Kenya celebrates 50 years of independence this month (December). On the podium to lead the celebrations will be President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, who was born as his father was on the cusp of winning independence from Britain in 1963, reports
Wanjohi Kabukuru from Nairobi, with additional reporting by Tom Mbakwe in London.
Kenya’s independence on 12 December 1963 was won by blood copiously shed through a fierce homegrown resistance waged by the Land Freedom Army, otherwise known as the Mau Mau, in response to a brutish and condescending British colonial rule that had started when the man later to be known as Lord Lugard passed through Kenyan territory in 1890 on a diplomatic mission to Uganda.
The word “Mau Mau”, according to Duncan Nderitu Ndegwa, who served as the first secretary to the cabinet and head of civil service under Jomo Kenyatta, and who later became the first African governor of Kenya’s Central Bank, came from the Kiswahili word “umma”, meaning raia, wananchi, or wenge-nebi, the people, the masses.”
“In a sense,” Ndegwa says in his memoirs, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles, My Story, first published in 2006, “the Mau Mau evolved from the people as a reaction to British occupation… The bitter memories going back 50 years had driven the Agikuyu into a confrontation with the British.”
Interestingly, Kenya had started life under the British as a dominion ruled by a private company, the IBEA, which had been granted a charter by London to rule the territory on behalf of the British Crown. The IBEA charter lasted for a mere seven years until the turn of the century when the Foreign Office took over the administration of the territory which then became a British protectorate and later, in 1920, a Crown colony.
Like the small mustard seed that grows into a big tree, the British presence in Kenya had started inauspiciously one fine day in 1890 when a British diplomatic convoy to Uganda, led by a young Fredrick Lugard stopped at the homestead of the Agikuyu leader, Waiyaki Wa Hinga, to pay him homage and present good wishes from the British Queen while expressing the desire to establish peaceful relations between the two nations.
As Duncan Ndegwa tells it in his very impressive book: “Curious residents lined the route to Waiyaki’s homestead to witness what to them must have been an apparition. This strange human being had most of his body covered. His pinkish colour made him look pale on the face and wherever else his body was exposed.”
Ndegwa speculates that Lugard’s trip could as well have been part of a British espionage mission ahead of the construction of the Ugandan railway which eventually linked the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa via Nairobi.
As Ndegwa tells it: “Lugard was on his way to the King of Buganda, and felt the need to call on Waiyaki, who stood firm against signing anything he did not understand. He seemed to have a premonition that he ran the risk of giving away his people to a stranger without their due mandate.
“Waiyaki, therefore, opted for a much looser arrangement – one acceptable to his people – if only to safeguard their sovereignty. He went only as far as binding them to no more than peaceful coexistence with the stranger. This was achieved by literally sucking blood from a cut made at the back of the hand of each party.”
But the British lack of sincerity was soon demonstrated when no sooner had Lugard departed, than a Mr George Wilson commenced building fortifications at Kiawariua. “This happened,” Ndegwa says, “despite Waiyaki making it clear that land sharing was not part of the deal.”
So to enforce his part of the bargain, Waiyaki ordered the fortifications to be destroyed, which caused Wilson and his party a lot of displeasure.
Sadly, unbeknown to Waiyaki, and as happens all the time in Africa, one of his own men, Njama Kinyanjui (also known as Nugu), was betraying his moves. “Kinyanjui was baptised Nugu (meaning monkey) by his very own people as a sign of disapproval of his sell-out tendencies,” Ndegwa narrates.
“Of course, Waiyaki was adjudged hostile by the Wilson party in absentia. Consequently, a completely new level of assault – much more intense than could be envisaged by Lugard – was planned. As both sides stepped up military counteraction strategy, Waiyaki himself became the first to fall by the gun, to the amazement and chagrin of the Agikuyu.
