From the Cold War to M-Pesa: events that have shaped Kenya’s history

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Nic CheesemanIn this article for the Daily Nation, Nic Cheeseman and Daniel Branch analysis some of the key moments in Kenya’s political history. Daniel Branch is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Warwick and author of Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2012. 

In July 1962, Tom Mboya set out his vision of the new nation in a speech as powerful and heartfelt as any other in Kenya’s history.

Delivered to the bedrock of colonial society, the white settlers in the Kenya National Farmers’ Union, Mboya observed that “to date, our people have been dragged through history”. He promised: “Henceforth, we will write our own history.”

It was a challenge taken up with great enthusiasm. Kenya’s history since has been written by the millions and not by the few. Writing this history was not just the affair of the likes of Mboya, Moi, the Odingas and the Kenyattas. It also concerned the city-slickers of Nairobi, the pastoralists of Turkana, farmers on the slopes of Mount Elgon, hotel staff at the beaches of the Coast and Somali refugees in Dadaab.

But, despite Mboya’s optimism the shadow of colonialism continues to loom large. It is perhaps only in the past decade that the full extent of the damage wreaked by the bloody final years of colonial rule has been appreciated. The mental maps of the country we carry around with us are still shaped by colonial cartographers, as a quick glance at the boundaries of the “new” 47 counties reveals.
To be sure, the disinterest shown by the British to certain parts of the country has been exacerbated by periods of post-colonial neglect, but there can be no doubt that the foundations of many of Kenya’s social and economic divisions can be traced back prior to independence. Similarly the significance of Christianity and a powerful centralised state have deep roots.

In many ways the colonial legacy left Kenya a fragile nation. Yet reviewing the 50 events that define Kenya’s history over the past half-century reveals that Kenyans have not simply accepted their fate. Instead, these milestones demonstrate that for all of the country’s fragility and occasional violence, the last 50 years has been marked by resilience, ingenuity, and triumph.


The 1964 coup attempt and the fallout between Kenyatta and Odinga

Kenya gained independence at the height of the Cold War. The first defining event of its independent history saw the new government abandon its policy of non-alignment, by which it meant steering a course between the American and British, on one hand, and the Chinese and Soviets, on the other. The Lanet Mutiny of January 1964 by members of the Kenya Rifles provoked Jomo Kenyatta to seek British assistance to restore order.

That decision led to a series of agreements with the British by which the former colonial power agreed to provide military support in the event of any domestic or foreign threat to Kenyatta’s government. Kenya has generally enjoyed close relations with Britain, the United States and other Western governments ever since.

What makes the occasional spats with the likes of Smith Hempstone, the US ambassador in the 1990s, and his British counterparts, Edward Clay and Christian Turner, notable is that they punctuated periods of otherwise constructive engagement.

Jomo Kenyatta’s domestic policies aligned Kenya with the Western allies too. The economy in the 1960s and early 1970s was orientated towards exports of agricultural products and dependent upon favourable prices being paid by foreign consumers. While these policies drove growth and helped improve living standards, they also divided Kanu and ultimately resulted in Oginga Odinga’s decision to break with the government.

Prior to this, Kanu had successfully used both carrot and stick to persuade the only other opposition party, the Kenya National Democratic Union (Kadu), to ‘voluntarily’ dissolve itself.
This process necessitated the integration of Kadu leaders into Kanu, and it was through this process that Daniel arap Moi rose to the position of Vice- President.

The dissolution of Kadu was therefore critical not just in enabling Kanu to establish a one-party state but in laying the foundations for the ‘Nyayo’ era.

But the refusal of Odinga and other ‘radicals’ to follow Kenyatta’s lead on economic matters quickly undermined the appearance of unity. The creation of the rival Kenya People’s Union (KPU) and the ‘little general elections’ the new party contested against the Kanu government in 1966 demonstrated the complex fault lines that divide the political class, and marked the beginning of the struggle for power between the Kenyatta and Odinga dynasties that would come to a head in the election of 2013.

Kanu convincingly won the day, but the same economic policies that supported a steady expansion of the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s also left the country vulnerable to shifts in the global economy. The global recessions caused by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 had devastating effects on the economy of Kenya and others across the African continent, with far reaching implications.

A combination of declining income from exports and a change in economic strategy forced Kenya to turn to the World Bank in 1980 to be able to pay its debts. One of the first African countries to do so, Kenya was set on a path towards a smaller state, and a stronger market economy, courtesy of internationally designed Structural Adjustment Programmes. While this may have allowed private enterprise to thrive, the state itself became weaker as a result.

