Africa’s Great Rift Valley is where human beings first walked upright upon the earth. Ever since, Kenya's story has unfolded as a fascinating tale of ancient connections across the seas, the ravages of the trade of enslaved people and a colonial occupation that continues to mark the country to this day. Now independent with a chance to chart its own course, Kenya has become an East African powerhouse whose stunning diversity has proved to be both curse and blessing in equal measure.
The First Kenyans
The Tugen Hills
In 1959 British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered the earliest recorded hominid fossil at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, causing a scientific sensation. Following this, palaeontologists digging in the Tugen Hills, west of Lake Baringo, unearthed one of the most diverse and densely packed accumulations of fossil bone in Africa. Bedded down in lava flows and representing a unique archaeological record in Africa, the fossil beds incorporate that most elusive period of human history between 14 and four million years ago when the largely primate Kenyapithecus evolved into our earliest bipedal ancestor Australopithecus afarensis.
In the sandy clay, seven of the 18 hominoid specimens known from that period were found. The jaw fragment at five million years old represents the closest ancestor of A afarensis, a family band that left their footprints on the Laetoli mud pan (Tanzania) 3.7 million years ago, while a fragment of skull, dating from 2.4 million years ago, represents the earliest-known specimen of our own genus, Homo.
In 1969 Richard Leakey – son of veteran archaeologists Louis and Mary – shifted his attentions to Lake Turkana in Kenya’s north, where he turned up dozens of fossil sites, including a completely new hominid specimen – Homo habilis (able man).
Prior to the Leakey discovery it was thought that there were only two species of proto-humans: the ‘robust’ hominids and the ‘gracile’ hominids, which eventually gave rise to modern humans. However, the Turkana finds demonstrated that the different species lived at the same time and even shared resources – advancing the Leakey theory that evolution was more complex than a simple linear progression.
In 1984 Kamoya Kimeu (a member of the Leakey expedition) uncovered the spectacular remains of a young boy’s skeleton dating back 1.6 million years. Standing at a height of 1.6m tall, the boy was appreciably bigger than his H habilis contemporary. His longer limbs and striding gait were also more characteristic of modern human physiology, and his larger brain suggested greater cognitive ability. H erectus was the biggest and brainiest hominid to date and was the longest surviving and most widely dispersed of all the ancestral toolmakers, disappearing from the fossil records a mere 70,000 years ago.
From these remarkable evolutionary leaps it was but a small step to our closest ancestors, H sapiens, who made an appearance around 130,000 years ago.
Ten thousand years ago, Africa was unrecognisable: the Sahara was a green and pleasant land, and much of Kenya was uninhabitable because its tropical forests and swamps were inhabited by the deadly tsetse fly, which is fatal to cattle and people. Over the five millennia that followed, a changing climate saw the tsetse belt drop south, Kenya’s grasslands began to spread and migrating peoples from the north began to populate what we now know as Kenya. Soon, the peoples of the continent began to converge on East Africa.
The first arrivals were a Cushitic-speaking population, who moved south with their domestic stock from Ethiopia. At the same time a population of Nilote speakers from the Sudan moved into the western highlands of the Rift Valley (the Maasai, Luo, Samburu and Turkana tribes are their modern-day descendants). These pastoralists shared the region with the indigenous Khoikhoi (ancestors of the modern-day San), who had occupied the land for thousands of years.
Africa’s fourth linguistic family, the Bantu speakers, arrived from the Niger Delta around 1000 BC. Soon they became East Africa’s largest ethnolinguistic family, which they remain today. Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, along with the Gusii, Akamba and Meru tribes, are all descended from them.
Arabs, Swahili & Portuguese
The Land of Zanj
It was in the 8th century that Arab dhows began docking regularly in East African ports as part of their annual trade migration. In their wake, Arabs set up trading posts along the seaboard, intermarrying with Africans and creating a cosmopolitan culture that, in time, became known as Swahili. Before long there were Arab-Swahili city states all along the coast from Somalia to Mozambique; the remains of many of these settlements can still be seen, most notably at Gede.
By the 10th century the ‘Land of Zanj’ (the present-day coastal region of Kenya and Tanzania) was exporting leopard skins, tortoiseshell, rhino horns, ivory, gold and, most importantly, enslaved people to Arabia and India. Ports included Shanga, Gede, Lamu and Mombasa as well as Zanzibar (Tanzania). Kilwa, 300km south of Zanzibar, marked the southernmost limit of travel for Arab dhows. For over 700 years, up to 1450, the Islamic world was virtually the only external influence on sub-Saharan Africa.
