This week marks 46 years since Ronald Ngala, the Power and Communication minister, succumbed to his injuries following a road accident in 1972.
The December 12 crash that happened just three years after the assassination of his close political ally Tom Mboya, set off a flurry of speculation.
Keen to clear any suspicion, the government assembled a team of 17 medical professionals — led by Dr Eric Mngola and Dr William Frindall, a Canadian brain specialist — to care for Ngala.
Unfortunately, he died on Christmas Day, sparking off another round of rumours about a shadowy group of influential individuals out to eliminate political rivals.
After immense pressure, the Jomo Kenyatta administration finally held an inquest into Ngala’s death.
Leading the inquest was Kumar Sachdeva, who was the judge in the pre-trial of Nahashon Njenga, the main suspect in the murder of Mboya.
As the inquest began on February 10, 1973, James Karugu, the Deputy Public Prosecutor, expressed the government’s misgivings: “We are getting to the stage in this country where a person cannot die of an accident or of natural causes without speculation creating mystery as the cause of his death.”
The inquest was told that Ngala had been expected to attend Jamhuri Day celebrations on December 12 but changed his mind and decided to travel by road to Mombasa.
Although no one really knew the reason behind the Coast political kingpin’s sudden change of plan, there were allegations that he was annoyed by his 22-year-old second wife for failing to fly to Nairobi as agreed.
Thirty-five miles from Nairobi, his driver lost control and the car overturned three times.
The driver told the inquest that he had swerved to avoid hitting an animal but his account was doubted by other witnesses who claimed that he had initially told them that he lost control after bees flew into the car.
Nevertheless, a Good Samaritan recognised Ngala and drove him to Machakos Hospital.
An Israeli doctor, upon examining the politician, referred him to Kenyatta Hospital for treatment of his head injuries.
In Nairobi, Ngala, who was known to suffer from diabetes, slipped into a coma but gained consciousness the same day.
It was later discovered he was bleeding from the brain, which later led to multiple organ failure and eventually caused his death.
While giving evidence, Dr Mngola assured the inquest that “everything under the sun was done to save the minister’s life and no stone was left unturned.”
At one point, the inquest seemed more concerned about the rumours surrounding the death with Karugu admonishing anybody who suspected the government’s involvement. Among those he dragged to testify were two MPs who had expressed doubts about the circumstances of the death by calling for an inquest.
He also asked them whether they knew that inquests were a normal part of the legal process and could have been held even without the appeal from the politicians.
The media was not spared either.
The Ministry of Information was put to task for announcing in dispatches released by the Kenya News Agency and the Voice of Kenya that the accident happened while Ngala was on his way to Nairobi from Mombasa and not the other way round.
The ministry’s PS James Ithau began trembling and became confused as Karugu questioned him harshly over the error.
Magistrate Sachdeva had to intervene: “Don’t beat around the bush, Mr Ithau”
Karugu concluded: “I hope that the rumour will die a natural death in this court without new rumours arising as to why they died a natural death.”
The magistrate concurred and warned, “In future, when such a thing happens, God forbid, people should wait before rushing to the press.”
The conclusion was that Ngala’s death was accidental.
A son of a carpenter, Ngala first served as a teacher after graduating from Makerere University in Uganda in 1945. But in the 1950s, he turned to politics and was elected to the Legislative Council in 1957.
In 1960, he founded the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) alongside other leaders from minority tribes to rival Kenya African National Union (Kanu), which was perceived to be made up of bigger tribes.
In 1961, after joining other leaders in declaring that Africans wouldn’t co-operate with the colonial administration lest Kenyatta was released from detention, he backtracked on the resolution and formed a minority government in which he became the chief minister.
This attracted criticism from Kanu leaders with Mboya describing Ngala as “inconsistent”.
But it later emerged, according to a British intelligence report of 1961, that during Ngala’s visit to Lodwar prison, Kenyatta had advised that Africans should co-operate with the colonial government to ensure peace and racial harmony.
In 1962, together with Kenyatta, they became chief ministers in a caretaker government formed after the second Lancaster Conference.
The two were strange bedfellows because of their opposing views on the system of government.
The coalition government ended following Kanu’s victory in the 1963 elections and Kenyatta became the Prime Minister while Ngala became the Leader of Opposition.
The rivalry between Kenyatta and Ngala over the system of government would again play out during the 3rd Lancaster Conference.
When the talks slipped into a stalemate, Kanu delegates led by Kenyatta refused to attend further sessions.
To salvage the situation, the colonial secretary, after meeting Kenyatta, came up with new proposals which favoured Kanu and ambushed Ngala with them.
As the talks ended, an angry Ngala wrote to the colonial secretary warning him to be prepared to take responsibility for any violence that will follow the “unpopular constitution” imposed on Kenyans after conspiring with Kanu.
However, in 1964 Ngala and other leaders dissolved Kadu and joined Kanu, effectively making Kenya a one party state.
“This is one of the times when we must be prepared to sacrifice our political dignity for the peace and harmony of Kenya,” he said.
In a country where one’s political clout is determined by ethnic voting blocs, Ngala was never considered a front-runner in the race to succeed Kenyatta but was always viewed as an influential political figure — until death cut short his career.
The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London.