Kenyatta came to prominence through the nationalist (independence-seeking), anti-colonial movement that arose in Africa after World War II (1939-45). He rose quickly to the leadership of an influential nationalist organization and became a principal voice in the growing opposition to British colonial rule. In an attempt to silence him, the colonial government arrested and imprisoned him for nearly seven years. When Britain realized that the African people would not submit to colonial rule and agreed to an independent Kenya in the early 1960s, Kenyatta became the new nation’s first president. At first his nationalist government was extremely popular, but as time passed, the Kenyatta regime became increasingly centralized and authoritarian. It also became corrupt, enriching colleagues and families close to the leaders. Opposition parties were either absorbed into the ruling party or silenced. Nonetheless, Kenyatta is remembered by many in eastern Africa as a leader who contributed greatly to the building of an independent new nation.
A beaded belt: mucibi wa kinyata
According to most biographers, Jomo Kenyatta was born on October 20, 1891, at Ngenda, Kikuyuland, British East Africa. Questions have always been raised about his birth date, though, because of the unusual way the Kikuyu kept records. Kenyatta said that even he wasn’t sure of his true date of birth.
Kenyatta’s father was Muigai, a farmer, and his mother was Wambui. His parents named him Kamau wa Ngengi, but he later took the name “Kenyatta” from the Kikuyu name for the beaded workers’ belt that he wore as a youth (mucibi wa kinyata). He went to the Church of Scotland Mission near Nairobi for his first five years of schooling. In August 1914 he was baptized as a Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland.
From 1921 to 1926 Kenyatta worked for the Nairobi municipal water board and served as an interpreter of the Kikuyu language for the Kenya Supreme Court. In 1922 he joined the Young Kikuyu Association, a nationalistic organization formed by the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in the country. The Africans of British East Africa had been receptive to many aspects of British culture, but gradually they learned to use the institutions of British democracy to achieve their own nationalistic goals.
British colonialism: Kenya’s– and Kenyatta’s–background
Back in the late 1800s, the British East Africa Company–a private company backed by the British government–looked after British interests in East Africa. With the opening of the Suez Canal (connecting the Red and Mediterranean seas in northeastern Africa) in 1869, Britain realized the importance of controlling the headwaters of the world’s longest river, the Nile. The White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria and joins the Blue Nile, flowing out of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. The two join at Khartoum in the Sudan to become the Nile River. The southern half of Lake Victoria is in Tanzania and the northern half is mostly in Uganda, with a small portion in the northwest of Kenya.
The British government decided to build a rail line from Mombasa, a key port off the southern coast of Kenya, to Lake Victoria and made the surrounding portion of British East Africa a British colony. One of the stops along the rail line, Nairobi in Kenya, became the administrative center and later the country’s capital city. Once construction of the railway was under way, the British government began urging its citizens to settle in Kenya and take up farming. Britain was determined to turn Kenya into a “white man’s” country.
After World War I (1914-18) nearly 9,000 Europeans had settled in Kenya, and much of the highlands outside Nairobi had been set aside for whites. Close to 7 million acres of African land were taken–mostly from the Maasai and Kikuyu peoples–for European settlement.
The idea of white settlers owning Kikuyu land outraged the Kikuyu. As one of the educated elite among the Kikuyu, Jomo Kenyatta played a leading role in the Young Kikuyu Association’s struggle for black rights. From this organization grew the Kikuyu Central Association and the East African Association. In 1928 the Kikuyu Central Association elected Kenyatta its general secretary. He worked hard to broaden the organization’s base of support, educating the Kikuyu in the politics of land expropriation (Britain’s policy of taking over tribal lands). In 1929, in an effort to reach the distant villages comprising Kikuyu territory, the association started a monthly Kikuyu-language newspaper called the Muigwithania. Kenyatta became the editor of Muigwithania, the first newspaper produced by Africans in Kenya.
Travels and lives in Europe
In 1928 the British government held meetings to get views on a projected federation, or union, of British East African territories. Kenyatta testified before the Hilton-Young Commission on the topic. The next year the Kikuyu Central Association sent Kenyatta to London to present their land claims and testify against the proposed union of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika. While in Europe, Kenyatta became involved with more radical anti-colonial organizations–organizations that favored a more revolutionary approach to achieving their goals.
