(Supported by a Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities)
Kenya Tanzania  Uganda Burundi  Rwanda

Kenya -- History

Kenya contains sites of fossil finds that are significant to the study of man's evolution, early development and history. In the western part of the country, deposits have been found dating back over 20 million years. These have yielded remains of anthropoid creatures that some archaeologists have conjectured may play a critical role in human ancestry. The western region has also yielded other primate fossils dating back about 12 to 14 million years from a creature believed to have direct connection to the hominid family. From the Lake Rudolf area, 2.6 million years old fossils provide evidence that an extinct australopithecine branch of man inhabited Kenya during this period. Other bones uncovered in the late 1960s and early 1970s have been tentatively attributed to the genus Homo, from which modern man descends. Less is known about how long the present species of man has inhabited Kenya. Scattered remains from what may be a stone industry have been uncovered dating to about 16,000 B.C., but extensive evidence of the emergence of modern man bears a considerably later date.

Archaeological evidence indicates that people have occupied the area's lake-shores continuously from about 8,000 B.C. These people represent part of a geographically wide-spread culture that gained its food primarily by fishing and gathering aquatic animals and plants. At about the third millennium B.C., new peoples arrived in the Rift Valley and the Kenya Highlands; their skeletal remains are similar to those of Cushitic-speaking peoples who now inhabit the regions on the Horn of Africa. The newcomers apparently coexisted, at least initially, with the inhabitants living near the lakes. Skeletal finds also indicate that a third human group also inhabited the area of modern Kenya at about the same time. In addition to these peoples, Nilo-Saharan groups presumably lived in the Rift Valley and around Lake Victoria. Such communities may have been absorbed by the Cushitic peoples. Other hunters and gatherers are likely to have been the principal inhabitants of the forested parts of the Kenya Highlands and the wooded grasslands at lower elevations. In the first millennium A.D., new groups arrived who possessed some knowledge of agriculture and iron working. They are believed to be Bantu language speakers from the south and southwest.[1]

Two waves of Bantu migrants moving in a southward direction began arriving in Kenya 2,000 years ago, bringing with them techniques now associated with the Iron Age. The largest of these groups in Kenya today are the Kikuyu and the Kamba. Some of the coastal peoples, among them the Digo, Giriama and Pokomo, have affinities with the Bantu. Cushitic, Nilo-Hamatic and other peoples also settled in the region. The Nilotic peoples are also thought to have moved to this area from Sudan, and to have given rise to the Luo, among others. The largest Nilo-Hamatic group today are the Kalenjin. Ancient Greek accounts record visits by Greek merchants and sailors to the Kenyan coast during the 4th century AD. Roman coins from that period have been found in the country, though the means of their arrival is unknown. Arab, Persian, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese traders followed. Large Arab settlements were soon established, especially in Mombasa and Malindi. The intermingling of Arabs and indigenous inhabitants formed the Swahili culture and language. During the early period of recorded history, slaves and ivory were the main items of trade.

Early in the 16th century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama stopped at Mombasa on his way to India. The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in Mombasa in 1593; this soon became the headquarters of Portuguese officials and the main port of call for Portuguese vessels, but the fort was captured by Omani Arabs in 1698. In the 18th century, the Arabs made several attempts to penetrate the interior of the region in efforts to take over control of the slave trade then dominated by the Kamba. These attempts were repelled; only in the beginning of the 19th century were the Arabs able to take over the internal slave trade. One consequence of the Arab incursion was the consolidation of the politics of the Luo and the Luhya. When Europeans began to penetrate the area in the 19th century, the coastal areas were ruled by the Sultan of Zanzibar.[2]

