July 5, 69: The killing of a vision

While we in Singapore decided to march forward together as a nation, you in Kenya decided to assassinate Tom Mboya – Lee Kwan Yew


In his book, A leap into the Future,A Vision for Kenya’s Social-politicalandEconomic Transformation,Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, now Kisumu County Governor relives his 1994 encounter with Lee Kwan Yew, the legendary Asian leader while in Singapore for the Africa-Singapore Encounter conference.

After his speech that revolved around “What Singapore Can Learn from Africa and What Africa Can Learn from Singapore,” it was question time for the great Lee, then a senior Cabinet Minister after his retirement as Prime Minister. Prof. Nyong’o probed the sage on why Singapore blossomed into a modern developed nation from the late sixties while Kenya, which was at that time the same level with Singapore retrogressed. Lee exploded with his blunt verdict that the Kenyan retrogressive trajectory started on the dark afternoon of July 5, 1969.

On this cursed day, along the then Government Road, now Moi Avenue, the man who held the Kenyan economic progress template was going about his business when tragedy suddenly struck, …“two shots rang all over the busy street”, recounts David Goldsworthy in his book; Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget. According to Goldsworthy, Mrs Mohini Sehmi Chhani, the proprietor of Chhani Pharmacy where Kenya’s Minister for Economic Planning and National Development, Joseph Thomas Mboya was leaving after purchasing some drugs responded with cries of “Tom, Tom, what is wrong?”

He advocated for a modern African state and economy that preserved fidelity as much as possible to intrinsic African ideas and social values; emphasizing the need to appreciate the force of existing circumstances

In Mrs Chhani’s recollection, Tom only responded by staggering and slumping against her without saying anything. “I held his head and asked him, “Are you alright? but there was no sound from him. His arms went up once and came down slowly and he moved his head once or twice and his eyes opened but he never spoke.” She was soon joined by Dr Mohamed Rafique Chaudhri who frantically tried to administer first aid.

Meanwhile, a curious and aggrieved crowd was milling over the Pharmacy windows with police relentlessly struggling to secure the scene as Tom was rushed to the Nairobi Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The Doctor’s reports indicated that his precious life was prematurely stuffed out by a single bullet from unlicensed Smith and Wesson.38 revolver. The courts later confirmed that the fatal shot was triggered by a Bulgarian trained, diminutive, balding, thirty-two-year-old Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge; a former Nairobi KANU youth leader. 

“That single bullet altered Kenya’s history in a major way. Not only was a young family of six left without a father, but Kenya, Africa and indeed the whole world was deprived of a visionary and an idealist, a man whose charisma and ideas had won the attention of humankind with ease,” mourns Prof. Nyong’o who just like Tom Mboya, would later become Kenya’s Minister for Economic Planning and National Development.

The Arrival

Historical accounts captured an incident in 1951 when a European woman in then colonial Kenya walked into an office for service, found an African young man and posed: “Is there anybody here?” to which the cheeky African retorted: “Is there something wrong with your eyes?”

The young African quoted above was Tom Mboya, then a Sanitary Inspector at Nairobi City Council. According to Goldsworthy, “Often enough, Europeans refused to have their premises inspected by Africans.” When the woman returned the next day with a petition that declared its signatories’ refusal to deal with an African in matters of sanitation, the Chief Sanitary Inspector sided with Mboya and asserted that Europeans were required to accept inspection of their premises by any qualified inspector. The council further prosecuted many Europeans for blocking African Inspectors into their premises for inspection.

Ironically though, in Goldsworthy’s account, this was the aspect of the affair from which Mboya drew his principal political moral. The Councils’ liberalism only convinced him of its hypocrisy because even as it defended his right to do the same work as Europeans, it paid him only a fifth as much as it paid Europeans. It also made him wear a khaki uniform but not Europeans. It allowed them to use the official car for their rounds but not him.

The young African Sanitary Inspector was deeply disturbed with such work place mischief. In the process, the political seeds were awakened and progressively solidified in his formation to later play a significant role in pioneering the establishment and nurturing of Kenya’s political and economic foundations.

The Seed

This seed may have been sowed and engrained in Mboya at Kilimambogo, near Thika where his father, Leonard Ndiege was a laborer in a Sisal farm belonging to a settler, Sir William McMillan.

Young Mboya’s early childhood was spent at the McMillan sisal farm where he occasionally saw an accident at the factory or a European supervisor assaulting laborer. Goldsworthy recounts that by his subsequent account, Mboya ‘began to feel the first childish stirrings of resentment both at Europeans treatment of the men and the men’s own servility.’

