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Kenya - History

Fossils found in East Africa suggest that protohumans roamed the area more than 20 million years ago. Recent finds near Kenya's Lake Turkana indicate that hominids lived in the area 2.6 million years ago.

Cushitic-speaking people from what became Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia moved into the area that is now Kenya beginning around 2000 BC. Arab traders began frequenting the Kenya coast around the first century AD. Kenya's proximity to the Arabian Peninsula invited colonization, and Arab and Persian settlements sprouted along the coast by the eighth century.

The ancestors of the modern nation's African population began making their appearance in the region less than 1,000 years ago, and the in-migration of some ethnic aggregations continued into the twentieth century. Culturally and linguistically heterogeneous groups of agriculturists and nomadic pastoralists settled in the physically varied environment of the country's interior, where as many as 40 distinct ethnic categories have been recognized.

Among these the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu emerged as the dominant group in Kenya's fertile heartland. The coastal region experienced a different history, coming under Islamic influence as early as the tenth century. Arab and Persian merchants founded towns there whose ports became part of a commercial network linked to the Middle East. Intimate contacts between the Arab and indigenous Bantu cultures on the coast produced over a long period of time the Swahili culture, in which the characteristics of both were assimilated.

Arab dominance on the coast was interrupted for about 150 years following the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. British exploration of East Africa in the mid-1800s eventually led to the establishment of Britain's East African Protectorate in 1895.

The history of Kenya as a political entity began with the region's inclusion in the British sphere of influence in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent establishment of a British protectorate and colony there. The British brought together the country's diverse elements under a unified administration and bestowed on it the name Kenya after the 5,200-meter peak in the central highlands that the Kikuyu called kere nyaga, the "mountain of whiteness."

The aim of British colonialism in Kenya was to integrate the country into an imperial system and to develop its economic potential, while providing for the security of the indigenous population and improving their general well-being, as defined according to the prevailing mentality of colonial authorities. The political, economic, and social changes brought about by the British were not effected smoothly, however, nor from an African perspective were they uniformly advantageous.

An early realization that the climate and fertility of the Kenya Highlands made the region ideal for European settlement encouraged the reservation there of large tracts of the country's best land for the white minority and corresponding restrictions on African and Asian land use. Social pressures engendered by these restrictions and the inability of limited African reserves to meet the land needs of an expanding population — together with growing African resentment of the inferior status accorded them — provoked unrest that contributed to the formation of political action groups, organized on the basis of ethnic affiliation, in the 1920s.

The Protectorate promoted settlement of the fertile central highlands by Europeans, dispossessing the Kikuyu and others of their land. Some fertile and well watered parts of the Rift Valley inhabited by the Maasai and the western highlands inhabited by the Kalenjin were also handed over to European settlers.

For other Kenyan communities, the British presence was slight, especially in the arid northern half of the country. The settlers were allowed a voice in government even before Kenya was officially made a British colony in 1920, but Africans were prohibited from direct political participation until 1944 when a few appointed (but not elected) African representatives were permitted to sit in the legislature.

Improvement in the lot of the average African was limited until after World War II when political movements, like that among the Kikuyu led by Jomo Kenyatta, demanded a role for the black majority in Kenya's government. The determination of the European community to retain exlusive control in a "White Man's Country" and the continued denial of African rights set off a violent reaction during the Mau Mau emergency in the 1950s.

From 1952 to 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the "Mau Mau" insurgency against British colonial rule in general and its land policies in particular. This rebellion took place almost exclusively in the highlands of central Kenya among the Kikuyu people. Tens of thousands of Kikuyu died in the fighting or in the detention camps and restricted villages. British losses were about 650. During this period, African participation in the political process increased rapidly.

The Kikuyu-led insurrection was suppressed, and the lengthy imprisonment of Kenyatta and other African leaders suspected of complicity in it caused a hiatus in organized African political activity until 1960, when the campaign for majority rule within the framework of the colonial regime succeeded in submerging ethnic differences among Africans and in winning the recognition of British authorities.

In 1961 the British government set Kenya on a course that led to majority rule and, at the end of 1963, to full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations. The next year Kenya became a republic under a unitary form of government headed by Kenyatta as its first president, and the principal political parties voluntarily merged under his leadership in the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Radical dissidents and ethnic interest groups fearful of Kikuyu domination followed Oginga Odinga out of KANU during an interlude in the late 1960s, but the rival political movement that they formed was banned in 1969, and Kenya reverted in practice to being a one-party state.

Ethnic antagonisms remained the principal stumbling block to national unity, but Kenyatta's firm, paternalistic rule nonetheless provided the country with a substantial degree of stability during the first decade and a half of Kenya's independent existence. Although the Mzee — the "Old Man," as Kenyatta was familiarly known—held rightly to the reins of power, Kenya maintained basically democratic institutions. Parliamentary debate was sharp and frequently questioned government policies, elections were vigorously contested by rival candidates, and the press was relatively free in its reporting and commentary.

A program of "Kenyanization" of government and the economy was instituted, however, gradually forcing the departure of most of the country's European and Asian populations. Operated by an African entrepreneurial elite with close ties to the political elite, the Kenyan economy developed along capitalist lines, emphasizing rapid growth and modern production methods. The favorable orientation of the economy and stable political conditions inspired a confidence in the country's future that encouraged investment. Political opposition, however, focused on substantial inequities in distribution, particularly of farmland, as well as on official corruption.

As an aging Kenyatta became more withdrawn from the everyday conduct of government, decisionmaking was deferred more and more to members of the inner circle of advisers and officials who surrounded him. Rival personalities and factions within KANU maneuvered for position in anticipation of the end of the Kenyatta era. When the Mzee died in office in August 1978, he was succeeded by his vice president and heir apparent, Daniel arap Moi, in an orderly transition of power.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2015 19:48:23 ZULU