Charter 77

Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Colonial Legacy in Kenya

The focus of this article centers on Jomo Kenyatta as the leader of a post-colonial Kenya. While dealing with a case study of a specific nation, the basic premise, primarily, that a change in a political institution which fails to address socioeconomic inequalities does not improve the lives of those oppressed by a former colonial governing apparatus, is a universal lesson. The premise can be applied to many post-colonial societies throughout the world, such as post-apartheid South Africa. Furthermore, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, in former Palestine, a peace plan bringing about a successful end to Israeli settlement and occupation can not be achieved through political reform only (as we are currently seeing), without socioeconomic reform which can relieve the devestating effects on Palestinian society by decades of repressive colonial rule. I hope that readers of this article will better understand post-colonial struggles that the people in African societies face, as well as the struggles of other societies which are undergoing similar transformations in the world today. The merits of this article have been verified by Wazir Mohammed, a Doctoral student in Binghamton University's Department of Sociology.

In 1946 the British governor explained to the people of Kenya that Britain controls their land and resources “as of right, the product of historical events [emphasis added] which reflect the greatest glory of our fathers and grandfathers.”[i] If “the greater part of the wealth of the country is at present in our hands,” he continued, that is because “this land we have made is our land by right – by right of achievement.”[ii] The situation in Kenya at the dawn of independence was indeed, as articulated by the British governor, a product of historical events, specifically, the period of colonial settlement and rule. The inequalities of colonialism were deeply entrenched in the political, economic and social structures of Kenyan society. Why then, less than a year after Kenyan independence, did the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, in a broadcast speech declare “Let this be the day on which all of us commit ourselves to erase from our minds all the hatreds and difficulties of those years which now belong to history. Let us agree that we shall never refer to the past.”?[iii] Why did he tell (Mau Mau) veterans and former detainees who demanded the return of their land that “nothing is free,” and if they wanted land “they would have to purchase it like everyone else.”?[iv] Perhaps the role of Jomo Kenyatta, widely regarded as the father of an independent Kenya, should be critically reexamined.
In post-apartheid South Africa, it was taken for granted that enfranchisement of the African population would redress the legacy of apartheid by way of the extension of socioeconomic rights. Political reform, however, has failed to transform the blatant social and economic inequalities that historical circumstances have left so entrenched in South African society. A failure to transform the present by confronting the historical past has left the realities of apartheid in South Africa largely intact. Perhaps a look at the supposed “decolonization,” in the wake of Kenyan independence, might have shown that the neglect of past legacies ensure their continuation in the future.
Like Nelson Mandela some thirty years later, Jomo Kenyatta emerged from detention preaching forgiveness.[v] Time and again, Kenyatta would declare that the new nation must “forgive and forget the past.”[vi] For the loyalists who had seized their neighbor’s lands, raped their wives, killed their children and murdered their husbands, it meant continuation of their comparatively luxurious lifestyles.[vii] For the British, including those directly culpable for the atrocities committed in their gulag, it meant a “veil over the past,” in the words of Iain Macleod, who headed the colonial office in the months after the Hola massacre.[viii] For the white settlers, it meant preservation of their lands and a license to continue their practices of exploitative farming. As for the Mau Mau and its sympathizers, it meant suppression of their legacy and a new independent government which, like its colonial predecessor, did nothing to redress the abject situation which had driven them to rebellion in the first place.
Thus, I propose that Jomo Kenyatta, despite his supposed title as the father of independence was, in reality, a stark opportunist who preserved a colonial legacy to guarantee his own wealth and power. I am convinced that an examination of Kenyatta’s government in an independent Kenya, will illustrate how and why the colonial status-quo remained largely intact during a period of purported decolonization.
