Myths and Truths Jomo Kenyatta's Hollow Legacy

Jomo Kenyatta may be remembered as a prominent Kenyan nationalist and a leader of the Kenyan independence movement. However, his actual contributions to Kenya’s independence fail to live up to his legacy.

Amongst a population of older Kenyans, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, retains a hero status. This generation, which recalls the grim days of colonialism, views Kenyatta as a saviour, a luminary who fought against malevolent white colonialists and ushered in a new age of black rule and independence in Kenya. In some ways, this is true. Life under colonialism was harsh for black Africans, who could not vote, and often lived in conditions akin to slavery in service to a racially segregated system. The indignities of life under this system were not only physical but also had a strong social and mental element; being Black meant being backward and atavistic, and ‘blackness’ carried with it a sense of inherent otherness and limitation. Kenya was a White man’s country, and a Black person’s only conceivable role in such a system was in service to a hierarchy that negated their very sense of being.

Independence, therefore, meant an end to a rigid colour bar. The physical barriers to integration were withdrawn, and high-end restaurants like the Norfolk and the Stanley, long markers for the high status of Whites, became ‘open’ to Africans. Religious institutions such as the whites-only All Saints Cathedral Church also opened their doors to blacks, and a progressive ‘Africanization’ policy meant that wealth, status and mobility became achievable for a people that had long known a racial glass ceiling. Jomo Kenyatta, portrayed as the man who led the effort to destroy the racial barriers and put Africans in power, therefore assumed the protagonist’s role in the popular narrative.

A popular narrative is, however, not always an accurate one. Various accounts have challenged Kenyatta’s perceived role in the militant struggle, his pan-Africanist ideology and his portrayal as a unifying leader. While Kenyatta’s prominent positioning in the independence movement is not in question, his actual contributions to the struggle require closer scrutiny. A portrayal of his legacy is hence incomplete without an analysis of the various myths surrounding it.


Jomo Kenyatta is often placed amongst the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, and Julius Nyerere as the crop of leaders that ushered independence to formerly colonized African states. In ‘undoing’ colonialism, the leaders placed themselves at the forefront of changing global dynamics. African states had begun to gain independence in what British prime minister Harold Macmillan termed the wind of change, and throughout the world a sense of anticolonialism and antiracism took hold.

Kenyatta’s links to pan-Africanism go back to his student days in Europe, where he had come across and been influenced by George Padmore, a Trinidadian with links to the Russian Communist Party and who was active amongst writers dedicated to anti-colonialism in Africa. Alongside Padmore and other pan-Africanists, Kenyatta organized the fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945. The event featured prominent speakers such as W.E.B Du Bois, Amy Garvey, and future African presidents, Hastings Banda and Kwame Nkrumah, and called for the independence of African and West Indian nations. Kenyatta himself spoke at the convention, presenting an ‘East African’ perspective and calling for political independence, self-reliance and an end to racial discrimination.

The historical record of Kenyatta’s pan-Africanism, however, begins to falter with his return to Kenya in 1946. While he continued to agitate for majority rule and joined a nationalist coalition, Kenyatta hardly appealed to a sense of broader African unity beyond Kenya’s boundaries, and struggled to match rhetoric to action in the rare cases where he did so. What became more prominent, instead, were his moderate calls for African governance and self-reliance, which coincided with the status and title that he assumed upon his return.

After independence and the assumption of power, Kenyatta appeared to drop all pretence of pan-Africanism or pro-African reform in Kenya. One of his first acts was to undermine the Independence Constitution (the 1962 Constitution of Kenya), which had aimed to establish a decentralized federal political system, in favour of a centrist state. Consequently, the state retained control of local governance, policing and public service, and regions became more reliant on the centre.

The result was increased state and ruling party power, and the gradual weakening of the opposition. As the 1960s progressed, the state used its machinery to suppress dissent and opposition to the extent that opposing parties found it difficult to function, making Kenya in effect a one-party state.

With power consolidated and the opposition suppressed, Kenyatta maintained and developed the inequalities that had been inherited from the colonial state. The most evident of these was the distribution of resources. At independence, Kenya was a racially stratified and unequal society, with White settlers dominating industry, commerce and government positions. With Kenyatta at the helm, this settler class was replaced with an African elite, but the unequal system remained intact.

