Tom Mboya: The untold story

Mr Mboya with Mr JF Kennedy, the US president who was assassinated in 1962. Photo/FILE

It will be 40 years this July 5, since Tom Mboya was assassinated outside a pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue). Up to this day, neither the real assassin nor the sponsors of it are known.

The trial of the suspected assassin, Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, a one-time KANU youthwinger who occasionally made money on the side by harassing businesspeople with threats of his connections with powerful politicians, was so tightly controlled there can be little doubt that it was stage-managed.

Those in the public gallery were vetted and monitored; journalists, especially foreign journalists were mostly refused entry. Njenga had pleaded guilty to murdering Tom Mboya; the trial was merely a passage to his execution.

This smoothly managed showcase was however, almost ruined by a remark made almost casually by Njenga.

“What about the big man?” he asked as he was being sentenced to hang.

With that remark, he posed a riddle that is, in many ways, at the heart of independent Kenya’s politics.

Historians, journalists and others have speculated for 40 years now over the identity of the Big Man.

Fingers have silently pointed at individuals within Kenyatta’s inner circle.

There has been a fair amount of speculation that foreign intelligence was involved – or at the very least, had sufficient motive to want Mboya dead, and in many ways gained from it.

Or maybe it was a lone gunman, driven by pent-up personal grievances with the young dashing politician. Nothing has ever been proved or established.

The questions linger. Using recently declassified information from various sources, including the US State Department and documents from archives in Kenya and the United Kingdom, we will try to answer the basic questions surrounding Mboya’s assassination: Who ordered the hit on Mboya? Was there a second gunman? Was there a link between Mboya’s killers and an assassination plot almost six years later on Vice President Daniel arap Moi? Did Mboya know about the plot to assassinate Pio Gama Pinto? Was there a link between President Kenyatta, Bruce Mackenzie, Charles Njonjo and the MI5? Did the MI5 want Mboya out of the way?

Other questions: did Nahashon Njenga use Mboya’s gun as later alleged (part of the somewhat absurd theory that Mboya planned to assassinate Kenyatta, Njenga knew about it and, in a fit of patriotism, killed Mboya instead – using Mboya’s gun)?

Of Mboya’s murder, then Vice President Daniel arap Moi would later say to Parliament that it was “monstrously conceived but brilliantly planned and carried out”.

It was a strange way to put it especially because, Mboya’s death had precipitated the most severe riots in post-independence Kenya’s history and had deepened existing ethnic and political divisions to the point that they threatened to break the country apart.

There are more practical questions surrounding that statement: Considering Mboya had virtually no security on the day, was in fact by himself at a pharmacy in downtown Nairobi on a Saturday and at a time when the city is virtually deserted, it appears odd that Mr Moi would describe the assassination as “brilliantly planned and carried out”. What does the former President know?

Also telling, was the brevity of the aftermath of assassination.

‘Biggest manhunt ever for Mboya’s killers’, the Daily Nation announced in its headline the following Monday and in somewhat triumphant fashion.

Three weeks later, on August 1, it was, however, Time Magazine that breached the unutterable: “A Kikuyu Suspect” announced its Mboya headline.

However, when the alleged assassin was found and arrested, his trial strongly suggested that other forces were at play.

Appearing in court on August 13, the trial was over in a matter of weeks, Njenga convicted and sentenced to hang.

Significantly, records of the trial in the Kenya National Archives have disappeared. Thus, in so many ways, the idea of the State’s complicity in Mboya’s killing is a major factor in the subsequent cover up.

At the same time, we also aim to explore the significance of Mboya’s life and the implications of his death.

In many ways, with the death of Mboya, the nascent enterprise that was “project Kenya” – the building of a nation from what American writer Paul Theroux once called “the querulous republic”, an assortment of ethnic communities fiercely competing for control of the centre – began to crumble.

The sense of optimism that had come with independence and somehow survived the ideological discord within KANU, was extinguished with the assassination of Tom Mboya on that Saturday afternoon.

Nairobi, and Kenya as a whole, became a nation of silences, suspicions and secrets.

The tenuous ideas of solidarity and nation building disintegrated.

The uhuru nationalist project, not six years old, was effectively taken over by the forces of tribalism and ethnic patronage.

Only Mboya, whose personal and public life had transcended beyond the preoccupations of ethnic chauvinism and parochialism, had possessed the imagination to lead the country in a new direction.

Mahathir Mohamed, the Malaysian Prime Minister and architect of that country’s post-colonial renaissance, was later to comment: “when you killed Tom, you lost 30 years”.

1969 was in many ways a watershed year.

Rumours in late 1968 that President Kenyatta had suffered a heart attack brought home to the nation but especially to the close circle around Kenyatta –known as the Kiambu Mafia – that the founding President was not immortal.

The politics of succession, which would become the enduring theme of Kenyan politics, began to play out in earnest.

Having neutralised the left wing of KANU in the mid-60s, first with the assassination of Pinto in 1965 and then the sidelining of Jaramogi Odinga at the Limuru Conference in `66, Mboya, the obvious successor to Kenyatta, himself became a target for neutralisation by the Kiambu Mafia.

There had been an attempt on his life in early 1969.

By the middle of that year, Mboya found himself increasingly isolated on the domestic political scene.