In December 1964, a year after Kenyan independence, the regional constitution was abolished and Kenya became a republic, with Kenyatta exercising power as both the head of state and head of executive, thereby enhancing his position and authority while curbing the influence of the cabinet and parliament.[ix] As president, Kenyatta held the exclusive right to appoint and dismiss ministers and vice-presidents at will.[x] The president exercised his authority through provincial administrations inherited from the period of colonial rule.[xi] The Provincial Commissioners (PC) and District Commissioners (DC), described as “mini dictators” by one scholar, were able to penetrate all corners of Kenyan society, and played a decisive role in controlling the population on behalf of the government.[xii] Kenyatta relied on the predominantly loyalist colonial administration, rather that the nationalist parties, because many of them enjoyed a privileged position and thus, had a vital interest in preservation of the status quo.[xiii]
At this juncture we must pause and reflect on why Kenyatta would propose maintenance of the (colonial) status quo in a time of purported decolonization. Kenyatta’s economic and development strategy hinged on preservation of the colonial-settler economic system as a spring-board for development, a point to which I will later return.[xiv] Much of the power, both economic and political, in post-independence Kenya, remained with the loyalists who had run the colonial administration. Terence Gavaghan, a former head of the detention camps in Mwea, stayed in Kenya after independence, overseeing the transitioning of loyalists into the Administration.[xv] Kenyatta moved to expand and Africanize the bureaucracy, planting African nationalist politicians in an alliance with the loyalists who had helped establish the colonial administration.[xvi] In addition, African capitalists emerged in various branches of the economic spectrum including trade, transportation and farming, most of whom, relied upon government assistance and protections to ensure their wealth.[xvii] The relative prosperity generated by the newly established elite allowed for a small but substantial middle class to emerge and thrive as well.[xviii] The former loyalists, newly established bureaucrats, emerging African capitalists and powerful white-settlers served as the pillars supporting Kenyatta’s government. Recognizing the newly established alliance, J.M. Kariuki, the socialist politician who knew the system from within, argued “a small but powerful group, a greedy self-seeking elite in the form of politicians, civil-servants and businessmen, has steadily but very surely monopolized the fruits of independence to the exclusion of the majority of the people.”[xix]
Kariuki was not alone in recognizing that the overwhelming majority of the people remained virtually unaffected by economic and social change. The government of Jomo Kenyatta was well aware of the problems inherent in his brand of decolonization. He was also aware, however, that ethnic divisions and feelings of disenfranchisement presented major obstacles in organizing the masses.[xx] One argument often used to discredit the Mau Mau is that ethnically, the movement was Kikuyu and thus did not represent the people of Kenya as a whole. The colonial government, however, had been active in its attempts to fragment Kenyan society and Kenyatta’s government continued the trend. The Mau Mau, an organization of the Kikuyu masses, by the Kikuyu masses, had been the only group in Kenya that had become highly politicized during the colonial era.[xxi] In possibly his greatest contribution to “political stability,” Kenyatta moved to undermine the militant Kikuyu masses by denouncing them as a threat to peace. Before a crowd in Kiambu, Kenyatta argued that “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”[xxii] Many of the movement’s supporters found themselves behind bars, with Kenyatta signing their detention orders from the same desk as Sir Evelyn Baring had once employed for the same purpose.[xxiii]
Kenyatta also faced pressure from the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU), which came to include his former ally Oginga Odinga, who had become disillusioned with the presidents rule. The rise of the KPU might have served as a rallying point for anti-government mobilization however the party, which had been established by radical opposition from the KANU, came under increasing harassment from Kenyatta’s government, and was finally banned outright in 1969.[xxiv] The KPU was the last political party to form in opposition to Kenyatta’s KANU.
The increasingly organized trade unions in Kenya also might have served as a unifying force for anti-government mobilization. Tom Mboya, who had become increasingly involved in the trade union movement throughout the 1950s threatened, in 1962, to leave the KANU and use the Kenya Federation of Labor as an organizational basis for a new party.[xxv] In order to neutralize the influence of radicals such as Mboya in the trade union movement, the government, in September 1965, forced the various trade unions to join the newly formed Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU).[xxvi] With the formation of the KPU, the radical trade union leaders supporting Odinga were suspended from the COTU, and when they threatened to form a rival organization the Labor Minister informed them that such an association would not be registered.[xxvii] In August 1966, Kenyatta ordered four of the leading trade unionists supporting the KPU to be arrested and detained.[xxviii] Kenyatta had thus undermined the trade union movement, as well as the KPU, and the former Mau Mau resistance, thereby assuring none of them could serve as a base to mobilize the population toward anti-government reform.
Having discussed Kenyatta’s government and its power base, as well as the eradication of opposition forces, I would like to return briefly to his policies toward decolonization in Kenya pertaining to the land situation and the white-settlers. As mentioned, Kenyatta based his economic and development plan for Kenya on the colonial settler-based economic system. From the outset, Kenyatta moved to allay the fears of the settlers and convince them, with their knowledge and investments, to remain in Kenya. In a speech delivered in Nakuru, the heart of the settler nation, Kenyatta won over the white hostile crowd, telling them “We are going to forget the past and look forward to the future.”[xxix] “We want you to stay and farm well in this country,” he continued, “that is the policy of this government.”[xxx] For the white settlers, the colonial image of the native Africans as “lazy and undesirable,” in need of “punctuality, cleanliness and a greater appreciation for method in general and protection of property in particular,” remained fully intact.[xxxi] Images of Kenyatta however, the man once perceived as a “black devil,” began to change almost overnight. Indicative of the change, a Kitale businessman argued “We are awfully lucky to have such a fine statesman in power.”[xxxii] A former activist in the United Party, a pre-independence extreme right-wing settler party, claimed “Kenyatta is a realist…He needed large scale farmers to stay on, to keep the economy ticking over, to feed the nation.”[xxxiii] Statistical analysis will indicate why both the white settlers, as well as the president, were able to benefit from preservation of the status quo.
