Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978) was a Kenyan statesman and the dominant figure in the development of African nationalism in East Africa. His long career in public life made him the undisputed leader of the African people of Kenya in their struggle for independence.
In the modern political history of Africa very few of the representatives of African peoples have had the opportunity for a sustained position of leadership. The lack of a Western education and the limiting horizons of tribal politics hindered the rise of an African political elite, especially in the British East African possessions, in the years before World War II. Kenyatta is one of the outstanding exceptions of this process; his public career of over 40 years established him as one of the most significant African leaders of the twentieth century.
Jomo Kenyatta, who was known as a child as Johnstone Kamau Ngengi, was born, according to most biographies, on October 20, 1891 at Ichaweri. There have always been questions about his birth date created by the unusual way the Kikuyu kept records and Kenyatta's own convenient ability to deny his correct age. His parents were Muigai, a Kikuyu farmer, and Wambui.
Little is known of the early years of his life. He was baptized in August 1914 and received the first 5 years of his education at the Church of Scotland Mission in Kikuyu near Nairobi. From 1921 to 1926 he was employed by the water department of the Nairobi Town Council. He also served as an interpreter to the Kenya Supreme Court. It is said that his use of the name Kenyatta dates from this period, deriving from the Kikuyu-language designation for the beaded workers' belt he wore while at work called a mucibi wa kinyata.
Early Political Career
In the Kenya of the 1920s the emerging nationalism of the African inhabitants was dominated by the dynamic Kikuyu peoples, the country's largest tribal grouping. They had proved receptive to some aspects of European culture, especially in education, and they began to attempt using the techniques of British democracy to secure their desired goals.
A particularly vital problem to the Kikuyu was the question of land ownership within the colony; they held that the British had unjustly seized much Kikuyu land. Various political organizations, such as the Young Kikuyu Association and the East African Association, were formed to advance their case. Kenyatta, as one of the few educated Kikuyu, joined the Young Kikuyu Association in 1922. British opposition, however, prevented these organizations from achieving any success. The Kikuyu Central Association was created from the Young Kikuyu Association and the East Africa Association and, like all the former groupings, needed men trained in English.
In 1927 Kenyatta, one of the elite as an educated Kikuyu, was asked to become its general secretary, a position which he accepted in early 1928. His office entailed work to encourage the growth of a modern political consciousness among the Kikuyu and thus to develop a broad basis of support for the organization. This required extensive traveling throughout the extensive Kikuyu territory. During 1929 the organization decided to issue its own publication, the Kikuyu-language monthly Mwigwithania (The Reconciler), and Kenyatta was selected as its editor. It was probably the first newspaper produced by Africans in Kenya.
Residence in Britain
Kenyatta's chance for a broader role arrived in 1928, when he testified before the Hilton-Young Commission, which had been sent to East Africa to investigate the project for a federation of British East African Territories. In February 1929 the Kikuyu Central Association decided to send Kenyatta to London to testify against the proposed union of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. He was refused an opportunity before the commission, but the experience of visiting Europe was valuable. He became involved with some radical anti-colonial organizations and traveled to the communist-sponsored International Trade Union of Negro Workers in Hamburg. He also traveled to Berlin and spent several weeks in the Soviet Union in August 1929.
He returned to Kenya in the fall of 1930 and gained permission for the Kikuyu to control their own independent schools despite opposition from the Christian missionary schools. In May 1931 he and Parmenas Githendu Mockerie were dispatched to London by the Kikuyu Central Association to testify before a select parliamentary committee studying the East Africa federation plans by the Colonial Office. He remained in Europe for 15 years, married an English woman, and had a son, Peter. He studied English at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and at Selly Oak in Birmingham. Among the positions Kenyatta held was that of assistant in phonetics at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies from 1933 to 1936.
