PERSON OF INTEREST: Remembering the late enigmatic and legendary Tom Mboya.

Intelligent, eloquent, visionary, charismatic, outstanding leader…These are some of the strong and lovable words that could be used to describe the late Tom Mboya. I have always wanted to look with insight into the life, works and impact the legendary politician and founding father of Kenya. Indeed, Tom Mboya was an enigma and a force to be reckoned with, especially considering the impact he hard form the time of his birth through to 1969 when he was assassinated. Born in 1939, the late Mboya was only around 40 years young when he was assassinated and had to depart the large polished platform life had placed in front of him to influence millions of people globally. I look at his statue placed at Archives in Nairobi CBD, alongside the ever busy Tom Mboya Street, a street named after him and I cannot help but wonder, what could have this enigmatic and outstanding man, who forcefully left us too soon in his prime, achieved by 2019. One thing for sure, the political and economic landscape of Kenya would not be as it is presently.

Inset: Tom Mboya, the Kenyan born ahead of his time…

As one of the founding nation of the Republic of Kenya, Tom Mboya epitomized the unique crop of African politicians and nationalists in the 20th century who stood for the rights of the people, empowerment and freedom from the manacles of colonialism. Based on his speeches, debates and interviews in Kenya and across the world, Mboya indisputably stood out as he championed what he believed was right for Kenyans, Africans and humanity as a whole. He used his charm, oratory and leadership skills to the effect on influencing thousands and millions towards a justified course, especially for Kenya’s pre and post-independence periods. The fact that he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (an American blacks champion), John F. Kennedy (then a senator and later US President), and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made him a global figure. Prof. Wangari Maathai and Barack Obama Sr. are among the many notable individuals who benefited from his visionary leadership that enabled them to shine in the respective life endeavours.

Tom Mboya, an alumnus of St. Mary’s Yala and Mangu High School (then called Holy Ghost College), studied as a medical professional and qualified as a sanitary inspector. Born in Kilima Mbogo, Central Kenya in 1939, he started working for the Nairobi City council in the 1950s. His involvement in the trade union then, while serving as a sanitary inspector saw him become key personnel in championing the rights of workers. His recognition as an astute, charismatic and able leader for the workers through the Kenya Local Government Workers Union got him a nod to take over the leadership of the pro-independence party Kenya African Union (KAU) after its leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta were arrested in 1953. He continually used his position in the popular and influential trade union to push for Kenya’s independence. He mobilised workers strikes, made key speeches and interviews globally in the plight for the rights of African workers under the suppressing colonial governments. In 1956, he was elected into the Legislative Assembly and continued to push for independence and freedom of the political prisoners arrested by the ruling government. Later, his pressure for independence alongside his diplomacy led to the release of the political leaders. In 1961, alongside Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta, they formed Kenya African National Union (KANU) which helped forge Kenya’s independence.

His tragic death in 1969, 6 years after Kenya’s independence indeed put a dark history to Kenya’s history, especially concerning the unsolved extra-juridical killings. On Moi Avenue, Tom Mboya (then Kenya’s Economics Minister) was shot dead by Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge while leaving Chhani’s Chemist along the street. The whole case was controversially handled, right to the death of Njoroge 4 month later by hanging while in prison, awaiting trial. Although Njoroge was arrested for the alleged assassination and a revolver recovered from his home that had bullets similar to the ones that killed the late minister, alongside his fingerprints, Njoroge denied the accusations but instead pointed to a well-orchestrated political plot. As a sapper trained in Bulgaria’s BulVasil Levski Higher Military Academy for 4 years, Njoroge had benefited from Mboya’s airlifts abroad to benefit from military training and later join the armed forces. He was one of Mboya’s wingmen in KANU then.

Considering the prominence and influence of the flamboyant and eloquent politician, such motivation by his political enemies such as the ones in the revolutionary Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) could be possible. In correspondence with William Scheinman as established by Mboya’s biographer David Goldsworthy, the minister was concerned with the political situation around KANU’s primaries with his enemies plotting against him through cash and kind. However, KPU leadership through Achieng’ Oneko denied such a plot. Mboya’s assassination, Njoroge’s hanging, KPU hush hush abolishment by Kenyatta and establishment of a one-party state all connect to a master-minded game whose end game remains a mystery to date. Was it to end his possible and undeniable presidency by pro-Kenyatta’s elites? Did Oginga Odinga fear his growing influence over him, in a peer-same-tribe-battle? As Mboya’s remains were laid to rest in his ancestral home in Rusinga Island 50 years ago, there was outrage characterized by mass riots and looting as millions mourning their beloved’s death.

Among his most notable achievements, Tom Mboya:

  • Was behind the Master Plan for Nairobi City
  • Design of the Kenyan Flag
Inset: The Kenyan flag, whose unique design was developed by the late Tom Mboya.
  • He played a fundamental role in the formation of KANU and first post-independence government.
  • He created the NSSF, a social security scheme in 1963 after being appointed as the first ever Minister of Labour
  • He established the industrial court to hear cases related to workers and labour.
  • A sustained 7% development rate after issuing economic policies sustained throughout his term as Kenya’s Economic Planning Minister.
  • He developed the African Staff Union into a trade union that championed for labour rights of workers, which by extension had a far reaching effect in the fight for freedom
  • He became the secretary general of the Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU) at 22 years of age;
  • He mobilised funds and orchestrated the building of Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) at the present City Stadium in 1961
  • His airlift program benefitted hundreds of Kenyans, including the late Wangari Maathai and Obama Snr between 1959-1961.

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