Biography: Thomas Joseph Mboya

Kenyan Trade Unionist and Statesman

Date of birth: 15 August 1930
Date of death: 5 July 1969, Nairobi

Tom (Thomas Joseph Odhiambo) Mboya's parents were members of the Luo tribe (the second largest tribe at that time) in Kenya Colony. Despite his parents being relatively poor (they were agricultural workers) Mboya was educated at various Catholic mission schools, completing his secondary school education at the prestigious Mangu High School. Unfortunately his meagre finances ran out in his final year and he was unable to complete the national examinations.

Between 1948 and 1950 Mboya attended the sanitary inspectors school in Nairobi - it was one of the few places which also provided a stipend during training (although small this was enough to live independently in the city). On completion of his course he was offered an inspectors position in Nairobi, and shortly afterwards asked to stand as secretary of the African Employees Union. In 1952 he founded the Kenya Local Government Workers Union, KLGWU.

1951 had seen the start of the Mau Mau rebellion (guerrilla action against the European land ownership) in Kenya and in 1952 the colonial British government declared a state of emergency. Politics and ethnicity in Kenya were closely intertwined -- the majority of Mau Mau members were from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe, as were the leaders of Kenya's emerging African political organisations. By the end of the year Jomo Kenyatta and over 500 other suspected Mau Mau members had been arrested.

Tom Mboya stepped into the political vacuum by accepting the post of treasurer in Kenyatta's party, the Kenya African Union (KAU), and taking effective control of nationalist opposition to British rule. In 1953, with support from the British Labour Party, Mboya brought Kenya's five most prominent labour unions together as the Kenya Federation of Labour, KFL. When the KAU was banned later that year, the KFL became the largest "officially" recognised African organisation in Kenya.

Mboya became a prominent figure in Kenyan politics - organising protests against mass removals, detention camps, and secret trials. The British Labour Party arranged for a year's scholarship (1955--56) to Oxford University, studying industrial management at Ruskin College. By the time he returned to Kenya the Mau Mau rebellion had been effectively quashed. Over 10,000 Mau Mau rebels were estimated to have been killed during the disturbance, compared to just over 100 Europeans.

In 1957 Mboya formed the People's Convention Party and was elected to join the colony's legislative council (Legco) as one of only eight African members. He immediately began to campaign (forming a bloc with his African colleagues) to demand equal representation -- and the legislative body was reformed with 14 African and 14 European delegates, representing over 6 million Africans and almost 60,000 whites respectively.

In 1958 Mboya attended a convention of African nationalists at Accra, Ghana. He was elected chairman and declared it "the proudest day of my life." The following year he received his first honorary doctorate, and helped set up the African-American Students Foundation which raised money to subsidise the cost of flights for East African students studying in America. In 1960 the Kenya African National Union, KANU, was formed from the remnants of the KAU and Mboya elected secretary-general.

In 1960 Jomo Kenyatta was still being held in detention. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, was considered by a majority of Kenyans to be the country's nationalist leader, but there was great potential for ethnic division amongst the African population. Mboya, as a representative of the Luo, the second largest tribal group, was a figurehead for political unity in the country. Mboya campaigned for Kenyatta's release, duly achieved on 21 August 1961, after which Kenyatta took the limelight.

Kenya achieved independence within the British Commonwealth on 12 December 1963 -- Queen Elizabeth II was still the head of state. One year later a republic was declared, with Jomo Kenyatta as president. Tom Mboya was initially given the post of Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and was then moved to Minister for Economic Planning and Development in 1964. He remained a defiant spokesman for Luo affairs in a government heavily dominated by Kikuyu.

Mboya was being groomed by Kenyatta as a potential successor, a possibility which deeply worried many of the Kikuyu elite. When Mboya suggested in parliament that a number of Kikuyu politicians (including members of Kenyatta's extended family) were enriching themselves at the cost of other tribal groups, the situation became highly charged.

On 5 July 1969 the nation was shocked by the assassination of Tom Mboya by a Kikuyu tribesman. Allegations linking the assassin to prominent KANU party members were dismissed, and in the ensuing political turmoil Jomo Kenyatta banned the opposition party, the Kenya People's Union (KPU), and arrested it's leader Oginga Odinga (who was also a leading Luo representative).

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography: Thomas Joseph Mboya." ThoughtCo, Jan. 28, 2020, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, January 28). Biography: Thomas Joseph Mboya. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography: Thomas Joseph Mboya." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).