In 1936 Kenyatta enrolled at the London School of Economics as a postgraduate student. In the course of his studies he presented a series of papers to the seminar directed by the eminent anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. They were published in 1938 as Facing Mount Kenya. This work, which has been labeled as "a text in cultural nationalism" since it was one of the earliest publications by an African discussing his own culture without apology, made considerable impact.
Kenyatta asserted the right of Africans to speak for themselves, and not only to be discussed by foreign anthropologists or missionaries and, more important, he declared that Africans should be proud of their own cultural heritage. He especially developed his case around the then important issue of female circumcision, currently under attack by Christian missionaries, demonstrating the relevance of the ceremony to the total Kikuyu culture and indicating how Europeans had ignored this ritual aspect of the study of any African cultural facet. Facing Mount Kenya remains a classic among studies relating to the Kikuyu way of life.
When World War II began, Kenyatta worked on a farm in Surrey and lectured to the British army and the Worker's Educational Association on Africa. He became intensely active in general African movements; along with other pioneers of African nationalism, including Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore, 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." One great advantage of these long years away from Kenya was to isolate Kenyatta from the many divisions and rivalries of his homeland's nationalist movements, brought about by the frustrations imposed on Africans trying to organize in the British-dominated territory.
Politics in Kenya
Thus when Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1946, he was generally recognized by politically conscious Africans as the most effective leader for their new moves toward greater freedom. Many Europeans reacted also by regarding him as a potentially effective threat to their position of privilege. Kenyatta immediately began organizing a political movement which would be represented all over Kenya. In June 1947 he became president of the most effective African political movement to that time, the Kenya African Union. His efforts to encourage non-kikuyu to join the movement were successful and membership in the Kenyan African Union increased by over 100,000.
In 1947 Kenyatta also accepted the position of principal of the independent Teachers' Training College at Githanguri, thus bringing another facet of Kenyan protest under his influence. But despite his considerable success, the European settler dominated government of Kenya managed to keep control of the country's evolution. Many Africans therefore became increasingly frustrated by their lack of progress, and extremist groups began to prepare for a direct challenge to European domination.
Trial and Imprisonment
Kenyatta was unable to control the extremists, and by 1952 the violence had risen to such a level, particularly in the so-called Mau Movement, that the British reacted by declaring a state of emergency. Kenyatta was arrested on October 20, the government considering that if the leader of the Kenya African Union were removed from political life the Mau Mau crisis, which had claimed nearly 200 European and 12,000 Mau Mau lives, would cease. They planned no reforms to meet African aspirations.
A world-famous trial for Kenyatta was held at the remote location of Kapenguria in November. In conditions of intense military security, the government aimed to prove that Mau Mau was a part of the Kenya African Union and Kenyatta its leader. The judgment of the court in April 1953 gave Kenyatta and five other defendants the maximum sentence of 7 years at hard labor, but the trial was conducted in such a manner that many doubted the justice of the sentence.
During the state of emergency all Kenya-wide African political organizations had been restricted. But as the British began to regain control of affairs after 1955, African parties were allowed to reemerge at the local level, a decision which harmed future African developments by encouraging separatism among African leaders. Nevertheless, the Mau Mau crisis had forced the British government to realize the futility of continuing the evolution of Kenya through the existing colonial government.
The Colonial Office took a firm direction in moving the country toward independence through a series of new constitutions (in 1954, 1957, and 1960) designed to increase African participation in governing their homeland. But although African leaders seized the advantages offered to them, continually striving to wrest control from the European settlers, they made Kenyatta's participation in any government leading to independence one of their essential demands.
Kenyatta was freed from the desert prison of Lokitaung in northwestern Kenya in 1959 but was restricted to house arrest for two years in the Northern Frontier District town of Lodwar. 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.
On January 12, 1962, Kenyatta was elected to the Kenyan Legislative Assembly to represent the constituency of Fort Hall. On April 10, he agreed to serve in a coalition government as minister of state for constitutional affairs and economic planning. In the May 28, 1963 elections Kenyatta led his African National Union party to victory. Kenyatta was invited to form a government and became self-governing Kenya's first prime minister on June 1. He took steps to reassure the European farmers about their future and also appealed to the freedom fighters and members of the Mau Mau to lay down their arms and join the new nation.
