About Kenya

About Kenya


Pre-colonial African society in Kenya consisted of a large number of relatively small competing ethnic groups feuding over natural resources such as land, water and pasture all of which were coupled with territorial disputes. The basic units of governance were the extended family and the clan. In a predominantly polygamous society these basic, patriarchal units could be quite large. Superimposed on the family were clans, which were defined by relationship to a common ancestor and usually were loosely governed by a council of elders. Economic activities ranged from hunter-gatherer, fishing, and arable and livestock production. Most African communities in Kenya lacked the population concentration to create the more complex hierarchical rule found in the Great Lakes Region (Rwanda-Burundi, Uganda) and Ethiopia. Instead we had large number of relatively small competing ethnic groups.


In 1895, Britain declared (what would later become Kenya) an East African Protectorate with its headquarters in Mombasa. However, exerting control over such a vast area without a modern and efficient transport system was a mission impossible. Between 1896 and 1901, the Kenya-Uganda Railway was built covering 900 km from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. The railway which cost £5.5 million at the time revolutionized transport between the coast and the hinterland. It also led to an influx of white settlers who alienated for themselves the most fertile African lands with the approval of the protectorate administration. Questions then emerged within the administration of the sustainability of the railway by the majority African population who were mainly involved in subsistence farming. It was resolved that only white settlers would make the railway self-sustaining as had happened in Canada and New Zealand.

In 1920, the East African Protectorate was renamed the Kenya Colony and Protectorate. Taxes were imposed on the African population particularly the hut tax and poll tax. The colonial administration introduced an administrative structure which borrowed heavily from the larger British colonial system of “indirect rule.” Chiefs and headmen were created for this purpose. The chiefs who were granted wide latitude of powers by the colonial administration were responsible for the maintenance of law and order. They arbitrated local disputes and commanded the tribal (later the administration) police. They were also responsible for the collection of taxes. The other administrative structures created by the British were those of Local Government (Local Native Councils), African Tribunal Courts and the Kenya Police.

The pre-occupation of the colonial administration then was largely to ensure the maintenance of law and order over the length and breadth of the Colony. It was also geared to serve a racial segregationist system with whites at the apex, then the Asians and Africans at the lowest level of the food chain

African Resistance to Colonial Rule

The completion of the railway saw an influx of European settlers invited by the colonial government with offers of huge leases for the most fertile land in the country. Thus, the lands with high agricultural potential especially in the Central highlands and the vast Rift Valley provinces came to be occupied by white settlers. These fertile lands became known as the White Highlands. The settler occupation had the immediate effect of displacing huge rural populations to create land for white farmers. This caused disaffection with the natives. By the 1930s, approximately 30,000 white settlers lived in these prime lands in the process gaining a political voice because of their contribution to the colony’s market economy.

The Central highlands were the ancestral lands to more than one million members of the Kikuyu community, majority of who had no land claims in European terms and lived as squatters. To protect their interests, the settlers banned the growing of coffee, introduced a hut tax. Landless natives were granted less and less land in exchange for their labour. A massive exodus of natives to urban areas ensued as their ability to eke a living from the land dwindled. There were approximately 80,000 white settlers living in Kenya in the 1950s.

The Kikuyu community made peaceful efforts to resolve its dispossession of the best lands by the settlers to no avail. In 1931, the Kikuyu Central Association sent Jomo Kenyatta (later to become Kenya’s first president) to petition the British government on the issue but this had little or no impact. The patience of the Kikuyu population wore thin with time leading to the outbreak of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952.

The Mau Mau Rebellion

From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. The governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, requested and obtained British and African troops, including the King’s African Rifles to counter the insurgency.

Operation Anvil opened on 24 April 1954, after weeks of planning by the army with the approval of the War Council. The operation effectively placed Nairobi under military siege with African residents being screened and perceived Mau Mau supporters moved to detention camps. The Home Guard formed the core of the government’s strategy as it was composed of loyalist Africans. The capture of Dedan Kimathi – in effect the Commander-in-Chief of the Mau Mau – in October 1956 in Nyeri signified the crushing of the Mau Mau and the end of the rebellion. The colonial government used this period to make substantial changes to land tenure policy. The most important of these was the Swynnerton Plan, which was used to both reward loyalists and punish Mau Mau.

