By Prof. John Harbeson
The 60th birthday of Kenya’s independence this December is a time for celebration and remembrance of all Kenyans have achieved, not yet realised, suffered and endured, and had aspirations sustained and still upheld. These outcomes have been variably recognised and reported over the decades. At the same time, they have been composites of the stories of legions of individual Kenyan citizens and their communities, organisations, enterprises and movements. No book could do more than sample all those stories. I suggest, however, that in honouring Kenyan independence, it would be appropriate to recognise and recount at least some of those stories behind the stories that have had their ephemeral albeit still important moments of salience.
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A story I recall concerns a significant part of the overall saga of land and politics in the modern history of Kenya. From the mid-1950s to the mid to late 1960s, crucial developments affecting the interface between land policy and Kenya’s path to independence had lasting, if, by now, less salient, impacts on forming the newly independent Kenya state. In retrospect, especially at the time, sun-setting colonial rule uniquely and significantly pre-empted the leaders of Kenya’s independence movement from defining how they would build that independent state. This was the case notwithstanding both positive and problematic outcomes from some of those pre-empted decisions and the possibility that Kenya’s leaders might have made some of the same choices had they had the opportunity to make them on their own. To the extent of the colonial state, patterns continued well into the independence era rather than yielding to considered alternative African visions, as the literature suggests was largely the case; this Kenya story helps to document how and why that happened.
The British government actively encouraged Europeans from the colony’s earliest days to take up farming in Kenya, including a fresh wave of settlers following World War II, to help pay for the expense of its maintenance. The resulting displacement of African farmers and the undermining, especially of Kikuyu land tenure rules that implied expansion of its communities, framed Kenya nationalists’ enduring clarion call for the return of “stolen lands.” Britain’s preference for indirect rule through existing African institutions rather than replacing them while enforcing exclusive ethnically defined rural enclaves ignored the conflict, insecurity, and inequality its rule provoked. Thus, Britain let African communities sort out these circumstances for themselves before World War II. After the War, however, Britain turned to support colonial development and welfare, but not in time to prevent the Kenya Emergency, aka Mau Mau, understood as a civil war between African haves and have-nots provoked by pre-World War policies. British government troops quelled the war but also committed gross human rights abuses for which there has never been a full accounting.
During the Emergency, the colonial administration sought to pre-empt planning for an independent Kenyan state, which leaders of the nationalist movement would otherwise have led. As the Emergency gradually receded, the colonial administration initiated a multiracial alternative post-independence state model in which relatively moderate European settlers would have governed jointly with Africans. To anchor that alternative, the colonial administration initiated a land consolidation and registration program in the Kikuyu rural enclave, from which the Emergency had mostly erupted, under which African farmers acquired individual legal tenure to their consolidated holdings, supported with development grants. The ultimate hypothesis was that the program would enfranchise a propertied rural sector in which European and African farmers would share economic and political interests as opposed to those the nationalists were believed to hold.
In his penetrating study, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Mahmood Mamdani credited colonial administrations with some success in de-racializing colonies before their departure but faulted them for also failing to terminate ethnic enclaves to promote pan-ethnic citizenries as foundations for future stable, independent states. Kenya’s land consolidation and registration program represented both an exception and a confirmation of Mamdani’s thesis with results that both did and did not prepare adequately for an independent Kenyan state. On the one hand, the program jump-started Kenyan rural development, significantly boosting Kenya’s economy to a nearer-than-most-middle-income status in the early years of independence. On the other hand, because the program was implemented unequally across ethnic communities, it exacerbated inequalities that fueled later conflict. Thus, it did less than it might have to promote a common pan-ethnic political citizenry and one with shared economic interests as a foundation for the future Kenyan independent state.
This program remained a focus of Kenya’s government policy well into the independence era from 1963 on. With the Emergency concluded by 1960, Britain again preempted nationalist leaders’ planning by mandating that independence occur within three years before they had adequate time to regroup after the Emergency.
— Prof Harbeson is a professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University