The thousands of settlers who fled Kenya after independence were given market rates for their land by the Kenyan government, which used nearly £12.5 million in British loans to finance the buyout.[xxxiv] Much of the land was subsequently resold to European investors and wealthy Kikuyu, most of whom had been loyalists throughout the period of emergency.[xxxv] Of the more than thirty-thousand white settlers who stayed, many indeed continued to “farm well” in Kenya. According to the Clerk of Kitale Municipality, the capital of Trans Nzoia - an administrative district of the Rift Valley Province, in 1967 white people still owned 63% of the farms, though they represented only 1.4% of the district population.[xxxvi] In 1967 agricultural exports accounted for 60% of the nations export earnings, and large-scale farming - overwhelmingly owned by whites, accounted for 75% of Kenya’s marketed agricultural products.[xxxvii] Accordingly, the maintenance of the colonial settler-economy was essential for the short-term viability of the nation.
Sociologist Frank Furedi argues that the Kikuyu squatters in the rift valley, from whom Mau Mau arose, were “the quintessential product of settler colonialism and the appropriate agency for its liquidation.”[xxxviii] The squatter struggles from which the Mau Mau arose were primarily over mbeca and mugunda – money and land.[xxxix] Jomo Kenyatta had never been the oath-taking revolutionary he was purported to be.[xl] Rather, in the words of historian Caroline Elkins, Kenyatta was a moderate politician who “wanted a piece of the colonial pie and to be accepted like the rest of the African colonial elite,” and she continues, “he sought the social and economic privileges that went along with that acceptance.”[xli] By assuring that mbeca and mugunda stayed in the hands of the colonial elite, Kenyatta undermined not only the Mau Mau uprising, but all of the have-nots in Kenyan society who shared the progressive vision of the Mau Mau fighters.
In the end, the fruits of freedom were to be divided amongst Kenyatta’s emerging oligarchy, the loyalists, and the settlers who remained in Kenya.[xlii] Those who recognized Kenyatta’s collaboration with the colonial establishment, such as J.M. Kariuki and Tom Mboya were murdered, while others like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga were detained. As for the loyalists and British colonial officials, there would be no prosecutions, and many of them continued to live highly privileged lives among the Kenyan elite.[xliii] As for the settlers who remained in Kenya, many of them (and their descendents) continue to live lives of racial privilege to this day.[xliv] As for Mau Mau, the “true movers of history” in the words of Furedi, their legacy was to remain buried. There have been no monuments to their achievements, and Kenyan children are kept deliberately ignorant of their history.[xlv] Those who suffered under the colonial government, as well as the period of emergency, have not been included in the post-colonial social rebuilding, and many of them continue to live abject lives while their loyalist neighbors prosper.[xlvi] The former Mau Mau adherents continue to long for a day when the damage rendered by Kenyatta’s silencing of history might be undone. Change can only come, argued one former Mau Mau adherent, “once our people are able to mourn in public and our children and our grandchildren will know how hard we fought and how much we lost to make Kenya free for them.”[xlvii]

[i] Noam Chomsky. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2003), 183.
[ii] Chomsky, 183
[iii] Caroline Elkins. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2005), 360.
[iv] Elkins, 361
[v] Elkins, 359
[vi] Elkins, 360
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Elkins, 363
[ix] M. Tamarkin. “The Roots of Political Stability in Kenya.” African Affairs Vol. 77, No.308 (1978), (accessed December 4, 2006). 302.
[x] Tamarkin, 302
[xi] Tamarkin, 306
[xii] Tamarkin, 306-7
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Tamarakin, 306
[xv] Elkins, 48, 364
[xvi] Tamarakin, 311
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Tamarakin, 312
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Tamarakin, 316
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Elkins, 361
[xxiii] Ibid.
[xxiv] Tamarakin, 308
[xxv] Tamarakin, 310
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Ibid.
[xxviii] Ibid.
[xxix] Elkins, 361-2
[xxx] Elkins, 362
[xxxi] Peter Knauss. “From Devil to Father Figure: The Transformation of Jomo Kenyatta by Kenya Whites.” The Journal of Modern African Studies: Vol. 9, No. 1 (1971), (accessed December 4, 2006). 132.
[xxxii] Knauss, 133
[xxxiii] Knauss, 136
[xxxiv] Elkins, 362
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Knauss, 132
[xxxvii] Knauss, 136
[xxxviii] Atieno Odhiambo. Review of Frank Furedi’s The Mau Mau War in Perspective. The Journal of African History Vol. 32, No. 2 (1991), (accessed December 4, 2006). 363.
[xxxix] Odhiambo, 363
[xl] Elkins, 358
[xli] Elkins, 358
[xlii] Elkins, 361
[xliii] Elkins, 360
[xliv] Elkins, 362
[xlv] Elkins, 367
[xlvi] Ibid.
[xlvii] Ibid.