Scram from Africa

John Reader

  • The Politics of the Independence of Kenya by Keith Kyle
    Macmillan, 258 pp, £18.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 333 76098 0

Tom Mboya, a leading minister in the Kenyan Government and widely spoken of as the man who would succeed President Jomo Kenyatta, was shot dead on a Nairobi street on Saturday, 5 July 1969. Mboya, whom Keith Kyle describes in this excellent book as ‘one of the most gifted leaders modern black Africa has yet produced’, belonged to Kenya’s second most powerful ethnic group, the Luo. The man arrested for killing him (a soldier who had undergone special forces training in Bulgaria) came from Kenya’s most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu. He was tried, found guilty on entirely circumstantial evidence and executed. During his trial the accused man referred pointedly to ‘big men’, and many felt they should have been picked up and questioned about their role in the killing. The ‘big men’ were not identified, however, though few doubted that it was a political assassination, and pundits warned that widespread violence between Luo and Kikuyu would follow ‘as surely as the tick bird follows the rhino’. Tribalism was about to give a demonstration of Africa at its most savage – and the world’s media flocked to Kenya.

While tension increased around the country in the days immediately following Mboya’s assassination, the media prepared to cover the demonstration of Luo disaffection that was expected at the funeral. President Kenyatta himself would be foremost among the mourners attending the service in Nairobi’s Catholic cathedral. Of course, he could hardly have stayed away from the funeral of an assassinated minister without causing offence or even adding to the suspicion of Kikuyu connivance with the crime, but his presence (together with others from the ruling Kikuyu hierarchy) was certain to arouse angry protest from activists among the thousands of Luo who would travel to the city for the funeral.

The Government took no chances. Mortuary and forensic formalities were hastily completed and the funeral service scheduled for the Tuesday, barely 72 hours after the murder, which didn’t allow much time for the long journeys that many would have to make from the Luo homelands to Nairobi. Meanwhile, the General Service Unit (a quasi-presidential guard of unforgiving reputation) was deployed, along with military and civil police.

There were some noisy demonstrations along the route of the cortège – heads were cracked and arrests made – but the most memorable event occurred in the cathedral itself. A small group of accredited reporters and photographers were assigned positions alongside the altar, with a prime view over both the congregation and the bier. President Kenyatta, his wife Mama Ngina and members of the Government were seated awaiting the arrival of the coffin when, with a telephoto lens trained on the President, a photographer exclaimed: ‘He’s crying, Kenyatta is crying!’ And indeed he was: bending forward and raising a handkerchief to his eyes, the President seemed inconsolable.

The political value of those Presidential tears, showing Kikuyu sorrow at the loss of a Luo colleague, evoked first astonishment and then admiration among the photographers and reporters who saw them during the minute or so before they too began to cry. The GSU – never less than totally committed to the task in hand – had countered the threat of unruly behaviour as the cortège approached the cathedral yard with a barrage of tear gas. The crowd had dispersed, but much of the gas had drifted into the cadthedral.

Mboya was buried the following day at his maternal homestead on Rusinga Island, a few hundred metres from the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria. Thousands queued for a place in the fleet of dugout canoes ferrying mourners across the channel to the island. At the homestead, where Mboya’s body lay in an open coffin under a white canvas shelter, a long line of mourners moved slowly past. Grief was expressed in tears and sobs and in sudden bursts of piercing ullulation that reverberated through the crowds. Where the men gathered, their low voices and serious demeanour hinted that mourning might be followed by retaliatory action. The other senior Luo Parliamentarian, Oginga Odinga, who had resigned as the country’s first Vice-President in 1964 and by 1969 was a vociferous opponent of the Kenyatta Government, stood prominently at the grave-side, dressed in monkey-skin robes and head-dress and holding his clenched fists aloft, with thumbs erect, to cries of ‘dume, dume’ from the crowd. ‘Dume’ means ‘bull’ and is the Luo cry of solidarity.

The scene was set, pundits agreed, for a serious confrontation between the Kikuyu and Luo factions. But where and when would it occur? The answer was not long in coming. Before the last mourners had left Rusinga Island, it was announced that the President would visit Kisumu, the principal town in the Luo region, two days later. The visit might have been construed as a gesture of conciliation – why else would a Kikuyu President choose to visit the Luo region immediately after the death and interment of its most promising son? But, contrary to expectations, the President was going to Kisumu to open a hospital. The hospital, built with Soviet aid, had been completed and brought into service years before, and an invitation for the President to open it had been ignored until now. This was more of a challenge than a conciliatory gesture. The President would travel from Nairobi through the Luo region to Kisumu by road. If the Luo wanted to make trouble, here was their chance to vent their feelings on Jomo Kenyatta himself.