“The very brave man died at Kibwezi ahead of a trial by the Protectorate commissioners scheduled for Mombasa. Alternate evidence, however, alludes that Waiyaki was executed at Kibwezi – about 120 km from Nairobi towards Mombasa – a safe distance away from his people on the orders of Aimsworth, the then commissioner and local overseer of the Empire.”
Waiyaki’s execution forced the Agikuyu to retreat into the Maasai hinterland, a move that allowed the Agikuyu to claim maximum territory there. But by 1904, five years after Lugard’s visit, British settlers had taken full control of Kenya.
Teaching the natives a lesson
Any leadership the Agikuyu possessed was destroyed by a British expeditionary force led by Francis Hall and a brutish young lieutenant with a German surname, Richard Meinertzhagen, who was in fact not German at all but a blue-blood Anglo-Saxon and a product of the English public school system.
According to Ndegwa, Meinertzhagen’s “entry onto the scene must have been preceded by a preferential decision taken to counter and overrun any resistance or defiance in Agikuyu country. The task of ‘taming’ the Agikuyu was bestowed upon the immutably ruthless Meinertzhagen.” And he went about his work with reckless abandon.
“In September 1902,” Ndegwa reports, “the Kihumbuini area was destroyed on the orders of Meinertzhagen, where every living thing was mercilessly annihilated. His men burnt all the huts and razed the banana plantations and food crops to the ground. Women and children were bayoneted. It soon became apparent that the mission was not pacification by any remote definition: it was crude annihilation.”
In this way, every organised traditional defence was similarly destroyed, disarming warrior groups. “The only language of negotiation was the gun,” recalls Ndegwa. “[British] officers were instructed to shoot any creature that appeared at the sight of the gun.”
A haven for aristocrats
With such tactics, Kenya became a haven for British aristocrats. The current British Queen, Elizabeth II, was on holiday in Kenya as a young woman when her father died in London and she was flown back to become queen.
As Ndegwa recounts: “For Britain to gain a sphere of influence in East Africa, someone at the top must have been urged to act with speed… Were it not for the influence of a hidden hand, the British government would not have spent five million pounds on a railway for imaginary commerce in Erewhon, as Samuel Butler would have seen it in his 1871 satire with the same title.”
Ndegwa continues: “Was there more than met the eye when Mount Kilimanjaro moved from Kenyan territory to Tanganyika as a gift from a British Queen to a German Prince Consort? And was the Queen personally in charge? Make no mistake about it, Kenya was first conceived as a hunting ground for European royalty.
“The IBEA charter was terminated towards the end of the century whereupon the Protectorate reverted to the Foreign Office. Hatred and disgust of one race against another became [a] tinderbox ready to ignite the velocity of an impending struggle.”
Then the exodus emerged as more and more British settlers moved into Kenya. “The Anglo-Saxon areas,” Ndegwa, who had his university education in Scotland, at St Andrews, recalls, “were no longer occupied by the small-time freebooters such as Boyes, Gibbons, Bocdekens, [the] Wallaces and MacQueens, who were the first white people to buy land west of Nairobi.
“Rather the occupants [of Kenya] became the ruling class of Europe. They were well prepared to enact the feudal landscape that had survived the competitive rise of the bourgeois back home. They were also soaked in the European traditions that emphasised the value of power by race and wrote history as a struggle for superior rule.”
Ndegwa goes on: “By 1921, there were about 10,000 Europeans in the country; about 2,000 in the agricultural sector, and 1,000 serving as government officers. Asians numbered about 36,000. It boggles the mind to attempt an explanation as to why many sons of [British] noblemen came to find residence in a hitherto unknown country.”
And they enjoyed themselves and lived large. One of them, Jack Soames, as Ndegwa remembers, was an old Etonian who was only 32 when he arrived in Kenya in 1920. “He had bought many thousands of acres in Burguretti near Nanyuki and settled in without wasting time,” Ndegwa recollects. “He had many Gikuyu servants and a great deal of money.
