The British went first to Uganda, using Indian laborers to build a Mombassa-to-Kampala railway for easier movement of natural resources. The British then turned to Kenya, establishing white-owned plantations on former African tribal lands, although only 7 percent of Kenya's land was arable. By 1915, the British owned most of the good land, while the natives were segregated on the largely unusable holdings. The maldistribution of land continues to this day, exacerbating Kenya's intractable unemployment problems.
In the 1920s the economic difficulties of African Kenyans led to the formation of nationalist organizations. Jomo Kenyatta went to England in 1929 to begin negotiating independence on behalf of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Service in the military during World War II enhanced Kenyan conscripts' political awareness. As a result, in 1944 African Kenyans received the limited right to political participation. Soon after the war, however, guerrilla groups formed, bent on expelling the whites and eliminating all vestiges of colonial rule. The most significant of these was the Mau Mau, who took an oath to forcefully expel British occupiers and eliminate Africans who cooperated with or benefited from colonialism.
The British colonial government declared a state of emergency on 19 October 1952 and arrested Kenyatta, Achieng Oneko, and other nationalists the next day. In response, the Mau Mau uprising began. During the rebellion, 13,423 Africans were killed, with thousands more wounded. Only a few dozen Asians and Europeans died. The African casualty rates were so high because the British employed a Home Guard composed of Kamba and Kalenjin tribesmen against the Mau Mau, who were mostly Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Mau Mau fought a vicious guerrilla war from the shelter of the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains, slowly gathering support from other tribes. From prison, Kikuyu leader Kenyatta wrote letters that advanced Kenyan nationalism and evoked world sympathy.
Harsh conditions in detention camps also led to many deaths. Among the detainees were leaders of the Kenya African Union (KAU), the organization that replaced the KCA. British-led forces finally killed Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, and with the movement now in disarray, the British prevailed in 1956.
Although the rebellion failed, it greatly alarmed both the white settlers and the administration, which declared a state of emergency, allowed African access to farmlands, and attempted to create an African middle class. Direct elections to the Legislative Council began in 1957. The British lifted the state of emergency in 1960 and held a conference with African leaders concerning the country's future. One agreement guaranteed that the Africans would have a voice in their government.
The KAU became the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) under Kenyatta, who had been released from prison in 1961. In a contest with the minority Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), which represented a coalition of small tribes who feared domination by the larger tribes, the KANU won the elections in 1963, the same year that Kenya became an independent state, with Kenyatta as its president. In 1964, KADU became part of KANU.
Opposition to Kenyatta's rule came from the Left in 1966, with the formation of the Kenya People's Union (KPU) under the Luo elder Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former Kenya vice president. When a visit by Kenyatta to Nyanza Province caused political unrest, he banned the KPU and detained Odinga until he agreed to join KANU, which became the single lawful political party in Kenya after opposition parties were outlawed in 1969. Assassinated opposition leaders included Tom Mboya in 1969 and Kariuki in 1975. Rioting after the assassinations led to government crackdowns.
When Kenyatta died in August 1978, Vice President Daniel Arap Moi became interim president. He was subsequently elected head of KANU and then president that October. Moi's rule was autocratic and repressive. When air force officers attempted a coup in 1982, Moi broke up the air force and established a new one, and Kenya became a one-party state. Faced with growing dissent and the threat of a breakaway second party, Moi modified the constitution to specify a single party, formalizing Kenyatta's prohibition. In 1990 the foreign minister, Robert Ouko, was assassinated after he threatened to name corrupt ministers. Because of its corruption and repression, the World Bank and other international donors withheld foreign aid.
After the one-party provision of the constitution was repealed in 1991, multiparty elections took place in December 1992. Although Moi won another five-year term and KANU held parliament, the opposition garnered 45 percent of the vote. Reforms in 1997 expanded the number of parties from eleven to twenty-six, but Moi won yet another term, while his party held on to a narrow majority.
Although Moi improved relations with neighboring Somalia and Tanzania, Kenya failed to prosper economically. Kenya experienced negative economic growth in the early 1990s, an upswing during 1995–1996, then renewed sluggishness despite economic liberalization and assistance from international sources such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Under Moi, Kenya's government was unstable, reform was intermittent, infrastructure was inefficient, and social problems included violence, high birthrates, and an AIDS epidemic.
John H. Barnhill
Mwakikagile, Geoffrey. Ethnic Politics in Kenya and Nigeria. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science, 2001.; Pateman, Robert. Kenya. New York: Benchmark, 2004.; Widner, Jennifer A. The Rise of a Party-state in Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.