyatta as a martyr in prison, Dedan Kimathi as a warrior in the forest and Mboya as the eloquent voice of freedom and as a political organiser.

We honoured Kenyatta for more than a decade as our founding President, and continue to honour his image on our currency. Kenyans never talked much about Kimathi for the first 50 years after his death but, under President Mwai Kibaki, we are beginning to recall his contribution. But, alas, the memory of Mboya has been allowed to sink into oblivion.

Is it not time that we honoured Mboya, Biko, Lumumba and Kimathi with their images on our currency and on our postage stamps? Perhaps we should have the face of Mboya on the twenty-shilling note and of Biko on the fifty-rand note. The US has the face of George Washington on the one-dollar bill, a particularly great honour since one dollar is the most widely used bill. We could also choose appropriate notes for the faces of our founding fathers Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela.

In addition to having the faces of Mboya, Mandela, Lumumba, Biko and Kenyatta on currencies and postage stamps, there should be a whole section of our National Museums of Kenya and South Africa devoted to the struggle against apartheid or for independence.

In this section of the museum there should be special emphasis on Mboya, Lumumba, Biko and Kimathi. The voices of these lesser known African martyrs should constantly be played on tape, alongside suitable videos of the remarkable heroes.

* Professor Ali A. Mazrui is the Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.