Pinto knew of plot to kill him

Volume 12, Issue 1  | 
Published 01/07/2015
Cyprian Fernandes

VETERAN Kenya-born journalist *Cyprian Fernandes celebrates the life of Pio Gama Pinto, Kenya’s fi rst political martyr who was assassinated 50 years ago on February 24, 1965. A front-line journalist, Fernandes has worked in Kenya, Europe and Australia, where he now lives. You can read more at his blog


February 24, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Africa’s first pure socialist Pio Gama Pinto. Veteran journalist CYPRIAN FERNANDES* has uncovered a hitherto unpublished tribute to Pio by his late brother Rosario Da Gama Pinto in which the young Pinto reveals that Pio knew he was going to be killed a month before it happened.

Pio Gama Pinto had to die because he was perhaps the near perfect African socialist in a Kenya that was perhaps 95 per cent capitalist, if only subconsciously. Trading and bartering were natural to the large majority of the Kenyan tribespeople. Anything else was strange. Hence Pio’s socialist ideals threatened to spur on the first revolution. He was virtually at war with the capitalist land-grabbing conspirators: Jomo Kenyatta and his Kikuyu cabinet mafia and the gods of the western capitalism, the US and British governments. That is what many people were thinking at the time but no one was suicidal enough to say so.

The British government  bankrolled the funds (Settler Land Transfer Fund) for Kenyatta to brilliantly purchase of acres of choice arable and prime coastal land, some of which he then resold to his Kikuyu cohorts at prices below what the Kenya Government (aka Kenyatta) had paid for them. Thus it was the Kenyan nation that paid for the creation of the 20 or so millionaires and 20 million beggars, as another assassinated hero J.M. Kariuki put it while challenging Jomo Kenyatta.

Pio was a member of the ruling Kenya African National Union, headed by Kenyatta but ideologically he was closer Oginga Odinga, leader of the other major tribe in the political war, the Luo. I am sure that Odinga was a true socialist or a closet capitalist. I mean unlike Pinto he was not exactly a pauper but socialism did provide the moral high ground and a reasonable opposition position in the face of blatant capitalism. Pinto, on the other hand did not have a cent to his name. His wife, Emma, was the family’s breadwinner. Their home in Lower Kabete Road was a gift from an unknown admirer. When Pio was murdered, Emma was shocked to find that there was no money in the bank account to pay the rent. The family was saved a little when Joe Murumbi begged for funds. The Kenya government donated dot.zilch.

With the work Pio had done in organising and arming the Mau Mau and the wide-ranging freedom movements (especially those fighting Portuguese oppression), it was clear that he was the strategic brains behind any socialist drive towards power in Kenya.

Tanzania, to the south of Kenya, had already gone socialist and Uganda, to the north was heading in the same direction as was the Sudan. Whispers of the “communist” threat to Kenya – as opposed to an African socialist threat – were already gaining some momentum and it was not hard to imagine the involvement of the West, mainly Britain and the US.

As early has 1964, it was clear that Pio Gama Pinto was going to be a serious threat to Kenya’s capitalist overlords (the Kiambu mafia) as well as US and British interests in the region. After all, in those early days of Kenya’s independence, most people did not give a fart for the difference between African socialism and communism. Most people were led to believe both were one and the same. Kenya, it seemed, under socialism would soon be overrun with Chinese and Russian hard-core communists. After all, the Chinese were already in Tanzania and that country hardly enjoyed the riches of capitalist Kenya, at least for those few that did.

In this scenario, the thought did cross many silent minds that it was a matter of when and not if Pio Gama Pinto would be snuffed out. There was some sentiment that Pio’s continuing influence with the last remnants of the Mau Mau would perhaps save him. Wishful thinking, I thought at the time.

Yet, the crystal clear bottom line was:

He was a threat to Jomo Kenyatta and his Kiambu mafia.

He was a threat to Western influence in Kenya.

The Kikuyu were in power, the Luo were desperate for power.