It is only over the past decade or so that the economy has recovered from the shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The state did not recover nearly so quickly.

In its place vigilante groups and militias sprung up, sowing the seeds for the gradual transfer of control over violence away from the state. This process, and the limitations of the police force and the Judiciary, meant that the government was unable to deliver security and justice to citizens when they needed it most in the aftermath of the 2007 election.

Economic fragility went hand in hand with political fragility. President Kenyatta’s death in 1978 (6) led to fierce competition behind closed doors, as some of his allies attempted to change the constitution to prevent Moi, as Vice-President, from succeeding Mzee.

The “Change the Constitution” movement lost the day for two reasons. First, Kenyatta felt that a rotation of power between ethnic groups was important for national unity and so prevented efforts to remove Moi from office – a lesson as relevant today as it was then.

Second, senior Kikuyu leaders such as Mwai Kibaki and Charles Njonjo rallied to Moi’s side, enabling him to see off his rivals.

Kenyatta’s death not only left Kenya without a president, it left the nation without its figurehead. Shortly into Moi’s tenure, the deep political divisions that had surfaced in 1978 reappeared. Following efforts by Odinga to set up a new political party to rival Kanu, Moi passed legislation that turned Kenya from a de facto one-party state (in which there was no legal restriction on opposing parties) to a de jure one — Kanu became the only legal party under Section 2A of the constitution.

This was a critical moment because it set the scene for the battle between Kanu and pro-democracy activists in the late 1980s and suggested that Kenya would be less open in the Nyayo era than it had been under Kenyatta’s rule.

Together with the restriction on political freedoms, Moi’s decision to prohibit ethnic welfare associations such as the Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association (Gema) generated considerable political unease and further instability. On August 1, 1982, members of the air force mounted their coup against Moi. Some coups are important because they lead to a change of government. But coups that fail can be just as important in the way that they change the perceptions and actions of the survivors.

In the years that followed the coup Moi’s regime became increasingly repressive of critical voices. For much of the rest of the decade, real and imagined critics of the government were subjected to harassment, arrest and in the worst cases torture. But this did not succeed in silencing dissent. Coercion has never proved to be an effective means of maintaining stability in Kenya, from the era of colonial rule onwards.

In Moi’s case, the 1988 elections proved to be a critical juncture. The clear evidence of rigging – made obvious by the use of queue voting, so that it was plain for all to see that in many areas the less popular candidate had been declared the victor – undermined the legitimacy of the one-party state.

At the same time, by plotting to lock out many prominent leaders such as Charles Rubia and Kenneth Matiba in party and national elections, Moi unintentionally created a leadership for the country’s nascent pro-democracy campaign. As a result, Kenya experienced another period of intense political turbulence as Matiba, Odinga and Rubia came out in favour of regime change.

This period of Kenyan history is perhaps best remembered for the saba saba riots, a genuine moment of popular mobilisation against authoritarian rule, which played an important role in setting the scene for the reintroduction of multiparty politics.

The return of competitive politics had major implications that reached far beyond the political sphere. The need to fund election campaigns, combined with the weakening of state institutions as a result of Structural Adjustment Programmes and the strategies employed by the Moi government in the late 1980s, ushered in a new phase of rampant corruption that demonstrated just how fragile the country’s mechanisms of fiscal and political accountability had become.

This period was epitomised by the Goldenberg scandal, in which hundreds of billions of shillings of government revenue were misappropriated in an elaborate export scam. That none of the major players in the scandal were ever effectively prosecuted demonstrated the extent to which law and order had broken down, while the economic impact of the scandal – estimated to be well over Sh100 billion – illustrated the high cost of weak institutions.


Assassination of popular leaders sowed the seed for political reform

Partly as a result of episodes of instability, Kenya has suffered a series of episodes of traumatic violence. It is tempting to ignore these moments in favour of a more rose tinted celebration of 50 years of independence, but that would do a disservice to some of the most important figures in the nation’s history.

In the 1960s there was the assassination of Pio Gama Pinto (1965), which dealt a significant blow to those more radical members of Kanu such as Oginga Odinga, for whom he had been such a successful organiser.

In terms of national politics, the 1969 assassination of Tom Mboya, one of the most talented and respected politicians of his generation, was perhaps more significant. With his death, Kenya not only lost a brilliant mind, but one of the few political leaders capable of mobilising support across ethnic lines.

Pinto and Mboya were not alone. In 1975 the popular Kikuyu leader, JM Kariuki, was killed, sending shock waves through Central Province. Kariuki’s claim that Kenya had become a nation of “10 millionaires and 10 million beggars” suggested that had he lived he would have focussed greater attention on the need to limit the growth of the super rich and super poor – sadly, we shall never know.

