What if Mboya had lived?

We should pare down on hero worship and focus on the people who built our country

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January 1960, London, England, UK --- Mr Tom Mboya, African nationalist leader in London for the 1960 Kenya Conference. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
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By Janek Sunga

What if that July had turned out to be just any other ordinary day? The handsome man walks into the chemist. He hands in his prescription. The proprietor, a nice Asian lady, chats with him while she takes care of his order. The man leaves shortly. He is a popular guy with friends everywhere, so it’s no surprise he meets one outside the street. They talk for a few minutes. Then he gets into his car drives home after finishing his errand. What if that July day had happened this way?

Instead history is different. 

On July 5th, 1969, Tom Mboya was gunned down after he left Chaani’s Pharmacy on what was then Government Road. I have always wondered what would have happened if he had lived beyond that day. Nations are built around myths of nationhood – we build narratives about a particular place, a particular geography. Kenya is built around such myths.

Tom Mboya’s death had real world consequences. He was a true nationalist at heart, he believed in Kenya probably because of his cosmopolitan upbringing. Mboya was born in a sisal plantation in Thika. His parents were Suba, a tribe that had been assimilated by the Luo.

Unlike other politicians of that first generation, Mboya’s multi-ethnic upbringing prepared fertile ground for his later nationalist and pan-African ideals. He did not just shout unity to drive the white man away, and conveniently forget that fact when independence arrived.  He believed it, because he had lived it.

If Mboya had lived two things might have happened. Before his death, a titanic battle was already taking place for the leadership of the Luo. Jaramogi Odinga had lost several battles, and was on his way to losing the political war.

Jaramogi’s political constituency was primarily Luo, while Mboya had a much more multicultural base in the urban class of Nairobi, and also among the trade unions. If Mboya had managed to convince the Luo of his viability for the presidency, he might have wrestled that entire voting bloc away from Odinga. The Luos might have decided to hedge their bets with the winning horse. Mboya outmanoeuvred Jaramogi at the 1966 Limuru conference, and clipped his elder’s wings.

Alternatively, it is entirely possible Luo political leadership might have fragmented. But that is highly unlikely. I personally never saw Jaramogi as a good politician.

He assumed leadership of the Luo by default. Mboya’s death left a vacuum that had to be filled. Others like Daniel Branch in his Kenya: Between Despair and Hope have noted that Jaramogi repeatedly made numerous political miscalculations. Some of them even started in the pre-independence era.

This leads us to the next big if. If Jaramogi had not become the doyen of the Kenyan opposition; is it possible that his son would not have inherited his mantle? That depends on which side of the philosophical debate you fall on – that is if you believe in nature or subscribe to nurture. Raila is a much better politician than his father ever was. Even though the presidency has eluded him so far, a much lesser man would have folded a long time ago.

Since Mboya’s death, the Luo have been consistently monolithic in their voting patterns. They have always supported one candidate – but that’s because there has only been one viable candidate each time, whether Jaramogi or his scion, Raila.

I like to think if he had lived longer Mboya would have succeeded Kenyatta as President. If Mboya had lived longer, we certainly would not have descended so much into the deep morass of tribalism that we have. Tribalism would not have permeated so deep into the cultural fabric of our nation.

Certainly, the enmity and rivalry that exists between people of the ridge and the people of the lake would not have been so intense. Mboya’s death was the start. Other events have just been catalysts that sped up the reaction.

Mboya’s death deeply wounded the Luo psyche and made them forever mistrustful of the Kikuyu. Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth features a Luo man, Martin Were, who became disillusioned with Kenya after Mboya’s death. Like a lot of citizens back then, he had high expectations of what Uhuru would bring.

Martin becomes a zombie. Any semblance of relationships he had disappear down a bottle of beer. Martin had many real life parallels. One that comes to mind is that friend who chatted with Mboya on the street minutes just before his assassination.

Barack Obama Senior was a friend of Mboya’s, and even though he secured his scholarship through other means, he was still a member of the airlift generation. Mboya supported Obama in the United States, and was a mentor to him and the rest of the airlift generation.

After Mboya’s death, Obama spiralled into an even deeper abyss of alcoholism and reckless behaviour. Unlike Martin, his redemption never came. He died in a road accident probably as a result of drunken driving.

Unfortunately, the last real chance of repairing the Luo-Kikuyu rift was lost in 1975 with yet another assassination.  After Mboya’s death, there has never been a major Kikuyu public figure that Luos have trusted except for JM Kariuki.

This fact holds true even when their illustrious son Agwambo made declarations such as Kibaki Tosha. Luos turned up en masse to vote Mwai Kibaki in because they believed it was the only way to eventually get Raila into State House.

I know of a Luo man who never voted for Kibaki because he was Kikuyu. This same man never liked Moi, but that was because Moi was Moi. It was never about him being a Kalenjin. According to him, Kikuyus are to be mistrusted, plain and simple. And yes, I have heard all the usual ethnic invectives against the Kikuyu thrown around from him. Yet, I have had him sing praises of JM.

JM Kariuki was the only one brave enough to step on Rusinga Island on the day of Mboya’s funeral. He actually did not need to be brave. He was welcomed with open arms. JM’s populist message, and his fearless courage manage to penetrated deep into the heart of Luo land.

In engaging in this exercise, I am not trying to say Mboya was without fault. He is a part of the Kenyan mythos. I know he and JM are regarded as saints – actually martyrs to the cause of the true ‘Kenya’. Before their apotheosis, we should remember that they were men, subject to faults like other mortals on this plane. 

Heroes and saints have a function to perform. Jomo Kenyatta’s elevation as the hero of the nationalist cause was useful. Kenyatta had to become the dignified and ever wise Mzee so that Africans could rally to the cause. However, this deification of Kenyatta meant that he was untouchable. It wasn’t just Kenya that had the same problem. Virtually all the first generation of African presidents and prime ministers became gods. And their nations suffered badly.

Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and Its Implications for Planning in Kenya was Mboya’s baby. He was still a capitalist. I don’t think land redistribution would have happened. Among the senior figures of that era, Jaramogi, Achieng Oneko and Bildad Kaggia were the only ones who believed in land redistribution.

While Mboya’s blueprint might have had the word socialism in it, I like to think of it as capitalism with Kenyan characteristics, or African characteristics. Kenya’s unresolved problems with land might still have been an issue under a President Mboya.

It’s almost 50 years since Mboya’s assassination. It still is important that we keep the man’s legacy as we examine our history. However, we should pare down on the hero worship, and start focusing on the men and women who built our country. Just men and women mind, not gods. (

The writer is a Management Fellow at the City of Wichita, USA; Email: janek.sunga@park.edu

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