This is the spirit that defined his formation such that when he later joined Holy Ghost College, present day Mangu High School, after attending St Mary Yala, “the future leader was able to already dispense small favors such as first aid… mediated between boys and masters when there was a strike over school food…yet behind all this conformism and success within the school system, feelings of resentment were beginning to grow. Outwardly, he was pleasant, restrained, pacifist but inwardly, he felt himself a rebel’, wrote Goldsworthy.

Mboya later joined The Jeans School at Kabete to train as a sanitary inspector. It is during this period that while ‘mixing with so many people, young and old, from so many backgrounds, he discovered in himself, almost overnight, a keen sense of politics.  This realization pushed the proactive Mboya into action such that within a few months of arrival at the school, he stood for the presidency of the student’s council and won.

The sudden triumph placed him in charge of a very powerful body. As president, he was responsible for chairing council meetings, office administration, and accounting, disbursement of resources among the many school clubs, drafting letters and memoranda, organizing debates and general meetings and discussing student’s matters with the school administration. Unfortunately, Mboya later resigned from the coveted position when there was change of management at the school and the new regime wanted to trim the powers of the Council which he disagreed.

On graduation from college, Tom was hired by the Nairoibi City Council as a sanitary inspector. The role allowed him to traverse the city and experienced firsthand the contrast in living and working conditions of workers and discriminations like the one recounted earlier in this article.

According to Goldsworthy, “at twenty, he was already a politicized man, went to African Union meetings, admired Jomo Kenyatta, absorbed his country’s history, pondered injustice…he was impatient to exercise the abilities which he had begun to discover in himself in the meeting rooms, if not the classrooms of Holy Ghost college and the Jean school”. The impatient Mboya could not wait anymore. He immediately joined the Nairobi African Local Government Association (NALGSA) and soon became vice president of the association.

Union Leadership

On assuming office as the vice president of NALGSA, Goldsworthy  recounts that  Mboya had already made up his mind that his activist career should begin in the field of worker organization ….he was himself a worker among workers….his concern for workers conditions of employment went right back to the sisal farm…..those who had seen him in his earlier formal roles as school prefect and student president could not have been surprised then when he began at once to act as if his new office conferred on him all the authority of a fully-fledged labor leader.

It is reported that progressively, the volume of Mboya’s staff association workload ballooned where he was immersed in holding sessions of workers issues in his office for long and spent quite some time complaining to management about the welfare of workers besides carrying out staff membership recruitment drives. His success was however limited since his outfit was just a staff association.

Cognizant of this hiccup, in May 1952, he pushed for constitutional changes in NALGSA so as to get itself more powers and to seek registration under the Trade Union Ordinance. His sterling performance as acting Secretary General of NALGSA could not escape attention. “The labor department was taking considerable notice… a young man of such unusual ability and efficiency…he was invited to become a member of the Labor Advisory Board in the mid 1952”, wrote Goldsworthy.

Always on the move, Mboya applied for the registration of NALGSA in 1953. However, his department boss at the Nairobi City Council, the medical officer for health was increasingly unease with his trade union activism and began issuing warnings. In response, Mboya resigned to concentrate on full time basis as a unionist and immediately assumed the full office of secretary general of NALGSA now   registered as Kenya Local Government Workers Union (KLGWU).

Soon thereafter, Mboya took his union to Kenya Federation of Trade Unions (KFRTU), an umbrella workers body which had been formed earlier in 1952 under the leadership of Aggrey Minya of Transport and Allied Workers Union (TAWU).

On attending first meeting of KFRTU on September 12, 1953, he became acting secretary general when Minya walked out of the meeting in a huff during a heated exchange with members. In the process, ‘No one could fail to be aware of the contrast between the work style of the two men: Minya rambling and emotional. Mboya cool, intelligent and meticulous”, narrates Goldsworthy.

In his view, African society was socialistic in an ‘organic’ sense; a network of interdependencies, marked by equality of sacrifice, contributions according to ability, and returns according to need

Mboya continued to discharge his duties extremely well in the several subsequent meetings which Minya boycotted. In October 1953, Aggrey Minya was dismissed and Tom Mboya was installed as the new Secretary General of KFTRU, which would later metamorphose in 1965 into the present-day Central Organization of Trade Unions – COTU.

As President Kenyatta’s limousine drew up Holy Family Cathedral for Mboya’s requiem mass, police were powerless to contain the crowd. The car was pelted with stones, sticks and shoes

Political Plunge

Tom Mboya later joined politics where he played a leading role in the struggle for Kenya’s independence.