The assassination of Foreign minister Robert Ouko on February 13, 1990, was every bit as important in its ramifications. Most notably, it led international donors to take a much more critical attitude towards the Kanu government, which eventually translated into greater pressure for the end of the one-party state.

At the same time, the investigation into the assassination contributed to the fall from grace of one of Moi’s most notorious allies, Nicholas Biwott.

It is often said that Kenya has been peaceful and stable since independence, but these assassinations – which occurred in pretty much every decade of independence – tell a different story.

It is tempting to wonder how Kenya would have developed if so many of those who put forward a different vision of the country’s future had not been cut off in their prime. For example, imagine if Tom Mboya, who was born just a year before Mwai Kibaki, had just retired from public life rather than been buried in 1969.

While their methods differed significantly, what united Mboya, JM Kariuki and Pio Gama Pinto, in particular, was a concern for equality and social justice. Although many Kenyans did well under Jomo Kenyatta, the gains that were made were not shared equally, which contributed to the grievances of those groups who consider themselves the ‘have nots’.

At times violence has also erupted on a mass scale. Thousands were killed and many more displaced during the 1992 and 1997 elections in which Kanu supporters instigated ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley in an attempt to displace, and hence disempower, communities assumed to support opposition parties.

This violence not only assisted Moi to retain power throughout the 1990s, it sowed the seeds for instability and inter-communal tensions in the 2000s.

The difference between the 2007 election and those that had gone before was not that political leaders engaged militias to act as ‘protection’ around election time, but that many of the groups that had supported Moi in 1992 and 1997 had broken away from the government following Kanu’s defeat in 2002 and were now in opposition.

As a result, the fragile state could not cope with the forces ranged against it, resulting in a loss of life on a tragic scale. The collective loss of a sense of security and the damage done to national identity continues to haunt the country, particularly given the failure to provide justice to the victims.

But violence can unite as well as divide. Few moments of national unity have been as sincere and pronounced as the outpouring of grief that followed the terrorist attack on the US embassy on August 7, 1998 as well as other similar incidents. Although the city centre recovered quickly, the trauma of that day and the incomprehensibility of the act will never be forgotten by those there.

The attacks also had an important impact on Kenyan foreign policy: thereafter, anti-terror strategies became increasingly central to the country’s engagement in the region.

Kenya’s regional relations have largely been peaceful, but not always. The status of Somali citizens of Kenya has been a long-running debate that the country has yet to fully resolve.

The Shifta War began less than a fortnight after independence and although that conflict ended in 1967, successive Kenyan governments remained uncertain of their relationships with their Somali citizens and with Somalia itself.

This situation has been further complicated by Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011, which was the first time that Kenyan troops have been deployed on foreign soil to attain a military objective. In years to come we may look back on this moment as a key development in Kenya’s journey to becoming a more proactive regional force.

How to deal with past instances of violence remains a thorny topic, but justice is increasingly being done for those who have suffered. In July 2002, some 200 Maasai and Samburu who had been bereaved or maimed as a result of British army explosives left on their land accepted more than $7 million in compensation from Britain.

More recently, Mau Mau victims won the right to pursue their claims for compensation in relation to the mistreatment that they experienced during the insurgency. It now looks likely that the British Government will pay compensation to thousands of Kenyans, which will not only right a colonial wrong, but also set a precedent for how governments should deal with atrocities in their past.

At the time of writing, Kenyans are still trying to come to terms with crimes that may have been committed by its own government. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) set up in the wake of the power-sharing violence has been dismissed by many as flawed process, but the publication of its report last month was nonetheless important.

The 42,000 witnesses who gave testimony give the Commission’s report a weight that it would not otherwise have, and it has raised important questions about how to deal with political leaders who stand charged with a range of violations – including some that are often forgotten as a result of the overriding focus on the post-election violence of 2007.

However, in some cases Kenyans may not be able to decide how to deal with the past themselves. The ICC case against three prominent Kenyans accused of committing crimes against humanity will go ahead this year (24), despite the government’s efforts to have the charges against the President and Deputy President dropped.

The outcome of the cases, and how the government responds to them, will shape Kenya’s domestic and international politics for decades to come.


Not even inflation and poor leadership dampened quest for better lives

This political and economic fragility, as well as the harsh climate in much of the country, has meant that Kenyans have had to exhibit resilience in their daily lives.

This reliance and determination has found expression in a variety of forms. One of the first was the harambee schools movement by which communities across the country through their own hard work and funds sought to give their children education with which to escape poverty.

