50 years on, Uhuru confronts the same mountains his father faced

Saturday May 31 2014

PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses members of the public in Eldoret town on his way from Recruits Training School where he presided over a Recruit’s Passing-Out Parade on May 28, 2014. Kenya is grappling with the threats of insecurity, unresolved land issues, a weak economy and disunity as much as it did at independence, 51 years ago.

PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses members of the public in Eldoret town on his way from Recruits Training School where he presided over a Recruit’s Passing-Out Parade on May 28, 2014. Kenya is grappling with the threats of insecurity, unresolved land issues, a weak economy and disunity as much as it did at independence, 51 years ago. NATION MEDIA GROUP

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On a chilly Monday morning on June 1, 1963, Jomo Kenyatta was driven to Nairobi’s Ministry of Works offices – now Harambee House where his inauguration as prime minister was to take place. 

The scene on Coronation Avenue (present-day Harambee Avenue) was ecstatic as Kenyans in the 30,000 strong crowd craned their necks to catch a glimpse of their new leader as the country attained self-governing status.

With Kenyatta was Kenya’s last governor, Malcolm MacDonald, wearing a plumed hat and the green colonial-office regalia. Kenyatta wore his beaded beanie cap, the trademark leather jacket and clasped a silver-headed fly whisk.

The man the British government had regarded as a “terrorist” and described as “the leader unto darkness and death” was now minutes away from receiving the mantle from his tormentors.

Even as he lifted the Bible and swore allegiance to the Queen, Kenyatta knew he was inheriting a politically divided nation of which economists had painted a gloomy picture. The political fear was about the domination of national politics by the Kikuyu and the Luo, who had successfully united under Kanu, while the other smaller tribes had coalesced around Kadu.

Some 51 years later, Kenyatta’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta, finds himself in almost similar circumstances. He leads the country in marking Madaraka Day today when Kenya faces challenges to national unity, security, land and the economy.


The first major issue his father inherited was the Somali Question. In 1964, the entire of North Eastern Region boycotted elections after residents were violently dissuaded not to participate by secessionists.

Nobody was elected to the nine seats in the region. Even as Kenyatta became prime minister, North Eastern remained a colony of the British government as the rest of Kenya prepared for independence. All the region’s 34 chiefs had resigned en masse protesting their inclusion in Kenya.

While Kenyatta faced threats from the Somalia-backed Shifta who waged a war of terror on the administration and residents in the region, President Uhuru Kenyatta today faces threats from Somalia-based, Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Shabaab terrorists, angry about Kenya’s military intervention in their country and what they consider Kenya’s dalliance with countries interfering in the Horn of Africa.

In both situations, the two presidents had to deal with attacks on both the civilian and security apparatus.

While Jomo managed to use Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga to bring the Luo community into Kanu, one of his first intra-party problems was the place of Communist-leaning Odinga in Kenya’s politics.

While it had been expected that Kenyatta would appoint Odinga to a senior position, most likely his deputy, he opted not to name a deputy until Kenya became fully independent.

Odinga was then accused of being too close to the Chinese and branded a Communist sympathiser who was using Chinese funding to build a following. Some senior Kanu leaders, incited by London, accused Odinga of organising a revolution and transferred most of Odinga’s Home Affairs ministry portfolio to the Prime Minister’s office.

The irony is that today, 51 years later, President Uhuru Kenyatta has publicly declared he will work closely with the Chinese government, and last month, hosted Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang who was on a whirlwind tour of Africa.


The other irony is that Oginga’s son, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, remains the main opponent of Uhuru’s government and is today being seen as the darling of Western governments. His critics accuse him of being pro-Western, favoured over the Kenyatta-Ruto candidature in last year’s elections. This was given credence by American and EU diplomatic warnings to Kenyans not to elect Uhuru and Ruto, who both face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court.

In 1964, Jomo Kenyatta inherited an economy that had been weakened by the departure of settlers and foreign investors who felt that they had no place in the new African-led economy.

While Kenyatta required at least £56 million (Sh8.1 billion) to start his promised battle against poverty, ignorance and disease, he could only raise £2.5 million (Sh361 million) through local taxation — the rest was to come from foreign donors. 

His son faces the same predicament. Uhuru is grappling with raising Sh132 billion in a sovereign bond to fill the yawning gaps in his Sh1.6 trillion budget. While the main worry is about the badly listing tourism industry, which is wavering as a result of travel advisories by the American and British authorities, the government is now turning to domestic tourism to sustain an industry that contributes 1.5 per cent of the GDP. Similar measures were taken in 1964 as the investors in tourism sector decided to leave. The government started funding locals to buy the hotels.

Kanu had won the election on the promise of settling the land question. The white settlers owned some eight million acres in the “White Highlands” and the first task that faced Kenyatta was how to redistribute 1 million acres under the donor-funded settlement schemes.

But the senior Kenyatta did not solve the land question and only planted seeds of discord after a skewed redistribution. Fifty-one years later, Uhuru is struggling to resolve the same issue settle the landless and give out title deeds.

The boiling point still remains the former Rift Valley Province where the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have clashed over land. The other is the Coast region where huge tracts of land were not adjudicated and are held by absentee landlords. How Uhuru’s government addresses the question remains one of his waking nightmares.

While Kadu had, in 1963, advocated a federal majimbo government, Kanu stood for a single central government which formed the basis of its one-finger salute. Today, the country has opted for a devolved government.

The only difference is that while Kenyatta openly promised to change the Constitution to abolish majimbo, Uhuru has openly said he supports devolved governments. But like his father, he has been accused of strengthening the provincial administration by appointing powerful county commissioners to oversee security matters at the district level. The Kenyatta state was known for using the seven provincial commissioners who wielded immense powers.

Uhuru Kenyatta is in office at a time when statistics show that foreign direct investment (FDI) to Kenya has increased. His father came to power at a time when there was a mass exodus of specialist civil servants, farmers, industrialists, financiers, traders, technicians and professional people, who constituted the bulk of the non-African communities.

Kenyatta’s main agenda was to persuade the nervous white settlers to stay, and he addressed the famous Nakuru meeting, organised by both Lord Delamere and Agriculture minister Bruce McKenzie, where he delivered his forgive-and-forget speech to the settlers.

Today, the fear of Kenya’s divisive politics still hangs on but mostly along inter-tribe lines. While in 1963 Kenyatta had told the nation that “Kenya is not going to be another Congo,” the fear of tribal feuds still exists.

Among some of the settlers, Kenyatta remained a terrorist. On July 15, as he attended a Commonwealth Conference in London, he was attacked in a London street outside the Hilton Hotel by two men – Martin Webster, 21, and John Tyndell, 30 — who were shouting: “This is the man who murdered our white brethren in Africa.”

Today, Uhuru Kenyatta walks into the Madaraka Day rally facing charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC. Like his father, who used the Kapenguria cases to build his political portfolio, Uhuru is accused by his opponents of using the ICC charges to galvanise his supporters to vote him into power last year.