Towards Independence

The 1950s witnessed a radical shift in British colonial policy with then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan saying that if the costs of holding onto a particular territory far outweighed the benefits then it should be dispensed with. The Colonial Secretary, Sir Iain Macleod, subsequently accelerated decolonization and by 1961 had made the decision to grant independence to Nigeria, Tanganyika, Kenya, Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The British government organised three conferences at Lancaster House in London with Kenyan leaders to discuss a new constitution for the country.


Kenya attained independence in 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister under a Westminiter Constitution which divided the country into eight regions each with its government. The Queen of England was nominally the Head of State while Kenyatta was the Head of Government. This changed a year later when the country adopted a republican constitution making Kenyatta the president as well as head of state and government.
Kenyatta in his inaugural speech declared poverty, disease and ignorance as the three adversaries his government would strive to address. These were later enshrined in the seminal Sessional Paper No. 10 on African Socialism, the development blueprint that would guide the country’s socio-economic development path for the next four decades.
The country lacked skilled and adequate manpower in almost all fields. This resulted in the massive airlifts under the initiative of Tom Mboya for young Kenyans to study in American colleges and universities. Kenyatta’s first Vice President Oginga Odinga also organized parallel airlifts to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and India. These educated young men and women would play a crucial role in running the nascent African public service from the departing European civil servants.
Africanisation of the Public Service
The Kenyatta administration embarked on an Africanisation programme which was largely undertaken to indigenize the Kenyan civil service which was dominated by Europeans in all sectors. Africans took over the upper levels of the civil service at a rapid pace with the process being concluded by 1965, except for a few professional and technical positions. The University College, Nairobi (now UoN) was one such public institution where whites and other expatriates continued to dominate especially the academic positions through to the 1970s.
The Kenyatta era produced a largely “Administrative State” where bureaucrats rather than politicians wielded most state powers. This was because the President had greater confidence in civil servants as opposed to politicians.
The government was the engine of economic development and the biggest employer. It also held significant sway over economic policy as evidenced by: providing assistance to Africans to take over settler farms; modernising agriculture in rural areas, and; facilitating African entrepreneurs to establish businesses. The government also set up several state corporations to undertake development and/or provide specialized services in areas considered strategic to economic growth or where private entities lacked the huge initial capital outlays for investment.
However, the 1970s and early 1980s revealed inherent weaknesses in a highly centralized system of government. There were already glaring inequalities in development across the nation with most investments going to the former White Highlands in Central and Rift Valley provinces, and urban areas at the expense of the rest of the country. This inequitable allocation of resources spawned unemployment, financial crisis and rapid rural-urban migration.
Moi Era 1978-2002
Vice President Daniel arap Moi ascended to the presidency following the demise of President Kenyatta in August 1978. Moi retained the Presidency unopposed in elections held in 1979, 1983 and 1988, all elections held under the single party constitution. The 1983 polls were held a year early, and were a direct result of an abortive military coup attempt on 2 August 1982.
The abortive coup was masterminded by a low ranked Air Force serviceman, Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka, and was staged mainly by enlisted men in the Air Force. The putsch was quickly suppressed by forces commanded by Chief of General Staff Mahamoud Mohamed. They included the General Service Unit — a paramilitary wing of the police — and later the regular police.
Return to Multi-partyism
The 1998 election was held under the controversial mlolongo (queue voting) system, where voters were supposed to line up behind their preferred candidates rather than the secret ballot. Massive rigging took place and led to widespread agitation for constitutional reform. The turning point was in late 1991 when Moi prevailed upon Parliament to repeal Section 2(a) of the Constitution to allow for the formation of other political parties other than the ruling Kanu party. The tenure for which an individual could serve as president was also limited to two five-year terms. In multiparty elections held in 1992 and 1997, Daniel arap Moi won re-election against a divided opposition.
The Moi era was characterized by hard economic times which were the result of collapse of commodity prices on the world market, mismanagement of public resources, corruption and a bloated public service. The Government could not sustain service delivery standards to the satisfaction of the citizens. Public service reform became inevitable. This brought about the Public Sector Reform Programmes PSRPs). The gist of PSRPs was to bring about improvement in the delivery of public services. Moi’s major achievements were twofold: he maintained national and political stability, and; he presided over the expansion of the education sector at all levels.