Kenyatta traveled to various European cities and then spent several weeks in the Soviet Union in August 1929. Returning to Kenya in the fall of 1930, he gained permission for the Kikuyu to control their own schools despite opposition from Christian missionaries in the region. The following spring the Kikuyu Central Association sent Kenyatta to London as a delegate to a parliamentary committee studying the East Africa Federation plans. He stayed there for 15 years before returning home. During this time Kenyatta studied English at the Quaker Woodbrooke College and at Selly Oak in Birmingham. After teaching language courses at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London from 1933 to 1936, he earned a postgraduate degree in anthropology (the study of human societies, origins, racial relationships, and cultures) under Professor Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. His thesis, Facing Mount Kenya, a study of Kikuyu culture and society, was published in 1938. It is one of the earliest works on cultural nationalism by an African nationalist about his society.
During World War II (1939-45) Kenyatta worked on a farm in Surrey, England, and served as a lecturer on Africa for the Worker’s Educational Association. In 1945 Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, and other African nationalists established the Pan-African Federation (an organization dedicated to the union of all Africans) and set up the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester with the theme “Africa for the Africans.”
Kenyatta left England in 1946 to return to Kenya. He was immediately elected president of the Kenya African Union (KAU), a newly formed nationalist organization in his homeland. Kenyatta reignited the feud over Kikuyu land that pitted tribal members against the colonial government and white British settlers. His strong personality, fiery speeches, and well-organized freedom marches captured the attention of other Kenyan tribal leaders and brought new members into the KAU. Its membership soon swelled to more than 100,000 people.
A Striking Appearance
Jomo Kenyatta was considered a flashy dresser back in the late 1940s. Most photos show him in traditional African dress, usually wearing an animal-skinned or feathered hat. Sometimes he draped a cape of monkey skins around his shoulders, and he wore a heavy red-stoned signet ring on his left hand. In his right hand Kenyatta carried a large ebony walking stick. Africans greeted him with shouts of “Savior,” “Great Elder,” and “Hero of Our Race.”
As the 1940s progressed black Africans became increasingly frustrated with the white-dominated government in British East Africa. The KAU had a long-established policy of working for a peaceful change to white-minority rule in Kenya, but the opposition was growing more and more discontented. Militant blacks–black Africans who were ready to fight for their freedom–organized direct challenges to British authority.
Despite his denials, Kenyatta was suspected of heading the fanatical Mau Mau, a secret Kikuyu society whose members had taken an oath to rid Kenya of its white settlers and began a violent rebellion that broke out during the late 1940s in the European farming area of Kenya. Mau Mau began with the murder of a few British farmers and the destruction of their cattle. The Kikuyu wanted their land back and hoped to frighten the Europeans into leaving the country. The government responded by arresting Jomo Kenyatta and other well-known Kikuyu leaders and rounding up Kikuyu farmers and forcing them to live in guarded compounds. By the end of 1955 the revolt had been put down. About 100 British settlers were killed in the uprising; nearly 3,000 Kikuyu died in the civil war that pitted Kenyan rebels against blacks who were suspected of supporting the white regime.
In a world-famous trial in the remote town of Kapenguria, Kenyatta and his associates were found guilty of the charges leveled against them. In April 1953 they were sentenced to seven years of hard labor. British authorities hoped that by removing Kenyatta from public life, the Mau Mau movement would become disorganized and eventually disappear. But during his six and a half years in prison in the desert of Lokitaung in northwestern Kenya, the terrorism actually increased in violence and frequency. Thousands of Kikuyu militants fled to the forest areas of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, where they continued their battle against the government. Britain sent in troops to reinforce the colony’s security forces.
While Kenyatta was in prison, the British declared a state of emergency, outlawing all political party activity. The Kenya Federation of Labor under Tom Mboya led political activism during the time political parties were outlawed. By 1955 the government was allowing limited, district-level political organizations in the non-Kikuyu areas to start up; these groups began to take up the labor union’s political activities.
With Kenyatta’s release from prison in 1959, violence in the region subsided. Nevertheless, the government restricted him to an additional two years of house arrest in the Northern Frontier district town of Lodwar. A new generation of Kenyan nationalists continued to agitate for Kenyatta’s release. Meanwhile, the British government began to accept the idea that the existing colonial government could no longer control Kenya. Making a firm move toward granting Kenya its independence, Great Britain revised its colonial constitution several times in the late 1950s. Each constitutional step increased African involvement in self-government.
