Lessons from Kenya’s history of political assassinations

Author, Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

Kenya is rich in lessons for younger generations all over Africa who jump on today’s political bandwagons....

Dear Tingasiga:

Kenya votes today. Theirs is a real election. The president of Kenya was on the hustings. On a hunt for votes for Raila Odinga. No overt state violence against opposition candidates. The two main candidates held simultaneous final rallies in Nairobi. The police did not interfere. Newspapers, TV, and radios gave balanced and equal coverage to the campaigns. A pleasure to watch.

 It is not yet perfect, of course. They are still in the toddler stage of political development. So, they stumble and trip. They throw tantrums and cry. They fight and bleed. But they are moving forward.

 Raila Odinga has a good chance of winning this one. William Ruto has a good chance of winning too. Nobody knows. It is a beautiful moment for Kenya. The people have a real choice. Democracy is supposed to work that way. If the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission does not rig the vote, Kenya will have taken another delightful step.

 It is quite a change from the days of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s first two presidents, who ruled the land like monarchs, allergic to the people’s will.

Thinking about their days reminds me why politics in a non-democratic culture is a very dangerous engagement. Many gave their time, their money, their sweat, and their freedom to support political leaders that had no qualms about betraying them, even killing them.

 Within months of Kenya’s independence in December 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, with the help of Thomas Joseph Mboya, the minister of justice and constitutional affairs, quickly neutered the opposition Kenya African Democratic Union, led by Ronald Gideon Ngala and arap Moi, by absorbing it into his Kenya African National Union. Kenyatta proceeded to impose an imperial presidency on a people who soon discovered that even the mildest criticism of the ruler could cost them very dearly.

 Independent Kenya, born after one of the bloodiest wars on the continent, started its new life on a bloody field that exterminated regime critics and opponents.

During the first dozen years of Kenya’s independence, enough prominent critics of the government were assassinated to persuade many to zip their mouths. Among the leaders that were killed were Mau Mau Field Marshall Mwariama and Field Marshall Baimungi (1965), the journalist, freedom fighter, and member of parliament Pio Gama Pinto (1965), Tom Mboya (1969), and the freedom fighter, member of parliament, cabinet minister, and Old Budonian Josiah Mwangi “JM” Kariuki (1975). 

 Pinto had been one of Kenyatta’s greatest allies during the 1950s. Mboya had made it possible for Kenyatta to take charge of KANU and to consolidate his power in the immediate post-independence years. Kariuki had been Kenyatta’s private secretary for several years.

 As usual, those who ordered the assassinations of Pinto, Mboya and Kariuki were never identified. Those who knew or who may have known the truth took the secrets with them to their graves, leaving Kenyans and the world to speculate, albeit without doubt that the assassinated men were not victims of robbers or random killings by deranged gunmen.

 Two other men, whose accidental deaths were suspiciously unsettling, were Clement Michael George “CMG” Argwings-Kodhek, Kenya’s first African lawyer, and a cabinet minister (1969), and Ronald Ngala, a cabinet minister (1972). Explanations of their deaths were fuzzy enough to absolve the state of legal culpability.

 A lot has been written about these and other politicians whose deaths revealed, yet again, the darkness of politics and the dangers that those who crossed the rulers faced. A few of the dead men were “immortalised” as city street names and lifeless monuments. What they stood for and, probably, died for were relegated to the dark holes of history. Their killers probably carried on in power, lecturing citizens about morality, national unity, the rule of law, and attending church.

 Meanwhile, the widows and orphans of the assassinated men paid a very heavy psychological price. Emma Gama-Pinto and her three young daughters - Linda, Malusha, and Tereshka - were almost penniless when they relocated to Toronto, Canada in 1967. Emma’s inner power and resolve enabled her to single-handedly raise her daughters. She retired to Ottawa in 1997 where she died in 2020, aged 92.

 Pamela Mboya was subjected to the humiliation of a cultural tradition that required her to be inherited by Alphonse Okuku, her dead husband’s brother, with whom she had a son they named after Mboya. The “marriage” did not last long.

Whereas Pamela and the children did outwardly well in the years that followed, their private anguish was shared by no one else, not even the millions who had adored Mboya while he lived.

For most of us, the tears for Mboya dried, replaced by tears for many other victims of political violence that Africa has never run short of. For Pamela, even as she faced her terminal illness, the pain of loss remained, as she struggled to get her husband’s killers revealed.

 Kariuki, who died without a will, left three wives whose battle over his family property was still providing newspaper headlines more than forty years after his murder. The personal struggles of his children, one of whom I have met in Nairobi twice in the last ten years, are unknown to most of the world. Losing their father when they were very young had an impact that cannot be healed by public accolades, street names and monuments to a dead man.

 The tradition of political assassinations continued during the reign of Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta upon the latter’s death in 1978. The most infamous killing was that of Robert Ouko, the minister of foreign affairs, whose assassins were never apprehended. As in the situation during Jomo Kenyatta’s reign, most, if not all, those who may have ordered the killings during Moi’s time are dead. This is a reality that exposes the folly of political killings – indeed, all killings. The killer outlives the victim by a few years. Then they are reunited in death. 

Kenya is rich in lessons for younger generations all over Africa who jump on today’s political bandwagons with the same enthusiasm that propelled millions who were ultimately disappointed, with some killed by the very people they had given their unqualified support. Wise is one who uses their analytical powers before supporting any politician. Wiser still is one who holds one’s enthusiasm in check and avoids blindly following a politician because money or other hoped for gain. Do not be an expendable tool in the advancement of someone else’s interests.

Mulera is a medical doctor               

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