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Country of several ethnic groups put together by the British as a result of building a railway from Mombasa to Kisumu for the purpose of ending the slave trade and trading with Uganda. In 1902 Joseph Chamberlain visited the area and suggested the area later known as the "White Highlands" should be offered to the Zionists as a possible home for the Jews (then still known as Uganda, before the present borders of the British territories were adjusted in 1902). The Zionist Congress refused it in 1905. At that time the area east of the Rift Valley was known as the East African Protectorate, and the area to the west was Uganda.

The peoples of Kenya represent three main linguistic groups. The largest groups are two groups of Bantu speakers who entered the country either from the west, through Uganda (Luhya, Kisii), or from the south via Tanzania (Kikuyu, Meru, Embu, Swahili).

Between the two is a "Nilo-Hamitic" group of peoples including Maasai and Kalenjin. On the lake shore is a group of Nilotic speakers who came from southern Sudan via northern Uganda. The latter two were traditionally cattle herders rather than agriculturalists though all are now farmers except the Maasai. Until recently these diverse groups had lived peacefully together since independence. The common languages of Swahili and English keep them together. However, political rivalry between Kikuyus and Kalenjin has led to sporadic fighting in the Central and Rift Valley provinces.

The coastal area of Kenya is heir to the Swahili tradition and includes the formerly important city states of Pate, Mombasa and Lamu. These peoples came under Portuguese domination in the 15th century, briefly under Ottoman influence in the 16th century, then under Omani Arab control and were ruled by Zanzibar until Zanzibar itself became a British protectorate in 1890.

Kenya came to be a British colony after explorers began travelling in the country and found glaciers on Mount Kenya (to the initial disbelief of people back in Europe). Anti-slavery campaigners agitated about the slave trade conducted by Arabs from Zanzibar between the area now known as Uganda and the coast. The area was declared to be the British East African protectorate and was awarded to Britain in the Berlin conference on colonial affairs. The government ordered a railway to be built between the coast at Mombasa and the inland lake at Kisumu. After crossing the rather arid plains, when the line reached the plateau a camp for contractors was built at Nairobi, which has become the main city of the country. The railways then crossed the Rift Valley with rather difficult engineering. Surveyors noted that the land was cool in climate and suitable for European type farming. Settlers were invited to build farms on it, mainly to provide traffic for the railway which linked the coast with Uganda via a steamer connection on the lake. At this time the frontier between the East African protectorate ran along the Rift Valley near present day Nakuru. It was later moved to where it is now and the eastern part renamed Kenya, after the mountain. No doubt part of the reason was to bring the European settlers into the same jurisdiction (not divided).

During colonial times Kenya had a settler community of farmers, some from South Africa, most from Britain. They occupied land in the plateau area (they called it the White Highlands) which seemed to be unused - though it was empty for two reasons: the land was being left fallow; the Kikuyu people had suffered from an outbreak of disease (Rinderpest) both of people and cattle and their population had fallen. The settler farmers therefore were resented and the local people believed that the land had been taken from them. This was the cause of the disturbances known by the British as the Emergency or the Mau Mau. From 1950 until 1955 guerrillas from the Kikuyu people tried to drive the farmers off the land. The result was to bring British troops into the colony and also closer British government interest.

The settlers, like those in Rhodesia, had wanted self-government but there were too few of them (20,000) to make this a realistic demand, although there was an elected legislative council to advise the governor. The Emergency (war against mainly the Kikuyu) set in motion the process of development to self-government and independence for the Africans, which occurred in 1963. Many of the settlers left.

Documents being released in 2011 have shown that within the Kikuyu community the British forces behaved with great brutality, including concentration camps (e.g. Hola) and torture and massacres.

There was also a population originating from India and Pakistan. They were brought by the British as workers on the railway and many came as traders who set up shops even in the rural areas. During the colonial period they filled many of the middle ranks of the civil service. There has been tension between them and the Africans and not a lot of cultural contact, though during colonial times the Asians controlled much of the retail trade and professions and some levels of the Civil Service. Some of these too have left.