Kenyan leaders insisted on Kenyatta’s participation in any government leading to independence. In March 1960 members of the old Kenya African Union (KAU) reorganized themselves as the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and elected Kenyatta as their president, even though he remained under house arrest. Finally, on August 14, 1961, the British authorities permitted Kenyatta to return to Kikuyuland.
Forms independent government
KANU took a radical nationalist stand and drew its membership from the groups most affected by colonial rule, especially the Kikuyu and the Luo. The Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), created in 1960, was more conservative (more traditional and less supportive of change brought on by revolutionary means). Headed by Ronald Ngala and Daniel arap Moi, KADU represented the interests of the smaller ethnic groups.
On January 12, 1962, voters in the Fort Hall constituency elected Kenyatta to the Kenyan legislative assembly. That April he agreed to serve in a coalition (combination British and African) government as minister of state for constitutional affairs and economic planning. In March 1963 the legislative assembly met for the last time in a colonial form. The election that followed would decide who would lead Kenya into independence. On the heels of KANU’s overwhelming victory in the election, Kenyatta became self-governing Kenya’s first prime minister on June 1, 1963.
Kenyatta took extraordinary steps to reassure European farmers about their future. He also appealed to the freedom fighters and members of Mau Mau to lay down their arms and join the new nation. On December 12, 1963, Kenya received its independence from Great Britain. The following year it became a republic with Kenyatta as its president. Once in power, Kenyatta continued to build a new nation based on racial and tribal harmony under the old workers’ slogan Harambee, meaning “pull together.” Britain helped Kenya to finance a massive land purchase scheme that permitted the settlers in the “white highlands” to sell their lands to Africans. Most white farmers in the highlands agreed to sell.
Kenya’s new president was not a firm backer of “African socialism,” the political trend of his day. (Socialism is a political and economic system based on the idea that the society rather than individuals should own the means of production). Kenyatta adopted a capitalistic system, and Kenya’s economy developed rapidly, but some inequities existed in opportunity and distribution of wealth. The Kikuyu people and Kenyatta’s immediate family (four wives and seven children) profited the most from the new economic system. At independence, the constitution gave considerable powers to various autonomous (self-governing) regions in Kenya. Kenyatta soon abolished these regional powers and replaced them with a highly centralized and authoritarian system. For instance, in 1964, when the Somali people living in Kenya’s North-West province wanted to join the Somali Republic across the border, Kenyatta sent in troops to crush the separatist movement.
Kenyatta persuaded the Kenya African Democratic Union to drop its political opposition and to voluntarily dissolve itself in November 1964. KADU–KANU’s greatest rival–supported at least limited regional self-government, while Kenyatta’s party argued for the concentration of power in a strong central government. The conflicting views of key figures in the government–mainly friction between Kenyatta and former leaders of KADU–fueled a political crisis in Kenya. Kenyatta’s vice president eventually resigned to form an opposition party known as the Kenya Peoples’ Union Party (KPU). In response, the ruling party redoubled its efforts to put down the opposition.
On July 5, 1969, Tom Mboya, a popular Luo politician, was assassinated by a Kikuyu. Although the assassin was tried and executed, the Luo were not satisfied. Kenyatta’s appearance in Luo country that October set off riots and threatened to divide the country. At first he ignored the problem, but finally he was forced to take action. Kenyatta banned the KPU, making Kenya a virtual one-party state.
In foreign policy, Kenyatta accepted aid from communist and capitalist countries while remaining as politically neutral as possible in global affairs. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the means of production and the distribution of goods.) His strategy helped Kenya take the lead in economic development in eastern Africa. Kenyatta became the undisputed leader in East Africa and achieved his greatest foreign policy success when he helped to settle a border dispute between Uganda and Tanzania in 1971.
But the 1970s were marred by political violence in Kenya. Alleged attempts to overthrow the Kenyatta regime brought severe government crackdowns. And the 1975 assassination of Josiah Kariuki, an outspoken critic of the government and member of parliament, sparked rumors that the government would resort to murder to stifle the opposition.
All criticisms aside, Kenyatta made independent Kenya a showcase nation among the former African colonial states. He is best remembered for stabilizing relations with whites in the region and turning Kenya into a viable twentieth-century society. Kenyatta was revered by many as Mzee, the “wise father” of Kenya. He died in Mombasa on August 22, 1978. As a tribute to Kenya’s first president, his successor, Daniel arap Moi, suggested a continuation of Kenyatta’s policies by calling his own program Nyayo or “footsteps.”