“For him, one particular servant had only a single job: preparing whiskeys and soft drinks. Another one looked after the dogs; his colleague started the generator, with another raking the lawn. In addition, several cooks and houseboys were always in training just in case one failed to perform.”
Forceful land acquisition
Generally, as Ndegwa recalls, the settlers remained aloof and always on guard. They were determined to compel the Africans to conform to their needs and accept without question an imported culture based on class and colour. And all the time, the one thing that would spark the bloody Mau Mau war was taking deeper root: forceful land acquisition.
Ndegwa remembers that “as more settlers arrived, more land stretching from Kiu to Fort Terman was grabbed. The area covered about 16,700 square miles. To begin with, the British Foreign Office under the Protectorate Regulation of 1897 allowed land alienation on the basis that parts of land hitherto occupied by Africans would not be affected. In their consideration then – or so they claimed – only land along the [Uganda] railway line was needed.”
But five years later, Governor Elliot turned everything upside down under the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1902, which allowed the Protectorate government jurisdiction over all lands in Kenya, subject to the right of “actual occupation” by Africans.
Here again, the British lack of sincerity was on display. The 1902 Ordinance was so amorphous that, as Ndegwa recollects, “the ordinance did not define the meaning of ‘actual occupation’, thus leaving the governor to supervise settlement of the new settlers. In fact, many Agikuyu lost their land as a result. By the time the Crown Lands Ordinance was formulated, much of the European settlement had taken shape.”
Then came the 1915 Crown Lands Ordinance which further deprived Africans of any form of land ownership. “Instead it empowered the governor to allocate land for any purpose, in any way he desired,” Ndegwa recalls. “Unfortunately, Africans lost both inherent and legal claim to land. A court of law was to interpret that Africans lived on the land as tenants purely at the will of the Crown.
“So by the early 1930s, areas of specialised settler farming had clearly emerged. Gilgil and Nakuru were the centres of livestock business; Thika was for coffee, while Njoro concentrated on wheat; Naivasha became the sheep and cattle zone, and Londiani in the west was for flux.”
As happened everywhere the British and European settlers emigrated, all the land schemes clearly favoured the Europeans at the expense of the Africans. London even went further to reward the settlers in Kenya by making the territory a Crown colony in 1920, “a deserved gift to the settlers
for good services during the 1914-18 World War,” Ndegwa says.
“The settlers now had their own parliament, the legislative council, with ultimate power resting with the governor who was answerable to London.
“The land confiscated for European farming,” Ndegwa remembers, “mostly belonged to the Agikuyu in the whole of Kiambu and Thika area. In many cases, a European would arrive and simply peg out a portion of land he fancied. If the African owner resisted, his whole family would be driven out.”
The robbing of land went on so unhindered that by 1906, there was hardly any Mugikuyu (the singular form of the Agikuyu) who could raise a finger against European settlement. “Expeditionary forces, commencing with Francis Hall, had dealt a fatal blow to Kenyans estimated at 1,000,000 and created a British settlement under Governor Hayes Sadler,” Ndegwa says.
“In the government’s estimates, casualties of African descent who had died in military operations were 2,426. A total of 28,693 cattle and 64,853 sheep had been captured alongside. However, nobody really knows the exact number of casualties. The actual figures could have been twice or even thrice that number.”
Thus, with the Agikuyu fully crippled, their young men of fighting age decimated, and their wealth completely destroyed, the British governor could now effusively enact the wishes of the Colonial Office in London. “One comment attributed to him is worth recalling,” Ndegwa says. “It asserted that unless they [the empire] abrogated their civilising mission in Africa, such expeditions, with their attendant slaughter, remained necessary.”
Which compelled Ndegwa to remark that “the violence that was part of the imperial baggage was not just motivated by the need to take away what rightfully belonged to the African. Colonial violence and dispossession were themselves products of a racial superiority complex. The white man behaved as if – and indeed believed – that the superiority he exhibited was divinely sanctioned.”