On the outskirts of Kisumu, a short distance from the crowds which had gathered to greet the President with everything from insulting gestures to bricks, a white officer commanding the GSU forces advised reporters and photographers not to ‘stand around with the crowds when the Old Man arrives. We’re going to clear the roads, and that means going straight for anybody that’s in the way.’ The President’s visit was perfunctory. Bricks were thrown and crowds vented their anger – but almost exclusively on the police and GSU, who responded with tear gas, baton charges and arrests. With the GSU to protect him, the President was never in serious danger, but the gesture was bold nonetheless. And highly successful. In a matter of days incipient tribal animosity was transformed into admiration (if grudging in some quarters) for a powerful leader. The country relaxed and the journalists went home.

The Mboya assassination takes up just a few lines on page 203 of The Politics of the Independence of Kenya, but stands as a measure of the extent to which contemporary reporting is biased by the received wisdom of the day. Nothing Kyle says actually contradicts the tribal rivalry interpretation of the assassination that found universal favour at the time, but this detailed account of Kenya’s political history up to and during the years immediately after Independence reveals the significance of other influences. Personalities predominated in tussles that were as much for individual power as for the independence of a nation. Evidence scattered through these pages raises the possibility that Mboya may have been the victim of rivalries within his fraternity – though one probably should not read too much into the fact that Odinga was the instigator of arrangements under which Kenyan soldiers were trained in Bulgaria.

Kyle reported from Nairobi for BBC television and various British and American publications from 1961 to 1964 – the critical years of Kenya’s move to Independence, which was achieved on 12 December 1963. A first-hand witness to events that are now acknowledged to have been a watershed in the history of Africa, he assembled a sizable archive of documents and interview notes.

He planned to publish a book on Kenya’s Independence soon after the event, but the project was shelved for more than thirty years – fortunately, as it turns out, for by then relevant British government documents had become available at the Public Record Office under the Thirty-Year Rule, along with important personal archives and papers which had been deposited in the Rhodes House library in Oxford. Furthermore, surviving British ministers and key civil servants who had been involved in the negotiations leading to Kenya’s Independence were willing to be interviewed. The result, however, is unlikely to find a wide readership beyond the specialist field for whom it will be required reading. This is a pity, for there is real drama in it, and Kyle’s lucid prose brings an invaluable measure of accessibility to this combination of scholarship and personal recollection. And this is no mean achievement. The book is packed with detail, but its narrative style allows the long-term implications of specific policies and the importance – or otherwise – of particular individuals and events to emerge cumulatively. Scattered passages suggest, for example, that British attempts to foist some kind of federation on Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda were unhelpful and probably detrimental.

There is no reporting from the villages and farms where the majority of the population lived – which leaves unstated the significance of a passive electorate in Africa. In the decades before and immediately following Independence, most Africans were either directly self-sufficient or part of an extended family that was – hardly anyone was more than one generation from the land. Politics was an urban pursuit, conducted at some distance from the realities of most peoples’ lives, and politicians could be certain that voters would unquestioningly accept their promises of a richer and easier life after Independence. But the prospects were not so rosy. Kyle quotes a briefing given to the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in preparation for a Colonial Policy Committee meeting in February 1962:

Already in fact bankrupt but with worse to come, wholly lacking in political, cultural, social and economic cohesion, threatened with internal tribal strife and external attack from the north, but lacking in funds and forces to maintain adequate security services, an independent Kenya presents the least hopeful prospect of all the Colonial territories to which we have given or contemplate giving independence.

Yet as Kyle astutely points out, the question was not whether the Africans were ready for self-rule, but rather: ‘were the people of Britain ready to spend the money, bear the sacrifice and accept the opprobrium of holding down people determined to be free? How was it possible to train people for government for anything more than two or three years if those people most gifted to the task were unprepared to wait any longer?’ Those people ‘most gifted to the task’ were not numerous, and in Kenya the most gifted of all was being held at Her Majesty’s pleasure for his alleged involvement in the Mau Mau uprising – Jomo Kenyatta.

Kyle traces the roots of African nationalism and the drive for self-rule back to the turn of the century, and it is astonishing to learn how short-sighted the colonial government’s policy was with regard to the future of the African population. Of course, nothing is clearer than hindsight, but one might have expected some appreciation of demographic realities (Africans outnumbered whites many times over, and the ratio could only increase with time) if not of the danger of suppressing African rights and ambitions. In 1921 an official report noted that ‘the Native everywhere is clamouring for education and shows a keenness and intelligence very hopeful for the future.’ But the British Government was more immediately concerned with the demands of the white settlers.

