Tom Mboya: The President Kenya Never Had

Published on 7th July 2020

In the last chapter of the book, “Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget,” David Goldsworthy describes the late Tom Mboya as “a leader of intellectual brilliance, vast practical competence, fine judgement, great drive, courage, and dedication.”

Mboya’s exceptional brilliance and talents and intellectual acumen were demonstrated through his organizational skills in the labour movement, administration of political entities, and establishment of effective networks locally, continentally and globally. Further, his oratorical prowess and writings illustrate that indeed he was a man ahead of his time.

Anyang’ Nyong’o’s recollection of his visit to Singapore in 1995 to attend the Africa-Singapore Encounter forum graced by the late Lee Kwan Yew illuminates Mboya’s eminence.

Professor Nyong’o writes in his book, “A Leap into the Future: A Vision for Kenya’s Socio-political and Economic Transformation,” that upon asking Lee Kwan Yew why Singapore had leapfrogged Kenya and Uganda yet they had almost the same GDP per capita in 1969, Lee particularly answered him that: “While we chose to go forward in Singapore, you in Kenya assassinated Tom Mboya.”

The assassination that took place on July 5th, 1969 fundamentally altered Kenya’s political, social and economic spheres. An assassination attempt on Mboya was first made on December 1967 with several bullets fired at his unoccupied vehicle by his official guard.

Politically, Mboya’s death united the Luo tribe (though Mboya originally was an Abasuba) and widened the schism between larger sections of the community and the Agikuyu following Oginga Odinga’s humiliation during the infamous Limuru Conference in March 1966.

Jaramogi’s neutralization in the KANU party preceded the formation of the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) that was later banned on October 30th, 1969. To the Luo, Jomo Kenyatta and the Agikuyu were the real enemies with the 1969 assassination marking the end of the long political rivalry between Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya.

Economically, Mboya’s assassination had significant effects on Kenya’s political economy. Fundamentally, it crippled the objectives of Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965, “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya,” largely propagated by Mboya then serving as Minister for Economic Planning and Development.

Although the aforementioned policy document was drafted by Professor Edgar Edwards, an American economist, David Goldsworthy notes that its main features embodied Mboya’s thinking and hence Mboyaism: political democracy; mutual social responsibility; various forms of ownership; a range of controls to ensure that property is used in the mutual interest of society and its members; diffusion of ownership to avoid concentration of economic power; and progressive taxes to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and income.

The essentialism of Mboyaism was reversed and drowned by the retrogressive Ndegwa Commission Report of 1972 which recommended civil servants to engage in private business as a measure to sustain the bloated civil service. This escalated corruption in government institutions which had begun in earnest following Kenya’s attainment of political independence. Mboya, it is said, was against the plundering of resources by most of the top most officials in the Kenyatta administration.

Socially, Mboya’s murder reminded Kenyans about the centrality of the tribe in their social relations. Appointments in the civil service, the nature of political formations and the general day to day interactions among members of different tribes never fall short of a defined ethnic orientation.

Reasons Why Mboya Should be Remembered

Mboya’s razor-sharp intellect is one to be admired or envied. His rare intellectual ability is exemplified in the books, pamphlets, articles, essays, speeches, manifestos, policy papers and conference papers that he wrote. Certainly, he belongs to the unique generation of African political leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, Frantz Fanon and a few others who put their thoughts and ideas in writing.

Some of his notable works include “Freedom and After” (autobiography), “The Kenya Question: An African Answer,” “Conflict and Nationhood: The Essentials of Freedom in Africa,” and “The Challenge of Nationhood: A Collection of Speeches and Writings” (synthesized in 1970). The particulars of tens of his articles are documented in Goldsworthy’s book.

To be an effective writer, one has to be a voracious reader and such was Mboya’s nature. Reading builds competence in the long-term and leaders ought to be religiously committed to lifelong reading and writing. This is a quality that most political leaders lack in Kenya and beyond.

Mboya was a firm believer in mutual social responsibility, a tenet espoused in Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. The centrality of this principle, as documented in the policy, entailed building a country where citizens value a sense of service and are not driven by a greedy desire for personal gain. This reflected in Mboya’s relatively modest life and his discomfort with plundering of public resources by high ranking officials in the Jomo Kenyatta administration. Notably, he financed the purchase of land and construction of his first house along Convent Drive in Lavington through loans despite the glaring opportunities to profit from vices.

