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Anniversary: the tragedy of Tom Mboya

Today is the 50th anniversary of Tom Mboya’s death. The acclaimed trade unionist and statesman was gunned down on a day like this 50 years ago by Nahashon Njenga while exiting a pharmacy along Moi Avenue.

Tom Mboya was a brilliant man who had made some very important friends in Washington DC. He arranged the airlifts with his buddy John F Kennedy.

In a new book by Jomo Kenyatta’s lawyer Fitz de Souza new details have emerged on Mboya. We are told that Mboya was a relentless man who set goals and followed through on them with laser like focus.

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He was widely considered to be the natural leader of independent Kenya by the elite with Njonjo even initially supporting him, terming Kenyatta as old and senile. Mboya himself was on track to be president after campaigning and winning a parliamentary seat in Nairobi against Kikuyu tribalists who wanted him to run in Nyanza.

His plans were dashed after the old guard led by Kenyatta began coming back after the Kapenguria trials to reclaim their positions. He initially resented Kenyatta but realized that it was best for him to support him in the hopes of being anointed successor.

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While Kenyatta viewed Mr Mboya as a young man who was not ready to accord him the respect he deserved, Mr Mboya thought, Kenyatta was a complete failure as a politician and as a leader. He expressed his frustrations of Kenyatta’s incompetence in a private interview in 1962.

Kenyatta’s relationship with Mboya during this period could be described as that of convenience. Even though he mistrusted Mboya, he was aware of his brilliance, and always appointed him to positions of great responsibility.

In 1962, he appointed him to the position of Labour, to address unemployment among Africans. In 1963 he appointed him minister of Justice of Constitutional Affairs, to lay the groundwork for independence, and in 1964 he made him the minister for Economic Planning, to steer the new republic’s economy effectively making him the architect of independent Kenya.

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His good looks and easy charm made him a ladies man with a horde of European girlfriends. Tom Mboya’s biggest undoing was treating Kenyatta like his junior. De Souza gives a hilarious story of a party at State house that had foreign dignitaries.

On arrival, Tom, who seemed to have been drinking and already knew many of the visiting dignitaries, proceeded to take Kenyatta’s arm and lead him around the room, introducing him to everyone in a grandiose manner, as if he himself were the President and Kenyatta the underling. Kenyatta was obliged to grit his teeth and endure the humiliation.

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The following day De Souza found President Kenyatta fuming and calling Mboya all manner of names saying how much he wanted to crush him and stomping his foot on the ground to drive his point home.

We can all agree that on that fateful day on Moi Avenue 50 years ago Kenya was robbed of one of its greatest sons. We can also agree that the mans hubris and arrogance had already made him a marked man in the Kenyatta cabinet.

But because he was too smart, too ambitious and less tribalistic, he didn’t live long enough to implement his vision. The oligarchs in Kenyatta’s government nicknamed him the “rabbit” for they never knew where he would jump when they tried catching him. But on July 5, 1969, they finally caught him.