Churchill once said that ‘every white man in Nairobi is a politician and most of them are leaders of parties,’ but whatever their divergent views, the settlers were united in their belief that Kenya should be a haven for white farmers, paid for if not by Britain then in effect by the indigenous Africans – and not simply in terms of cheap labour, but by taxation too. In principle, all sections of the community should have been paying the taxes that had been imposed to offset the territory’s huge deficit, but in practice it proved easier to collect poll tax and a higher hut tax from the Africans than to extract income tax from the white farmers. White income tax didn’t overtake hut tax as a source of revenue for the Colony until the 1950s; in the meantime the prime farming highlands to the north of Nairobi were designated a whites-only territory and Africans were banned from growing coffee and cotton.

Jomo Kenyatta, a mission-educated Kikuyu born about 1897, entered politics in 1925, when he was invited to join the recently formed Kikuyu Central Association – not least because his English was better than that of most KCA members. The Government did not have a very high opinion of the KCA, describing the organisation in a Native Affairs Department report as ‘an indeterminate collection of malcontents of no constitution, no representative authority and no constructive programme’ who collect money ‘from the ignorant and foolish’, which ‘appears to be spent chiefly on the personal requirements and luxurious tastes of the collectors’. These remarks may well have been inspired by the appearance and behaviour of Kenyatta himself, who is variously remembered from those days as a dandy, a braggart, a drunkard and a womaniser, who liked clean linen and always dressed well – Kyle says he favoured pith helmet and plus-fours.

Reminded of what has been said of Abraham Lincoln, Kyle notes that Kenyatta ‘was probably one of those men who are equipped for no job except the top one and of this destiny he was increasingly prescient’. Kenyatta very quickly became accepted by the Kikuyu as the putative redeemer of his people – though this was not a role for which there was much practical application at the time. He was incomparable on the great occasions, a critic remarked, ‘but in between these rather infrequent meetings nothing appeared to be happening’. Kenyatta was a leader-in-waiting; it was doubtless to his advantage that he was physically absent from the everyday life and political machinations of the country for 25 of the 38 years that elapsed between his entry into politics and his becoming President of independent Kenya in 1963. He was abroad for a total of 16 years between 1929 and 1946 and in detention from 1952 until 1961.

While abroad, the articles he wrote for the Kenyan press kept him in the public eye, and his studies at the London School of Economics under Bronislaw Malinowski resulted in Facing Mount Kenya, his book on the customs and practices of the Kikuyu, which gave him academic credentials. Kenyatta had his feet firmly in both the traditionalist and the modernist camps, and he was adept at using one to gain an advantage in the other. ‘Wisdom is before force,’ he wrote from London. ‘We should find out where knowledge is and seize it with both hands.’ But when the Kikuyu began boycotting mission schools in protest against the demand that African teachers must sign a declaration denouncing female circumcision or be expelled, Kenyatta demurred, even though he had written, in Facing Mount Kenya, that circumcision, male and female, was a rite of passage central to a Kikuyu’s traditional sense of identity.

It was of course another manifestation of Kikuyu identity that saw Jomo Kenyatta removed from the political arena between 1952 and 1961 – Mau Mau and the oaths its initiates had taken. Josiah Mwangi Kariuki has described the ceremony he underwent as a ‘symbol of unity’. Along with other initiates, he had to bite into the lungs of a freshly slaughtered goat, suffer three cuts on the left wrist and consume a preparation of goat meat and Kikuyu foods laced with blood from the cuts on the initiates’ arms. After the ceremony, initiates were committed to fight for the lands that had been taken by Europeans. On pain of death. Kariuki had vowed: ‘And if I fail to do this may this oath kill me.’ The terrible irony is that while ‘only’ 32 European civilians were killed by the Mau Mau in the course of the uprising, 1800 African civilians were murdered – many for failing to take or to fulfil the oath.

Kenyatta was arrested (along with other leading politicians) when the state of emergency was declared in 1952, charged with masterminding the Mau Mau uprisings and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour and indefinite restriction thereafter. The question of how deeply Kenyatta was involved with the Mau Mau movement has been much debated. In the early stages he spoke out against its excesses; later he was chided by Kikuyu leaders for denouncing the Mau Mau too strongly, although many in the Government suspected that his speeches in the vernacular were so larded with double-meanings that they could be interpreted as being either for or against the movement. Kenyatta was trying to have it both ways, anxious both to stay out of trouble with the Government and to retain the favour of his hardline traditionalist supporters. This balancing act could not be sustained for very long, and the strain showed. He was drinking heavily, reclusive and abusive. Arrest and incarceration spared him from the danger of awakening serious doubt among his supporters.