So, the more land the Africans lost, the more the European settlement and the Empire in general expanded. “This turn of events served the settler perfectly, in the sense that the source of supply of labour in European farms was assured,” Ndegwa recounts. “This, in the eyes of the settler, unfortunately, fulfilled the only reason for the Agikuyu’s survival – cheap labour.
“Once quartered in European farms, many of those in forced labour found it impossible to return home since the land they once owned had been taken away. As a token for their labour, however, the Agikuyu were allowed to build their own huts, cultivate their own plots within the settler farms, and graze sheep and goats. A class of homeless squatters emerged as an important source of labour for the settlement.”
The Mau Mau war begins
By driving the natives off their land, the scene for African rebellion and resistance was perfectly set. Ndegwa discloses that “the colonial state was perceived [by the natives] to have reneged on promises made by the Protectorate government to the effect that European settlement should not affect land already occupied by Africans.
“Future governments deliberately reduced native land to force movement of labour to European settlement [areas]. Neither did the government seem to care about the people’s future welfare.”
Nothing could force the natives into the bush to fight for their rights and dignity more than this. Thus when the war came, it was brutal. The Mau Mau leadership, headed by General Dedan Kimanthi, had prepared the ground by letting their men go through traditional oath-taking exercises that bound them to the African cause come rain or shine. The British response was equally brutal. They attacked the forested slopes of Mount Kenya where they thought the Mau Mau was operating from, with all sorts of armaments. They killed thousands of the Africans and arrested scores of thousands more and put them in concentration camps where many were tortured to death under emergency regulations.
Ndegwa recalls that “after eight months of emergency (20 October 1952 to 6 July 1953), 1,300 Africans had been killed, 514 wounded, 2,673 captured and 112,529 taken into custody. The numbers of those killed mounted to 5,000 by June 1954. There had clearly been indiscriminate killing – the numbers killed being twice those wounded.”
Then in May 1954, “Operation Anvil” descended on Kenya. “The police rounded up the whole African population of Nairobi and detained 50,000 men, most of them Agikuyu, Ameru and Aembu,” narrates Ndegwa. “It was also reported that 370 people were executed and 150 were put under death sentence. A total of 17,000 people were convicted. These figures were ‘official’, apparently the only source of facts and statistics during the emergency period.”
But as Ndegwa proudly recounts: “The war had come down and in my view the Mau Mau had won it in the first two years. The people had thrown themselves into the fight with fury and in two years, Britain could no longer sustain the fight. Various signals to that effect – including the
Lyttelton Constitution that indicated readiness to negotiate peace – began showing up.”
Ndegwa continues: “Although the struggle brought different communities together, a festering wound remained in the Central Highlands where the [Africans] felt that by being robbed of land, the community had been robbed of its life. The Agikuyu, no doubt, had been totally traumatised by that loss. Thus, they got the inspiration to start a bloody conflict without precedent in Africa. They had learned to control fear but now time to prove the point had come.”
Giving them a bad name
After the war ended, and independence was won in December 1963, led by Jomo Kenyatta, the British and their media accused the Mau Mau of having used gory means to prosecute the war, a charge that Ndegwa rightly rejects.
“To paint the Africans as having engaged in an orgy of atavistic gore using all manner of rituals and weapons as if possessed by spirits,” he writes, “is to forget that they would not have chosen violence had they not been ignored.
“The Africans had to fight the way they knew best and with the weapons they could get. They used machetes, spears, arrows, and home-made guns… Moreover, to forget that their rudimentary weapons were countered by bullets, bombers, detention camps, the villagisation of people, and confiscation of property is to view only one-half of the equation.
“The empire’s machinery made every effort to stop a people’s determined effort to free themselves from colonial domination. On the whole a rudimentary army had risen against the empire to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the [British] settlers to live in Kenya any more.”
