Mzee Jomo Kenyatta

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta takes the oath during his swearing-in as Kenya’s first Prime Minister on June 1, 1963 in Nairobi. 

| File | Nation Media Group

How Jomo’s peace pact with colonialists mirrors Uhuru and Raila handshake

What you need to know:

  • Early enough in 1960, settlers laughed at Michael Blundell – one of the most respected settlers in Kenya – for saying in a meeting at City Hall, that the settlers could farm alongside locals in a multi-racial nation.
  • December 12, 1963, and as the Duke of Edinburg handed instruments of independence to Jomo Kenyatta, the new Prime Minister undertook to improve living standards, uplift health facilities and eradicate illiteracy.

Four months before Kenya became independent, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta drove to Nakuru for a meeting with the white settlers. He was to make an unpopular political decision to save the country from economic ruin – a handshake with the white settlers.

While the import of Kenyatta’s reconciliation effort was not immediately realised, its effect would be comprehended in later years as Kenya continued to be an economic powerhouse in the region. To some, Kenyatta had sold out the essence of freedom and the radicals felt he should have uprooted the white settlers immediately – in a winner takes all arrangement.

It is, perhaps on a difference score, the same dilemma that faces President Uhuru Kenyatta as he navigates through the Building Bridges Initiative in which he had to reconcile with Raila Odinga – the doyen of second liberation struggle – and at the same time manage the hubris of his deputy, William Ruto.

In 1963, land was at the heart of the freedom struggle, but as Kenyatta would quickly learn from the Congo crisis, the agricultural Kenyan economy had to be sustained to provide the coffers with cash to enable him achieve the Big Three Agenda: Eradicate poverty, illiteracy and provision of health care.

Early enough in 1960, settlers laughed at Michael Blundell – one of the most respected settlers in Kenya – for saying in a meeting at City Hall, that the settlers could farm alongside locals in a multi-racial nation. But the radical left led by Sir Ferdinard Cavedish-Bentinck, a white supremacist and face of settler notoriety wanted the uhuru progress delayed for many years.

Multi-racial country

Thus, it was a surprise that at the invitation of Lord Delamere, son to the pioneer white settler, Jomo had driven to Nakuru to assure the white farmers that his government would work for a multi-racial country.  “We can make this country great…we can show other people in various parts of the world that different racial groups can work together.”

Nakuru was the heart of the former white highlands. Attempts by the settlers to block Kenyatta from becoming prime minister had backfired and the man dismissed in 1960 by Governor Patrick Renison as a “leader unto darkness and death” was now months away from becoming the leader of the new nation.

Archival records from Malcolm MacDonald papers indicated that he was instrumental in the organisation of that conference. MacDonald, by then the governor, had befriended Kenyatta during the transition period and was to be the first British High Commissioner in Nairobi.

The settlers, according to him, were tense because “they had done everything they could to defeat him and destroy his work, and he knew that these very farmers whom he was now (to address) had been his bitterest enemies.”

While Kenyatta had made hints on the kind of country he wanted when he took oath on June 1, 1963 to become the prime minister promising to “build a country where every citizen may develop his talents to the full, restricted only by the larger aim we have of building a fair society”, the settlers were still restless as radicals within Kanu continued to push for land acquisition without compensation.

“I am 73, if we start thinking about the past what time shall we have to build the future,” he said. What Kenyatta wanted were the expert farmers and civil servants to stay longer to form the bedrock of his administration. Congo had its institutions collapse after the Belgian civil servants left en mass . “A government without experience cannot last. This we know by experience of other countries.”

No privileges

But he also made it clear that there would be no privileges for any minority. “Equally, we shall see that no member of any group undergoes discrimination or oppression at the hands of the majority.”

It was a theme that was taken to Parliament by Tom Mboya in November 1963 when he moved the Citizenship Bill to allow the white settlers become Kenya citizens.

Mboya told the House: “We are well aware that everyone has suffered from the racialism of Europeans and Asians and had been humiliated beyond description. But it would be wrong to adopt a policy of hatred and revenge. We want to be able to stand in the United Nations on December 13 and say with pride….South Africa and Portugal are wrong. How can you say that when you have a policy of discrimination yourself?”

December 12, 1963, and as the Duke of Edinburg handed instruments of independence to Jomo Kenyatta, the new Prime Minister undertook to improve living standards, uplift health facilities and eradicate illiteracy.

Kenyatta’s first challenge was what to do to thousands of Mau Mau fighters who were still in the forests of Aberdares and Mt Kenya. While General China had been sent on December 12 to the forest to negotiate a mass surrender, after Kenyatta gave independence amnesty, only about 200 attended the Nyeri meeting on December 17 where an estimated 50,000 strong crowd thronged the Ruringu Stadium.

Settling this group, which had lost their land while in the forest, was Kenyatta’s first nightmare. How he would treat them was the ultimate test of the meaning of freedom struggle. Kenyatta’s minister Bildad Kaggia was emerging as the most consistent critic.

He argued for the settling of the landless who were too poor to buy land for themselves.

The tricky balance was on the kind of society that Kenya needed at independence. While some favoured the emergence of a propertied African elite to hold the cash-crop economy, in case the settlers left, others advocated for radical measures to address land inequity and wealth distribution.

At the top of the agenda was not only national unity, but also the desire to address the inequities brought about by more than 60 years of colonial rule.

On Tuesday December 12, 1960, the government had issued a Sessional Paper on Unemployment which accompanied the Dalgleish Report on Unemployment.


In his report, A.G. Dalgleish had warned that there would be no improvement in the employment situation in Kenya unless confidence, both economic and political, was secured for both agricultural and industrial development. Kenyatta knew about this scenario when he settled for the handshake with the settlers.

“If the present political uncertainty continues, it is likely that many employers will be compelled to reduce the number employed,” Dalgleish wrote.

The report and the Sessional Paper published on the same day sent some shocks within the political arena for it painted gloomy picture on the future of Kenya if the European agricultural areas, which were the back bone of the economy were tampered with.

Running a country, perhaps, requires making painful decisions, stepping on toes and ditching friends. There was also the question of whether Kenya would need strong regional governments, favoured by Kadu and settlers, or for a unitary state.

While Kanu was determined to put in place a unitary state with a central government, Kadu had pushed, with Britain's support, the idea of regional governments to protect the settlers.

But the regions faced various handicaps, among them lack of funds and suitable administrators. Kanu had at first accepted a regional Majimbo Constitution in London knowing that they would change it later once they secure the numbers after the December 12, 1963 handover.

Another promise made in 1963 was the training of local manpower. While the colonial government had failed to expand college and university education, the desire for local manpower turned out to be a major issue considering that most British administrators wanted to leave after independence.

Africanisation Commission

The regional Common Services Authority had hired a Nigerian, J.O. Udoji to help address the manpower shortage problem and how to improve it across East Africa.

His final report of the Africanisation Commission said that people of doubtful character should not be anywhere near government coffers.

"A person of doubtful character must not be employed as a tax collector, nor should a dishonest person be put in charge of the Treasury," the document said.

It further said that the standards set by the document should remain absolute: "We accept that standards of efficiency are bound to fall... but the standards should remain absolute where safety of life, honesty and integrity are concerned.

It is this challenge of integrity that now marks the most important aspect of Kenya's political journey. With corruption eating the very base of our nation, dreams of founders of the nation look like a mirage.

For the better part of his last term, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been fighting a rather lonely battle to rid his government of cartels and to streamline the way government does business. But it appears that the same problems of unity, reconciliation and balancing political interests still face him – just like they faced his father.

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