Kyle insists that without an understanding of the intensity of feeling that Jomo Kenyatta and Mau Mau aroused (in Britain and Kenya) his account of the political events that brought Kenya to independence will not make sense. To some extent Kyle is stating the obvious here, but with access to previously unpublished official documents and interviews, his account adds significantly to what was available before – and does so with considerable authority. In particular, the pages charting the tricky course of negotiation along which the Kenyan politicians pursued independence both during the Mau Mau emergency and in its aftermath spell out the growth and establishment of alternative tribal political affiliations in the vacuum created by the exclusion of Kenyatta and the Kikuyu.

In 1957, when Ghana became the first black African nation to achieve independence, Africans in Kenya were permitted to elect Parliamentary representatives for the first time. Kenya had enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1907, when its first Legislative Council was convened – with eight members nominated exclusively from the European community. Legco, as it was affectionately known, grew with the colony and by the 1920s consisted of eleven elected settlers, five elected Indians, one elected Arab and one nominated Christian missionary ‘to advise on the affairs of the African population’. The Indians and Arabs were unhappy about the disparity of representation since together they outnumbered the settlers by more than three to one (32,924 Indians and Arabs, 9651 Europeans, according to the 1921 census), and the settlers were by no means confident that their majority in the Legislative Council was enough to guarantee the continuance of their superior status in the colony. Neither group felt African representation was less than adequate, though the African population was at least 2.3 million at the time.

By 1955, the British Government had acknowledged that some form of multiracial executive must be created in Kenya, but the Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd was still adamant that ‘it will not be possible for many years to come to allow African members to be elected by universal adult suffrage.’ Some sort of ‘qualified democracy’ was required, the Government declared, to prevent ‘backward tribes from being exploited by the more advanced, the illiterate peasant by the townsman, the real intelligentsia from being swamped by the demagogue’. A list of ten qualifications was drawn up, such as education, property, public service etc, any three of which would give one vote and more would give a bonus of up to a total of three votes.

Just eight African members were to be elected, but qualification requirements and the continuing restriction of political activity under the emergency regulations severely limited the size of the electorate. The registration of the Kikuyu, for example, was so restricted that the elections left the tribe which had first pressed for African enfranchisement unrepresented. Daniel arap Moi, representing a small pastoral Kalenjin-speaking community, won a seat (and has remained at the forefront of Kenyan politics ever since), but the African group of members was dominated by two charismatic Luo representatives – Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya. These two men were the stars of Kenyan politics until Kenyatta was released. Odinga (who once remarked that he was the only minister who had been officially certified sane – this was after successful treatment for epilepsy) was chosen as the first chairman of the African elected members. Mboya was elected secretary.

It was inevitable, once Africans had been elected to the Council, that there would be further pressure for increased representation – leading, ultimately, to independence. But when would that be granted? During a meeting in 1957, Lennox-Boyd told Mboya that he could foresee Kenya having an African Prime Minister in his (Mboya’s) lifetime; but since Mboya was only 27 at the time, the Colonial Secretary probably felt that there was plenty of time in hand. But of course there wasn’t. The pressure was increasing, the language becoming more strident. In a keynote speech made to the first All Africa Peoples Conference in Accra, Mboya mocked the 19th-century ‘scramble for Africa’ with a call on the colonial powers to ‘scram from Africa’.

Kyle’s trawl through the archives reveals that the British Government was determined (in 1959) to maintain ‘full ultimate control in all East African territories for fifteen or twenty years’. The Africans were simply not capable of governing themselves, it was believed, though in fact they were just a few years away from it. But since the question was not whether the Africans were ready for self-rule, but whether the people of Britain were ‘ready to spend the money, bear the sacrifice and accept the opprobrium of holding down people determined to be free’, the flow of meetings and discussion that Kyle pursues begins to show an acceptance of the inevitable – there is a discernible shift of concern from ‘are they ready?’ to ‘who will lead them?’

Mboya was seen by the British as the most able candidate – highly intelligent, fleet of speech and with a vision of how an independent Kenya should be constituted. On the other hand, even Mboya’s most enthusiastic advocates felt bound to draw attention to a very serious drawback – his ‘insufferable arrogance’. Malcolm MacDonald, the last Governor of Kenya, had the highest regard for Mboya but warned: ‘he offends all sorts of people whom he could otherwise easily command as supporters.’ He could entrance a public audience with his eloquence and wit, but the number of personal aides who joined the ranks of his enemies, Kyle remarks, was daunting.