Kenyatta utilized his position to secure key cabinet and military positions for elite Africans, mainly from his Kikuyu tribe, and it was this class that took up the majority of the land and commercial holdings of departing White settlers. This ‘land capture’ by the elite was pivotal in creating a post-colonial hierarchy at the expense of a large number of colonially dispossessed Africans and remains a contentious issue in Kenya to this day.

Kenyatta’s claims to pan-Africanism are further undermined by his retention of British intelligence and influence at independence. Historian Daniel Branch observes that despite Kenya’s stated official foreign policy being ‘positive non-alignment’ i.e. a rejection of ‘Western Capitalism and Eastern Communism’, the country maintained favourable relations with Britain and the United States, sustaining a pro-West and pro-capitalist outlook. As a result, foreign policy decisions were made from these perspectives, which affected domestic policies as well.

In return for arms, technical support, aid and personnel, Kenyatta became a Western client. He ensured a Western-oriented Kenyan government and supported favourable perspectives in international bodies like the United Nations and Organization of African Unity at a time when anti-colonial efforts were ongoing in other parts of Africa.

Lastly, Kenyatta’s use of political office for personal enrichment gives indications of his motivations for taking office. Kenyatta’s enrichment through status and position had begun on his return to Kenya, as he used his position as head of an independent African college to acquire land and a house for himself.  This acquisitive tendency continued as president, and was pervasive to such an extent that his family became one of the richest in the country, with massive landholdings throughout its corners, and interests in various lucrative areas of commerce and industry.

As a result of his personalization of power, Kenyatta’s personal interests became inseparable from those of the state.  This also meant that public institutions lacked the ability, and often the will, to question his activities. Consequently, reports of his extensive wealth began to emerge and his family was rumoured to be involved in lucrative illegal activities such as the ivory trade.


Jomo Kenyatta’s name is often associated with the militant struggles of the Mau Mau, which lasted from 1952 to 1959. The Mau Mau, a militant and predominantly Kikuyu group, had broken from the moderate, constitutional approaches of its political predecessors and favoured more extreme tactics. This militancy, which led to the killings of White settlers and moderate Africans, resulted in a declaration of war by the colonial government, which received extensive support from the British army.

Jomo Kenyatta, long seen as a prominent leader amongst the Kikuyu, was linked to the uprising by the colonial government and subsequently detained in the earlier phases of the insurgency. His detention was quickly followed by a dramatic trial in 1952 in which Kenyatta was imprisoned for seven years for ‘managing the Mau Mau’.

The association between Kenyatta and the Mau Mau would continue after his release from prison in 1961, chiefly because of agitations from the colonial government and white settlers who had pushed for his conviction. This association would also be maintained by international press, which had continued to link Kenyatta to the Mau Mau struggle that had progressed while he was imprisoned.

Several historical accounts, however, refute the close association of Kenyatta and the Mau Mau.

Kenyatta was, in fact, never a leader of the Mau Mau, nor was he involved in its formation or activities.  Throughout his life, Kenyatta maintained a moderate approach to political issues. He had cut his political teeth in the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), an organization that had agitated for native land reforms and justice using constitutional and non-violent means.

The non-violent tactics of the KCA and its successors would prove ineffective in addressing Kikuyu grievances, which had become more acute in the years following the Second World War. The Mau Mau, formed from a core of Kikuyu ex-soldiers that had fought in the war, emerged from the rising discontent amongst the Kikuyu, having been emboldened by their war experiences.

Kenyatta, having maintained his moderate approach, found himself at odds with the group’s militant ambitions, amongst which included the expulsion of white settlers and the restoration of native lands. Moreover, the group’s leadership consisted of younger Kikuyu who were less committed to traditional customs, and more representative of disenfranchised Kikuyu in both urban and rural areas. Kenyatta, a member of the ‘old guard’, was careful to limit his associations with the movement, and on occasion discredited it in public, receiving death threats as a result.

Crucially, Kenyatta’s conviction for ‘managing the Mau Mau’ followed a flawed trial in which several legal processes were overlooked. His conviction rested on the testimony of Rawson Macharia, a state witness that had placed Kenyatta at Mau Mau oathing ceremonies in which the murder of Europeans was discussed. Rawson claimed that Kenyatta himself had ‘given him the Mau Mau oath, and he had been stripped naked and forced to drink human blood’.

Years later, however, Rawson admitted that in exchange for his testimony, the colonial government had offered him money and a two-year course at an English University, in addition to subsistence for his family and a government position on his return to Kenya. The judge, Ransley Thacker, had himself maintained regular correspondence with the prosecution and colonial government throughout the trial, and was flown out of the country for resettlement in Britain after Kenyatta’s conviction, having been paid £20,000 for his work. Several other witnesses would also claim that their testimonies against Kenyatta had been coached, and reported receiving incentives of up to £10,000.

