Story by HILLARY NG'WENO
Publication Date: 11/26/2007
In this third part of the series, HILLARY NG'WENO continues his examination of the men, women, events and political forces that have shaped Kenya.
One noticeable aspect of the lead-up to the December 27 General Election is the seeming absence of any major ideological differences between the contending candidates or their parties. The key issue is ethnicity.
In any particular political debate in Kenya today, one can easily guess a protagonist’s stance merely by taking note of his or her ethnic origin.
It has not always been like that. There was a time when ideology mattered. At independence there was a conservative camp amongst Kenyan leaders, a camp associated with the county’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta and the ruling Kenya African National Union’s first secretary general Tom Mboya, and there was a radical camp associated with Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice president, and a number of Kenyatta’s former colleagues in pre-independence political detention under British colonial rule - among them Achieng Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai. The story of Kenya’s politics during the first five or six years of independence is the story of the bitter fight to the death between the two ideologies and the subsequent emergence of a dominant new camp that has held sway in the country’s life ever since.
In every war, there are strategists. They are usually backroom men or women, faceless, often nameless, but indispensable for the proper conduct of any war. If in the conservative camp, one was never quite sure who the true master strategist was, Kenyatta or Mboya, there was no doubt that the real brains amongst the radicals was Pio Gama Pinto, one of three Kenyans of Goan descent who were so intimately involved with Kenya’s freedom struggle. The second was Fitz de Souza, who together with the late Achhroo Kapila, were the only Kenyans in the team of lawyers who defended Kenyatta and his colleagues at the Kapenguria trial. The third was Mr Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first Minister for Foreign Affairs and the country’s second Vice President.
Born in 1927 of Goan parents in Nairobi, Pinto was educated in India where he had an early taste of politics in the Goan National Congress then locked in a bitter struggle for Goa’s independence from Portuguese rule. He was only 19 when he returned to Kenya in 1946 and threw himself into local politics, making friends with Kenya African Union leaders, especially radical ones like Kaggia and Kubai. Through Kubai and Pinto he would acquire a lasting interest in trade union affairs.
But it is as a freedom fighter that Pinto is remembered most. An accomplished journalist and propagandist, Pinto put his enormous energies to publicizing the cause of African freedom through strident anti-government political pamphlets and press articles, including letters to the East African Standard. When in 1952 colonial government declared a state of emergency and detained most African leaders, including Kenyatta, Pinto went into more active duty on behalf of the freedom struggle. He helped set up a Mau Mau War Council city headquarters in the Mathare area of Nairobi and arranged for the supply of money and a cache of arms to hundreds of youths the council had recruited into the movement to fight in the Nyandarua forest.
In 1954, the British authorities arrested and deported him to Manda Island where he was the only Indian amongst several African deportees. In 1958 he was moved from Manda and subjected to a further year of restriction at Kabarnet in the Rift Valley Province.
On being freed in August 1959, Pinto flung himself back into politics, joining hands with a number of Indian politicians to form the Kenya Freedom Party whose main purpose was to marshal the support of the Indian community for the African nationalist struggle. He would later join Kanu and go on to become manager of the party’s organ, Sauti ya Kanu.
When the paper was expanded and renamed PanAfrica, he became its editor in chief. Through PanAfrica Pinto propagated his increasingly socialist views, that were close to those of his major radical colleagues in Kanu – Odinga, Kaggia, Kubai and Murumbi. In 1963 this radical Kanu leadership helped to get him elected as one of Kenya’s representatives in the Central Legislative Assembly of the East African Common Services Organisation that grouped Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. In July the following year, Pinto entered Kenya’s Parliament as a Specially Elected Member. He was 37. Mboya was three years younger.
For the next six months Pinto and Mboya would lock horns at many twists and turns, albeit behind the scenes. In 1964 Pinto joined Dennis Akumu and other disgruntled former Mboya allies in the trade union movement to set up the Kenya African Workers Congress (KAWC) to challenge Mboya’s American financed Kenya Federation of Labour.
Late that year, Pinto would help raise money from the Soviet Union and help set up the Lumumba Institute. It was launched in December 1964 with the aim of training Kanu cadres in organisational and ideological skills. It was meant to counter Mboya’s East African Institute of Social and Cultural Affairs which had been set up with American financing only a few months earlier.
Conservatives and radicals
The Lumumba Institute board of management was made up of Kanu’s leading radicals. Kaggia was chairman. Serving on the board with Kaggia were Pinto, Oneko, Kubai, Murumbi and Paul Ngei. On the institute’s staff were two Russian lecturers. The scene was set for a major battle between Kanu conservatives and radicals for the hearts and souls of Kenyans. The battle never did take place
Within weeks of the Lumumba Institute opening its doors to its first intake of Kanu cadres, Kenyatta and his close conservative associates were shocked to learn that what was being taught was scientific socialism, or in plain words, communism. In Parliament voices were raised against the Institute and against Kanu radicals. By January 1965 a number of Odinga’s allies were getting reports that they were under close surveillance from the Special Branch or intelligence arm of the police. Close friends of Pinto told him that his life was in danger and advised him to lie low or even leave the country altogether for a while. Murumbi, Kenyatta’s Foreign Minister, suggested to Pinto that he could even go to Mozambique and help in Frelimo’s freedom struggle there against the Portuguese colonial rulers.
Pinto did leave Nairobi to spend some time in Mombasa in the hope that things would be fine by the time he came back home. He returned to the city on February 23rd. The following morning, he was shot dead by a gunman as he drove out of his driveway at his Westlands home.
All the Kanu radicals, led by Odinga, were at Pinto’s funeral. They eulogised him as a fallen hero who stood for the rights of Kenya’s poor and freedom fighters. It would not be long before the magnitude of their loss became apparent. For, Pinto’s death marked the beginning of the collapse of Kenya’s radical political left. Thereafter, without a master strategist to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative adversaries, and to study the political terrain and map out when, how and where to engage the enemy in battle, Odinga and his friends soon began to make tactical blunders. By the end of 1966, they had been outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the conservatives.