 On June 1,1963, he was elected as a member of parliament for Nairobi Central Constituency, present day Kamukunji and subsequently appointed Labor Minister. Later, he became Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs before moving to the Ministry of Economic Planning and National Development (MEPD) where retired Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki was his assistant.

Reports indicate that Mboya ran the ministry effectively with energy and dedication. Goldsworthy recorded that “It became very much ‘his’ ministry”. Strangely, just as he had gone to Justice and constitutional Affairs with no legal training, so he went to MEPD without academic training in economics. This limitation could not however hinder a sterling performance.

In Goldsworthy’s account, one Professor of Economics at the University of Nairobi later wrote: “Although he came to task with relatively little formal training, he soon acquired a profound understanding of the complexities and dilemmas of developments, and of the art of economic planning.” Similar sentiments were expressed by one of the most senior of MEPD’s expatriate officials, interviewed in 1975 who agreed that Mboya’s lack of training was no handicap in that Mboya had, quite simply, the best brain he had ever encountered.

Sessional Paper number 10

Mboya joined MEPD with his mind brimming creativity on Kenya’s- and Africa’s past, present and future economic situations. These ideas were prominently manifested in his five years plan for 1966-70, famously known the Kenyan “Sessional Paper 10.”

In this blue print, which was broadly applauded for its technical aplomb, Tom Mboya espoused spirit of Harambee, principles of African socialism and prescribed a model of government based on African values. He advocated for a modern African state and economy that preserved fidelity as much as possible to intrinsic African ideas and social values; emphasizing the need to appreciate the force of existing circumstances.

In his view, African society was socialistic in an ‘organic’ sense; a network of interdependencies, marked by equality of sacrifice, contributions according to ability, and returns according to need. Mboya’s concept captured political democracy, mutual social responsibility, varied forms of ownership with applicable 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.

This thinking provided the basis of remarkable economic stability that Kenya enjoyed in the 1960s. Even after his accelerated death on July 5,1969, his programs continued to sustain the Kenyan economy muscles to glorious global admiration and emulation.

In his speech given at the luncheon of the Asian Ambassadors and High Commissioners in the Lord Errol Restaurant in Nairobi on August 5,2004, Prof Nyongo reported thus: “I have just come from a trip to Lankawi in Malaysia… was struck by the awesome progress that Malaysia has made in the last 25 years… Malaysian leaders told me that when they visited Kenya in the mid-1970s, they were similarly struck by the progress Kenya had made since independence compared to where they were… what had struck the Malaysians most was that at the time, Nairobi (and Kenya) had better infrastructure than Malaysia, and it was also better managed…

“Kuala Lumpur was nothing like this. So, the Malaysian leaders decided they would make their capital as good as – or better than – Nairobi. They requested the Kenyan government to allow Malaysian planners and civil servants to take course at Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA), then Kenya premier public service training institution – in these case from Kenya to Malaysia.

“Today we could do with technical assistance from Malaysia…. It is sufficient to observe that, while the Kenyan economy grew at 7.9% between 1965 and 1969 – East Asia, home of the future ‘Asian Tigers’ only managed an average of 4.2% economic expansion; about half of Kenya, we had slightly higher per capita income in 1965. Today Malaysia has per capita of income of $4000 that is rising. We in Kenya have one estimated at $330, which has been falling!” lamented Prof Nyongo.

This speech provides haunting echoes of what President Lee had revealed to him: “While we in Singapore decided to march forward together as a nation, you in Kenya decided to assassinate Tom Mboya.”

It is reported that Mboya’s meteoric rise exhibited his signature characteristics: clear and systematic intelligence, confidence in himself, capacity to work long hours, ability to acquire useful patrons and friends, the skills at fashioning himself an institutional base; his union and the federation, arriving in the right place at the right time.

That magical combination of talent, ambition and work ethic gave him an ability to move through the murky waters of the colonial world to get a secondary education, a job as a sanitation officer which introduced him into the world of trade union politics and win landmark union disputes, including the dockworkers union strike of 1955.

Sadly, this also caused him enemies in huge measures which must have immensely contributed to his elimination and indeed killing Kenya’s leading light and sun, which mirrors the narrative in the Nigerian writer and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s 1989 short story figuratively titled: “Africa Kills Her Sun”.

This killing of Kenya’s sun on July 5, 1969 plunged the young nation and its global partners into deep grieving. In the US, The New York Times of July 11,1969 reported thus: “Only 38, the handsome, articulate Mboya embodied many of the qualities so urgently needed by the fledgling nations of black Africa. He was a member of Kenya’s second largest tribe, the Luo. But he saw his real loyalties to Kenya’s detribalizing urban classes and made them his constituency.