Kenyatta’s treatment of the Mau Mau after his release in 1961 ranged from disinterest to outright hostility. His new government did little to reward Mau Mau fighters, and most did not receive land that was redistributed to Africans. Additionally, Kenyatta appointed loyalists who had fought against Mau Mau to key government positions and rejected calls to celebrate their independence efforts as a national holiday.

The historical account of Kenyatta’s legacy thus illustrates that he was neither a leader of nor involved with the Mau Mau, and the popular associations of him with the movement are based on a flawed trial based on unsubstantiated colonial fears. Throughout his engagement with the KCA and the colonial government, and later the Kenya African Union (KAU) and the Legislative Council, Kenyatta preached a moderate politics that renounced the militant methods of the Mau Mau.

Following independence in 1963 Kenyatta chose to maintain a distance between himself and the movement, instead favouring alignment with the British government, elements of the colonial government that had remained in Kenya after independence, and a new and acquisitive Kikuyu political elite.


Perhaps a more dominant myth than the rest, Kenyatta is popularly understood as being the father of  Kenyan independence. This notion began with Kenyatta’s ascent in Kikuyu politics, during which his efforts as the secretary of the KCA led to the party sponsoring a European expedition to further their political causes. His return to the country several years later further cemented his position amongst the Kikuyu, as he assumed key leadership positions, most notably as president of KAU, a nationalist organization that had succeeded the KCA, and as principal of an Independent Teacher’s College.

As noted by biographer Jeremy Murray-Brown, underlying these appointments was the sense that Kenyatta offered solutions to the political problems faced by the Kikuyu. Kenyatta, helped by a natural charisma and sense of leadership, took up the role of ‘national leader’ graciously, and was able to establish a dominant following throughout Kikuyu territory, as well as form alliances with leaders from other tribes such as the Luo.

Kenyatta’s ability to ‘focalize’ as the pivot of independence and become a symbol of the governing party, in addition to his advanced age and natural ebullience would greatly influence public perceptions of him as the leader and father of the nation.

This narrative, however, overlooks other significant efforts in achieving Kenya’s independence. Mau Mau’s militancy in the early 1950s had, for instance, precipitated greater African representation in the Legislative Council (LegCo) as a moderate countermeasure by the colonial government. This not only put more Africans into positions of power but also played a crucial role in beginning the legislative and negotiation processes that would culminate in independence.

Additionally, Kenyatta’s imprisonment and his perceived affiliations with the Mau Mau had resulted in a loss of constituency. With the emergence of younger leaders from both the Kikuyu and other tribes in the LegCo, Kenyatta had seen his nationalist appeal dwindle. He was also extremely unpopular with White settlers and held little sway with Africans outside Kikuyu territory.

Historian Charles Hornsby observes the prominent role that Oginga Odinga played in restoring Kenyatta’s constituency. Odinga, who had first met Kenyatta in KAU in 1948, had risen to prominence in the Luo Union, a social and cultural organization based in the Western part of the country. Odinga had gained popularity for his anti-colonial positions and had used them gainfully to propel himself to Luo leadership, a position that he would leverage towards national leadership in the LegCo.

It was Odinga that started and sustained the call for Kenyatta’s release and re-entry into national politics at the LegCo, despite this idea being unpopular with other African leaders. His protests resulted in a reassessment of Kenyatta amongst the African political class to the extent that his freedom became central to their broader calls for independence.

As noted by Hornsby, Odinga’s commitment to Kenyatta’s freedom changed the direction of Kenya’s history. Without his efforts, it is unlikely that Kenyatta would have acquired the prominence that he did in Kenyan national politics, and even more unlikely that he would have ended up becoming Kenya’s first prime minister.

Also commonly overlooked is the leading role played by Tom Mboya in the non-militant independence struggle. Mboya had risen to prominence in the nationalist trade unions, displaying an incredible ability in organizing industrial protests in favour of greater worker wages and conditions. Mboya, who would go on to play a key role in the post-independence government, became feted for his ability to raise funds for the trade workers and nationalist’s causes.

It was Mboya, to a greater extent than other national leaders, that played a role in internationalizing the independence struggle. His efforts as a trade unionist had enabled him to form ties with the American Federation of Labor and the British Trade Union. These ties not only gave the independence struggle an international audience but also created useful links that Mboya would utilize throughout his life.

