Daniel Branch and Nic Chesseman reflect on Kenya at 50 and highlight some of the events that have shaped the country’s history. Continued from The Saturday Nation.
Since independence, Kenyans have demonstrated great ingenuity and creativity in overcoming challenges that confront them daily. This creativity takes many forms, including, at its most artistic and literary, great works of literature. Publication of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Weep Not Child in 1964 marked the beginning of a brilliant career for one of the world’s great writers.
It also opened doors for giants like Meja Mwangi, Micere Mugo, Francis Imbuga, Grace Ogot, Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye and Binyavanga Wainaina to use fiction, poetry and drama to explore aspects of everyday life missed by academics and journalists.
Academics followed suit, with the likes of Atieno Odhiambo, Bethwell Ogot and Maina wa Kinyatti literally writing the nation’s history – often under the most economically and politically difficult conditions.
Ingenuity can be found in more mundane, less profound forms too.
From the sheng jua kali artisans and labourers speak to overcome linguistic barriers of an ethnically diverse country to the efforts made in providing cost-effective services, the men and women of the informal sector are one of the strongest foundations of the economy.
The other is the matatu industry. A form of public transport designed to exploit shortcomings and the inflexibility of both state-run bus service and bureaucracy, matatus are a great example of the ways in which entrepreneurs could thrive in a lightly regulated space.
The vehicles also became modes of expression of Kenyans’ creativity. The blaring music, stirring slogans, and the striking artwork are synonymous with the vitality of the sector.
The Michuki laws of 2004 marked a significant effort by the state to regulate one of Kenya’s most vibrant and creative industries.
Ingenuity has been demonstrated in boardrooms and streets alike. Our businesses have long been the envy of the region. People like Manu Chandaria have contributed immensely to the country. The strength of Kenya’s iconic brands can be seen today as far afield as Kigali and Juba.
The ability of Kenyan businesses to stand above competitors was never better demonstrated than in 2002 when East African Breweries Ltd saw off attempts by South African Breweries Ltd to enter the market. Despite slick advertising and a new production plant built at Thika, Tusker and not Castle remains the beer of choice in bars.
While Kenyan corporate ingenuity had precious little recognition outside the region in 2002, a decade later the country is celebrated internationally as a centre of hi-tech enterprise. The iHub and Ushahidi both demonstrate in very different ways the endless possibilities for mobile internet technology to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans.
Perhaps the most significant so far has been the spread of mobile telephony. Due to the success of companies like Safaricom, the number of subscribers in hit 30 million in September 2012.
This expansion of mobile phone use has had dramatic impact on the economy. Safaricom’s Initial Public Offer (IPO) was massively oversubscribed, becoming the biggest in the history of sub-Saharan Africa.
The growth of the market and influx of funding have enabled Safaricom to continue to innovate, most significantly with the launch of M-Pesa in 2007.
The creation of a system through which Kenyans could send and receive money using their phones has not only reduced the cost of sending remittances but has also enabled people in rural areas to access better information about markets.
It is still early to tell the exact effects of this communications revolution on the Kenyan society, but they are broad and deep.
Many will be surprised that these technological developments owe an unlikely gratitude to former president Daniel arap Moi. In 1989, his government signed an agreement with the Japanese to establish the first mobile phone network in sub-Saharan Africa. This laid groundwork for much of the remarkable creativity we see today.
Significantly, technology has fostered regional as well as domestic change.
The history of the East African Community (EAC) has not been an easy one. Following a promising start in the mid 60s, EAC fell apart in 1977. After a decade of disputes between the three governments, the vision of a closer regional union collapsed in the face of Idi Amin’s claims to parts of Tanzania.
It took more than two decades for the community to be rebuilt on the basis of a common understanding that East African states are stronger united than divided.
Communication and other innovations are fostering cross-national trade and investment. Over the next 20 years, Kenya’s economy and society will become increasingly intertwined with those of its neighbours.
National unity has been displayed at moments of triumph. No section of society has given the country such joy as its athletes.
Naftali Temu, Amos Biwott and Kipchoge Keino began Kenya’s rich tradition of athletics success at 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Many have followed these pioneers, with the most recent being Ezekiel Kemboi and David Rudisha at the London Olympics in 2012.
It was not until the Seoul Olympics of 1988 that the first Kenyan woman won a medal. Susan Sirma’s bronze was a sign of things to come. Kenyan women have demonstrated that they were every bit as good as the men.
Kenya’s international reputation is not built on sports alone. Its role in regional peace-building has helped bring moments of celebration to her neighbours.
Although the course of Sudan’s peace process has not run smoothly, the importance of Kenya’s contribution to ending the bloody civil war cannot be doubted. A series of deals struck with help of Kenya helped bring the warring parties together.
There have also been important moments of national political triumph that have resulted in great expressions of unity. The promulgation of the new constitution in 2010 is the event that has come closest to recapturing the elation of December 12, 1963.
Scenes of jubilation that accompanied its passing resembled those of 2002, when Narc and Mwai Kibaki finally brought Kanu’s stranglehold to power to an end. The optimism and sense of national consensus may have faded over time, but they demonstrate what we can achieve when we pull together.
The new constitution creates opportunity to deal with some of the longest running debates and issues in Kenya’s political life. The most obvious is devolution. Regional assemblies to which significant power was devolved in 1963 lasted not much more than a year and a strongly centralised government took their place.
Devolution promises to resolve this debate in a way that will enable more Kenyans to fully engage in the country’s political and economic life.
This would represent a real triumph for ordinary Kenyans of all backgrounds – one befitting a jubilee celebration.
Tom Mboya’s concluding words to the settler farmers at Eldoret were “Our duty now is to the future.” He had told the sceptical audience,”
The country has achieved remarkable feats in its first 50 years of independence. If future governments can find a way to harness the resilience and ingenuity displayed on a daily basis by millions of Kenyans over the next 50 years, they will be able to achieve the liberty and prosperity that their people long for, and so richly deserve.
Daniel Branch is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Warwick and author of Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2012.
Nic Cheeseman is a University Lecturer in African Politics at the University of Oxford, the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org, and the Joint Editor of African Affairs.