Scram from Africa

John Reader

  • The Politics of the Independence of Kenya by Keith Kyle
    Macmillan, 258 pp, £18.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 333 76098 0

Tom Mboya, a leading minister in the Kenyan Government and widely spoken of as the man who would succeed President Jomo Kenyatta, was shot dead on a Nairobi street on Saturday, 5 July 1969. Mboya, whom Keith Kyle describes in this excellent book as ‘one of the most gifted leaders modern black Africa has yet produced’, belonged to Kenya’s second most powerful ethnic group, the Luo. The man arrested for killing him (a soldier who had undergone special forces training in Bulgaria) came from Kenya’s most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu. He was tried, found guilty on entirely circumstantial evidence and executed. During his trial the accused man referred pointedly to ‘big men’, and many felt they should have been picked up and questioned about their role in the killing. The ‘big men’ were not identified, however, though few doubted that it was a political assassination, and pundits warned that widespread violence between Luo and Kikuyu would follow ‘as surely as the tick bird follows the rhino’. Tribalism was about to give a demonstration of Africa at its most savage – and the world’s media flocked to Kenya.

While tension increased around the country in the days immediately following Mboya’s assassination, the media prepared to cover the demonstration of Luo disaffection that was expected at the funeral. President Kenyatta himself would be foremost among the mourners attending the service in Nairobi’s Catholic cathedral. Of course, he could hardly have stayed away from the funeral of an assassinated minister without causing offence or even adding to the suspicion of Kikuyu connivance with the crime, but his presence (together with others from the ruling Kikuyu hierarchy) was certain to arouse angry protest from activists among the thousands of Luo who would travel to the city for the funeral.

The Government took no chances. Mortuary and forensic formalities were hastily completed and the funeral service scheduled for the Tuesday, barely 72 hours after the murder, which didn’t allow much time for the long journeys that many would have to make from the Luo homelands to Nairobi. Meanwhile, the General Service Unit (a quasi-presidential guard of unforgiving reputation) was deployed, along with military and civil police.

There were some noisy demonstrations along the route of the cortège – heads were cracked and arrests made – but the most memorable event occurred in the cathedral itself. A small group of accredited reporters and photographers were assigned positions alongside the altar, with a prime view over both the congregation and the bier. President Kenyatta, his wife Mama Ngina and members of the Government were seated awaiting the arrival of the coffin when, with a telephoto lens trained on the President, a photographer exclaimed: ‘He’s crying, Kenyatta is crying!’ And indeed he was: bending forward and raising a handkerchief to his eyes, the President seemed inconsolable.

The political value of those Presidential tears, showing Kikuyu sorrow at the loss of a Luo colleague, evoked first astonishment and then admiration among the photographers and reporters who saw them during the minute or so before they too began to cry. The GSU – never less than totally committed to the task in hand – had countered the threat of unruly behaviour as the cortège approached the cathedral yard with a barrage of tear gas. The crowd had dispersed, but much of the gas had drifted into the cadthedral.

Mboya was buried the following day at his maternal homestead on Rusinga Island, a few hundred metres from the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria. Thousands queued for a place in the fleet of dugout canoes ferrying mourners across the channel to the island. At the homestead, where Mboya’s body lay in an open coffin under a white canvas shelter, a long line of mourners moved slowly past. Grief was expressed in tears and sobs and in sudden bursts of piercing ullulation that reverberated through the crowds. Where the men gathered, their low voices and serious demeanour hinted that mourning might be followed by retaliatory action. The other senior Luo Parliamentarian, Oginga Odinga, who had resigned as the country’s first Vice-President in 1964 and by 1969 was a vociferous opponent of the Kenyatta Government, stood prominently at the grave-side, dressed in monkey-skin robes and head-dress and holding his clenched fists aloft, with thumbs erect, to cries of ‘dume, dume’ from the crowd. ‘Dume’ means ‘bull’ and is the Luo cry of solidarity.

The scene was set, pundits agreed, for a serious confrontation between the Kikuyu and Luo factions. But where and when would it occur? The answer was not long in coming. Before the last mourners had left Rusinga Island, it was announced that the President would visit Kisumu, the principal town in the Luo region, two days later. The visit might have been construed as a gesture of conciliation – why else would a Kikuyu President choose to visit the Luo region immediately after the death and interment of its most promising son? But, contrary to expectations, the President was going to Kisumu to open a hospital. The hospital, built with Soviet aid, had been completed and brought into service years before, and an invitation for the President to open it had been ignored until now. This was more of a challenge than a conciliatory gesture. The President would travel from Nairobi through the Luo region to Kisumu by road. If the Luo wanted to make trouble, here was their chance to vent their feelings on Jomo Kenyatta himself.

On the outskirts of Kisumu, a short distance from the crowds which had gathered to greet the President with everything from insulting gestures to bricks, a white officer commanding the GSU forces advised reporters and photographers not to ‘stand around with the crowds when the Old Man arrives. We’re going to clear the roads, and that means going straight for anybody that’s in the way.’ The President’s visit was perfunctory. Bricks were thrown and crowds vented their anger – but almost exclusively on the police and GSU, who responded with tear gas, baton charges and arrests. With the GSU to protect him, the President was never in serious danger, but the gesture was bold nonetheless. And highly successful. In a matter of days incipient tribal animosity was transformed into admiration (if grudging in some quarters) for a powerful leader. The country relaxed and the journalists went home.

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