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The brutal legacy of Britain’s colonial rule in Kenya

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Ken Olende looks how British intervention has shaped Kenya's problems
Issue 2083
British troops checking documents in Nairobi during the Emergency

British troops checking documents in Nairobi during the Emergency

The British occupied Kenya, east Africa, in the late 19th century when they were rushing to grab the headwaters of the Nile in Lake Victoria, in what is now Uganda. They wanted to stop any other European Empire being able to threaten ‘British interests’ in the Middle East.

They built a railway across modern Kenya, then called the East Africa Protectorate, to supply the garrison near Lake Victoria.

The colony was only developed after the indigenous peoples were savagely crushed.

In London there were debates about what to do with the new territory. It never occurred to the British government to ask the people already living there.

This area had its own history before the imperialists arrived. Africans had not been living in an unchanging way since time immemorial.

Ethnic groups, popularly called “tribes”, are relatively fluid. Indeed many modern tribes were given their current dimensions and even names when they were classified by the colonialists.

Intermarriage between groups was not uncommon – to the extent that there is a Kikuyu saying “We marry our enemies”.

Having subdued the people, the British imposed a system of what they called “indirect rule” through local chiefs who they appointed themselves.

Many of these became very wealthy by appropriating land in the “African reserves”. European settlers took the best farmland for their own use in the “White Highlands”, where no African could own property.


Africans paid most of the taxes, while settlers received virtually the entire benefit of government services. Africans were banned from growing the most profitable crops.

Various African rights organisations developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Some united people across ethnic groups and were successful in starting to push back European privilege.

The settlers responded with the divide and rule tactic of only dealing with organisations based on a single “tribe”.

Africans found their situation deteriorating after the Second World War.

The settlers’ “Kenya plan” encouraged white ex-soldiers to immigrate by offering good farming land, while demobbed Africans could find neither land nor work.

A new resistance to the apartheid that Africans lived under developed in the cities, often through trade unions, which led some very effective strikes.

Africans who supported colonialism, known as “loyalists”, and black police were killed in the beginning of what became known as the Mau Mau rebellion. Several white settlers were also slain.

The colonial administration declared a state of emergency in 1952 and successfully detained the African nationalist leadership, conservative and radical alike. There was a vast expansion of detention without trial as a system of detention camps was established.

The Home Guard, armed and encouraged by the government, entered into an effective civil war with the Mau Mau and their supporters.

There was a distinct class element to this. The chiefs and loyalists had grabbed the best land in the reserves.

Setting up a black landowning class was Kenya government policy.

The government’s leading agricultural expert said, “Able, energetic or rich Africans will be able to acquire more land and bad or poor farmers less, creating a landed and a landless class. This is a normal step in the evolution of a country.”


Since those convicted of rebellion could have their land confiscated there was an incentive for loyalists to accuse local enemies of Mau Mau membership.

Farmers were forcibly moved into guarded, fenced villages.

This process involved almost the entire rural Kikuyu population of 1.5 million. With no outside support the movement was effectively defeated by 1956, though the state of emergency remained until 1960.

A few statistics cut through the demonising of the Mau Mau as “barbaric” – 32 white civilians, 63 white military and 527 “loyalists” were killed in the rebellion.

In contrast, the official figure for rebel deaths was 11,503, while the real toll was probably closer to 30,000. On top of this some 80,000 people were held in detention camps.

Britain won the war, but would never again risk the costs of another insurgency.

The settlers, who were reliant on the British, had to accept African demands for Kenyan independence in 1963.

But the situation created during the emergency remained under independence – the poor remained largely destitute, while loyalists were able to buy up white farms and join a new black capitalist class.

The demands of the rebels for land redistribution were never seriously met, although in the period immediately after independence there were genuine radicals in parliament who tried to argue for the rights of the poor.

These included Oginga Odinga, the father of Raila Odinga, the populist candidate in the recent election.

There was some attempt at land redistribution in the 1960s when Britain worked with the new government on the “million-acre scheme”.

Eventually about 17 percent of the land held by white farmers was redistributed, but it was nowhere near enough to solve the problem of land hunger.

The British shaped the new government, and ensured that it would protect British interests.

As these interests remained protected and the government became increasingly authoritarian, successive British governments turned a blind eye to increasing repression and poverty, always preferring to praise Kenya’s “stability”.

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