Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011

Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011

by Daniel Branch

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On December 12, 1963, people across Kenya joyfully celebrated independence from British colonial rule, anticipating a bright future of prosperity and social justice. As the nation approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, however, the people's dream remains elusive. During its first five decades Kenya has experienced assassinations, riots, coup


On December 12, 1963, people across Kenya joyfully celebrated independence from British colonial rule, anticipating a bright future of prosperity and social justice. As the nation approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, however, the people's dream remains elusive. During its first five decades Kenya has experienced assassinations, riots, coup attempts, ethnic violence, and political corruption. The ranks of the disaffected, the unemployed, and the poor have multiplied. In this authoritative and insightful account of Kenya's history from 1963 to the present day, Daniel Branch sheds new light on the nation's struggles and the complicated causes behind them.

Branch describes how Kenya constructed itself as a state and how ethnicity has proved a powerful force in national politics from the start, as have disorder and violence. He explores such divisive political issues as the needs of the landless poor, international relations with Britain and with the Cold War superpowers, and the direction of economic development. Tracing an escalation of government corruption over time, the author brings his discussion to the present, paying particular attention to the rigged election of 2007, the subsequent compromise government, and Kenya's prospects as a still-evolving independent state.

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Copyright © 2011 Daniel Branch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14876-3

Chapter One


The tree of Uhuru planted by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and watered by blood, sweat, toil and tears is now fully grown. I am sure I am speaking for the whole country when I say that we all derive great comfort from knowing that we enter the next phase of our history united under the leadership, guidance, and great wisdom of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

Oginga Odinga during the unveiling of a statue of Kenyatta at the Lumumba Institute in Nairobi, 14 December 1964


Colonel Pink was proud of Lamu's independence celebrations. Having brought his military background to bear as the finance officer for the committee charged by the local authority with organising the ceremonies, the owner of Petley's Hotel in Lamu town was sure the events would surpass those of many larger towns in Kenya. Distance from the capital Nairobi was to be no object. The population of the small island off the north-eastern coast participated in the independence celebrations as fully as other citizens of the new nation. Over 11 and 12 December 1963, Lamu's people enjoyed a football match, a fancy dress competition and, at the moment of independence itself, fireworks. Food was donated to the needy residents of Lamu's hospitals, sweets were handed out to the town's children, and on the water sailing races were held. But most of all, Pink was pleased with the bunting and fairy lights that adorned the waterfront. This was no mean achievement, since the town lacked mains electricity: a local businessman had generously provided a generator so that the quayside could be illuminated for the festivities.

The secret to Lamu's successful Uhuru celebrations, Pink wrote, 'is just one word "Harambee". Men and women of all races have worked harmoniously together, under the wise guidance of the Regional Government Agent and his staff, to make, it is hoped, the occasion truly a memorable one.' Lamu at independence seemed to embody the new Kenya – a multi-racial nation intent on overcoming historical divisions by following Jomo Kenyatta's credo of Harambee – 'pull together'.

Despite their celebrations, the everyday lives of Lamu's citizens did not easily fit into the new era of nation-states, bureaucracies and international borders. The island was part of trading and social networks much older than any notions of belonging to the new Kenyan nation. Many people in Lamu, and elsewhere in the country, were unwilling to adjust those networks to fit into the framework of the new nation, or to surrender control of the movement of goods and people to the postcolonial state. Much of the population of the Horn of Africa had spent the preceding decades practising what one anthropologist and political scientist, James Scott, calls 'the art of not being governed'; moving around sparsely populated and scantly governed borderlands in order to escape state control and influence.

Shariff Seyyid Ali Baskuti was typical of many of the residents of northern Kenya. Born on a small island off Kismayu in Somalia, he moved to Lamu as a child in 1939. By the mid-1960s, he was earning a living with his motorboat, transporting produce and consumer products and ferrying passengers between Lamu and Kismayu. According to Lamu's district commissioner (DC), Shariff carried out more secretive journeys, too: 'He is a ruthless spy and the enemy of the state.' The DC thought Shariff 'deserves removal or repatriation to his Somalia'. He sent lists of the names of government officials in Lamu district to insurgents known as shifta ('bandits') who had taken up arms against the government in Nairobi in the weeks leading up to Kenyan independence. The insurgency lasted for four years, during which time, the DC alleged, Shariff passed orders from its leaders in Kismayu to the fighters, while transporting rebels and their food supplies around the coastal areas of northern Kenya and southern Somalia. Like a great many other people in north-eastern parts of the country, Shariff was dubious about the state-building project that accompanied independence. If he felt a sense of national affinity, moreover, it was to Somalia rather than to Kenya. One (or both) of these sentiments drove Shariff, and thousands like him, to join the shifta insurgents in fighting for the absorption of much of Kenya's north-east into Somalia.

