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A black and white image of a man waving a flywhisk while holding up one finger and gesturing at a crowd. He is standing at the back of a vehicle driven by a man in military uniform. A cheering crowd of men and women waves back while holding up their index fingers
Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta waves at a crowd. Harry Benson/Getty Images

Kenya at 60: six key moments that shaped post-colonial politics

Kenya celebrates 60 years of independence this year. As a political scientist who has studied Kenya for the past 20 years, I consider a turning point from each decade that helped to shape the east African country’s post-colonial politics. I haven’t selected elections, assassinations or other moments that have enjoyed much coverage over the years. Instead, I turn to often-forgotten moments that shed light on the country’s key steps forward – and backwards – and the role of agency and institutions.

1964: The Lanet mutiny

In the 1960s and 1970s, governments across Africa fell to military coups and countercoups. These nations suffered the arbitrary and authoritarian rule of military leaders.

Kenya managed to avoid this fate. A regiment based at Lanet in Nakuru did stage an unsuccessful mutiny in 1964. In response, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta – as Kenyan political scholar Musambayi Katumanga has detailed – opted to keep the military small. He relied instead on various police units.

Kenyatta also “gradually altered the military’s ethnic composition”, which, at that time, was disproportionately composed of officers from Kalenjin, Kamba, Samburu and Somali communities. He increased the number of co-ethnic Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest and most economically dominant ethnic group.

These measures helped to ensure the military’s loyalty to the regime. But at a cost. The multiplication of security units undermined control and accountabiliy.

The strategy of ethnic recruitment and promotion reinforced a sense of an ethnically biased state. It was a strategy copied by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, after a coup attempt in 1982. Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki, also adopted it after the country’s 2007/8 post-election crisis.

1976: The Change the Constitution Movement

By the mid-1970s, Kenyatta was unwell. To prevent the automatic succession of his vice-president, Moi, a group of prominent Kikuyu politicians attempted to change the constitution. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Power transferred peacefully to Moi upon Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

Nevertheless, the attempt had three important legacies:

  • the military had once again been kept out of national politics

  • the new president was made acutely aware of the insecurity of his position

  • a popular sense grew of how a Kikuyu elite felt entitled to rule.

1980: The crackdown begins

For the first year or so, Moi largely followed in Kenyatta’s footsteps, or “nyayo” in Kiswahili. He blocked any real opposition but left space for broader political debate.

However, in 1980, Moi’s more authoritarian streak began to show. He banned the Nairobi University Students’ Organisation and deregistered the University Academic Staff Union and Kenya Civil Servants Union. He also ordered ethnicity-based associations to wind up their affairs in the interest of “national unity”.

Authoritarianism came to characterise the 1980s as people were required to follow in Moi’s footsteps.

1990: Timothy Njoya’s new year speech

In November 1991, the Paris Club of donors, an informal group of western creditors, suspended US$350 million in aid to Kenya until political reforms were initiated. The following month, a constitutional amendment was rushed through parliament, paving the way for a return to multi-party elections.

This timeline could mistakenly be taken to suggest that it was donor pressure that forced constitutional reform. But there was already substantive pressure for multi-party politics from within Kenya.

A tidal change occurred at the dawn of 1990 when, in a new year speech, theologian Timothy Njoya speculated on how much longer Kenya would be a one-party state. Opposition elements –- most notably, religious and civil society leaders, and politicians marginalised from the political centre –- became increasingly vocal in their demands for multi-party politics.

It was these domestic demands – together with the threat of suspended aid – that forced Moi’s hand and prompted a return to multi-party politics in the early 1990s. Still, Moi sought to control the transition.

2005: The constitutional referendum

In 2002, Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition ousted independence party Kanu in a landslide victory. This prompted a moment of great optimism in Kenya.

However, divisions soon wracked the coalition as reports emerged of corruption scandals and ethnic bias. Promises of constitutional reform were watered down. Popular frustration showed when Kenyans rejected the draft constitution in the 2005 referendum.

The referendum and general elections that followed meant that Kenya was in intense campaign period for over two years. This elongated campaign drew attention to frustrated hopes. It also presented the government as from and for the Kikuyu.

The referendum also increased confidence in the electoral commission. This meant that people paid relatively little attention to developments like Kibaki’s unilateral judicial appointments.

Finally, the referendum fostered a sense that the opposition would win the 2007 election unless it was rigged. Together with a problematic election and history of unpunished election-related violence, these factors fuelled Kenya’s greatest post-colonial crisis. More than 1,000 people were killed and almost 700,000 displaced in violence after the 2007 election.

2011: A new chief justice

The 2007/8 crisis paved the way for a new constitution in 2010. Among other things, it devolved power to 47 new county governments. It also established a new bill of rights and created the supreme court. The latter has exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine presidential election petitions, and determine appeals from the court of appeal. It also determines cases that involve interpretation or application of the constitution.

As the highest court in the land, the leadership of the supreme court is critical. It marked a turning point when Willy Mutunga –- a highly respected human rights advocate –- was appointed as the court’s first chief justice. Some criticise Mutunga for having validated Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto’s election in 2013. However, he also presided over decisions that protected the devolution of power and the bill of rights. And he oversaw reforms and judicial learnings that helped to establish a more independent court. Reforms that – together with his successor’s brave leadership – made the supreme court’s annulment of the August 2017 election possible.

The lesson from these moments: individuals can make a difference for good or bad, particularly when they help to reshape the institutions that will outlive them.

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