Picking the winner

Keith Kyle

  • Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget by David Goldsworthy
    Heinemann/Africana, 308 pp, £13.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 435 96275 2

In December 1963 when Kenya at last achieved her uhuru – her freedom – two topics were most prominent in the gossip centres of Nairobi. How long would Mzee – Jomo Kenyatta, ‘The Old Man’ – last? And what was to be done about Tom Mboya? Kenya had emerged from the anti-colonial struggle with two leaders of world renown, one young, dynamic and immensely talented, the other old (no one was quite sure how old) and respected as much for what he had suffered as for what he had done: a mythical figure who until recently had been cut off from all political and virtually all social life by a decade of imprisonment and detention compounded by an extraordinary propaganda campaign – comparable only to the Stalinist attempt to eliminate any reference to Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution – aimed at reducing him to the status of a non-person. Everyone was by now agreed that Jomo Kenyatta should become the first President of Kenya, but it was widely thought that, aged and enfeebled by his harsh treatment, he would soon die or retire: many felt that, cost what it might, Mboya, for all his manifest ability, should never succeed him. Some who were both proud of Mboya’s celebrity and embarrassed by it dreamt up exotic careers for him: when the expected East African Federation came into existence he could become its Foreign Minister, or, better still because further away, he could be the first African Secretary-General of the United Nations – anything so long as he did not become the ruler of Kenya.

Tom Mboya had star quality. Of that there could be no conceivable doubt. He sprang, as it seemed, from nowhere: his father was an illiterate worker on a settler-owned sisal estate, and although Mboya stayed at secondary school until he was 17, he had no university education except for a year at Ruskin College, Oxford, when he was well launched on his career. Yet he astonished the world with his eloquence, his rational presentation – in fluent and faultless English – of the viewpoints of black Africa, with his quick intelligence and remarkable stamina, his business-like precision and efficiency. Dressed in a well-cut suit, never at a loss for words or for an attractive formulation of ideas, he was the perfect refutation of colonialist disdain.

David Goldsworthy, the Australian scholar who is Mboya’s second biographer – the first, Alan Rake, wrote his book in 1962 – has produced an efficient interim study of his career, which examines in a sensible way the main issues it presents. He never met his subject, but those who did will recognise the portrait he draws: the ability to operate with ease on many different planes, considerable charm but also a habit of switching off, an enviable range of talents but also the ruthlessness, calculation and arrogance that were to transform a long list of one-time collaborators into opponents. The author is candid about the material that he did not, and, in some cases, could not, see and expresses the hope that ‘materials yet unworked’ will provide the basis for a fuller biography.

Ethnically a Luo, though not from the mainstream of that tribe, Tom Mboya arrived in Nairobi, a predominantly Kikuyu city, at the age of 20 as a sanitary inspector working for the city council. Two years later almost the entire, mostly Kikuyu, political leadership of the city was wiped out by arrest and subsequent conviction or detention as a result of the Mau Mau Emergency: this very young man moved rapidly to fill the vacuum. As a Luo he had more freedom to function than a Kikuyu, who would have been prima facie suspect until he gave positive proof of being a loyalist; and, working now as a trade-unionist, he found a role that was accorded a certain legitimacy by some of the colonial authorities. He scored a spectacular personal success when he brought the illegal and highly dangerous Mombasa dock strike of 1955 to an end, by improvising an acceptable procedure for channelling the dock workers’ grievances. He was the Lech Walesa of Kenya.

It did not take long for him to be discovered by a wider world. Moral Rearmament can take the credit for providing him with his first free air ticket to Europe in 1954: he used it to make his number in Brussels with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which had considerable funds, mainly from American sources, to promote non-communist labour movements in what was to be called the Third World, and with liberal and Labour circles in London, such as the Observer and the Fabian Colonial Bureau. He began the intensive lobbying that got him to Ruskin College for a year, where he wrote an influential Fabian pamphlet, The Kenya Question, and thereafter to the United States, for his first, immensely successful lecture tour. He was just the young spokesman for the new Africa whom the Americans wanted. They took him up in a big way and he was well prepared to exploit the opportunity – always alert, always ready to provide articles and speeches, as well as appealing projects that required finance. The AFL-CIO, whose international policy was, directed along sharply anti-communist lines by the ex-General Secretary of the American Communist Party, Jay Lovestone, provided Mboya with enough money to build a new African-owned headquarters for the trade-union movement: it made a dramatic impact on the physical appearance of Nairobi. Later Mboya secured places at American colleges for dozens of African students from Kenya and raised the finance (most of it from American sources) to bring them over by special airlift. When he was first elected for the Nairobi constituency in March 1957 – the first time blacks were allowed to vote in Kenya – he already had solid accomplishments to show.

Goldsworthy discusses sensibly – though necessarily with incomplete evidence – the question, which was much debated in his lifetime, of whether Mboya was an American agent. He always claimed that he had never knowingly had contact with the CIA and although he was much admired in America and had a number of close American friends, he would have been most unlikely to have promised specific actions in return for support. For the recipient of American aid the question was whether the head-start it made possible would always outweigh the resistance and suspicion it might generate. It is true that the Americans were not alone in picking Mboya as the spokesman for yet-to-be-liberated Africa. Kwame Nkrumah in 1958 chose him as the chairman of the All-African People’s conference at Accra, though Mboya was eventually to split with the Ghanaians.