Odinga was not an attractive proposition. He was a traditionalist, given to wearing a tribal uniform he had designed himself, and with a partly natural, partly cultivated manner of old-world courtesy combined with a tribal elder’s cussedness. Though a successful businessman, he was also pro-Communist and certainly not averse to accepting aid from the Soviet Bloc – which can hardly have endeared him to Kenya’s colonial masters.

It was perhaps in recognition of his own deficiencies – along with a desire to upset the rise of Mboya – that Odinga was the first to break the unspoken taboo that had prohibited any mention of Kenyatta and his political influence. During a Legco debate on the conditions in which political prisoners were being held, Odinga said: ‘These people before they were arrested were the political leaders of the Africans in the country ... and even at this moment, in the heart of hearts of Africans, they are still the political leaders.’ Uproar ensued. The debate was adjourned. But on its resumption Odinga returned undaunted to his theme: ‘I am giving you what you should know about our feelings ... and, before you realise that, you can never get the co-operation of the African people.’

‘The unsayable had been said,’ Kyle comments, and it rapidly became clear that politicians of all ethnic groups were united in the conviction that Kenyatta was Kenya’s leader-in-waiting. Mass meetings backed Odinga’s call with solemn affirmations of their confidence in Kenyatta’s leadership. Mboya at first distanced himself from Odinga’s position, but soon recanted. Meanwhile, Odinga became identified as leader of the campaign for Kenyatta’s release and return to the political scene – with the subtext of reducing Mboya to the ranks. At a meeting of the African members of the Legislative Council, Odinga argued that although each of them had pledged to resign their seat in Kenyatta’s favour, Mboya should be the one to go, since his Nairobi seat had the highest profile.

The mutual animosity that crippled the relationship between Mboya and Odinga during the final pre-Independence years (and thereafter) was aggravated by the irreconcilable political affiliations they cultivated abroad. While Odinga was actively looking to the Communist world for support and aid, Mboya was attracting the favourable attention and investments of the West. Indeed, much of their energy during 1960 was spent organising the selection, funding and despatch of students to their respective sides of the Iron Curtain. As Kyle points out, the fact that Mboya and Odinga were in the same party but on opposite sides of the Cold War meant that party discipline and solidarity were often breached by their attempts to undermine each other and their respective factions. Their animosity added nothing to their reputations and, if anything, served to enhance that of the leader-in-waiting.

Kenyatta was released on 14 August 1961 – in leather jacket and crumpled cords not exactly like a butterfly emerging pristine from the pupa, but certainly a figure whose incarceration had embellished his reputation. He was hesitant and imprecise at first, Kyle reports, feeling his way among politicians whom he scarcely knew. Meanwhile the British, whose attitude to Kenyatta remained negative – the Archbishop of Canterbury pointedly referred to him in the House of Lords in relation to ‘the African struggle between light and darkness, life and death’ – had become resigned to Kenyatta’s accession. As the Colonial Secretary Reginald Maudling gloomily pointed out, it could be avoided only by delaying Independence or granting it on condition that Kenyatta did not become Prime Minister. Neither option was practicable. ‘Kenyatta will become Prime Minister, whether we like it or not,’ Maudling concluded.

Kenyatta led the African delegation to the constitutional talks at Lancaster House in 1962 and little more than twelve months later led his Kenya African National Union Party to victory in the elections which ushered in Kenya’s first African majority Government.

It was feared that the Independence ceremony on 12 December would be marred by demonstrations. Kenyatta planned to tear down the Union Jack with his own hands, it was rumoured, and Mau Mau generals with dreadlocks, brandishing pangas and knives, would embarrass British dignitaries officiating at the ceremony. But things went more or less as planned (Kenyatta delivered an impromptu Swahili address after receiving the constitutional instruments instead of following the prepared English text and, at a critical point in the ceremony asked a British civil servant what came next. ‘The oath’, he was told.)

Kenyatta wasn’t suited to democracy. Appearing in public only on occasions of highly organised homage, and making a ceremony of his Parliamentary attendances, he ruled from the shadows. Constructive opposition and debate were inimical to his style. Odinga, the Vice-President and presumed heir, resigned under pressure from the Government and formed a radical opposition party called the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Thirty other Parliamentarians of all ethnic hues indicated their support for the move – but retaliation was swift. ‘Those who tried to play with the Government will be trampled on like mud,’ the President announced. Political finagling led to most of the new opposition members losing their seats. Daniel arap Moi became Vice-President. The KPU was banned. Kenya became a one-party state. And Tom Mboya was assassinated.