The first Europeans to reach the interior of the area were the Reverend Johann Krapf and the Reverend Johannes Rebmann, both agents of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). In 1849 Krapf reached Mount Kenya. In 1883 the British traveler Joseph Thompson became the first European to traverse Maasai territory. Britain and Germany competed for control of Maasailand, leading to their 1890 agreement to divide the hinterland between them. Under the agreement, Britain took possession of the area north of the mouth of the Umba river, which is now located in modern Kenya and Uganda. The British Government gave the administration of the area to the Imperial British East Africa Company, which had been granted a royal charter to operate in East Africa. The administration of the country was taken over by the British Foreign Office in July, 1885, when it was declared a British protectorate. The protectorate was administered from Zanzibar, the residence of the first Commissioner, Sir Arthur Harding. From the beginning, the indigenous peoples strongly resisted the imposition of foreign rule. In particular, the Nandi in the interior of the country were distinguished resisters of the empire's incursion. A series of British military expeditions in 1896, 1897 and 1905 eventually forced the Nandi to capitulate, with great loss of life on the Nandi side. British rule led to far-reaching social and economic changes. Since East Africa attracted many British immigrants, Kenya had a substantial British community until independence. As mentioned earlier, the Highlands were largely owned by British farmers.

When European employers attempted to cut the wages of their indigenous employees in 1921, workers staged mass protests and demonstrations. A workers' meeting held in a Nairobi suburb condemned the wage cuts and the refusal on the part of European estate and factory owners to provide housing, food and medical services. This meeting gave rise to the Young Kikuyu Association, Kenya's first all-African political organization. This association soon formed branches in many parts of the country to protest the allocation of most of the colony's fertile land to Europeans. In March, 1922, Harry Thuku, leader of the Association, was arrested and subsequently deported for several years. The Association intensified its campaign against land alienation, and against tax and labor laws. In 1923 the British government announced that "the interests of the African natives" would forthwith be under their control. In 1925 local councils were organized to assist the colonial power in governing Africans; these councils operated through chiefs who, among the Kikuyu, had little or no traditional standing. In 1928, the Young Kikuyu Association was reorganized under the name of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA); Johnstone Kamau Ngengi (Jomo Kenyatta) was elected General Secretary. In 1929-1931 Kenyatta was sent twice to Great Britain in an unsuccessful effort to voice KCA views and African grievances before a parliamentary committee on the union of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. Kenyatta was obliged to remain away from Kenya until 1946. During the 1930s the KCA became the voice of an emerging Kikuyu consciousness until it was officially banned in 1940. In the late 1930s the Kamba and Taita formed associations of their own that were similarly designed to serve tribal aims.

Kenya's first genuine African nationalist organization, the Kenya African Union (KAU), was established in 1944. The Union promptly demanded access to the highlands, which were then largely owned by white settlers. In late 1946 Kenyatta returned to Kenya as the unrivaled leader of nationalist movement; in mid-1947 he was elected to the presidency of the KAU. It was Kenyatta's ambition to bring together the country's disparate political bodies into the KAU. To achieve this goal, Kenyatta proposed that the ethnic character of KAU leadership be broadened. In 1950, a leader of the Luo (the second largest ethnic group), Oginga Odinga, joined the KAU in 1950. By 1951 the KAU could count about 150,000 members throughout Kenya. It soon became the primary catalyst in a mass movement that led ultimately to political supremacy in little more than a decade. The Mau Mau, a secret society largely composed of Kikuyu, initiated a campaign of terror against highland settlers between 1952 and 1956. The campaign also resulted, however, in thousands of African causalities when Kikuyu factions turned on one another. In reprisal for these activities, the KAU was banned in 1953 by the British who imprisoned Kenyatta. The Mau Mau arose out of a complex set of political, social and economic circumstances. At the heart of Kikuyu grievances was the recovery of their land that was taken over by settlers. From the beginning of the century, white settlers had appropriated land for their plantations. Although the Masai lost more land than the Kikuyu, Kikuyu traditional life placed a high value on land ownership. A complex system of land ownership existed among the Kikuyu that white settlers ignored. The Mau Mau thorugh violence tried to achieve some of the same goals as the KAU, primarily land tenure security, representation in government and better wages and working conditions. Many Kikuyu were repatriated into reservations, and some escaped into the forest to avoid this. It was from these men that the Mau Mau recruited its fighters. Oath taking became an important component of Mau Mau participation. Oaths were a cultural tool that built solidarity and bound the Kikuyu men, women and children to oppose the colonial government. On October 7, 1952, the Mau Mau assassinated Senior Chief Warihiu. The British then declared martial law which led to the interrogation and detention of thousands of Kikuyu. The Mau Mau was composed of urban workers, peasants, the unemployed, World War II veterans, laborers, and unionists. They were supported by civilian noncombatants who supplied them food, medicine, arms and intelligence. From the protection of the forest, the Mau Mau trained and launched guerrilla attacks against colonial post offices, police stations, European settlements and farms as well as punishing Africans who supported the colonial government

