Why the British feared Jomo Kenyatta rule and rise of power men

Newly revealed archival material shows that the British Cabinet, in a meeting on Thursday, November 9, 1961, agreed that Jomo Kenyatta should not rise to become Kenya’s leader.

The meeting chaired by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and whose agenda was on Jomo Kenyatta saw the Cabinet conclude that Kenyatta was “an evil man” — though they did not know what to do about his popularity.

As Kenyans celebrate Independence Day on Monday, they might never know that the British had serious misgivings on Kenyatta taking over power from them.

The declassified minutes of this meeting – marked secret – indicate that the British found themselves in a dilemma after Kenyatta emerged from prison to become the leader of the majority party, Kanu.

By that time the first Lancaster Conference to guide Kenya towards independence had been held in 1960 under the chairmanship of Iain Macleod, the colonial secretary, who denied after he was taken on by Tom Mboya that he had gone to the meeting with a preconceived plan.

But from the minutes that followed the release of Kenyatta, it can now be reported that Britain had reservations on the future role of Kenyatta – although they also feared that ethnic violence might erupt in Kenya if they short-changed him for a less popular candidate.

It was after this January 1960 conference that the powerful line-up that would later control the post-independent State started to emerge.

The British had thought that an African Chief Minister would emerge from the leadership of Kanu prior to Kenyatta’s release and that the person appointed to that position would overshadow Kenyatta.

But that had not happened after James Gichuru, Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga — then the three most prominent politicians — turned down offers to join Governor Patrick Renison’s government as Cabinet ministers – ahead of Kenyatta’s release giving the Macleod Constitution its first political test.

This was made complex by a law that had banned all Mau Mau prisoners who had served more than two years from sitting at the Legislative Council (Legco) which meant that Kenyatta would not take a position as elected leader of the majority party unless this law was scrapped.

That is the reason why the British PM called that meeting to discuss Kenyatta’s future although some of his Cabinet ministers wrongly believed – and said as much – that “ Kenyatta’s performance as a member of the Legislative Council would not enhance his stature in the eyes of Africans generally.”

The Cabinet conclusions, now made public, indicate that “grave misgivings were expressed about the possibility that Kenyatta might become the Prime Minister of an independent Kenya” and they all agreed that it would be “highly undesirable” for the UK to “take any positive action which might contribute towards that result.” What that meant was that they would not in any way aid Kenyatta to get power, although they admitted that he had been “accepted by other African statesmen as the spokesman of Africans in Kenya.”

With the stalemate that saw African elected members of the Legislative Assembly refusing to take ministerial positions until Kenyatta was released, the British cabinet was wondering in secrecy whether Kenyatta’s entry into the LegCo would increase chances of a successful conclusion to the constitutional conference.

Their fears were focused not on the future of Kenya, but on the future of the European minority. “Kenyatta was an evil man…it would be impossible for the European minority in Kenya to rely on constitutional safeguards under a government controlled by him,” the British Cabinet concluded.

They also wondered how Kenyatta would fit within the Commonwealth since his leadership “would seem to many people to be inconsistent with the moral principles which had been the basis of Commonwealth association.”

The only other alternative that was put on the table, if they couldn’t stop Kenyatta, was to continue their colonial rule. But this would involve a heavy financial and political burden, they said.

It was during this meeting that they agreed that the only way to safeguard the white minority was to come up with constitutional settlements that would include “delegation of substantial powers to the various tribal regions of Kenya”. That now explains the origins of the majimbo Constitution which would later be pushed by Kadu leaders led by Ronald Ngala, Daniel arap Moi, John Keen and Masinde Muliro.

While Kanu insisted that Majimbo was a creation of the British government, there was no evidence then. The only evidence today is what is contained in this Cabinet conclusion dossier which also proposed that the best hope for stability in Kenya lay in some sort of federation with the other east African territories. That could explain why the common services developed by the British during the colonial rule became the basis for the establishment in 1967 of the regional economic grouping – the East African Community. This collapsed in 1977.


The Cabinet also felt that in order to secure their own in Kenya and “faced with the prospect of a government led by Kenyatta, (the settlers) only real safeguard was the maintenance of British troops in Kenya.”

When that couldn’t happen – and with Kenyatta rising to head the independent Kenya state – the British decided to do an embarrassing task: They started to force the incoming Kenyatta government to purchase the furniture they could not take to Europe and some old vehicles.

An archival file titled “Disposal of British furniture” and marked “secret” actually indicates that by the time of independence in 1963, all the furniture in stores and which had not been assigned to any department or ministry was to be shipped back to London.

Interestingly, the letters about the furniture emanated from the Army Secretary Lt Col HD Dent and a Mr WK Martin both working at the Office of the Prime Minister, which was headed by Kenyatta. They were initially copied to three permanent secretaries: Justus Oluoch, Kenneth Matiba and John Michuki.

In one of the letters dated August 11, 1964, Martin tells the PSs that “uncommitted furniture was in the process of being packed and sent away from Kenya” but that British representatives had agreed to give Kenyatta government six days “to view the furniture and if interested it would be sold to Kenya government at fair price to be negotiated.”

This sale was not an issue that ever came out in the media for if it did, it could have turned political and embarrassed London.

The British, having colonised Kenya since 1920, were not only asking Kenyatta to buy their furniture but were also pushing him to buy some “reconditioned Land Rovers and unspecified number of 3-tonne lorries.

Finally, Kenyatta survived all these hurdles and as soon as the British left, a strong coterie of politicians and allies surrounded him and they became some of the most powerful in Kenya.

The man who became the most powerful after Jomo was Mbiyu Koinange, a man the colonial government had vowed to jail – if they ever caught up with him before independence.

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