Wednesday, March 25, 2015


When Kenya became independent in 1963, its first President, the former liberation leader (former terrorist; the status changes once you take power, though in his case the description was always as fraudulent as his son's later election victory) Jomo Kenyatta was hailed as the Nelson Mandela of his day, and words like Mau-Mau quickly disappeared from the news broadcasts, replaced by Uhuru ("freedom"), and the rose-coloured hope that a new era in Africa was beginning.

Kenyatta was not his name of course; he was born Johnstone Kamau Ngengi, in Ichaweri in what was then British East Africa, in 1894, but took the nom de guerre as a statement of intention and conviction, naming himself for the future country that he planned to lead, though actually a "kenya" is the Kikuyu word for "a beaded belt", a "mucibi wa kinyata" in the Kikuyu language, though actually Kenya is named for Mount Kenya, its highest mountain, though actually it isn't named Mount Kenya at all, but Mount Kirinyaga, and there are several other stories around the name as well, including the one about the German explorer Johann Krapf whose guide was Kamba not Kikuyu and so called the mountain Klinyaa, which means "a gourd", though actually the guide misunderstood what Krapf was pointing at, and really did mean the gourd, though actually...the tales go on and on, and end eventually, with Jomo (which means "burning spear") Kenyatta doing what no European Christian had ever believed an African could do, which was disproving the "noble savage" theory, and telling the Christian Europeans in their own language to get out of his country.

How did he manage this act of historical implausibility? The question is important, because its answer provided a model for the breaking of colonial and imperial power, and because the failure to continue with the model has proven disastrous in post-colonial and post-imperial Africa: he did it by employing the theories of the western powers against them, which is to say he did it by using properly the institutions of democracy.

As General Secretary of the Young Kikuyu Association, and as the founder of the first newspaper produced exclusively by and for Africans, he agreed to testify before the Hilton-Young Commission, which had been sent to East Africa to investigate the possibility of federating Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda as a single British East African Territories, making the case that the British had no rights over these lands; and then travelled to England, hoping to testify again there - but was refused. Taking full advantage of finding himself in Europe, he attended the conference of the International Trade Union of Negro Workers in Hamburg, spent some time in Berlin, and several weeks in the Soviet Union, which latter should not be forgotten in the wake of independence.

Back in Kenya in 1930 he persuaded the British, in spite of opposition by the Christian missionaries, to yield control of Kikuyu schools to the Kikuyu themselves - taking away thereby the key method of control through intellectual conditioning by which all power-groups perpetuate their authority. The following year he was granted the permission he had previously been refused, and returned to England to testify before the Parliamentary Commission on the 
British East African Territories; he stayed in England for the next fifteen years, married an English woman, studied at the London School of Economics, and published "Facing Mount Kenya" in 1938, a set of seminar papers for a course on anthropology in which he did what no African, nor any European writing about Africa, had ever done before: he described and explained the culture of his own people, without apology, asserting the right of Africans to speak for themselves, examining his cultural heritage with pride. It was soundbited by his critics as "cultural nationalism", 
and meant derogatorily, but the very label gave it stature, because his "cultural nationalism" was really no different from theirs, and no one was going to complain about a Frenchman who presented French culture with respect and esteem, nor an Englishman doing the same about England. 

Kenyatta spent the war years physically on a farm in southern England, but intellectually he never left Africa. With Kwame Nkrumah (later the first President of Ghana) and George Padmore (Trinidadian journalist and a man well worth the trouble of a google-search; though I can save you that trouble if you click here to June 28th in my "Book Of Days" blog), he founded the Pan African Federation and organized the fifth Pan African Congress at Manchester in March 1945, with the theme "Africa for the Africans." He finally went home in 1947, where he was appointed as the head of the independent Teachers' Training College at Githanguri, and President of the Kenya African Union.

Democratic methods at every point, making the case and using the accepted institutions to do so; Ghandhi was doing much the same in India, and though the British did not like this onslaught against their "imperial rights", there was little they could do to prevent it, because it never stepped outside the law. Would independence have been achieved this way? Probably, eventually, but it would have taken time. This was Gandhi's paradox as well, and it too serves as a model for the trials and tribulations of much of the Third World today. By the early 1950s, inspired by the work of men like Kenyatta, those who lacked his patience had taken up arms against the British, forming the Mau-Mau among other paramilitary organisations, undertaking "terrorist" activities, and leaving the British little choice but to declare a state of emergency and arrest all the leaders, Kenyatta amongst them. In what was little more than the farce of a show-trial, Kenyatta was falsely accused, and found guilty, of leading the Mau-Mau, and sentenced to seven years hard labour.

With hindsight, we can see that this trial marked the end of British rule, precisely because the Great Democracy had resorted to undemocratic methods to thwart the legitimate democratic aspirations of those who were employing the methods of democracy rather more fastidiously than themselves - that sentence is complex, I know, but it summarises the principal failure of politics throughout the world and throughout history. And the British clearly understood it, because over the next several years,
in 1954, 1957, and again in 1960, desperately trying to reinstate faith in their democratic virtues, they rewrote and rewrote the Kenyan Constitution, and on each occasion conceded more and still more autonomy to the ever-growing demand for even more, until independence became inevitable, and the demand by the Kenyans that Kenyatta be released to lead them likewise. He was let out of prison in 1959, but restricted to house arrest for two years in the Northern Frontier District town of Lodwar, a last attempt to show who had the power, though it was fatuous. In March 1960 the Kenya African National Union was formed and elected Kenyatta as its President in absentia. On August 14, 1961, after nine years of detention, Kenyatta assumed the presidency of the Kenya African National Union party, won a seat in the Kenyan Legislative Assembly the following year, served as minister of state for constitutional affairs and economic planning in the first coalition government, and won the 1963 elections by a landslide. Kenya became formally independent on December 12th, 1963, the 34th African state to break free of European colonialism and imperialism. Democracy, not terrorism, had won.

Democracy in Kenya, 2007/8

But alas only temporarily. Today, Kenyatta’s son Uhuru is in power, when he is not refusing to attend a human rights tribunal in The Hague, for his part in the multitudinous deaths that followed the rigged election that brought him to power – not that the man he defeated was any better. The transition to autocracy was in fact led by his father, who turned out not to be a saint after all; it was he who established single-party rule, and his successor in 1969, Daniel Arap Moi, who consolidated it, by making KANU – the Kenya African National Union – the only legal party. Confident of continuing victory, other parties were reinstated in the 1990s, and the country was opened to “free and fair elections” in 2002, and amazingly Uhuru Kenyatta lost, which began what has been effectively a civil war ever since, between KANU and NARC, the National Rainbow Coalition, including the armed conflict after the 2007 elections which are now the subject of discussion in The Hague; Kenyatta is the first serving President to be called, and to attend, a war crimes trial, although, of course, the court, which is a tool of white imperialism, is biased against Africa, as Kenyatta has repeatedly proclaimed.

Marks For: 12,000 (the number of Mau-Mau killed by the British).

Marks Against: 6,173,433 (the number of votes, representing 50.51% of the total votes cast, by which Uhuru Kenyatta prevented Raila Odinga from gaining the Presidency in 2013; independent observers placed both men's total votes at around 16% lower than the final tally)

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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