Even Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, could no longer support the injustice of the colonial system in Kenya. “He was perhaps right,” says Ndegwa, “when he told the settler leader Michael Blundell at the end of 1954 that what the Kenyan colonial government needed to fight the Mau Mau with was not more arms but ideas. He is quoted as saying that the war was about ideas – including those inspired by democracy – and needed to be fought by other ideas.
“His last word was that: ‘They [Mau Mau] are savages armed with ideas – much more difficult to deal with.’ He added that he was ashamed to use the might of the British Empire to fight unarmed people.”
In 2013, the epic of the bloody colonial period, which played out between 1952 and 1962, was revisited in the British House of Commons. After a 50-year denial, the Foreign Office finally admitted that Britain had indeed committed wanton atrocities against the Kenyan people and agreed to pay a token compensation.
As a nation, Kenya faces the future slowly accepting that the past 50 years have been more about experimentation. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has only led the nation for nine months and in that short time he has packed a punch. The other 591 months of independence were shared between Presidents Jomo Kenyatta (1963-78), Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) and Mwai Kibaki (2002-13). Uhuru Kenyatta is no stranger to Kenya’s former presidents. Old Jomo was his father, Kibaki his godfather, and it was Moi who introduced him to politics. The initiation and association with the former presidents prepared Uhuru for his current task. It also explains the steely confidence he has exhibited since coming to power in March this year.
In actual fact, the past 50 years of Kenya’s history have been marked by some bold political and economic achievements, but the national character weakened as the years went by, leading to ethnicism and the bloody post-election conflict of December 2007/January 2008, during which over 1,300 people were killed.
It sounds paradoxical. How can an African country wage a gallant war against the British and end up with a weak national character? A look at the leaders who led Kenya in the first 50 years is a portrayal of what actually undermined what should have been a vintage African success story today.
Old Jomo Kenyatta retained the economic formula established by the British 50 years before he became president. While he initiated a wealth transfer scheme to include and integrate the marginalised Africans in the economy, Old Jomo was careful not to unsettle the firmaments laid by the British. He in fact protected British interests and this partly explains why he was uncomfortable with the Mau Mau veterans.
In fact it is not easy to understand how Old Jomo refused to acknowledge the Mau Mau veterans in his government. And it is this that marked the beginning of Kenya’s hard-to-define nationalism. Ndegwa reveals in his memoirs how on 24 August 1952, at a meeting at Kirigiti, adjacent to Kiambu town, attended by Chief Koinange, Harry Thuku, and Eliud Mathu – all chiefs led by Waruhiu, “and a whole deck of personalities personifying the local colonial authority and the ideology of the ‘civilising mission’,” Jomo Kenyatta took the podium to denounce the Mau Mau and “asked everyone to do the same, and they all answered in the affirmative with their hands, feet and voices. All people, Kenyatta roared, should search and kill the thing called Mau Mau, including the government.”
Ndegwa tries to explain Kenyatta’s denunciation of the Mau Mau away by saying: “After his release from prison and upon assuming the nation’s presidency, Kenyatta refused to confess any involvement in the Mau Mau basically because the movement’s activities ran into conflict with the aims of the Kenya African Union (KAU).
“By admitting that he was behind the Mau Mau, Kenyatta would have assumed responsibility for all that had happened, including the excesses committed by some of the fighters now that he was the head of state. He needed to keep an image of a man who did not like violence; the man expected to guarantee peace to all. He particularly needed to assure other nations that he was not the ‘leader unto darkness and death’ portrayed by Governor Patrick Renison.”
However, this inability to own up to historical injustices severely harmed Kenya’s pursuit of a more cohesive society as the treatment meted out to the Mau Mau veterans by Kenyatta’s government was later extended to politicians with diverging views through detentions. But this is looking at Kenyatta on the face value of the expectations by the Mau Mau veterans, forgetting that there were other critical factors at play as Kenyatta navigated the path to democracy.
