Secret land deal that made Kenyatta first president

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta: He entered into a secret pact with the British government not to interfere with the skewed land distribution at independence. He would later extract a similar pledge from his successor, retired president Daniel arap Moi. Photo/FILE

Fresh evidence pieced together by the Sunday Nation confirms widespread speculation that Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta entered a secret pact with the British government not to interfere with the skewed land distribution at independence.

In return, the British would clear his way as independent Kenya’s first leader, something that had looked impossible only three years to freedom. Kenyatta would later extract a similar pledge from his successor, former President Daniel arap Moi.

The information is contained in the secret papers of the late Sir Michael Blundell, the white settler leader who acted as the liaison between Kenyatta and the British government in sealing the deal.

It is corroborated in the secret notes of Kenya’s second vice-president, the late Joseph Murumbi, deposited at the Kenya National Archives. The land question haunts the country to this day, an entire generation after Kenyatta’s death.

Earlier this year, the country was engulfed in the worst incident of bloodshed, displacements and destruction of property since independence.

Though the excuse for it was the disputed results of 2007 election, many agreed the underlying tinderbox was the historical disputes especially on the land issue.

The background to the secret pact is a memo Blundell wrote to then Kenya colonial governor Malcolm MacDonald on the possible leader of independent Kenya after it was decided the country must be granted freedom in early 1960s.

Blundell zeroed in on four men. Tom Mboya, whom Blundell described as “a robust trade unionist and political schemer who had deep pockets, thanks to his American friends”.

The second was the “demagogic Oginga Odinga who held great charm with the rural African folk but was clearly in the payroll of the Soviets”.

Ronald Ngala was the third man and whom Blundell described as “an eccentric coastal preferred by the settlers and supported by the small ethnic communities, but who could not muster enough numbers to hold the new country together”.

The last possibility, wrote Blundell, was Jomo Kenyatta, whom he described as “the wild card of native politics in the colony”.

Kenyatta was in prison at the time on charges of managing the outlawed Mau Mau movement.

Compromise candidate

Blundell recommended Kenyatta as the “possible compromise candidate who could bring together the two major African blocs headed by Mboya and Odinga and probably reach out to the minority group led by Ronald Ngala and Daniel arap Moi”.

On the basis of Blundell’s assessment, the colonial governor sought permission from London to quietly explore the possibility of Kenyatta as first leader of independent Kenya.

The reply came fast.

In a cable to the governor, the colonial secretary, Reginald Maudling, said upon consultation with the new prime minister, Harold MacMillan, it had been decided that “the possibility of Jomo Kenyatta as leader of independent Kenya be looked at without any delay”.

He went on to say that given Kenyatta’s exalted status as a freedom fighter arising from the Kapenguria trial, he would be the best person to unite the new country “but only if he could personally give assurance that he had abandoned the extremist anti-white views he held before his imprisonment”.

The colonial secretary said it was particularly important that Kenyatta’s position be known on the question of the white settlers in colonial Kenya and what economic policies he would adopt in the event he became the first leader of the independent nation.

He suggested that Sir Michael Blundell be assigned the job of assessing the possibility of working with Kenyatta.

Blundell was immediately dispatched to Lowdar, where Kenyatta was held.

After a couple of secret meetings and where Blundell reported “positive progress”, Kenyatta was relocated to, in the words of Blundell, a decent home in Mararal, “where he could be with his family, have a library and once in a while take a glass of his favourite wine”.

In a secret memo to the colonial secretary, governor MacDonald talked of “great success by Blundell” and recommended that Kenyatta be “set free the soonest possible so that he could take his rightful place as leader of the new Kenya”.

He noted that an earlier assertion by his predecessor, governor Patrick Rension, that Kenyatta was a “leader unto death and darkness” was based on “failure to talk to Kenyatta and gossip by a few paranoid white settlers”.

Secret agreement

That Kenyatta made a secret agreement with Blundell comes out clearly in the notes of former vice-president Murumbi.

He relates an incident in London a few months to Kenya’s independence during the final Lancaster House Constitution talks.

During one of the discussions at the plenary, Kenyatta had made a blistering attack on the departing colonialists and indicated that their place in independent Kenya would “very much depend on their readiness to admit liability on past mistakes and be ready to work with the African government in effecting immediate reforms”.

Murumbi reckons that while Kenyatta’s statement went down well with radical Africans, the whites saw red in what was a clear indication that the fire-spitting Kenyatta of the early years had not disappeared.

On the very night, Blundell, who was a delegate at the conference, asked Kenyatta out for secret consultations. Murumbi and Mbiyu Koinange, Kenyatta’s life-long confidant, accompanied the latter to the meeting.

Murumbi records that Blundell went straight to the point.

He told Kenyatta that the British prime minister as well as the colonial governor in Nairobi had taken great exception to his remarks at the Lancaster Talks and considered it a complete about-turn from what they had agreed to at Lowdar and in Mararal.

He said that much as he appreciated that Kenyatta had to talk tough to appease his supporters, who did not want to hear about any compromise with the whites, any hard line position could only elicit the same reaction from the other groups and that could lead to a stalemate at the Lancaster Talks.

Exact content

After a long reflection, notes Murumbi, Kenyatta said he had not negated the agreement made with Blundell at Lowdar and Mararal but explained that he had been provoked by white speakers and their African supporters at Lancaster “who were talking as if they did not accept that black people would be the ones to decide the destiny of the country after independence”.

A hint of the exact content of the secret pact reached between Kenyatta and the colonialists can be glimpsed from Murumbi's notes on a meeting held between him, Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga and Munyua Waiyaki on August 16, 1964 regarding growing agitation over the land question a year after independence.

The three particularly sought Kenyatta’s position on the redistribution of the 10 million acres of arable land occupied by white settlers.

Kenyatta, writes Murumbi, told the three that his hands were tied as he had committed himself to the white settlers that all land in the country would change hands only on a willing-seller-willing-buyer basis.

Another entry in Murumbi's notes just before he resigned as vice-president in 1966 expresses disappointment that President Kenyatta “had no political will to direct the Settler Transfer Fund (STF) to benefit millions of landless Africans as had been stated in the Kanu manifesto at independence”.

Instead, Murumbi noted, the STF scheme “had been hijacked by few African elites who were loaning themselves money meant for the landless and acquiring huge tracts of land at the expense of the majority poor”.