Portuguese East Africa
Arab-Swahili domination on the coast received its first serious challenge with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, spurred by the tales of gold and riches that traders brought back from their travels. In 1497, for example, while on his voyage along the coastline of South and East Africa, Vasco da Gama found Arab dhows at the Zambezi delta loaded with gold dust. During the same period Europe was desperately short of labour as it struggled to recover from the effects of the Black Death (1347–51). The plantations of southern Europe were initially worked by captive Muslims and Slavic peoples (the origin of the word ‘slaves’), but the Portuguese viewed access to Africa as an opportunity to expand the trade of enslaved people.
The Portuguese consolidated their position on the East African coast through violence and terror, justifying their actions as battles in a Christian war against Islam. They sailed their heavily armed vessels into the harbours of important Swahili towns, demanding submission to the rule of Portugal and payment of large annual tributes. Towns that refused were attacked, their possessions seized and resisters killed. Zanzibar was the first Swahili town to be invaded in this manner (in 1503). Malindi formed an alliance with the Portuguese, which hastened the fall of Mombasa in 1505.
British East Africa
In 1884 European powers met in Germany for the Berlin conference. Here, behind closed doors, they decided the fate of the African continent. No African leaders, let alone ordinary Africans, were invited to attend, nor were they consulted.
The colonial settlement of Kenya dates from 1885, when Germany established a protectorate over the sultan of Zanzibar’s coastal possessions. In 1888 Sir William Mackinnon received a royal charter and concessionary rights to develop trade in the region under the aegis of the British East Africa Company (BEAC). Seeking to consolidate its East African territories, Germany traded its coastal holdings in return for sole rights over Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1890. Still, it was only when the BEAC ran into financial difficulties in 1895 that the British government finally stepped in to establish formal control through the East African Protectorate.
Initially, British colonization was confined to the coastal area, and any presence in the interior was restricted to isolated settlers and explorers. Maasai resistance began to crack following a brutal civil war between the Ilmaasai and Iloikop groups and the simultaneous arrival of rinderpest (a cattle disease), cholera, smallpox and famine. The British were able to negotiate a treaty with the Maasai, allowing the British to drive the Mombasa–Uganda railway line through the heart of Maasai grazing lands.
The completion of the railway enabled the British administration to relocate from Mombasa to more temperate Nairobi. Although the Maasai suffered the worst annexations of land, being restricted to designated reserves, the Kikuyu from Mt Kenya and the Aberdares (areas of white settlement) were also angry about their alienation from the land.
By 1912 colonizers had established themselves in the highlands and set up mixed agricultural farms, turning a profit for the colony for the first time.
The colonization was interrupted by WWI, when two-thirds of the 3000 white settlers in Kenya formed impromptu cavalry units and marched against Germans in neighbouring Tanganyika. Colonization resumed after the war, under a scheme by which white veterans of the European campaign were offered subsidised land in the highlands around Nairobi. The net effect was a huge upsurge in the white Kenyan population, from 9000 in 1920 to 80,000 in the 1950s.
The Road to Independence
Although largely peaceful and a period of economic growth, the interwar years were to see the fomenting of early nationalist aspirations. Grievances over land appropriation and displacement were only exacerbated in 1920, when, after considerable lobbying from white settlers, Kenya was transformed into a Crown Colony. A Legislative Council was established but Africans were barred from political participation (right up until 1944). In reaction to their exclusion, the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's most populous group and the one under the greatest pressure from European settlers, founded the Young Kikuyu Association, led by Harry Thuku. This was to become the Kenya African Union (KAU), a nationalist organisation demanding access to white-owned land.
One passionate advocate for the movement was a young man called Johnstone Kamau, later known as Jomo Kenyatta. When this early activism fell on deaf ears he joined the more outspoken Kikuyu Central Association; the association was promptly banned.
In 1929, with money supplied by Indian communists, Kenyatta sailed for London to plead the Kikuyu case with the British colonial secretary, who declined to meet with him. While in London, Kenyatta met with a group called the League Against Imperialism, which took him to Moscow and Berlin, back to Nairobi and then back to London, where he stayed for the next 15 years. During this time, he studied revolutionary tactics in Moscow and built up the Pan-African Federation with Hastings Banda (who later became the president of Malawi) and Kwame Nkrumah (later president of Ghana).
The War Years
Although African nationalists made impressive headway, it was the advent of WWII that was to ultimately bring about the rapid demise of colonialism in Africa. In 1941, in a desperate bid for survival, British Premier Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic to plead for American aid. The resulting Atlantic Charter (1942), which Churchill negotiated with President Roosevelt, enshrined the end of colonialism in the third clause, which stated self-determination for all colonies as one of the postwar objectives.
In October 1945 the sixth Pan-African Congress was convened in Manchester, England. For the first time this was predominantly a congress of Africa’s young leaders. Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta were there, along with trade unionists, lawyers, teachers and writers from all over Africa. By the time Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1946, he was the leader of a bona fide Kenyan liberation movement.
