By Odhiambo Levin Opiyo
Tom Mboya , who was assassinated 52 years ago, was one of the front-runners in the struggle to succeed President Jomo Kenyatta, a struggle that was a burning issue in Kenya’s politics.
In him, the country lost one of its most brilliant leaders, and his death did intensify the bitter rivalries that had become prevalent in the post-colonial Kenya.
Mboya’s international standing was equalled by few Africans. He had political and personal friends from all over the world.
On the same token, he was a man with many personal and political enemies who often accused him of being over-ambitious.
This charge had been levelled against him ever since he first emerged into politics as a trade union leader when he was only 21.
After Kenya became independent in 1963, his manoeuvres to retain his place as Kenyatta’s most effective lieutenant led him into quarrels, often with his own colleagues.
Nevertheless , his political strength lay in his ability to rally disparate elements from all tribal elements behind his leadership.
His role was complicated by the fact that he was serving in a Government that was resented by his tribesmen for being biased against them and too dominated by the Kikuyu.
This Kikuyu-Luo rivalry made him enemies in both groups. His most bitter critic was Odinga, who joined with left-wing radicals in denouncing him as too pro Western.
But among Kenyatta’s closest associates, too, Mboya had many critics and rivals. They resented the extent to which President Kenyatta entrusted him with responsibility for government and party affairs.
As Minister of Economic Planning he was in effect the overlord of Kenya’s economy-a field in which he had established for himself an international reputation.
As secretary general of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) , he concentrated on consolidating his own political influence.
Because of his intellectual brilliance and tactical skills, Kenyatta frequently entrusted him with the more difficult tasks of manipulating power.
He was widely regarded as the President’s political hatchet man-particularly in the difficult and delicate operation of defeating the challenge of Odinga when he defected from KANU to form KPU
Mboya, a politician of worldly sophistication and engaging charm, was nevertheless capable of offending people unnecessarily by his arrogant manner.
Against this complicated back ground of political manoeuvres and intrigues it was difficult to pinpoint who engineered his assassination within the Gatundu group.
All in all, throughout his political career Mboya’s outstanding quality was his confident optimism both about the future of Kenya and his own political fortunes.
Youth, he felt, was the greatest asset in his favour against all his rivals. “The difference between them and me”, he once said , “is that they are forced to run sprints to get to the top, while I can afford to take it easy at the pace of a long distance runner.”
Like the long-distance runner he was essentially a lonely man, at least in politics. While his home in Lavington’s Barnard Estates, was always crowded with people at all hours of the day, he never felt that, in a tough political situation, he could really rely on the loyalty of those who sought his friendship.
Thomas Joseph Mboya was one of 12 children born on a sisal plantation where his father was a Nyapara.
At the age of nine he was sent to a mission boarding school, and finished his formal schooling seven years later. He was always a quick learner.
When he was 21 he qualified as a sanitary inspector. While working for the Nairobi City Council he began taking an interest in trade union work.
He quickly rose to be the country’s most important trade union leader, and developed Kenya’s Federation of Labour into a powerful national organisation during the years of the Mau Mau Emergency.
It was during this period that he first showed his considerable political skill by diverting suspicion from his own political sympathies with the rebellion.
He used his trade union base to lever his way into political prominence. A dedicated Pan-Africanist, he played a key role in developing the All-African People’s Organisation and later the Organisation of African Unity. But the Russians and Chinese continued to regard him as ‘politically unreliable’.