You did not have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that the simplest solution to the situation was the murder Pio Gama Pinto:

Getting rid of Pinto would neutralise Odinga and any opposition to those in power and their Western supporters. It was as simple as that.

I am sure even Pio was fully aware of this.

According to an unpublished tribute by his younger brother, the late Rosario Da Gama Pinto, ‘Pio was often threatened and even a month before his death was aware of the plot to kill him by prominent politicians. Although upset about the plot, he carried on as normal until his assassination on February 24, 1965’.

(‘Prominent politicians’ and ‘the powers that be’ is the survival mode language used to camouflage Pinto’s killers. The deputy speaker of the Parliament, Dr Fitz de Souza, who saw Pio engaging in a screaming match with Jomo Kenyatta in the corridors of Parliament house, said later that Pio was killed by the ‘powers that be’. It is also difficult to imagine that Pio would have escaped with his life after the shouting match. I suspect that the shouting match was over Sessional Paper No. 10, which has been the subject of subsequent revision but at the time virtually legalised capitalism as Kenya’s economic lingua franca. Pio, at the insistence of Vice President Oginga Odinga, was going to write amendments which would have been tantamount to a parliamentary challenge to Kenyatta’s leadership. There has also been an unconfirmed suggestion that Odinga planned to move a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Kenyatta. )

Rosario confirms this: ‘Pio was murdered to silence him and put an end to his dream to implement socialism, the ideals for which the people of Kenya had formed government.’ Now that independence had been gained, and the armed forces’ loyalty had been bought (my words: British soldiers were still in Kenya to provide further security), those in power considered it a convenient time to assassinate Pio as a warning to other dedicated nationalists.

After the assassination no-one really spoke out or pointed the finger publicly at the ‘prominent politicians’ or ‘the powers that be’.

Joe Murumbi knew but said nothing. Instead he wailed at the very thought of his murdered friend. Murumbi was confident that he would have been able to negotiate Pio’s safety.

Oginga Odinga knew but said nothing. Neither did Achieng Oneko or any of Pio’s Goan confidantes. All except Fitz de Souza. He at least voiced a little about the war of words between Pio and Kenyatta.

Pio was confident that Kenyatta was not capable of killing him. After all, ‘Pio had worked tirelessly for Kenyatta’s release and had spent his last cent extending and refurbishing Kenyatta’s home. In the process he had antagonised those friends who did not want Kenyatta released. Some of them went on to become ministers in the Kenyatta government,’ according to Rosario. ‘Pio also made a great effort to improve Kenyatta’s tarnished reputation. He knew that the same “divide and rule” policy the British used in India would be used to disunite Kenyans.’

Yet, it was unthinkable that anyone could get into a shouting match with the ‘Father of the Nation’ or insult him and live to tell the tale. In those days, no matter who you were, it was unheard of that anyone would insult even the simplest image, such as that on Kenya’s currency. A few had already been deported for that very ‘crime’.

At the outset, Pio did not really want the limelight of a high position, preferring to assign such glory to his trusted and talented friends like Joseph Murumbi, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai, Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko, Pran Lal Seth and others. He felt he could achieve more behind the scenes but changed his mind because he felt that the only way to achieve his goals was to be elected to Parliament. In 1963, he was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly and, in July 1964, he was appointed a specially elected member of the House of Representatives.

That was the beginning of the end for Pio Gama Pinto, a dedicated socialist, freedom fighter and son of Kenya.

Rosario’s daughter writes: ‘My grandfather,  Anton Filipe Da Gama Pinto, worked for the British civil service in Nyeri, Kenya from 1919 to 1941. Pio, Sevigne and my dad were born in Nyeri, but educated in India’. 

(Sevigne Athaide followed in Pio’s footsteps and carved out an illustrious career in Indian politics, especially in Karnataka. She lives in Mumbai.)

‘My father worked as an administrator for various companies in Nairobi and London.

‘He and Pio attended the Problems of Portuguese Colonies seminar in New Delhi in 1961. They got a chance to ask Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for some university scholarships for East African-based Goan students. They were invited back for Goa's liberation celebrations.’