Internationally, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, an intimate friend and perhaps his biggest champion in the United States, was a big blow to Mboya.

With the British already quite nervous of his strong links with the United States, the jostling around the Kenya presidency acquired added urgency, and rendered Mboya increasingly more vulnerable.

There were, in short, many reasons and many people who wanted Tom Mboya dead.

But first, let us fast-forward to 1975 and examine the story of a man called Jones Mukeka.

On Friday February 7, 1975, less than three weeks before the body of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki would be found in the Ngong Hills and almost six years after the assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya, a man showed up at the US Embassy in Nairobi with some disturbing information.


Claiming to have contact with “high level Kamba and Kikuyu politicians” the man, Jones Mukeka, told of a plot to assassinate Vice President Daniel arap Moi.

Mukeka, a sometime trade unionist, councillor and unsuccessful parliamentary candidate, was a private investigator.

Towards the end of his life — he died in 2005 in Machakos and in penury — he would give an interview to Nation writer Bob Odalo.

In that interview, he speaks of his life and times with the high and mighty; his friendship with both Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki; how he attended future US President John F Kennedy’s wedding in Kennebunkport, Maine in 1963; his later association with JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy. He would remember where he was at lunchtime on July 5, 1969 as his friend Tom Mboya was being gunned down; how he was among the first people at the scene.

Seen in public

He would even claim he was among the last people to see JM Kariuki alive: they had sauna-ed together at the Hilton and then retired to the bar for a drink, soon after which JM Kariuki was picked up, the last time he would be seen in public.

By the time of his death, then, Mukeka had lived the full spectrum of the Kenyan experience of the past 60 years — from the bitterness of Emergency and the independence struggle to the euphoria and subsequent betrayal of uhuru. He was literally, a Kenyan everyman.

And, perhaps, sensing that the end was near, he speaks about it all in that interview.

Everything, except his meeting that Friday in February 1975 with an unnamed US Embassy official.

Mukeka’s disclosures were immediately dispatched by Ambassador Anthony Marshall to the Secretary of State in Washington.

Marshall, two years into his Kenya posting and a bit wary of Mukeka’s credentials, describes him as an “untested Embassy source”.

Already, Mukeka was falling down in the world. A graduate of Syracuse University in the mid-1960s, he had returned to Kenya and begun to cultivate high-level contacts in political and diplomatic circles.

He had been a close confidant of then US Ambassador, William Atwood, whose explosive book The Reds and the Blacks about the Cold War and its impact on post-uhuru Kenyan politics, was banned by Kenyatta.

Mukeka regularly wined and dined with Kenya’s leading politicians.

And although he still claimed to have contact with the likes of Vice President Moi and others, the fact that Marshall attempts to put some distance between him and the US Embassy suggests that he no longer enjoyed access to the high and mighty.

What Mukeka had to say, however, was explosive enough for Marshall to immediately fire off a telegram to Washington. The plot to assassinate Moi was motivated, said Mukeka, by “Kikuyu unwillingness to accept Moi as Kenyatta’s successor”.

Moi’s Kikuyu allies, Attorney General Charles Njonjo and Commerce and Industry minister Julius Kiano were also targeted, Mukeka claimed.

The assassinations would take place while Kenyatta was alive. Moi’s chosen assassin would be a Kalenjin, presumably to remove suspicion from the conspirators. President Kenyatta, alleged Mukeka, was aware of the plot.

While all this information was incendiary enough, it is with Mukeka’s revelation of the identity of the chief conspirator that the intrigues begin.

The plot, said Mukeka, was being organised by a man only known as Muigai, who also went by the nickname Lumumba. Furthermore, claimed Mukeka, it was the same Muigai who had arranged Mboya’s assassination.

Whatever truth there was to Mukeka’s claims was soon overshadowed by a real assassination — that of JM Kariuki, the wealthy former private secretary to President Kenyatta who had turned populist politician.

His body was found by a Maasai herdsman in the Ngong Hills after days of official deception and foot-dragging.


Within days of the discovery of the mutilated body, Mukeka was picked up by the police for questioning and was detained for four days at the Kileleshwa Police Station as police sought to know why he had told the Americans that there was a plot to kill Kiano.

He denied seeing the Americans or giving them any information. Admissions of this kind came with dire consequences. Nevertheless, he was “exiled” to Machakos and prevented from testifying at the Mwangale Commission (probing JM’s death).

This was the price of “knowing too much”.

The Kenyatta regime, increasingly paranoid following the events of 1969 — the assassination of Tom Mboya, the Kisumu riots, the arrest and detention of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and other leaders of the Kenya People’s Union — was silencing its critics by any means necessary.

For JM Kariuki, who had loudly criticised the rampant accumulation of wealth and corruption of the clique around Kenyatta, this resulted in death. For Mukeka, exile to Machakos was the beginning of a journey into obscurity, invisibility.

At JM Kariuki’s funeral in Nyandarua, Alphonce Okuku, Tom Mboya’s younger brother addressed the crowd composed predominantly of Kikuyus.

In a speech that borrowed from the German anti-Nazi dissident priest Gerhart Niemeyer’s famous exhortation to stand up against dictatorship, Okuku intoned: ‘When they killed Pinto, you said it was because he was Indian. When they killed Tom Mboya, you said it was because he was Luo. Now what are you going to say about JM?”