When Kenya’s struggle for liberation led to the proclamation of independence in 1963, the wave of euphoria and confident optimism was palpable. Under the widely respected leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s buoyancy with political independence from British colonialism could have emancipated millions displaced by the settlers’ brutal imperial conquests. But just after independence, the crises of expectations that ensued easily divided the new nation state along bitter ethnic lines.
Crises of Expectations
Jomo Kenyatta’s tenure since independence till his death was characterized with a complete reversal of all the radical positions that had informed his rise to being Kenya’s founding leader. His pre-independence credentials as resolute Pan-Africanist who had championed the much-maligned cause of communism as the basis for liberation rapidly dissipated after 1963. He transformed into a believer of Western capitalism – this obviously meant that he reneged on the promises of land redistribution from white capital into the hands of the Kenyan masses.
Here was a leader who had been imprisoned to seven years’ hard labour by the British colonial authorities for being ‘the leader of the Mau Mau Movement’. But after independence, he tightened his proximity to state resources and power through imprisoning and assassinating political opponents. The state apparatus he presided over effectively drove the Mau Mau movement underground, to the extent of erasing the legacy of the rebellion as the chief catalyst for increased liberation agitation.
Kenyatta’s political weight as the founding leader was forged at every stage of his life – a product of missionary education, a spirited labourer, a well-articulated intellectual, a labour leader, a committed demagogue, and firm believer in left-leaning ideologies. These traits had endeared him not only to millions of Kenyans but he also drew remarkable international solidarity. But his turn-around in becoming a staunch capitalist whose reluctance for radical land redistribution has impoverished Kenyans till now makes his legacy and standing as an African revolutionary somewhat complicated.
Jomo Kenyatta’s Political Journey
The violent colonial conquests inflicted by the British settlers when they subjugated Kenya into colonial subservience is a dark spot in the East African country’s history. British East Africa (now Kenya) was the prime possession of the Empire – millions of Kenyans were displaced from their ancestral lands that had sustained them for centuries to pave way for the expansion of colonial capital. Massive plantations for cash crops such as tea and coffee were established, and Kenyans condemned to damnation.
This is the context that Jomo Kenyatta was born into. He was born as Kamau to parents Moigoi and Wamboi circa 1889. Although born in Kikuyu customs, Kamau’s first contact with Europeans (the Church of Scotland) at the age of 10 left a lasting impression on him, and he joined the mission. Here he studied Mathematics, carpentry, Bible, and English, and supported himself by working as a ‘houseboy’ and cook for a White settler. This laid his foundation as an educated person and unwavering labourer. In 1914 he changed his name to John Peter, then changed it to Johnson.
Kenyatta immediately left for Nairobi, where he worked various manual jobs. His insistence on providing his cheap labour to colonial private capital saved him from compulsory conscription for World War I – during the war he lived among the Maasai in Narok. He was employed by an Asian contractor as a clerk. During this time, his political awareness became more salient, rooted in Afrocentricity – he wore a traditional belt called ‘Kinyata’ in the Kikuyu language which translates to ‘light of Kenya’. This was his inspiration when he changed his name at a later point.
In the 1920s, Kenyatta’s political resolve and intellectual prowess in challenging colonial hegemony head-on spread his name fast in Kenya. Kenyatta’s revolutionary imprint was first witnessed through his role as the editor of Kikuyu Central Association’s (KCA) journal between 1924 and 1929. The KCA led a campaign for the restoration of Kikuyu lands that had been stolen by the settlers when Kenya became a crown colony. He was the general secretary of the KCA in 1928 and through his rebellious writing, he advocated for the centrality of Kenya’s languages in the political economy – with emphasis on Kikuyu.
In 1929 Kenyatta, travelled to London to increase his radical colonial fights against the settlers. There, he was enthralled by communist ideologies, and soon developed indelible solidarity with other communist leaders of African origin/descent – these include Kwame Nkrumah, Dr. Hastings Banda, Peter Abrahams, Harry Mawaanga Nkubula, George Padmore, and CLR James. During his time in Europe Kenyatta briefly joined the Communist Party.
His exile was the perfect cultivation for his fierce intellectual strengths – he studied at Moscow State University and London School of Economics. It was from the latter, where he was studying Anthropology, that he published his eternally seminal thesis titled ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ in 1938. That is also when it struck him that ‘Africanized names’ were immensely the perfect match for identifying as a radical Pan-Africanist – his new name became Jomo Kenyatta (Jomo is a Kikuyu name for ‘burning spear’). He was the burning spear whose light portended Kenya’s political freedom.
The Mau Mau Movement
The frustration caused by land shortages was a catalyst for a violent uprising. In the late 1920s Kenyatta had declared to colonial officials in Britain that if land redistribution did not take place, then there would be an unavoidable “dangerous explosion”. The Mau Mau armed rebellion at the onset of the 1950s was universally considered the forewarned explosion. The movement – which was spiritedly determined to end colonial land alienation, racial economic inequalities and widespread immiseration – was soon ruthlessly quelled in 1952. More than 10,000 Mau Mau fighters were killed.
This also provided the colonial officials in Kenya to punish Kenyatta and banish him from politics. He was arrested in October 1952 and was forced through a sham trial that resulted in a sentence of seven years’ hard labour. His crime: “managing the Mau Mau terrorist organization”. He denied the charge.
International pressure culminated in the 1963 release of Kenyatta. At an advanced age where he commanded the respect of being an “elder” as per African values, he secured the leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and in 1963 became the country’s first independent leader. The radicalism that had brought independence was expected to bring real economic emancipation for Kenyans particularly through land redistribution.
Jomo Kenyatta After 1963: Capitalism, Autocracy, and Disillusionment
After independence, he completely changed. His message became one of forgetting the past and embracing the ‘new democratic’ multi-racial society. Land redistribution never happened because of the illusory willing-buyer willing-seller basis policy. He tightened power around him as he also fought ethnic battles. All his radical influences waned in a flash.
Instead of mass land redistribution, he concentrated land in the hands of his close family members, as well as loyal Kikuyu elites. Political dissent attracted grave consequences – and this was heightened with the assassination of opposition leader Tom Mboya in 1969. The Mau Mau movement (which he had been condemned as its leader by the settlers) was effectively rendered a “disease” of the past – a remnant of the radicalism that had no place in the preservation of foreign private capital. Even his Pan-African rhetoric was meaningless because he never advanced such at the international stage after 1963. Kenyatta’s commissions and omissions are reflected in the neoliberal havoc that Kenya is today – mass inequality, poverty, and unequal land distribution.
The Hero or Villain?
Assessing Kenyatta’s legacy as the founding leader of Kenya is an exercise that exudes perpetual ambivalence. For his role as a Pan-African revolutionary, intellectual, teacher, and being an astute politician, he surely was a formidable leader. His social skills helped him a great deal since he had the general respect of Kenyans.
His biggest undoing is the gross failure he showed in not being a principled leader. State power and resources erased all his left-leaning consciousness, which made Kenyans continuously impoverished despite the hopes ushered in by independence in 1963. As such, his legacy should be dissected from this point – a radical leader who was genuinely loved but had his principles shaken and erased by the allures of Western capital.