He was an early and fervent apostle for his country’s freedom, inspired by Jomo Kenyatta. But he deplored the violence and bloodshed of the Mau Mau uprisings against the British and refused to participate in them. He became the architect of independent Kenya’s major documents, including its Constitution. He also pleaded eloquently for a Marshall Plan for all Africa, for the creation of an African economy, and “the brotherhood of the ‘extended family’ in a United States of Africa.”

Mboya had many political enemies on the right as well as the left. He also had personal enemies, for he could be arrogant, brittle and ruthless in political infighting. As a Luo, Mboya was given only a scant chance to succeed Kenyatta, a member of the country’s dominant Kikuyu tribe. His talents were such, however, that he might have been assassinated to head off any possibility of his presidency. Kenyatta described his death as “a loss to Kenya, to Africa and the world.”

Besides trade unionism and politics, Mboya was also an active panafricanist. He teamed up with other leading African leaders such Ghana’s Kwame Nkurumah. 

In 1958, during the All –African People’s Conference in Ghana convened by Kwame Nkurumah, Mboya was elected as the Conference Chairman at the age of 28.


In 1959, together with the African-American Students Foundation in the United States, Mboya organized the Airlift Africa project, through which 81 Kenyan students including Barack Obama Sr, father to former US President Barack Obama were flown to the U.S. to study.  This program later expanded and included students from other African countries too such as Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Farewell to the Vision

An excerpt from Goldsworthy’s Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget captures his farewell thus: Mboya’s last journey began with requiem mass at the Holy Family Cathedral, a short while from City Hall where he launched his public service career as a sanitary inspector… A huge crowd of over 20000 people thronged the building and its environs. “As President Kenyatta’s car drew up, police were powerless to contain the crowd. The car was pelted with stones, sticks and shoes.

Inside the cathedral, McCarthy who had officiated Mboya’s wedding now prayed for the repose of his soul…. Mboya’s friend and fellow Minister Samuel Ayodo read a eulogy on Kenyatta’s behalf while the President himself obviously much affected remained in his seat.

At times, the speakers could hardly be heard above the noise of rioting outside. Police tear gas sipped into the cathedral affecting many of the congregation. General rioting spread through the Nairobi streets… cars were stoned… windows were smashed at the Law courts… Office of the President, along Harambee avenue, Kenyatta Avenue… two people, a German and an elderly Sikh were killed.

The cortege left Nairobi for Nyanza at 4am on Wednesday…in a huge convoy of over 500 cars….in every town, huge crowd turned out, some of them in heavy rain. There were regular scuffles with the police…

By nightfall, the cortege was deep into Nyanza. Progress was agonizingly slow. Women lay on the road, men clung to the hearse as roadside crowds shouted dume – the slogan of then Opposition party.

The body was put in an overnight stay at the Kisumu Cathedral for lying in state. Mourners filled past it throughout the night… On Thursday morning, there was a service in Homabay Cathedral before the cortege left through Mbita passage to the family compound. Mboya Rateng…had come home.

In the compound, the coffin lay open under a shelter of poles and cornstalks… the elders had decreed mature cornstalks instead of grass or tree branches as assign of great respect… The grieving crowds grew larger by the hour. Thousands of people arrived to join the people of Rusinga… they came by ferry, by fishing boats, by dugout canoes…

On the morning of Friday 11 July, a few young men selected by customary law were entrusted to dig the grave. The elders had chosen a raised ground near an oyieko tree covered in yellow blossom. The ground was stony but the men showed no signs of exhaustion. It was a great honor for them.

Late in the day, clouds began to gather covering the hot sun. It was as if Mboya had given a sign to the multitude. They surged forward wailing. The bishop started to prepare the holy water for the final blessings. The elders stood with their shields and spears ready for the final ritual. Mourners ran here and there to announce the time. Rateng’s hour had come.

Amid the scenes of intense anguish, the coffin, draped in the flag of Kenya was lowered into the grave. The sky now darker. The elders had forecast that there would be a slight shower during the burial of this great son of Sub – Rusinga – Nyanza – Kenya – Africa and indeed the world – so it started to rain.

In the grave at the side of the coffin were placed Mboya’s beaded cap, his beaded walking stick and an ox-hide shield as his widow painfully mourned: “Tom would still have been alive today if he had a streak of badness in him. They killed him because he was nothing but a good man. He died because they knew he was good.”

And so, Joseph Thomas Mboya, the man Kenya cannot forget joined his ancestors and with him went the password for Kenya’s economic vision; at least according to Lee Kwan Yew, the founding father of the great Singapore.

Sign Up