Mboya, for instance, organized the famous Kennedy Airlifts with support from the American government. The airlifts took African students to US universities on scholarship programmes and were able to educate 1,000 Africans between 1956 and 1961. These students would later take up roles in state governance and bureaucracy, forming a core of well-educated and ‘globalized’ civil servants.

With Kenyatta’s release and subsequent fame, the contributions of men like Odinga and Mboya became peripheral in the independence narrative. Thereafter, Kenyatta’s leadership would prove less progressive than either Odinga’s or Mboya’s. In contrast to their visions, Kenyatta would prioritize ethnic instead of national unity, reject redistributive actions towards landless Africans and base development policy on individual initiative as opposed to state assistance.

Kenyatta’s legacy as the ‘father of Kenyan independence’ hence assigns him a prominence in the independence struggle that is not entirely accurate. As observed, Kenyatta’s power lay in his ability to ‘position’ himself, but in so doing he magnified his role and minimised the efforts of others. Kenyatta lacked the militancy of Mau Mau leaders such as Dedan Kimathi, the progressive globalist outlook of Tom Mboya or the desire for reform of Oginga Odinga.


In analysing history, retrospection is a privilege. It is easy to classify individuals as good or evil with the benefit of hindsight. Historical outcomes make it possible to accord praise or blame to them and their decisions, but one must acknowledge that often, then as now, individuals must deal with times and circumstances as they are presented. Man is more a product of the times than the times are a product of man.

In Kenyatta’s case, therefore, the concession must be that the fortunes and perils of the time in which he took leadership were many. In taking leadership of a newly independent African state, Jomo Kenyatta became as responsible for its artificial boundaries and discordant nationalities as he did for its resources and potential. As a leader tasked with unifying a country that did not exist when he was born, Kenyatta faced an unenviable, near-impossible task and it was inevitable that intrigues would play a role in the formation and continuance of Kenya’s first majority government.

Exploring the myths around Kenyatta’s legacy is, hence, not an evaluation of the fact that he failed, because of the magnitude of the task before him, but is rather an analysis of how he did so. It is here that it perhaps becomes easier to contextualize and read into his personal and political actions.

The myths of Kenyatta’s legacy centre on his militancy, leadership and ideology, and on closer analysis these emerge as hollow. Kenyatta evolved from a moderate, progressive political leader into a conservative, even right-wing one upon his assumption of office. As demonstrated by his treatments of the Mau Mau and, later, colleagues such as Odinga and Mboya, Kenyatta had no qualms abandoning and even effectively silencing individuals and groups whose positions he had previously been associated with when the reward for such abandonment was power.

In pursuit of power, Kenyatta made compromises with the colonial establishment that continue to affect the country today. Indeed, Kenya’s legacy of inequality can be traced back to the Britain’s settler colonialist project, a legacy that Kenyatta not only failed to dismantle but took full advantage of.

By positioning himself and his cronies to appropriate state resources for personal gain, Kenyatta weakened state institutions and set Kenya on a political path from which it has never diverted. Trends common in Kenyan politics today such as state theft of resources, the personalization of power and criminal tendencies in the highest political offices have their origins in Kenyatta’s government.

Kenyatta’s legacy is therefore one of lost opportunities. In pursuing ethnic divisions as a means to maintaining power, the opportunity for true nationalism was lost. In disavowing the landless and poor majority in favour of the African political elite and the settler class, the opportunity for justice and reconciliation was lost. And in destroying the independence constitution and operating as the law itself, the opportunity for accountability and strong institutions was lost. History is often unkind to the unjust, and the Jomo Kenyatta that emerges from Kenya’s past is power-hungry, opportunistic and ruthless, despite popular depictions of him to the contrary.

A common remark in Kenyan politics today is that the country was once economically at par with or better than countries like Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Following independence, Kenya was in a position to ‘take-off’ but fell away, and today can only boast a fraction of their respective GDPs. The country had it all, a functional economy, vibrant workforce and strategic location, but somehow lost its bearings and collapsed into destitution.

What is often missing from this narrative are the agents and processes behind this decline. While no one cause or agent can be credited with Kenya’s present-day predicaments, an analysis of history presents key names that played leading roles in contributing to its woes.

And as the question of why Kenya is the way it is today continues to be asked, Kenyatta emerges not as a hero, but as a major antagonist

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