Many of those who joined the insurgency against the Kenyan state paid a heavy price. Nearly 2,000 people identified by the Kenyan authorities as being shifta were killed during the low-intensity war that lasted until 1967. Kenyatta shed no tears for those killed. At first he tried to claim that the insurgents were not even Kenyans at all. They were, he said, nothing other than Somali citizens sent by the government in Mogadishu to cause havoc and to advance its claims on Kenyan territory. 'I must see one of the raiders alive, or, if not alive, dead to be able to tell the Somalia Government that this [is] one of their people,' demanded the prime minister. But Kenyatta was fooling himself if he believed his own words. Although the insurgents were supplied from Mogadishu, they were in fact overwhelmingly inhabitants of Kenya. And it was not just Somalis who took up arms. Small numbers of Turkana and members of other ethnic communities in northern Kenya also joined the fight. They were concerned not about issues of sovereignty, but about their fear of statecraft that would restrict movement and impose an unprecedented level of state regulation on their daily lives.

The insurgents were resisting processes taking place across the world as the era of European imperialism came to an end. Decolonisation everywhere opened up debates about sovereignty, citizenship and identity. The new nations of the post-colonial world were but one way in which these different ideas were expressed. Frederick Cooper, the foremost historian of African decolonisation, writes that 'the "imagined communities" Africans saw were both smaller and larger than the nation'. In Kenya, KADU represented an appeal to the smaller communities of ethnicity. Ideas of belonging to larger communities proved more perishable but were in wide circulation at the time of independence. Many proud Kenyan nationalists boasted of belonging to a global Pan-Africanist community, or saw Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian independence as a stepping stone on the way to the formation of an East African Federation.

Kenya's many non-African citizens had their larger communities, too. Networks of trade and family connected the country's South Asian population with a global diaspora. Some Kenyan nationalists hostile to the presence of South Asians after independence argued that such connections contradicted notions of nationhood and citizenship. The place of South Asians within Kenyan ideas of the nation has, therefore, been a recurring source of sometimes bitter debate in the post-colonial period. Fearing forced exile – an anxiety occasionally realised – and the nationalisation of their assets, 30,000 of Kenya's 170,000 or so Asians left the country in the years following independence. Arabs at the coast were similarly conscious of their ties to kin elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean littoral. At the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War in the Middle East, Arabs in Lamu rushed to the shops to buy radios to listen to news of the conflict, while 'others wanted to enlist as fighters and others wanted to collect money in order to help their brothers in the Middle East'. And while some Kenyans saw themselves as belonging to several different communities all at the same time, a great many residents of the new Kenyan nation-state did not see themselves as Kenyan at all.


The new nation's internal boundaries and the distribution of power between centre and regions were settled more quickly than many had dared hope in 1963. Fears of widespread mass violence over the issue of devolution proved unfounded. But Kenyatta's government was far less successful in resolving the contest over the fate of the new North Eastern Region and northern parts of Coast and Eastern Regions. As Duncan Ndegwa writes in his memoirs, to those in power it seemed as if 'the challenge was in the north'. Somalis could not be easily ignored. Despite amounting to just 1 per cent of the 8 million or so Kenyans at independence, they inhabited an area that amounted to a fifth of Kenya's total territory. The new government in Nairobi was unwilling to surrender this land to the Somali state, and so, over the next four years, the Kenyan security forces tried to bring the rebels to heel.

The experience of colonial rule had provided Somalis in the north with little reason to trust government officials or to feel affection towards the entity of Kenya. Under British rule, the arid north was peripheral to colonial interests and suffered neglect. Colonial officials were content to maintain order and expended little effort in terms of development. Somalis in northern parts of Kenya did, however, feel a pull towards the neighbouring independent state of Somalia and the notion of a Greater Somalia. Greater Somalia offered ethnic Somalis dispersed across the modern states of Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and, of course, Somalia the promise that they would be brought together under one flag. The idea had first been developed at the turn of the century by a British colonial official, and then resurrected by the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, after the Second World War on the grounds of economic expediency.

The idea of Somali unification nonetheless gathered pace among Somalis themselves in the years that followed Bevin's statement. British and Italian Somaliland unified under the flag of the Somali Republic at independence in 1960, and it was hoped that Somalis in French Somaliland, now Djibouti, would join them. Later that year, the Northern Province People's Progressive Party (NPPPP) was formed in northern Kenya with the express aim of promoting secession from the British colony. The NPPPP proved popular, winning the support of the overwhelming majority of Somalis in northern Kenya during elections held in 1961. Leaders of Kenyan Somalis writing in March 1962 were unequivocal in their belief that they 'are members of a single Somali nation'. The nationalist leaders in Nairobi were unmoved by such statements, however.

Neither KANU nor KADU was willing to negotiate the territorial integrity of Kenya. In support of their position they could point to an agreement by the regional grouping, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which, in order to avoid bloodshed of the sort seen in the Congo, ruled out the adjustment of colonial boundaries by independent states. Kenya's nationalist leaders had their own reasons for wanting to hold on to northern parts of the country. As the US consul in Nairobi reported in May 1963, 'Oil hopes play a role.' Those hopes have not yet been realised, though exploration continues to this day. But, as the British parliamentarian and former colonial administrator in northern Kenya, Lord Lytton, remarked in 1963, 'the quarrel is not about oil'. For KANU, refusal to discuss autonomy for the north was consistent with the centralist policies that also dictated its attitude towards devolution. Autonomy for the Rift Valley would have been much harder to resist had North Eastern Province been granted some form of self-rule. And the Rift Valley and the lands to be vacated by the European settler farmers were the real prize of independence, not the north.

