How Tom Mboya assassination triggered fears of civil war

A badly hurt Tom Mboya is put an a stretcher soon after he was gunned down. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Despite the heavy deployment of General Service Unit personnel, ethnic clashes continued.
  • The anger was also evident at Mboya’s home in Nairobi’s Convent Drive where vice-president Daniel arap Moi was stoned and forced to turn back by mourners.
  • Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had arrived in Nairobi from Kisumu, was blocked from attending after security officials felt his presence would incite the crowd.

On this day 50 years ago, as the body of Tom Mboya, the assassinated Minister for Economic Planning, lay in a simple plush-lined casket beneath a yellow hibiscus tree in Lavington, an emergency Cabinet meeting was hurriedly convened by President Jomo Kenyatta in Gatundu. The agenda included funeral arrangements and the security situation as violence spread throughout the country.

There were fears that the assassination could exacerbate ethnic divisions, leading to a civil war. Despite the heavy deployment of General Service Unit personnel, ethnic clashes continued.

Meanwhile, the British government had instructed the commander of its Kenyan-based troops to only play an advisory role and keep off in case a civil war erupted.


The anger was also evident at Mboya’s home in Nairobi’s Convent Drive where vice-president Daniel arap Moi was stoned and forced to turn back by mourners when he arrived to pay his last respects. Not even the police who had been sent to guard the home were spared.

Before heading to Gatundu for the Cabinet meeting, Moi warned that such incidents could lead to revenge attacks on Mboya’s cortege, especially in Rift Valley. The same was underlined by Information minister James Osogo who after the Cabinet meeting said transporting Mboya’s body to Rusinga would be the biggest challenge.

The first plan, according to confidential documents, was to send the body by air to Homa Bay. However, according to a secret telegram ‘No 1492’ and dated July 7, 1969, the only hindrance was that it was hard to get a non-Kikuyu pilot to fly the Kenya Air Force caribou plane to airlift the body. Because of the ethnic clashes, the safety of the crew was a major concern.

The government was hoping to address this by using six British Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel attached to the Kenya Air Force.


In a confidential telegram to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Robert Munro, the Deputy British High Commissioner whose advice Kenya had sought, wrote: “In the circumstances it could be both legalistic and indeed unfriendly if RAF seconded personnel were instructed by me not to co-operate in this task.”

His only concern was the security of the British personnel after landing in Homa Bay. Although he noted that two companies of GSU had been sent to Homa Bay, he expressed some reservation since “The state of security when the aircraft arrives cannot be forecast.”

To ensure the safety of the crew, the British envoy advised that a Kenya Air Force ground team be positioned at the Homa Bay airstrip in advance to communicate the state of affairs to the pilots. In case the disorder on the airstrip rendered landing hazardous, the British pilots were to immediately return to Nairobi. The government’s plan was, however, rejected by Mboya’s family who decided to transport the body by road.

A day before the journey to Rusinga, a requiem mass was held at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi. It was a solemn state occasion attended by President Kenyatta, Cabinet ministers and members of the diplomatic corps. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had arrived in Nairobi from Kisumu, was blocked from attending after security officials felt his presence would incite the crowd. Jaramogi, Mboya’s political rival, had by then fallen out with Mzee Kenyatta.


The crowds had started gathering outside the cathedral as early as dawn and when the flower-decked hearse carrying Mboya’s body arrived, there was uncontrollable wailing.

The uneasy tension turned into violence when President Kenyatta arrived for the service. As his motorcade neared the cathedral, the police moved on the crowd from behind and started hitting mourners. The crowds reacted to Kenyatta’s arrival by chanting “Dume”, the slogan of Jaramogi’s party, the Kenya People’s Union.

Some women pulled off their shoes and hurled them at the President’s Mercedes Benz. Then came handbags and briefcases and finally volleys of stones. Police responded with batons and tear gas. The injured were rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital, and within one hour, more than 30 people had been reported badly injured.

Some mourners fled and tried to force their way into the New Stanley Hotel, while others collapsed after inhaling tear gas. Among them was councillor Ajit Singh Sandhu, who later died in hospital. He had just laid a wreath on Mboya’s coffin before the commotion.


Inside the cathedral, the service was punctuated by noises of roaring crowds outside, the cracking of tear gas canisters and the wailing of police ambulances. Many in the cathedral sat with handkerchiefs held to their noses after tear gas fumes drifted in through the locked doors.

In a eulogy read on his behalf by Samuel Ayodo, the Minister for Tourism, Mzee Kenyatta, who sat grim-faced, said Mboya had refused to speak within the confines of tribalism and saw Kenya as one country.

The President was surrounded by elite bodyguards as he left the cathedral when the service ended and was driven off at high speed with his car boxed in the centre of six others followed by a truck carrying GSU personnel armed with machine guns. In a scene replicating a battlefield, the forecourt of the cathedral was littered with shoes, discarded clothing including school bags, books and pencils left behind by pupils from nearby schools who had come to witness the service.

The cathedral was to have remained open until midnight to allow mourners file past Mboya’s coffin but the police ordered it closed and pushed mourners off the steps after things turned chaotic. Angry mourners reacted by breaking the windows of the Nairobi law Courts, Office of the President, Ministry of Information and Nairobi's largest supermarket.

On July 9, 1969, at 4.15am Mboya’s body was removed from the Holy Family Basilica where it had spent the night, to begin the arduous journey to Rusinga. It was not all smooth.

The first signs of disorder appeared at Dagoretti where the cortege was stoned in apparent revenge by the President’s supporters.


And just before Nakuru, the widow, Pamela Mboya, and the late minister’s brother Alphonse Okuku were injured when vehicles in the convoy rammed into each other. Pamela was rushed to the Nakuru War Memorial Hospital where she was examined, given painkillers and allowed to proceed with the journey.

In Kericho and Nakuru, thousands of Kenyans stood under their umbrellas in heavy rain to bid Mboya farewell as he headed to his ancestral home.

The body arrived in Kisumu in the evening where an estimated crowd of 100,000 had been waiting all day in high temperatures. It had been announced that the body would stay in Kisumu for three hours to allow viewing, but it only remained long enough for the mayor to lay a wreath. The disappointed crowds rioted, forcing police to fire tear gas.

The cortege arrived in Homa Bay Cathedral at around 9.30pm where it was left for an overnight stay after a mass was conducted by Bishop Maurice Otunga.


On July 11, 1969, political friends and enemies arrived in Mzee Ndiege’s homestead in Rusinga to pay their last respects to Mboya. Most Cabinet ministers did not attend for security reasons. The police had advised them that if they had to go then they should use a helicopter to avoid being attacked. Jaramogi was carried shoulder-high into the home by a cheering crowd when he arrived wearing traditional mourning garb.

At around 2pm, Mboya was finally laid to rest in a blend of traditional and Catholic rites.

Shortly after, the clouds overhead became dark, and it started raining on the day Kenya bade farewell to one of Africa's greatest sons. This was considered a good sign by the elders.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London; [email protected]