Kenya: Death in the Afternoon

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It was a quiet Saturday afternoon in Nairobi, and Tom Mboya, Kenya's Minister of Economic Planning and Development, was doing a little shopping downtown. He stepped into Chhani's Pharmacy to buy a bottle of lotion. As he emerged, an assassin opened fire, escaping in the ensuing confusion. Mboya was struck in the chest, blood soaking his suede jacket, and died in an ambulance on the way to Nairobi Hospital. Grieving Kenyans soon gathered in such numbers at the hospital that baton-wielding police were called out to keep the crowd at bay.

Only 38, the handsome, articulate Mboya embodied many of the qualities so urgently needed by the fledgling nations of black Africa. He was a member of Kenya's second largest tribe, the Luo. But he saw his real loyalties to Kenya's detribalizing urban classes and made them his constituency. He was an early and fervent apostle for his country's freedom, inspired by Jomo Kenyatta. But he deplored the violence and bloodshed of the Mau Mau uprisings against the British and refused to participate in them. He became the architect of independent Kenya's major documents, including its constitution. He also pleaded eloquently for a Marshall Plan for all Africa, for the creation of an African economy, and "the brotherhood of the 'extended family' in a United States of Africa."

Mboya thought of himself as an African socialist, that catchall for moderate African reformers who favor mixed economies. Thoroughly pro-Western, with close ties both to the U.S. and Britain (he spent a year at Oxford), Mboya had no use for Soviet and Chinese efforts to gain a foothold in Kenya. It was on that issue that Mboya and his principal political enemy, Oginga Odinga, collided. Odinga, a Luo like Mboya, is an emotional, radical tribalist with Communist leanings and support. Mboya helped oust Odinga as Vice President in 1966.

Mboya had many political enemies on the right as well as the left. He also had personal enemies, for he could be arrogant, brittle and ruthless in political infighting. As a Luo, Mboya was given only a scant chance to succeed Kenyatta, a member of the country's dominant Kikuyu tribe. His talents were such, however, that he might have been assassinated to head off any possibility of his presidency. Kenyatta described his death as "a loss to Kenya, to Africa and the world."