Kenya has had a population growth rate of about 4%, near the theoretic upper limit - with signs that it may have begun to decline. But there is also a rapidly increasing infection by HIV. These are the main economic problems.

Until recently the government appears to have had the support of the American and British governments. British troops are usually in the country (ostensibly to train) and American ships of the Indian Ocean fleet use Mombasa as a port for frequent visits (despite the high HIV infection rate). The Kenyan government also had covert contacts with South Africa during the Apartheid period. They may have assisted western aid to the anti-government rebels in Mozambique. However, the end of the Cold War has altered Kenya's usefulness to the west and aid payments, which were originally partly intended to prevent Kenya dealing with the Soviet Union, are declining. How far is the call for democracy merely an excuse for running these payments down? As much of the money went into "Swiss Bank accounts" of the leaders the reluctance is explainable.

A large influx of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan are putting pressure on Kenya's resources, especially during the recent serious drought.


Bantu group




Kalenjin (& Maasai)


Lingua Franca: Kiswahili


English and Kiswahili







At independence the British negotiated a constitution which gave some autonomy to the Provinces, each with its own assembly. This was intended to promote ethnic harmony, especially to protect the smaller linguistic groups from domination by the larger. The Kenyatta government abolished the autonomy and created a unitary state. Probably there were in any case too few politicians to supply such a large number of elected posts, and too few civil servants to supply the governments. Nevertheless, in the long run this might have been a sensible approach to Kenya's government problems.

Since independence until 2002 the country was ruled by a single party - the Kenya African National Union (KANU) which was originally formed to press for independence. At independence in 1962 there were two parties but they merged. Of these KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) was a coalition of minority groups to counter the Kikuyus and Luos. KANU was a coalition of Kikuyus and Luos, the two largest peoples. Since then other parties were forbidden. At first elections could be contested by several candidates with a secret ballot but in 1987 the system of lining up behind candidates was introduced - a non-secret ballot. This lost the government much authority and there began in 1990 a call by intellectuals and churchmen for a multi-party system. This call was backed by the principle aid donors, the United States and Britain.

At independence the President was Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, who had led the campaign for independence. He had been one of the group of Africans who met in London at the end of the second world war to press for colonial reform. Another was Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. After being imprisoned by the colonial government after being accused of being a leader of Mau Mau (was he? Probably not.) he became the leader to whom the British transferred power.

He tended to favor the Kikuyus in government appointments. As they were energetic and many were well educated and they occupied the most fertile area (though most overcrowded) the country benefited. His successor Daniel Arap Moi is a Kalenjin, one of the minority groups - former leader of KADU. He has appointed people from this group to all powerful positions in the state. This is the cause of resentment from the Luos and Kikuyus.

The purported danger was that if a multi party system were introduced there would be ethnic struggle and an end to the lack of ethnic conflict which has characterized Kenyan politics and life since independence. The 2007 presidential election seems to have confirmed this.

But the danger of not introducing democracy was that guerrilla groups, in the time of Arap Moi only embryonic, would grow. The government appeared to have become increasingly authoritarian in its use of detention without trial and intimidation of the press.

There is resentment of the life style of the elite (the Wabenzi - the people with Benz cars) who, many would argue, have moved into the positions previously occupied by white settlers, while the standard of life of the mass of people has actually declined since independence.

The main reason for this is population growth which means that although the economy has grown, and many schools have been built they cannot keep up with the number of people who want to use them. In other countries increased population pressure on land has created civil unrest (e.g. Punjab, Sri Lanka). It is quite possible that Kenya will experience this too.

The Arap Moi government was reported to be extremely corrupt with ministers including the president having acquired vast wealth from corrupt practices. Foreign governments are now unwilling to lend or donate money to the government because of this corruption and human rights abuses. The effect of the corruption is the same as that of Mafia - reinvestable profits are creamed off and extracted from the economy.

In late December 1991 President Moi, with a show of reluctance, announced that there would be elections. However, the opposition parties were by no means free to hold meetings; arrests of opposition figures continued.