On December 12, 1963 Kenya became the 34th African state to gain independence. The duke of Edinburgh was in attendance as the colonial flag was lowered at midnight and the new Kenyan flag raised.
The first years of Kenyan independence were dominated by restructuring and rebuilding the nation. In November of 1964 Kenyatta convinced the rival Kenya African Democratic Union and its leader, Ronald Ngala, to dissolve and join Kenyatta's Kenyan African National Union party to form a single chambered National Assembly. Ngala had been Kenyatta's greatest political rival because his party stood for regional autonomy while Kenyatta's party stood for a strong central government.
The European settler problem disappeared, since most of those antagonistic to African rule left the country, but the problem of integrating the various African and Indian citizens of the new republic continued.
The greatest political challenge to Kenyatta was a dispute with Dginga Odinga, the leader of the powerful Luo tribe. Odinga had served as home affairs minister and later as vice president. Odinga was accused by other cabinet ministers of accepting financial aid from Communist China and using the money to buy influence with members of parliament. In March 1964, Kenyatta, who had given Odinga the benefit of the doubt for past loyalty, finally abolished Odinga's position as deputy president of the ruling Kenya African National Union party. In 1966 Odinga resigned as Kenya's national vice president and formed the Kenya Peoples' Union as a leftist opposition party.
On July 5, 1969, Tom Mboya, a popular Luo politician, was assassinated by a Kikuyu. The assassin was tried and executed, but Luo anger still ran high. In October 1969, Kenyatta's appearance in Luo territory set off riots and threatened to divide the new nation. After initially ignoring the problem, Kenyatta imposed a curfew, detained Odinga and his leaders, and banned the Kenya Peoples' Union party. Kenyatta moved the election date to early December 1969 and declared anyone could run for a seat if they were a member of the Kenya African National party. Several members of Kenyatta's party were defeated, but his government survived the election. Despite Luo anger and rumors of military plots, Kenya regained a surface calm which continued through Kenyatta's presidency.
Kenyatta made Kenya a showcase nation among the former African colonial states. Leading his nation on a relatively conservative course, he provided for peace and prosperity in his nation while improving health, agriculture, tourism, business, and manufacturing. Although Kenyatta utilized both communist and capitalist financial and technical aid, which helped Kenya take the lead in economic development in East Africa, he came down heavily and communist efforts to infiltrate the country.
Kenyatta followed a nonaligned, but pro-western, foreign policy and pursued an orthodox African policy towards the apartheid tactics of Rhodesia and South Africa. In 1971 he became the unmitigated leader in East Africa and achieved his greatest foreign policy success when he helped to settle a border dispute between Uganda and Tanzania.
Kenyatta died peacefully in Mombassa on August 22, 1978. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, was Kenya's vice president. The transition of power was seamless and Moi suggested a continuation in Kenyatta's policies by calling his own program Nyayo or "footsteps."
Further Reading on Jomo Kenyatta
Kenyatta's own writings include: Facing Mount Kenya (1938); My People of Kikuyu and the Life of Chief Wangombe (1944); Kenya: The Land of Conflict (1944); and Harambee! (1964); an account of the early life and times of Kenyatta and of Mau Mau groups is by Carl G. Rosberg, Jr., and John Nottingham, The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya (1966); for general historical background are Kenya, a Political History: The Colonial Period (1963), by George Bennett; and History of East Africa, vol. 2 (1965) by Vincent T. Harlow and E. M. Chilver; the life and career of Kenyatta is traced in the Anthony Howarth and David Koff film Kenyatta (1979); Kenyatta is also listed with a brief biography in the A&E Television Networks online biography at //www.biography.com (1997); and mentioned in relationship to Kenya's present government in the JamboKenya homepage at sbwm.erols.com.