Despite these efforts to control African political activity, wider African representation quickly followed. In 1957 African members were elected to the Legislative Council through a restricted franchise. A Luo trade unionist, Tom M'boya, together with other Africans promoted to ministerial posts, refused to assume official responsibilities. A constitutional conference was held in London in January and February, 1960, that led to a transitional constitution legalizing political parties and giving Africans a comfortable majority on the Legislative Council. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was subsequently inaugurated, adopting a firm stance on land resettlement in the highlands. M'boya and James Gichuru became the leaders of KANU because Kenyatta remained in detention. Other African politicians, who were wary of Kikuyu-Luo domination, favored a more federalist government; to this end, they formed the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). When Kenyatta was released in August 1961, he formed an all-party government and accepted the KANU presidency. At the Legislative election in May, 1963, KANU triumphed, and Kenyatta was elected prime minister. Independence was formally declared in December, 1963.

Kenya became a republic in December 1964, with Kenyatta as its first president. The entire KADU membership had earlier defected to KANU, rendering Kenya a de facto one-party state. This ostensible unity did not, however, make for harmony. Odinga resigned from the vice-presidency to form the Kenya People's Union (KPU) in 1966. Although Kenya's government had not yet recognized the KPU as a registered political party, the speaker of the House of Representatives saw it as an opposition party and sought to amend the constitution to require a person elected to the assembly in one party to resign his seat in order to switch to another. The amendment passed easily with the aid of repentant KPU members, who were subsequently informed that they would be ineligible to become KANU members and whose KPU seats were declared vacant. By-elections to fill these seats were scheduled for June 1966. In 1969 M'boya, then the KANU secretary-general, was assassinated by a Kikuyu in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained. The Luo population saw his death as an ethnic affront and as an attempt to intimidate it politically. Luo-Kikuyu enmity escalated rapidly over the next few months, reaching a point in October, 1969, when the KPU was banned, and its principal leaders, including Odinga and seven other party representatives, were detained. The banning of the KPU in effect brought a return to the single-party system. Elections in December, 1969, saw the defeat of many KANU elder statesmen, a process of renewal that continued until the early 1980s. Kenyatta was elected unopposed to a third presidential term in September, 1974. Kenyatta died in August, 1978, at the age of 82, and was replaced by Vice President Daniel Arap Moi. In November, 1979, Moi won national elections running as the sole candidate. [3]

In June, 1982, Kenya's National Assembly declared KANU the sole legal party. Press censorship and political detentions increased, and led to an attempted coup in August, 1982, by the Kenyan Air Force. Odinga was linked to the coup attempt and placed under house arrest. Tensions continued unabated into the following year when the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Charles Njono, was accused by Moi of seeking the presidency through foreign intervention. Njono was forced to resign his seat in June, 1983. In September, with only 48% of the electorate casting ballots, Moi was re-elected for a second term, unopposed. The following several years saw increased dissent. Student unrest and pamphleteering led to the closing of the University of Nairobi. The government felt threatened by the rise of a left-wing opposition group, Mwakenya (Swahili for Union of Nationalists to Liberate Kenya). Many parliament members were arrested beginning in March, 1986, and accused of being connected with Mwakenya. The right to a secret ballot was overturned in 1986 and replaced by "line-up" voting in preliminary elections. Presidential power was further strengthened in December, 1986, when parliament passed a constitutional amendment that increased the president's power over the civil service and the judiciary that extended to the power to dismiss the Attorney General without recourse. Anticipating problems in the national elections of March, 1988, Moi dissolved the National Assembly in February, and released 10 political prisoners. In February, 1988, Moi dismissed preliminary public elections and was summarily re-elected president. When these elections were contested by Mwakenya and NCCK, a NCCK publication was banned and its editor jailed for nine months. The Minister of Transportation and Communication was forced to resign and was expelled from the KANU for openly criticizing election abuses. Constitutional amendments were promulgated in July, 1988 that made it possible for the president to dismiss senior judges. In addition, the legal authority to detain without trial was increased from 24 hours to 14 days.