Kibaki Era 2003-2013
President Moi retired in 2002 after completing his second and final term. He was succeeded by Mwai Kibaki, until then, the Official Leader of the Opposition and at one time Moi’s former Vice President. The new government inherited a stagnant economy saddled with high poverty, unemployment, inflation and interest rates. The task before the new administration was threefold: to restore economic growth; to generate employment opportunities that would absorb the high number of unemployed, especially the youth, and; to reduce the high levels of poverty.
The Kibaki administration came up with the Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation 2003-2007 as the primary vehicle through which it would improve provision of education, health and infrastructural services to Kenyans and create new jobs. The overall outcome of implementation of the ERS was improved growth in the Gross Domestic Product, increased collection of revenue and significant growth in foreign exchange reserves. There was also improved performance in the building and construction, tourism, manufacturing and ICT sectors.
The Kenya Vision 2030 is the country’s long-term development blueprint. The Vision which is being implemented through a series of five-year Medium Term Plans succeeded the ERS.
One of the pre-election promises of the Kibaki regime during the 2002 was the delivery of a new constitution which Kenyans had yearned for over the years. The constitution review process started in earnest in 2003 but later collapsed due to contentious issues which included: whether to adopt a presidential or parliamentary system of government; devolution; number of levels of government, and; whether Islamic Kadhi’s courts should be entrenched in the constitution or not. The government took over the process and came up with a draft constitution which was taken to a referendum in November 2005. The draft was overwhelmingly rejected at the referendum after an acrimonious campaign. Kibaki dissolved the entire Cabinet except the Vice President Moody Awori. He used the opportunity to reorganize his government in the process dismissing ministers from the rival Liberal Democratic Party wing of the National Rainbow Coalition which had propelled him to power in 2003. The referendum and its aftermath planted the seeds of discord which would explode into the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
2007 General Election and Post-Election Violence
Kenyans went to the general election on December 2007. The election comprised Presidential, parliamentary and civic elections. The parliamentary and civic elections were considered to be generally free and fair. The presidential election was however perceived to be flawed with the results being bitterly contested by the mainstream opposition coalition. In the Presidential election, incumbent President Kibaki under the Party of National Unity ran for re-election against veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The tallying process was seen to as flawed with international observers saying that they were below international standards. This led to protests and open discrediting of the Electoral Commission of Kenya for complicity with Odinga rejecting the results and calling his supporters to mass action all over the country.
The protests escalated into ethnic violence and destruction of property, over 1,000 people were killed with a further 600,000 being displaced. The dispute stoked underlying tensions over land to re-erupt especially in the expansive Rift Valley Province, as in the 1992 and 1997 general elections. An African Union Panel of Eminent African Persons led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a peace agreement to end the political stalemate. The Annan panel brokered the National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement which among other things provided for the formation of a broad-based Grand Coalition Government and review of the constitution.


On 13 April 2008, President Kibaki named a Grand Coalition Cabinet of 41 Ministers- including Odinga as the prime minister with two deputy prime ministers. The cabinet, which included 50 Assistant Ministers, was sworn in at the State House in Nairobi on four days later in the presence of Dr. Kofi Annan and other invited guests.
The constitution review process which had stalled three years earlier was revived and completed. A referendum to vote on the draft constitution was held on August 4, 2010 with the majority of Kenyans voting for the adoption of the new constitution. The new constitution inter alia delineates 47 county governments and gives Kenyans a comprehensive bill of rights. It was promulgated on August 27, 2010 at a euphoric ceremony in Nairobi’s historic Uhuru Park. The coming into effect of the new constitution heralded the beginning of the Second Republic.


President Kibaki was prohibited by the constitution from running for a third term. In the first general election held under the new constitution, the Jubilee Coalition’s Uhuru Kenyatta won with 50.51% of the vote in March 2013 against the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy’s Raila Odinga. Mr Kenyatta formed a government consisting of 18 Cabinet Secretaries (Ministers under the new constitution). There are also 47 county governments headed by governors directly elected by the people.

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