Although Kenyatta appeared willing to act as the British government’s accredited Kenyan representative within a developing constitutional framework, militant factions among the KAU had a more radical agenda. When in 1951 Ghana became the first African country to achieve independence, it raised the stakes even higher.
Starting with small-scale terror operations, bands of guerrillas began to intimidate white settlers, threatening their farms and anyone deemed to be a collaborator. Their aim: to drive white settlers from the land and reclaim it. Kenyatta’s role in the Mau Mau rebellion, as it came to be known, was equivocal. At a public meeting in 1952, he denounced the movement, but he was arrested along with other Kikuyu politicians and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour for ‘masterminding’ the plot.
Four years of intense military operations ensued. The various Mau Mau units came together under the umbrella of the Kenya Land Freedom Army, led by Dedan Kimathi, and outright guerrilla warfare followed, with the British declaring a state of emergency in 1952.
By 1956 the Mau Mau had been violently suppressed and Dedan Kimathi was publicly hanged on the orders of the British policeman Colonel Henderson (who was later deported from Kenya for crimes against humanity). But Kenyatta was to continue the struggle following his release in 1959. Soon even white Kenyans began to feel the winds of change, and in 1960 the British government officially announced its plan to transfer power to a democratically elected African government. Independence was scheduled for December 1963, accompanied by grants and loans of US$100 million to enable the Kenyan assembly to buy out European farmers in the highlands and restore the land to local tribes.
It had been a long time coming, but Kenya finally became independent on 12 December 1963.
The political handover began in earnest in 1962 with Kenyatta’s election to a newly constituted parliament. To ensure a smooth transition of power, Kenyatta’s party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which advocated a unitary, centralised government, joined forces with the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), which favoured majimbo, a federal set-up. Harambee, meaning ‘pulling together’, was seen as more important than political factionalism, and KADU voluntarily dissolved in 1964, leaving Kenyatta and KANU in full control.
It is difficult to overstate the optimism that accompanied those early days of postcolonial independence. Kenyatta took pains to allay the fears of white colonizers, declaring ‘I have suffered imprisonment and detention; but that is gone, and I am not going to remember it. Let us join hands and work for the benefit of Kenya’. But the nascent economy was vulnerable after years of colonial exploitation and the political landscape was barely developed. As a result the consolidation of power by the new ruling elite nurtured an authoritarian regime.
Although considered an African success story, the Kenyatta regime failed to undertake the essential task of deconstructing the colonial state in favour of a system with greater relevance to the aspirations of the average Kenyan. The majimbo (federalist) system – advocated by KADU and agreed upon in the run-up to independence – was such a system, but it died with the party in 1964.
Power was not only being centralised in Nairobi, but increasingly also in the hands of the president. The consolidation of presidential power was buttressed by a series of constitutional amendments, culminating in the Constitutional Amendment Act No 16 of 1969, which empowered the president to control the civil service. The effects were disastrous. Subsequent years saw widespread discrimination in favour of Kenyatta’s own tribe, the Kikuyu. The Trade Union Disputes Act made industrial action illegal and when KADU tried to reassemble as the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) it was banned. Corruption soon became a problem at all levels of the power structure and the political arena contracted. Barely a decade after independence, much of the optimism had evaporated.
The Moi Years
Kenyatta was succeeded in 1978 by his vice-president, Daniel arap Moi. A Kalenjin, Moi was regarded by establishment power brokers as a suitable front man for their interests, as his tribe was relatively small and beholden to the Kikuyu.
On assumption of power, Moi sought to consolidate his regime by marginalising those who had campaigned to stop him from succeeding Kenyatta. Lacking a capital base of his own upon which he could build and maintain a patron-client network, and faced with shrinking economic opportunities, Moi resorted to the politics of exclusion. He reconfigured the financial, legal, political and administrative institutions. For instance, a constitutional amendment in 1982 made Kenya a de jure one-party state, while another in 1986 removed the security of tenure for the attorney-general, comptroller, auditor general and High Court judges, making all these positions personally beholden to the president. These developments had the effect of transforming Kenya from an ‘imperial state’ under Kenyatta to a ‘personal state’ under Moi.
Winds of Change
By the late 1980s, most Kenyans had had enough. Following the widely contested 1988 elections, Charles Rubia and Kenneth Matiba joined forces to call for the freedom to form alternative political parties and stated their plan to hold a political rally in Nairobi on 7 July 1990 without a licence. Though the duo was detained prior to their intended meeting, people turned out anyway, only to be met with brutal police retaliation. Twenty people were killed and police arrested a slew of politicians, human-rights activists and journalists.
The rally, known thereafter as Saba Saba (‘Seven Seven’ in Kiswahili), was a pivotal event in the push for a multiparty Kenya. The following year, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was formed, led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a powerful Luo politician and former vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta. FORD was initially banned and Odinga arrested, but the resulting outcry led to his release and, finally, a change in the constitution that allowed opposition parties to register for the first time.