Elections took place in December 1992. The opposition split into several groups so that the Moi regime won. There were reports of illegal acts by the government party but the main cause of the result was failure to unite. Will foreign aid donors accept the result and restore payments? The allegedly corrupt ministers were reappointed.

An unfortunate effect of the elections was to provoke fighting between Kalenjins (Moi's people) and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley and Central provinces. This is a bad precedent.

A deterioration of the political situation continued during 1993, with fighting, assassinations of opposition politicians. The future did not look good as the military came from the president's Kalenjin people.

A crimewave shows the results of a corrupt and incompetent government.

Results of the elections at the end of 1997 were disputed. President Moi claimed a personal victory although votes against him were more than votes for him. The opposition parties claimed more parliamentary seats than the ruling party.

In December 2002 after President Daniel arap Moi had announced his retirement, an election resulted in his preferred successor being rejected by the voters, and a coalition of opposition groups (National Rainbow Coalition) elected a veteran Kikuyu politician, Mwai Kibaki.

The main significance may be that the Kikuyu will rise in prestige and the former president's minority Kalenjin may lose their hitherto privileged position. Kibaki promised to 'fight corruption' but his associates include many of those who grew wealthy in office in the past. In Feb 2005 there was a report by the British Ambassador suggesting that corruption (embezzlement of state funds) was as bad as before.

In November a new constitution was presented to the electorate, who rejected it. The voters outside Kikuyuland seem to have decided the new constitution allowed too much unaccountable power to the President and not enough to a Prime Minister.

The December 2007 presidential election was suspicious when although President Kibaki's ministers lost their seats and the party of the main challenger Raila Odinga gained most seats the electoral commission declared Mwai Kibaki to be the winner, despite exit polls suggesting he had been defeated. Riots then followed. It was suspected that the counting of votes had been manipulated - much as in Florida in 2000.

Raila Odinga is a Luo from the west of the country. If he takes power the peoples of that area hope to see more investment as they consider their homeland has been neglected during the years of Kalenjin and Kikuyu control - but he seems to have support in most of the non-Kikuyu parts of the country. The riots have taken an ominous ethnic form. Raila's supporters think that the Kikuyu group around Kibaki (who has had a stroke) do not wish to surrender their lucrative posts.

The riots have already resulted in many deaths. However, on 4 January 2008 the president said he would accept a re-run of the election if the courts ordered it.

But since then no progress has been made though monitoring organisations are more and more convinced that the counting process was rigged.

Eventually, in April 2008 a joint cabinet was agreed, with Raila Odinga being appointed prime minister (a new post). Will this solve the problem? It is difficult to see how the two sides will work together, especially as the cabinet has been enlarged so much.

(It is a well known principle that large committees and cabinets do not work in making decisions.)

The new cabinet was officially inaugurated 17 April 2008. Does it work? It's too soon to tell.

A referendum endorsed a new constitution in August 2010. This will make it possible to impeach a president and to recall MPs (hold an election to dismiss a member of parliament). It also creates a Bill of Rights and decentralises power to the counties (the object of the original constitution of 1962 - Majimbo).

New elections were held in February 2013. The presidential result was thought to depend on a second election - a run-off between the Luo candidate and the Kikuyu candidate, but Kenyatta was declared elected.

Interesting reading

Ngugi wa Thiongo

Weep Not, Child (African Writers Series)
- the River Between
UT, Nr.99, Der Fluþ dazwischen

Jomo Kenyatta

Facing Mount Kenya

Is the state too centralised?

Decentralization and Devolution in Kenya: New Approaches

Charles Miller - Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism.

The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism (Penguin Classic History)

Ngugi wa Thiongo - Dreams in a Time of War

Dreams in a Time of War
Caroline Elkins - Imperial Reckoning

Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya







Kenya has the elements of a market economy and the industrial and agricultural sectors have performed better than its neighbors (Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia).

However population growth has made it impossible for the average standard of living to rise. Only if population growth - 4% - had been controlled could this growth -1% - have resulted in real growth in the standard of living.

Kenya can grow: Coffee, Tea, Tropical fruits, Pyrethrum, temperate crops, dairy products. But these are being affected by droughts associated with the El Nino event in the Pacific.

