*Concerned Comrade John Gwambo*
Born on 15th August 1930, Tom Joseph Mboya rose from a humble background to become an enigmatic, colossal and inimitable labor unionist whose short stint in the political arena continues to mesmerize many to date. Tom Mboya is said to be a politician well ahead of his time, one who had great intellect and who was an orator par excellence. He was a trade unionist who gained international recognition way before he plunged into the murky waters of politics.
While employed by the Nairobi city water as a sanitary inspector, Mboya was elected as the chairperson of the African Staff Association. He developed it into a trade union which was later referred to as The Kenya Local Government Workers Union, and when the colonial government refused to recognize the union, Mboya sued it for recognition and he won.
Tom Mboya later institutionalized the labor movement not only here in Kenya but also across the continent and rose to become the first African to sit on the International Confederation of Free Trade Union Board. Even before most African countries gained independence, Mboya had already become a household name on the international arena.
1959 was arguably the year that marked the water shed period of Mboya’s life. It was the year that revealed to the world just who Tom Mboya was. In April that year the trade unionist visited Washington DC at the invitation of the American committee Africa. It was during the visit that he secured scholarships for East African students to study in various universities in the United States courtesy of the African-American Students foundation. He successfully raised funds to support students from East Africa, at the time there was no single University in Kenya.
He used his connections to organize the famous African projects. About 800 students from East Africa were awarded scholarships between 1959 and 1963. The first airlift had 81 students among them the late Barrack Obama Senior father to former United States president Barrack Obama, the late Peace Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai was also among the beneficiaries. It was called the famous flight of 81.
But it was April the same year 1959 when the trade unionist perhaps surprised the country, the continent and maybe Americans as well when he was invited to address a historic civil rights movement rally together with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in Washington DC the seat of power of the free world. His 1959 exploits would spill over to 1960 when he joined the then Massachusetts Senator John Fitz Gerald Kennedy’s presidential campaign popularly known as John F Kennedy. It is said his involvement in the civil rights movement rally a year earlier was crucial in the US presidential election that year. John F Kennedy’s resolution to support the airlift project was a major issue in that election and possibly a factor in his victory given vote from the African-Americans.
On the 26th July 1960, Tom Mboya met Democratic presidential nominee Senator John F Kennedy becoming arguably the most significant African to influence American history, culture and politics as well. After successfully sending the first batch of students to the US in 1959 the legendary trade unionist associates had to reach out to then US Vice President Richard Nixon for more help.
But the question many asked and continue to wonder about is his connection to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, how did they meet? Tom Mboya was so popular and had become part of the American Civil Rights Movement where he interacted with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. His presence on the international scene had been felt and his great oratory skills heard.
With that he also found himself at the fore-front in pitching for his own country Kenya to be granted independence from British colonial rule at the legislative council in Lancaster 1960.
By the time Kenya was gaining her independence in 1st June 1963 and becoming a republic 6 months later Tom Mboya was already a household name. It is reported that it’s Tom Mboya who planned the design of the Kenyan flag as well as the first ever master plan for the city of Nairobi. He was Kenya’s first minister in charge of economic planning and development, and while in charge he crafted the crucial sessional paper no.10 on Harambee and principles of African socialism, a paper that was adopted by parliament in 1965 and provided a model of government based on African values. The paper further defined Kenya’s form of economic policies.
While at the helm of the Ministry of labor, Mboya created National Social Security Fund (NSSF) – Kenya’s social security scheme. He also established an industrial court to hear labor management cases. Tom Mboya’s interviews and debates locally and internationally painted a picture of a man who had the interest of Africa at heart.
The solidarity building in Gikomba Nairobi for the Giant Central Organization of Trade Unions was also constructed as a result of Mboya’s mobilization skills. However, as fate would have it, Mboya was murdered on a cold Saturday of July 6th 1969. He was assassinated on a government road now named Moi Avenue in broad daylight as he was leaving a pharmacy by the name Chaani.
His fatal shooting threw the country into panic mode. Medics at the Nairobi Hospital raced against time to try and save his life – efforts that were all in vain. The veteran trade unionist cum politician succumbed. His assassination remains a mystery for a man of sharp intellect, a man who is said to have had the ear of the founding father President Jomo Kenyatta.
Political tension remained high throughout the morning period and the climax was on the day of his requiem mass at the Holly Basilica church in Nairobi where the security forces engaged Mboya’s supporters outside for the better part of the day. The country was in pain – it had lost a promising son, educationist, pan-Africanist, author, independent activist and one of the founding fathers of the republic of Kenya.
Coincidentally all the four great friends were assassinated in the 60s. President John F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd 1963, his brother Robert Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5th 1968 after winning the California democratic primary and died at the hospital while undergoing treatment. Two months earlier on April 4th 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was shot in Memphis Tenancy and also died in hospital, then a year later on Saturday July 6th 1969 Kenya’s Joseph Tom Mboya was also assassinated at the age of 39.
In 2011 the grand coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga unveiled a Tom Mboya monument along Moi Avenue a few meters from the spot where he was shot dead. 2020 marks 51 years after Mboya’s assassination, Kenyans can only wonder what kind of leader he would have been for Kenya, Africa and the world at large had he lived longer.
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