As Ndegwa recalls: “It was obvious that Kenyatta was under challenge from within his own party right from the start. His two allies, Jaramogi Odinga and Tom Mboya, eventually turned out to be the biggest suspected sources of opposition, mainly because they had external support. In the heat of the Cold War, Mboya went west to the Americans and Odinga went east to the Soviet Union.”
Ndegwa further discloses that the third force was led by former constitutional affairs minister Charles Njonjo and Kenyatta’s only white minister Bruce Mackenzie, whose interests were largely pro-British.
These revelations by Ndegwa help to clarify the political upheavals that marked Kenyatta’s 15-year leadership and the juggling acts he had to conjure to survive.
Matters were not helped when several high-ranking political figures, among them Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki were assassinated during Kenyatta’s reign. However, the economy performed well under Kenyatta, and it was a plus for him.
Daniel arap Moi
Right from the start, Daniel arap Moi lacked the gravitas of his predecessor. By the time he handed over power to his former deputy, Mwai Kibaki, 24 years after he succeeded Kenyatta, Kenya’s economy was weaker. This was not helped by the runaway corruption in the country during Moi’s time, which effectively bloated his achievements elsewhere. For instance, it is hardly mentioned that it was Moi who did the groundwork and set the pace for the peace negotiations that ended the long civil wars in Uganda, Sudan, and Somalia.
His achievements regionally however never clicked with the Kenyan public, who were tormented by his high-handedness that saw the country’s political fabric torn apart. In the end, as he passed the instruments of power to Kibaki, Moi was jeered.
Having been a key player in the country’s political, economic and social affairs right from independence, Kibaki was the one man who knew what he wanted to do with power once he achieved it. He fooled everyone by posing as a “laid-back” president disinterested in power. But the truth is Kibaki loved power within the limits of the law. This attribute came about immediately he was sworn in. When everyone warned him against free primary education, he simply ignored their predictions and went ahead to introduce free primary education. And he was proved right in the end. Eight months into his presidency, Kibaki had a score to settle with the British for something that Kenyatta and Moi would never have imagined. He revoked the ban on the Mau Mau and enabled the independence war veterans to sue the British government. Kibaki’s elder brother was a former Mau Mau fighter who was killed in battle, so he knew the sacrifices the Mau Mau had made.
In 2005, when frustrated by delays in the release of donor funds by the West, Kibaki turned to the East. He pressured his finance mandarins to keep a tight grip on taxes, and by so doing weaned the country off donor dependency. Quietly he modernised the Kenyan military, and despite opposition from the US, Ethiopia, Uganda and the EU, he sent 5,000 Kenyan soldiers into Somalia two years before he left office. He also oversaw Kenya’s largest infrastructure overhaul in 50 years.
With single-mindedness, Kibaki expanded the economy and leveraged new sectors like telecoms and real estate, making them key economic enablers, just like tourism and agriculture. One former Kenyan politician turned author notes that “contrary to popular myth, Kibaki was the more focused one. He never slept during meetings. He remained alert even if the meetings took more than three hours. He never wavered; never veered off his script. Kibaki was tough as a nut. When he said ‘no’ he meant it. He rarely said ‘yes’ during negotiations. He took and took. He rarely gave.”
It is upon the legacy of the triumvirate that came before him that President Uhuru Kenyatta must find his own niche. He comes in with the benefit of having been close to the three men who played a major role in his life. He is standing on their successes.
The onus of shaping the next half century is squarely on Uhuru’s shoulders, and he knows there is no more room for leadership experiments. His main challenge is actually to build an inclusive and cohesive society from Kenya’s diverse mix, something his predecessors failed to achieve.
Unlike Old Jomo, Moi, and Kibaki, Uhuru will not be using the Lancaster House negotiated constitution to govern the country. He has a homegrown constitution passed in 2010, that will radically transform Kenya into a model nation by the time the country marks its centennial.
For now, New African wishes Kenya and its illustrious people a happy golden jubilee.