Who Killed Tom Mboya? Declassifed Documents Raise New Questions about the 1969 Assassination of Visionary Nationalist Tom Joseph Mboya

By Kantai, Parselelo | New African, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Who Killed Tom Mboya? Declassifed Documents Raise New Questions about the 1969 Assassination of Visionary Nationalist Tom Joseph Mboya


Kantai, Parselelo, New African


On 5 July it will be 47 years since Tom Mboya was assassinated outside Chhanni's Pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue). Up to this day, neither the real assassin nor his sponsors are known.

Mboya, who was only 39 years old when he was gunned down that Saturday morning, was arguably the architect of modern Kenya. Self-educated for the most part, Mboya rose to prominence on the strength of his organisational genius, his fearlessness and his oratory. He is today famous for his Mboya Students Airlift programme that took a generation of East Africans to college in the United States. But Mboya was a man of many firsts--a young man in a hurry, as he was once dubbed by Time magazine. At only 27, he became the president of the All Africa People's Conference, the precursor body of the OAU, unanimously elected by the delegates in Nkrumah's Accra.

He was the lead negotiator for KANU (the Kenya African National Union) during the Lancaster House independence talks between 1961 and 1963.

He would be dead before the end of the decade. Almost 50 years later, it is still a mystery who his killers were and what motivated them.

At about 1pm on Saturday, July 5, 1969 he was standing outside Chhanni's Pharmacy chatting to the shop's owner Mohini Chhanni. She would later say that she heard what she thought was a tyre burst. Then Mboya fell into her arms, bleeding.

He never regained consciousness. The police launched the biggest manhunt in Kenya's history--over 400 police were assigned to the case. As riots swept across Nairobi, with Mboya's Luo compatriots blaming his murder on Jomo Kenyatta's Kikuyu, a suspect was miraculously found within 72 hours.

The trial of the suspected assassin, Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, a one-time KANU youthwinger who occasionally made money on the side by harassing Asian businessmen, was little more than a stage-managed farce. Njenga was convicted on the basis of dubious circumstantial evidence. The presiding judge, Alfred Henry Simpson, effectively ruled out any discussion of who may have sponsored Njenga. 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 arrested.

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 President Jomo 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 UK, 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 MI5? Did MI5 want Mboya out of the way?

Other questions: did Nahashon Njenga use Mboya's gun as later alleged (this is 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)? …

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