Opposition to Moi's one-party rule grew during 1990.[4] In July, 1990, Charles Rubia, Matiba and Raila Odinga, son of the former Vice President, were arrested and detained without trial when their public "pro-democracy" rallies were banned. Their arrest was protested at home and abroad, and riots spread in the central province. Though a KANU Delegates' Conference in December voted to keep the one-party system, a government-sponsored national dialogue was set in motion with the goal of facilitating broader democracy in spite of one-party rule. Despite these mollifying gestures, public discontent with the government and KANU increased. In August, 1990, Oginga Odinga and six prominent opposition leaders, formed the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD) with extensive multi-ethnic support. The new movement immediately gained the public's support and its popularity soared.

Under this intense pressure, President Moi finally relented at a special KANU conference on December 3, 1991 to demands for a multi-party state. KANU voted to allow only one of its candidates to run for any given seat, that candidate to be chosen by secret ballot. The National Assembly promptly amended the constitution to allow for multi-party elections. By the beginning of 1992, two clear opposition parties had emerged: Mwai Kibaki's Democratic Party and Odinga's FORD. Several smaller parties were also registered, including the Social Democratic Party, the Kenya National Democratic Alliance, the People's Union of Justice and New Order and Islamic Party of Kenya.

Kenya's political history saw several critical changes in 1992. The FORD party staged the country's first legal opposition rally in 22 years. Civil unrest broke out near the tea-growing areas of Molo in the west central region. Kalenjin warriors armed with spears, bows and arrows attacked Kisii tea farmers, disrupting tea production. Outbreaks of violence continued to mount over the following two years, seeming to confirm the government's predictions that multi-party politics would exacerbate ethnic tension and eventually splinter the country along tribal lines. Opposition parties claimed that the government had itself incited the violence, which left an estimated 2,300 people dead and 25,000 displaced. In March women protesters were attacked by police with tear gas and batons during a hunger strike in Nairobi `s Uhuru Park that had been aimed at liberating political prisoners. Other demonstrations took place in Kisumu, Odinga's stronghold, and the western town of Homa Bay. New protests erupted in Nairobi where demonstrators led disruptions for two days, stoning cars and smashing windows. This civil unrest came at a time when the government was also dealing with the repercussions of the wars in Somalia and southern Sudan.

KANU seemed to take the opposition challenge seriously, particularly the challenge from FORD-Kenya. When multi-party elections for the presidency and the National Assembly were held on December 29, 1992, Moi retained his place in Kenyan politics with 36.35% of the presidential election votes, while Kenneth Matiba took 26%, Mwai Kibaki 19.45%, and Oginga Odinga 17.48%. The opposition protested the elections, calling them invalid on the grounds of gross procedural irregularities. Despite these efforts, President Moi was sworn in on January 4, 1993, for another five-year term.

[1] Kaplan, Irving & 1976. Area Handbook for Kenya, Second Ed., U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. pp. 11-15.

[2] Uwechue, Raph (ed.) 1996. Africa Today, Third Edition, Africa Books Limited, p.854.

[3] The Economist Intelligence Unit, 1998, Country Profile. Kenya, The Unit: London.

[4] Kurian, George Thomas 1992. Encyclopedia of the Third World, fourth edition, volume III, Facts on File: New York, N.Y., pp. 971-972.

For Further Reading:
Allen, James de vere. Swahili Origins. London, 1993
Edgerton, Robert. Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York, 1989.
Ferundi, Frank. The Mau Mau War in Perpective. London, 1989.
Glassman, Jonothan. 1994. Feasts and Riot: Revelry, Rebellion, and Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856-1888. Edited by A. I. a. J. Hay, Social History of Africa. Portsmouth, Hew Hampshire: Heinemann.
Haugerud, Angelique. The Culture of Politics in Modern Kenya. Cambridge, 1995.
Kanogo, Tabitha. Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau,1905-63. London, 1987.
Ogot, Bethwell, ed. Kenya before 1900. Nairobi, 1976.
Widner, Jennifer A. 1992. The Rise of a Party-State in Kenya: From "Harambee!" to "Nyayo!". Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Disclaimer