(Pio was invited to return to Goa to take a leadership role in the new Goa. He declined saying that there were enough talented people in Goa and his priorities were in Kenya.)

‘As you can imagine, some friends and family members distanced themselves from Pio in order to protect their jobs etc; however, once he was elected to Parliament,  the same people were happy to claim him as their own.

‘My parents felt unsafe in Nairobi after Pio's death. My father was also quite unspoken and angered by the silencing of his brother.  This would have made him more of a target.  In the end, my parents decided to leave quietly.  Pio's death changed the course of our lives forever.  We spent 10 months in Goa, then moved to the UK.

‘My father was probably more driven to throw himself into causes following Pio's death. He was compassionate and generous. In later years, he had private audiences with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. His objective was to obtain more scholarships for poor Goans.  He also gave scholarships in Goa in his father's and brother's names.  Education as a form of empowerment and love of family and tradition were central to his being.

‘My father passed away in London on 7 January 1998, and my mother joined my brother Clarence and myself in Melbourne in April of the same year.’

Breakout 1

How Pio saved Asians in Kenya

Pio, both in the press and otherwise, had opposed Asian participation in the establishment of the Asian Manpower Unit to quell the Mau Mau rebellion. This made him a candidate for detention. In fact, the Mau Mau had vowed as a retaliatory measure to cut down the Asian traders in the African reserves and small towns.

The colonial government planned to establish three or four special combat units to bolster the Kenya Police reserve. Asians who outnumbered the whites 6-to-1 were barred from participating in anti-Mau Mau activities because the British government feared a threat from their dominance in Kenya. Two units were set up and one unit killed two Mau Mau.

The Asian community (minus the Goans who supported the colonial government) was divided. Indian members of the Legislative council strongly backed the colonialists after an Indian trader was killed and his wife and children were slashed to death with pangas (machetes). Their deaths had a devastating effect on Asians. At least 100 Asians were killed but it is not clearly if they were all victims of the Mau Mau. However, the traders in the bush were accused of exploiting poor Africans and were hated. This hate remains to this day albeit not as blatant as it was in the colonial era: all part of the British divide and conquer plan.

Thousands more would have did but for Pio’s intervention. The Mau Mau and the Kenyan political leadership respected him and valued his organisational and strategic skills. (Later he would make a huge contribution drafting important documents and writing speeches.)

He argued that these poor Asian traders should not bear the brunt of the attack as their misguided leaders (some British stooges) were to blame. Not only did Pio obtain and channel help to the families of the victims, but he even paid for their children’s schooling, food and clothing, as far as was possible, out of his own pocket.

Within the ranks of the Mau Mau in Nairobi it was common knowledge that the Indian trader network (the world famous dukawallahs) not only carried messages but provided cash help to the Mau Mau in outlying districts. At the beginning of the Mau Mau campaign, there had been strong-arming of the dukawallahs but it stopped quickly after Pio’s intervention.

(Pio is reputed to have received considerable financial and in-kind help from several Indian diplomats to Kenya. His anti-British and anti-Portuguese exploits in Indian were well-known to the Indian leadership. In fact, he was in contact and even met the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Later Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would also be made aware of Pio’s Indian and African nationalism. Several Indian traders in Kenya also assisted Pio. Some of his closest associates were Indians: the illustrious Pran Lal Sheth, the academic and author Pheroze Nowrojee, economist Sarjit Singh Heyer and others. If not for Kenya, Pio would have dedicated his life to India. I have a strong suspicion that India might have financed the Mau Mau through Pio. I have no proof of this and it remains only a suspicion.)

A full copy of the Rosario’s tribute to his brother Pio* will be available at my blog

*Cyprian Fernandes is a former Chief Reporter of the Nation (1960-1974) and has worked as a senior journalist in Europe and Australia, where he now lives.

*Pio, my brother © Audrey Da Gama Pinto

More in this category: « Emma Gama Pinto Remembers

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