I interviewed Sir Michael Blundell at his home in Nairobi’s Muthaiga estate a few months before his death on February I, 1993.
Sir Michael had come to Kenya in 1925 and settled as a farmer. Later he became a politician and was at pole position in the power play and intrigues attendant to Kenya’s independence in 1963.
I met him when he was 85 and confined to a wheelchair due to the vagaries of old age. He was a humorous man. On shaking his hand, he had commented in half jest: “Why come to interview me when I have gotten shorter. My memory has grown shorter just like my height!”
It was his way of making fun that he was in a wheel-chair yet assuring me his memory was still intact, which I confirmed in a short while.
We hit it off immediately. It was about nine in the morning and I knew the old man wasn’t about to let me go soon when he instructed his cook to prepare lunch for the two of us to be served at one.
Good for me because I enjoy the company of the old and wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
The Englishman, much as he loved his two Labradors, extended his courtesies to me by chasing them away when he realised I wasn’t comfortable with the canines creeping into my space. I only like dogs when they are locked in the kernel.
We sat in the veranda where the old man and daughter Suzzie, who lived in England, had just been going through his memoirs published posthumously in the title: Love Affair with the Sun
When I told him I had come to record the story of his life, he made an uproarious laughter and said: “Then be prepared to sit here for the next 10 years. Why don’t I just give you the story of the role I played on the road to Kenya’s independence?”
WIND OF CHANGE
“Good enough, sir”, I replied.
This is the story as he told it to me. Early in 1960s, British Prime Minister Harold McMillan made the famous “Wind of Change” speech where he declared the UK intended to give independence to all her colonies.
British settlers in colonial Kenya who had come to believe Kenya was their eternal home went berserk at the announcement, and threatened to make a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain, the same white settlers in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had done in 1967 before independence came to the country 13 years later with Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister.
A UDI for Kenya would have meant bloodshed in a massive scale coming at a time when Africans had taken up arms to demand independence.
British Intelligence recommended that level-headed moderates among the British settlers be picked and mandated to negotiate a middle-ground position where independence would be granted to Africans, but white settlers also be accommodated in the new Kenya. Sir Michael was top in the list of sober minds picked to negotiate the middle-ground position.
His first task was to convince the whites that Jomo Kenyatta, then in colonial imprisonment, was the most suited African leader to support and do business with.
It was a swim upstream waterfall, Sir Michael, told me. The mere mention of the name Kenyatta to the white settlers attracted a riot. The latter would have loved to strangle him with bare hands given the earliest opportunity.
Neither did the British authorities have any love lost for Kenyatta who the colonial Governor, Sir Patrick Renison, had described as “leader unto darkness and death”.
Sir Michael told me he talked to the Governor long past midnight seeking permission that he visit Kenyatta and talk to him in prison. Feeling sleepy and no more tobacco to burn in his pipe, the Governor said to him: “Well, go try your luck with that bastard and give me a report”.
Alone in his prison cell, Sir Michael told Kenyatta of the settlers’ concerns and why they thought he was the devil-incarnate. After a considerable pause, Kenyatta, Sir Michael told me, said: “Well, I have no bitterness with the white man, and all evil they think I will visit on them could just be a figment of their imagination. If the black man can have his rights in his own country, I would have no problem at all with a white man living in this country and partnering with us to make our country great!”
With that assurance, Sir Michael made a report to the British Governor: “Kenyatta is a man who, on balance, may well be a constructive force in this country … I am certain he should now be released and that, if he wishes to enter politics, we must allow him to do so.”
Upon Sir Michael’s recommendation, Renison cabled the colonial secretary in London to say: “My recommendation made with a heavy heart is that you make an announcement in the House of Commons (British Parliament) that Kenyatta will be set free and that we, possibly, will engage him in finding a solution for Kenya.”
Sir Michael’s next headache was finding an amicable solution to the land question. He had since been appointed minister for Agriculture in the caretaker government leading to Kenya’s independence.
The land problem mainly revolved around how to get back the land forcibly seized by the white settlers and what to do with Kikuyus uprooted from their lands in central Kenya and living as squatters in European farms in the Rift Valley where they worked.
Sir Michael recommended white settlers who wished to remain in the country not be forced to leave, but those who wanted to leave be allowed to dispose of their land on a willing-seller, willing-buyer arrangement. He also came up with what was called “One million-acre scheme” where the independent Kenya government would be loaned money to buy land from the departing whites to resettle Africans in two categories of small-scale and large-scale land holders. The aim was to retain large-scale farming which was the mainstay of the Kenyan economy, but at the same time resettle thousands of landless Kenyans displaced by white settlers.
But a bigger problem loomed in the horizon. The Kalenjins who had assumed land in the bigger Rift Valley belonged to them were not in a mood to entertain Kikuyu settlement in the region.
A leading Kalenjin politician, William Murgor, had made the position clear during negotiations for Kenya’s independence in London, where he declared: “If Kikuyus are settled in the Rift Valley, we will blow the whistle (meaning war cry) and have them ejected. They belong to Central Province and should vacate Rift Valley the soonest possible.”
Back home, a clandestine movement had come up in Rift Valley known as Kamau Maithori (Kamau in tears) which threatened violence on any “outsider” acquiring land in the Rift Valley. Intelligence reported the Kikuyus, too, were regrouping to “go back to the forest” and revive Mau Mau movement if they weren’t given back their land in central Kenya and not allowed to buy land in the Rift Valley.
Sir Michael once again kept busy. British Governor, Sir Malcolm McDonald, assigned him to search for a moderate senior Kalenjin politician to negotiate with the Kikuyus on how to co-exist in the Rift Valley.
Sir Michael discovered Daniel arap Moi and got him working with Kenyatta.
In a secret cable to the secretary of the colonies in London, MacDonald had said: “Kenyatta and Moi have been persuaded to get closer. As a result, Moi now goes direct to Kenyatta instead of coming to me with his petitions as President of the Rift Valley region, and may hold the key to cooling tempers in the volatile Rift Valley.”
Sir Michael’s last assignment at independence was to find an amicable settlement to the question of fair distribution of the national cake. The small communities fearful of domination by the two largest communities at the time – the Kikuyu and the Luo – had come together in Kadu party and wanted Kenya organised as a US style federal state with six semi-autonomous regions.
Sir Michael threw his weight with the Kadu axis but their bid was out-voted by the majority Kanu. Sir Michael told me that while in the corridors of the Lancaster House in London during the independence talks, he had told Kanu Secretary- General Tom Mboya that one day he will regret why he was so much opposed to the Majimbo constitution which guaranteed fair distribution of the national cake.