KANU therefore remained belligerent in its opposition to Somali secession. 'We in Kenya shall not give up even one inch of our country to the Somali tribalists, and that is final,' a KANU delegation led by Odinga to the OAU stated in 1963. Although a British-commissioned inquiry into attitudes in northern Kenya found great support for secession, KANU's position won the day. During the negotiations with the Kenyan nationalist delegations in London, the British government accepted KANU's stance on the Somali question as part of a range of compromises made in order to guarantee protection for the settler farmers after independence.

The NPPPP and the Somali government were outraged by continuing Kenyan rule over the north after independence. In an effort to stifle the growing protests, the colonial government arrested three of the NPPPP's leaders and restricted them to remote areas of the country in March and May 1963. Later in the year, Degho Maalim Stamboul, the party's general secretary, was also arrested. Stamboul's father, Chief Maalim Mohamed Stamboul, was later accused of organising the insurgency in North Eastern Province. When it took power in June, KANU was determined not to surrender its prize. But calls for secession only increased. In a telegram to the colonial secretary in London, the Moyale branch of the NPPPP described the prospect of rule by an independent Kenya as a 'new form of imperialism. We demand immediate secession.' Telegrams and protests soon gave way to insurgency.

The insurgency was given some support by Somalia. 'We speak the same languages', said Somali Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Shermarke in 1962. 'We share the same creed, the same culture and the same traditions. How can we regard our brothers as foreigners?' Shifta fighters in Kenya were therefore given limited supplies of small arms, drawn from Somalia's ample supply obtained through its close relations with the USSR. Over the four years of conflict, shifta units used those firearms to launch isolated attacks on the Kenyan armed forces, police officers and administration officials. The small raid on the Garba Tula police post on the night of 10 February 1964 is an example of the sort of engagements that made up the Shifta War. At Garba Tula, 'a Shifta gang fired shots from close range', and 'the police returned fire in an engagement lasting about an hour but there were no known casualties on either side'. The shifta unit fled the scene after the firefight, taking with it over a hundred camels that had been stolen from herdsmen in the area. The war followed this pattern of sporadic fighting between small groups of soldiers and police, on one side, and small shifta units, on the other.

Both sides frequently suffered casualties in these isolated incidents, and it was a dirty war as well as a small one. Complaints of atrocities committed against innocent civilians were common. On 6 May 1966, Gerishom Majani, the district officer (DO) in Garba Tula, was visited by a delegation led by a local sub-chief, part of the local government structure, who alleged that Kenyan soldiers had killed three people in a homestead at Kulamawe, near Garba Tula. Majani visited the homestead and found that three people, including a seven-year-old girl, had been killed. Bullet casings from standard-issue Kenyan army rifles littered the floor of the compound. Shifta fighters were not necessarily much more popular, however. Having been forced to feed a group of insurgents that passed through his homestead at Kubi Turkkana in March 1965, Eketoei Ngalup later recalled how 'four of the Shifta came to me to take the cattle from my herd. I helped them to take out nine fat heads ... I was warned not to say anything, and if I did I would be killed by the Shifta.' According to one of Ngalup's neighbours, 'This threat is repeated to us very often and especially when such gang comes in.' With only sporadic supplies from Somalia reaching the fighters, they eked out a desperate existence and were forced to live off the land as they crisscrossed the border region of the two countries.

Measures enforced by local administrators and security officers did little to win over support from Somalis. Areas of the province where shifta units were thought to be active were declared prohibited zones, where anyone found was to be arrested and where communal fines were issued to entire villages when shifta activity in the vicinity went unreported to the authorities. Another tactic borrowed from the colonial period was the forced settlement of Somalis into newly constructed villages built around police posts. By 1967, about 10 per cent of the population of North Eastern Province and the northern districts of neighbouring Eastern Province had been 'villagised', to use the parlance beloved of counter-insurgency specialists. Local administrators told Somalis in North Eastern Province that the new villages were meant to help their community 'abandon nomadic life and help people so that they can be kept to their own village having social amenities like schools, health services and protection'. In truth, the government admitted, the purpose of this displacement of the Somali population was the 'elimination of shifta activities'. By denying shifta units easy access to food supplies and intelligence, and by keeping local populations under surveillance, the government hoped the new villages would break the back of the insurgency. In the long term, the Kenyan government hoped villages would 'actually "rehabilitate" a nomad to a settled life'. There was little enthusiasm for villagisation on the part of the local population, however. Instead, thousands of Somalis fled the region in an effort to escape life in the villages.


Excerpted from KENYA by DANIEL BRANCH Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Branch. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daniel Branch is associate professor of African history, University of Warwick. He lives in Oxfordshire, UK.

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