KENYA: Prominent Leader Series- Jomo Kenyatta

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First president of Kenya and prominent independence leader. Born into dominant Kikuyu culture, Kenyatta became its most famous interpreter of Kikuyu traditions through his book Facing Mount Kenya.

Date of Birth: Early 1890’s
Date of Death: 22 August 1978

In 1922, Kenyatta, born Kamau, adopted the name Jomo (a Kikuyu name meaning ‘burning spear’) Kenyatta, and began the start of his political career — the previous year Harry Thuku, a well educated and respected Kikuyu, had formed the East African Association, EAA, to campaign for the return of Kikuyu lands given over to white settlers when the country became the British Crown Colony of Kenya in 1920. Kenyatta joined the EAA in 1922.

In 1925 the EAA disbanded under governmental pressure, but its members came together again as the Kikuyu Central Association, KCA. Kenyatta worked as editor of the KCA’s journal between 1924 and 1929, and by 1928 he had become the KCA’s general secretary. In May 1928 Kenyatta launched a monthly Kikuyu-language newspaper which was intended to draw all sections of the Kikuyu together. 

The Territory’s Future in Question
Worried about the future of its East African territories, the British government began toying with the idea of forming a union of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. This would be disastrous to Kikuyu interests — it was believed that the settlers would be given self-government, and that the rights of the Kikuyu would be ignored. In February 1929 Kenyatta was dispatched to London to represent the KCA in discussions with the Colonial Office, but the Secretary of State for the Colonies refused to meet him. Undeterred, Kenyatta wrote several letters to British papers, including The Times.

Kenyatta’s letter published in The Times in March 1930 set out five points:

  • The security of land tenure and the demand for land taken by European settlers to be returned
  • Improved educational opportunities for Black Africans
  • The repeal of Hut and poll taxes
  • Representation for Black Africans in the Legislative Council
  • Freedom to pursue traditional customs (such as female genital mutilation)

His letter concluded by saying that a failure to satisfy these points “must inevitably result in a dangerous explosion — the one thing all sane men with to avoid“.

In 1934 Kenyatta began his studies at University College, London, working on Arthur Ruffell Barlow’s English-Kikuyu Dictionary. The following year he transferred to the London School of Economics, to study social anthropology under the renown Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was a significant influence in Kenyatta’s life — as world leading ethnographer, and the creator of the social anthropological field known as functionalism (that a culture’s ceremonies and rituals have a logic and function within the culture), Malinowski steered Kenyatta in his thesis on Kikuyu culture and tradition. Kenyatta published a revised version of his thesis as Facing Mount Kenya in 1938.

 Kenyatta became involved with a group of anti-colonial and African nationalists from around the African continent and the Diaspora. Dr Hastings Banda, the future president of Malawi, was stranded in London by World War II, and his house became a regular meeting place for Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), novelist Peter Abrahams (South African), journalist Isaac Wallace-Johnson (Sierra Leone), Harry Mawaanga Nkubula (Northern Rhodesia), as well as George Padmore and CLR James from the Caribbean. Together they formed the Pan-African Federation.

Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1946, He was invited to lead the newly formed Kenya African Union, KAU, of which he became president in 1947. Over the next few years Kenyatta traveled around Kenya giving lectures and campaigning for independence. 

Mau Mau Rebellion
The Kenyan Crown Colony was still dominated by white settler interests, and the dangerous explosion he had predicted in The Times in 1930 became a reality — the Mau Mau Rebellion. Seen as a subversive from his call for independence and support for nationalism, Kenyatta was implicated in the Mau Mau movement by the British authorities, and on 21 October 1952 he was arrested.

The trial achieved worldwide publicity. Kenyatta was sentenced to seven-years hard labor for “managing the Mau Mau terrorist organization“. 

The Path to the Presidency

Kenyatta’s 15 year stay away from Kenya had proved beneficial — he was seen by much of the Black population of Kenya as the one person who was free from the ethnic bias and factional infighting of the new political parties. Mboya and Odinga arranged for his election as president of KANU in absentia (he was still under house arrest) and campaigned for his release. On 21 August 1961 Kenyatta was finally released, on the condition that he didn’t run for public office.

Independence for Kenya
In 1962 Kenyatta went to the Lancaster Conference in London to negotiate the terms of Kenya’s independence. When independence was achieved on 12 December that year, Kenyatta was prime minister. Exactly one year later, with the proclamation of a republic, Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president.

Increasingly Autocratic Approach

Kenyatta rejected calls by African socialists to nationalize property, following a pro-Western, capitalist approach instead. Amongst those alienated by his policies was his first vice-president Oginga Odinga. But Odinga, and the rest, soon discovered that under Kenyatta’s smooth façade was a politician of stern resolve. He brooked no opposition, and over the years several of his critics died under mysterious circumstances, and a few of his political opponents were arrested and detained without trial. 

By 1974, Kenyatta won a third presidential term (he was, however, the only candidate). But the cracks were starting to appear. Kenyatta’s family and political friends had gained considerable wealth at the expense of the average Kenyan. And the Kikuyu were openly acting as an elite, especially a small clique known as the Kiambu Mafia who had greatly benefited for land redistribution in the early days of Kenyatta’s presidency.

Kenyatta’s Legacy

Jomo Kenyatta died in his sleep on 22 August 1978. Kenyatta’s legacy, corruption not withstanding, was a country which had been stable both politically and economically. Kenyatta had also maintained a friendly relationship with the West, despite his treatment by the British as a suspected Mau Mau leader.



One thought on “KENYA: Prominent Leader Series- Jomo Kenyatta

  1. Pingback: | Kenyatta Trial Doomed Unless Kenya Helps | Wochit

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