Faced with a foreign debt of nearly US$9 billion and blanket suspension of foreign aid, Moi was pressured into holding multiparty elections in early 1992, but independent observers reported a litany of electoral inconsistencies. Just as worrying, about 2000 people were killed during ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley, widely believed to have been triggered by government agitation.
In 1992 Moi secured only 37% of the votes cast against a combined opposition tally of 63%, but he held on to power. The same results were replicated in the 1997 elections, when Moi once again secured victory with 40% of the votes cast against 60% of the opposition. After the 1997 elections, KANU was forced to bow to mounting pressure and initiate some changes: some Draconian colonial laws were repealed, as was the requirement for licences to hold political rallies.
On 7 August 1998, Islamic extremists bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and bringing al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to international attention for the first time. The effect on the Kenyan economy was devastating. It would take four years to rebuild the shattered tourism industry.
The Kibaki Years & Beyond
Having been beaten twice in the 1992 and 1997 elections due to disunity, 12 opposition groups united to form the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC). With Moi’s presidency due to end in 2002, many feared that he would alter the constitution again to retain his position. This time, though, he announced his intention to retire.
Moi put his weight firmly behind Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, as his successor, but the support garnered by NARC ensured a resounding victory for the party, with 62% of the vote. Mwai Kibaki was inaugurated as Kenya’s third president on 30 December 2002.
When Kibaki assumed office in January 2003, donors were highly supportive of the new government and its pledges to end corruption. In 2003–04, donors contributed billions of dollars to the fight against corruption, including support for the office of a newly appointed anticorruption ‘czar’.
Despite initial positive signs it became clear by mid-2004 that large-scale corruption was still a considerable problem in Kenya. Western diplomats alleged that corruption had cost the treasury US$1 billion since Kibaki took office. In February 2005 the British high commissioner, Sir Edward Clay, denounced the ‘massive looting’ of state resources by senior government politicians, including sitting cabinet ministers. Within days, Kibaki’s anticorruption ‘czar’, John Githongo, resigned and went into exile amid rumours of death threats related to his investigation of high-level politicians. He has since returned to the country at the head of an anticorruption NGO. With Githongo’s release of a damning, detailed dossier in February 2006, Kibaki was forced to remove three ministers from their cabinet positions.
At the root of the difficulties in fighting corruption were the conditions that brought Kibaki to power. The slow march to democratisation in Kenya has been attributed to the personalised nature of politics, where focus is placed on individuals with ethnic support bases rather than institutions. To maximise his electoral chances, Kibaki's coalition also included a number of KANU officials who were deeply implicated in the worst abuses of the Moi regime. Indebted to such people for power, Kibaki was only ever able to effect a half-hearted reshuffle of his cabinet. He also allowed his ministers a wide margin of manoeuvre to guarantee their continued support.
But the Kibaki government did at least succeed in making primary and secondary education more accessible for ordinary Kenyans, while state control over the economy was loosened.
Things Fall Apart
On 27 December 2007, Kenya held presidential, parliamentary and local elections. While the parliamentary and local-government elections were largely considered credible, the presidential elections were marred by serious irregularities, reported by both Kenyan and international election monitors, and by independent nongovernmental observers. Nonetheless, the Electoral Commission declared Mwai Kibaki the winner, triggering a wave of violence across the country.
The Rift Valley, Western Highlands, Nyanza Province and Mombasa – areas afflicted by years of political machination, previous election violence and large-scale displacement – exploded in ugly ethnic confrontations. The violence left more than 1000 people dead and over 600,000 people homeless.
Fearing for the stability of the most stable linchpin of East Africa, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and a panel of ‘Eminent African Persons’ flew to Kenya to mediate talks. A power-sharing agreement was signed on 28 February 2008 between President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the leader of the ODM opposition. The coalition provided for the establishment of a prime ministerial position (to be filled by Raila Odinga), as well as a division of cabinet posts according to the parties’ representation in parliament.
Despite some difficult moments, the fragile coalition government stood the test of time. Arguably its most important success was the progressive 2010 constitution, which was passed in a referendum by 67% of Kenya’s voters. Among the key elements of this new constitution are the devolution of powers to Kenya’s regions, the introduction of a bill of rights and the separation of judicial, executive and legislative powers.
In 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta won hotly contested presidential elections, claiming 50.07% of the vote and thereby avoiding the need for a run-off election against Raila Odinga. Despite widespread reports of irregularities in the conduct of the elections, the Supreme Court upheld the result and postelection violence was minimal. Kenya breathed a huge sigh of relief. He won again in 2017, and when the opposition challenged the outcome in court, the results were annulled and fresh elections called. The opposition boycotted the election and although President Kenyatta won, voter turnout was low and there was considerable uncertainty about the political road ahead.