Further, Mboya’s dedication to build the labour movement was premised on his quest for a fair and just society. His leadership through the Kenya Local Government Workers’ Union (KLGWU), Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU), Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL), and as Minister for Labour following his appointment on April 9th, 1962 fundamentally transformed the working conditions of workers. His stint in the Ministry of Labour resulted in the drafting of the country’s first ever Industrial Relations Charter, a milestone for Kenyan workers and governance of labour relations.

The famous student airlifts to America was Mboya’s hallmark in regards to enhancing social, economic and political emancipation of Africans. Even though his personal interests pushed him to organize for the student airlifts, it cannot be gainsaid that a significant number of Kenyans benefited from the scholarships directly and indirectly.

Following the May 1963 elections that ushered self-governance rule by Africans, Mboya was appointed as Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs and among his responsibilities included negotiating for the formation of the East African federation. Goldsworthy notes that reasons for Mboya’s argument for establishment of the East African federation included: creation of a common market; enhancing defence of the member states; need to save resources; desire for unity and the need for East Africa to make an impact on global affairs; and the need to pursue Pan Africanism and the Addis spirit that established the then Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Mboya’s grand vision for an East African federation remains a pipe dream. First, it was jeopardized by lack of effective political will among the political leadership of Uganda and Kenya in 1960s. Later on, the political instability in Uganda and ideological differences between Kenya and Tanzania in 1970s and 80s further deferred the dream of the East African federation.

Among the aims and objectives of the East African Community (EAC) include establishment of a Customs Union (has been in place since 2005); creation of a Common Market (was to be effected in 2010); establishment of a Monetary Union (was to be in place from 2012); and creation of a Political Federation (by 2015). Mboya’s quest for a federation in the region still lingers on in his death.

His Pan-Africanist ambitions seeking for the social, economic and political emancipation of Africans cannot be forgotten. Local and foreign influences have thwarted the realization of a united Africa but the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) offers a ray of hope. But the conceptualization and expected operationalization of AfCFTA could be overtaken by parochial interests and neofeudalism just as it was the case during Mboya’s time.

Forgetting Mboya?

I still regard Tom Mboya as the best president Kenya never had. His unmatched intellect, effective organizational skills and global networks brewed enmity towards him that culminated in his assassination.

Jomo Kenyatta’s first heart attack in July 1966 set in motion succession politics with Mboya identified as the main enemy by the Kenyatta camp. This divided KANU into two factions, one pro-Mboya and the other pro-Kenyatta. At the height of the Emergency period in the better part of 1950s, Mboya had clear intentions to become Kenya’s Prime Minister or President and was not keen enough to support the idea of a Jomo Kenyatta presidency or premiership. This prompted accusations against Mboya about his plans to assassinate Jomo Kenyatta even during the latter’s fledgling presidency.

Kenya’s first president suffered a mild stroke in May 1968 at a time when Charles Njonjo and Daniel Moi – then Attorney General and Vice President respectively – were working so hard to amend the Constitution with the primary aim of scuttling a possible Mboya presidency.

Constitutional amendments of 1964 led by Njonjo and Mboya regarding the president’s succession in the event of his/her death required Parliament to elect a successor for the remainder of the term. But this was superimposed on June 25th, 1968 by an amendment allowing the vice president to take over for a maximum period of ninety days in case of the president’s death.

A year later, Mboya was murdered and the Kenyatta and Moi regimes worked so hard for over three decades to ensure his legacy was forgotten. The Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta administrations are no way better though Kibaki’s erected a statue in Nairobi’s CBD in his honour.

In attempting to exterminate his legacy, for instance, are there any key landmarks in Kenya named in his honor except for the Tom Mboya Labour College (now Tom Mboya University College), the famous Tom Mboya Street, Tom Mboya Hall along Jogoo Road, and a few schools here and there? Secondly, the documented history about Mboya particularly in primary and secondary schools ought to be rightly framed.

Let’s not forget that the initial attempt to forget him came immediately after his assassination as written by Goldsworthy that:

“…shortly after Mboya’s death a great volume of his papers were taken from their place of storage in his office, and have not been seen since. They could only have been removed on government order. Almost certainly they included two particularly vital documents which the family has been unable to find. One was the manuscript of an almost completed book; portions of this had been shown to Mboya’s intimates on several occasions in his last months. The other was Mboya’s will.”

I choose to forever remember the flamboyant Tom Mboya.

By Sitati Wasilwa

The writer is a political economist and consultant on governance, geopolitics and public policy. Twitter: @SitatiWasilwa; Facebook: Sitati Wasilwa; LinkedIn: Sitati Wasilwa.


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