There are few minerals.

Energy comes from hydroelectricity (vulnerable to increasing drought as the climate changes), geothermal steam and imported oil. There is also potential for wind power. No oil or coal has been found.

It has a larger industrial sector than its neighbors. Corruption is probably preventing further growth as profits are siphoned off instead of being reinvested.

As with many third world countries money coming from outside as aid is an important part of the economy. This is why foreign governments used the threat of withholding aid to force the government to allow free elections. Following the elections, aid was not resumed as the Moi government won and canceled the IMF policies. Corruption did not stop, and may have increased. Corruption is an important hindrance to economic growth. It drains the profits of business and means there is less available for reinvestment.

During the 1992 election the government committed a textbook example of monetary manipulation when, according to IMF reports, it issued 25,000 million shillings as electoral bribes. This resulted 6 months later in 55% annual inflation and massive devaluations, thus confirming the basic theories of monetary supply (and impoverishing the population). On the whole Kenya had had a better record than its neighbors of maintaining the value of its currency since the common East African Shilling split in 1966. This record has now ended and gross inflation can be expected, as has already occurred in Uganda and Tanzania.

The discovery of oil in Uganda is likely to revolutionise Kenya's economy. A large oil port at Lamu, financed by the Chinese with rail and pipeline connections is planned (destroying the historic town, a major tourist attraction).

A common East African currency - the East African Shilling was due to be introduced in 2010 (but see East African Community).







Extensive deforestation is resulting in land erosion, especially in the higher country. This comes mostly from demand for charcoal, the main fuel of the poor, especially in towns, and also a need for land for planting new farms to accommodate the rapidly increasing population. A result is floods on low land, near Lake Victoria.

Thus a very fertile land capable of immense productivity is under serious threat from the demands being made of it.

There is a government program to encourage family planning. Although it was started very late it is beginning to be effective. The fertility rate has declined, though not yet enough to prevent considerable future population growth. Already Kikuyuland and parts of the Western Province are showing signs of serious population pressure as there are too many people trying to follow traditional lives on the land. The number of landless people is rising rapidly as there is no new land to clear. This suggests the situation of Ireland in the 1840s - the years of famine. Nairobi is in an early stage of the explosive growth found in other such cities, Mexico, Calcutta, Lagos. Street children are already a serious problem.

It is too soon to predict the effect of AIDS but a serious drop in population is a possibility as it has been estimated that one third of urban adults are infected.

Kenya is a center for research into AIDS and an institute there discovered that some humans are immune to the HIV.

A serious drought affected the country in early 1992 and again in 2006. This is part of a drought affecting the whole of eastern and southern Africa again in 2009.






Human Rights

There have been many unexplained deaths of politicians suspected of opposition and there is imprisonment without trial.

There was no secret ballot, though it was restored for the 1992 election. However, electoral corruption is common with voters being denied registration, bribery and other methods.

Judges can be dismissed by the President at will; therefore there is no independent judiciary. Most of the press and other media do not criticize the government often.

Police are suspected of systematic torture of political prisoners. Generally bad and worsening.

Ethnic cleansing was reported in the Rift Valley in 1992 as government (Kalenjin) forces remove opposition (Kikuyu) people. Another incident was reported in 1997 in Mombasa.

Will the reverse happen, now (2002) that the president is a Kikuyu? Yes, there is some evidence that the powerful people are now from the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru peoples.

Since the fraudulent presidential election of December 2007 there has been an outbreak of rioting and killing on a large scale.

Climate effects

Snow and ice on Mount Kenya are already melting. Two million people are reliant for water on the glaciers which will probably be gone by 2030. Kenya's hydroelectric power also comes from the Tana river fed by these glaciers.

All parts of the country are likely to be affected by Climate Change. The reliability of the Monsoon rains, two per year, is in danger. Part of the reason is probably deforestation but heavier rains will lead to flooding, especially in the various rift valleys such as that near Kisumu. The northern Arid area is likely to become even drier making life for the nomads harder.

Written by a former Education officer in Kenya

Last revised15/02/13

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