Driving the narrative of Mboya, contemporaries 50 years later

Four of the greats assassinated in Kenyan history have streets in Nairobi named after them

In Summary

• The 1960s was a decade of bullets taking the lives of bright young men who inspired belief in a brighter future

Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua next to Tom Mboya's statue on Tuesday last week.
Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua next to Tom Mboya's statue on Tuesday last week.

Fifty years ago today, Kenya was officially a nation in mourning. The afternoon before, at least two bullets fired by an assassin hit their mark in Mboya’s chest, killing him and perhaps the hopes of a generation.

The 1960s had been the decade of bullets taking the lives of bright young men who had been full of promise, and whose lives and oratory had, briefly at least, inspired people to hope for a brighter future.

In January 1961, the first to go was Patrice Lumumba, 35, in the Congo, mown down not so much by one assassin but by a firing squad. Lumumba was the first legally elected premier of the country we now call the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and his death was sponsored by an unholy alliance of the Belgian and US governments.


Of course, the year before Lumumba, there had been the assassination during a failed coup of Abebe Aregai, Ethiopia’s PM, but at 57, he was of a different generation and doesn’t fit my narrative.

Neither, for that matter, does Nigeria’s Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 54, that country’s first elected PM, or even Ahmadu Bello, 56, the first and only ever premier of the region formerly known as northern Nigeria — both were killed in the January 15, 1966, coup.

Demba Diop of Senegal, though aged just 40, doesn’t fit the narrative either. Diop was minister for Youth and Sport under President Leopold Senghor (poet, politician and cultural theorist, as Wikipedia puts it). 

Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, 50, president of Somalia and shot in 1969 by one of his bodyguards, for what were rumoured to be personal rather than political reasons, also doesn’t quite make the cut.

Neither does the father of Apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, who was aged 65, when he was stabbed to death in Parliament back in 1966. Sylvanus Epiphanio Olympio of Togo, killed at 61 in a coup d’état, was also past it.

Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane, the founding president of Mozambique’s Frelimo, was 49 when he was killed in a bomb blast in Tanzania, with a list of implicated assassins and possible reasons for doing him in as long as your arm. He makes the list even though he was a little long in the tooth to be classed as ‘young’.

There was also Pio Gama Pinto, shot dead in his driveway aged only 38. Pinto has been described as “the near-perfect African socialist in a Kenya that was probably 95 per cent capitalist”.

Someone once whispered to me the name of his real killer. If the whisper was true, the man is still alive and Kisilu Mutua, the man who served 35 years of a life sentence in jail for the murder, was as innocent as he always claimed.

What was the narrative I was spinning about all these dead young men? Four of them have streets in Nairobi named after them: Mboya, Pinto, Mondlane and Lumumba.

I’ve always wondered if, as contemporaries, there was ever a moment in time where they were all in the same room or vicinity. Mboya and Pinto would have been. With Pinto and Mondlane, it’s possible, as with Mboya and Lumumba. But all four? I want to see the photograph.