Official British opinion of Mboya during the approach to Independence went through a fairly rapid transition. ‘One day he might be brought round,’ said Evelyn Baring, who was Governor when Mboya was first elected to the Legislative Council, ‘but at present he is pretty sinister and evil ... We must fight him, he is intensely arrogant, a lapsed RC with the morals of a monkey.’ In Legco, with his easy debating style, he ran verbal rings round heavy-handed and script-bound white speakers. While it remained fashionable to speak as though Kenya would become a plural society with institutionalised power-sharing racial groups, Mboya remained militantly opposed to British plans. Later, when the British were resigned to a course that would lead to a black African state, he became the favourite British candidate for Finance Minister in the hope that this would lead to his becoming Prime Minister and thereby keep out the dreaded Jomo Kenyatta. ‘Tom,’ a very senior British official told me later, ‘had every quality for the leadership of Kenya except moral courage’ – in other words, he had been offered the kingdom and had refused it. Mboya had shown the greater wisdom in seeing that with British rule ending the only way to hold Kenya together as a nation was to hold together the Kikuyu who had just emerged from the traumatic experience of civil war. That could be done only by Kenyatta.

The hitherto unspoken name of a man whom many white settlers regarded as Satan personified had been reintroduced into Kenyan politics by Oginga Odinga, the chairman of the African Elected Members, who hoped thereby to wrongfoot the too smooth and too smart Tom Mboya. Odinga was a pioneer of African capitalism in western Kenya, who set up hotels and trading companies and wrote articles to instruct his fellow Africans in business principles: altogether, an unlikely individual to associate with communism. But as an older man, from the same Luo tribe as Mboya, he was very conscious of his African dignity and was offended at the ease with which Mboya mixed with his British and American friends. Odinga proceeded to cross lines which Mboya, for all his defiance of colonialism, had been unwilling to cross: he went to Cairo, where Nasser kept a Kenya Office which put out broadcasts in favour of Mau Mau and the ‘liberation struggle’, to East Germany, Moscow, Peking. Odinga also had some means of financing a political campaign. The Cold War had entered Kenyan politics.

Odinga was not by any means Mboya’s only enemy. After the Lancaster House conference in 1960, where Mboya had antagonised almost everyone by his assurance, his constant access to the media and his assumption of the habits of a leadership which had not been accorded to him, almost the entire political élite resolved that in the nationalist party they would form Mboya should have no part whatsoever. By superb political manoeuvring Mboya avoided that trap and through sheer merit emerged again near the centre. In one group, party or delegation after another, grudging colleagues would acknowledge Mboya’s superior organising skills by making him the secretary, swearing that this time he would be kept to the more menial aspects of the role. Invariably he emerged as the star. He tended to act as though union members were his personal political troops, at one time committing them to a political strike (which they largely ignored) while he was off on a visit to West Africa, at another announcing ahead of the agreed time a series of strikes and demonstrations during an election campaign. Many leading Kenyans who shared his rather conservative views about the country’s economy feared him as a potential dictator.

Once Jomo Kenyatta took over the government of Kenya, Tom Mboya rapidly made himself indispensable to the ‘old man’. As Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, he took the lead in establishing the Republican Constitution; as Minister of Economic Planning and Development, he laid the foundations of the present economy, with its encouragement of private enterprise and heavy reliance on foreign investment; as a masterly parliamentarian, he handled the more embarrassing types of government business such as the laws permitting large back payments of ministerial expenses and making independent candidacies at elections illegal; and as ideologist-in-chief, he defined African Socialism in the famous Sessional Paper No 10. This paper, which might as well have been named ‘African Capitalism’, or even, his critics later observed, ‘African Neocolonialism’, leaned heavily on the idea of the ‘mutual social responsibility’ of traditional Africa to counterbalance the sharp inequalities that were liable to result from the type of growth which he had in mind. During his lifetime Kenya’s high growth rates enabled Mboya to claim with some plausibility that everyone was benefiting. It is unclear how much his views would have changed when a fallen growth rate no longer exceeded the exceptionally high rate of births and the gap between incomes had widened alarmingly.

It was still emphatically Kenyatta’s government and Mboya was in no sense the heir apparent. When the President, worried by the Army mutiny in 1964, decided to destroy the political power of the Vice-President, Oginga Odinga, it was Mboya’s multiple skills and lack of squeamishness that were put to work. But when, in 1968, the job was done there was no mention of Mboya’s taking up the vacant vice-presidency. On the contrary, that post was eventually given to Daniel arap Moi, one of the great survivors of Kenyan politics, the only one of the six Africans appointed to the Legco by the British to be kept there subsequently by the voters, and also one of the principal leaders of the party that had lost the 1963 pre-Independence election, in which Mboya had been the organiser of Kenyatta’s victory. Once Odinga had been crushed, the ‘inner group’ round the President began systematically to undermine the internal bases of Mboya’s position, both in the trade unions and in the ruling party. His two closest American friends were declared prohibited immigrants by his colleague arap Moi, and he was attacked for his American connections at a closed party meeting by men who have since his death made far closer arrangements, including some of a military nature, with the United States than he had ever suggested.

Tom Mboya was killed by an assassin just before his 39th birthday. He was not the first Kenyan politician so to die – that was Pio Pinto, Odinga’s close friend and liaison with Eastern embassies – nor has he been the last. Mboya’s murder hasn’t been satisfactorily accounted for, any more than others have been. The problem of what to do about the continent’s most brilliant political leader had been settled years before Kenyatta’s death and the smooth passage of Kenyatta’s power to his chosen successor. Last year’s uprising by the Air Force and the university gave an insight into the social unrest that is very near the surface in Kenya. Mboya’s great work of national construction cannot even now be regarded as secure, while his career as a favourite godson of the United States illuminates the holes and ambiguities in President Reagan’s schemes for the assertion of the pluralistic nature of democracy as the best alternative to Communism.