Without such initiative, it would have been impossible to cope with demands for education created by the dramatic increase in population witnessed over the past 50 years, which has seen the number of Kenyans grow from 7 million people in 1963 to over 40 million today.

Another way of coping with that enlarged population has been for Kenyans to move away from the countryside into the towns and cities. With a population of just under 400,000 at independence, Nairobi’s population reached a million just 20 years later.

That growth created obvious problems that continue to be visible on a daily basis: crowded roads, insufficient houses and poor public health. But the city has also been a place of cultural dynamism and become the heartbeat of the national and regional economy.

The effects of demographic change and the fluctuating economy have been felt in the countryside too. Channelling the spirit of harambee, self-help groups dominated by women helped provide welfare, protect access to land and, in the case of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, campaign against damage to the environment that put livelihoods in rural areas in jeopardy.

In the absence of opposition parties during the dark days of one-party rule and its aftermath, such groups increasingly became vehicles for political change. In February and March 1992, women activists joined the wives, mothers and sisters of prisoners to protest against political imprisonment at Freedom Corner. Their courage shamed the Moi government and shows that Kenyan civil society groups are far from being the puppets of foreign interests. Kenya’s civil society was built on the blood and sweat of Kenyans, not the money of donors.

Other important forms of resistance had gone before. In the 1980s, the underground Mwakenya movement linked university lecturers, students, and literary figures in a widespread critique of the one-party state.

Although Mwakenya never threatened to topple the Moi regime, the Draft Minimum Programme published in September 1987 was one of the most serious attempts to discuss the state of the nation in the 1980s, and played an important role in keeping alive the idea that a more democratic future was possible.

The other great pillar of civil society has been the churches. Although a minority of the population were Christian at independence, by 1988 that figure stood at more than 80 per cent. It was not just the numbers of Christians that changed the face of Kenya, but also the engagement with politics exhibited by the clergy and congregations.

The protests by the churches against the practice of queue voting in the 1988 general election, and the willingness of some bishops to speak out in favour of reform, provided a groundswell of popular support for the pro-democracy movement and set in train the series of events that led to the abandonment of one-party rule.

Without them it seems unlikely that it would have been feasible for leading opposition figures to launch the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), the umbrella movement that actively campaigned for multiparty politics. Although Ford later fragmented, enabling Moi to win power in the 1992 election against a divided opposition, it forced the political opening on which so much of the progress in Kenya over the last 20 years has been based.

Supporters of democracy learnt quickly that the mere fact of holding elections was not enough to guarantee a change to the way the state treated its citizens. They came to realise that major constitutional change was the only way to protect the individual and collective rights of all Kenyans.

For more than two decades, civil society activists demonstrated courage, leadership and resilience in their efforts to fundamentally change the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Along the way they gradually expanded the boundaries of what was possible. Despite successive aborted periods of constitutional review under Moi, they continued to push for power to be devolved from the president to the people. In 2004, their efforts crystallised into the Bomas Draft of the constitution, which proposed significant new constraints on the Executive.

However, the final draft of the constitution that went before the country in a referendum in 2005 differed in significant ways from the Bomas Draft, and so civil society groups joined the campaign of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), defeating the government’s proposals.

The Bomas Draft was nonetheless significant, because it shaped all future constitutional debates. The 2010 Constitution can be traced back to these earlier periods of constitutional review, and the civil society and opposition groups who worked so hard to push the process forwards.

All civil society movements require a mouthpiece and the Kenyan press has often been an important source of news and information. One of the first weekly newspapers was the African Standard, which was established in 1902.

The paper was sold three years later to two British businessmen who promptly changed the name to the East African Standard, which published daily from then on.

In a separate development, the Englishman Charles Hayes started a Swahili weekly called Taifa in 1958, which became a daily newspaper, Taifa Leo, in 1960. This was a particularly significant development with respect to this article, because soon after an English language version of the paper – the Daily Nation – went into publication on October 3, 1960, and if that hadn’t happened you wouldn’t be reading this piece today.

More recent developments have involved the deregulation of the radio network. Because most Kenyans do not have access to television, the radio has been a critical source of information. Under the one-party state, the government’s monopoly over the radio was an important source of political control.

But following the deregulation of FM radio control over information has been decentralised to hundreds – if not thousands – of new stations (35).

This has been both good and bad. Many more voices are now being heard, and Kenyans have the capacity to produce shows that are closer to the interests, and the needs, of local communities. But vernacular radio stations have also been accused of being a source of division, and in some cases incited ethnic violence around the 2007 elections.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 31st May 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

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