The Legacy of Colonialism in Kenya

Article by Melanie Sisson. Edited by Liam Geoghegan. Additional Research by Kathy Stein.

Kenya’s colonial past began in 1885 under Imperial Germany, and December 12 1963 was the date of the country’s official independence, under President Kenyatta – who had been previously held prisoner during the British declared State of Emergency in the 1950s. What are the legacies of the colonial period for both Kenya and Britain? Are they still relevant to us today?

Kenya is still troubled in a political sense, clearly demonstrated by the riotous elections of December 2007, in which around 1,000 people were killed and over 300,000 made homeless. Is it the British attempts to impose models of democracy on this traditionally tribal country that is causing this violence? Democracy is a system by which religious and ethnic differences can be exacerbated by politicians, easily playing on such factors to get ahead in the game. Politics and ethnicity remain perceptibly linked. This sounds horribly reminiscent of the 1994 crisis in Rwanda. Is democracy really the right path for Kenya? Or just what we think is best? What right do we have now, with Kenya as an independent state, to interfere with their political development? Although the government and opposition claim to be moving towards a power sharing agreement, there are still huge difficulties. Tribal loyalty is clearly very strong in Kenya. Voting patterns reveal that in the 2007 election, in Kikuyu areas of central Kenya, almost 97 percent of votes were for the candidate from the Kikuyu tribe, Mr Kibaki. Perhaps tribal identity is more important than forging a national identity for Kenya. This is something that countries such as Britain need to be aware of, before we assume that democracy is the best political system, just because it works for us. European and African political systems are inherently different due to major issues such as the importance of tribal identity, and it is critical that we remember this.

Kenyan skyline

The trouble at the elections has caused Kenya’s world reputation as a dream holiday destination and relatively stable African nation to suffer. Tourism is the country’s biggest provider of income, now that tea and coffee produce are suffering as a result of climate change. However, there was a 60% drop in the number of tourists going to Africa in the first quarter of 2008. At the start of last year, 30,000 jobs in the industry had already been lost. The “tribal violence” being shown in the media is putting tourists off. But maybe the tourists need to look deeper, and see why this violence might be happening?

It is a double-edged sword; it is ironic that our lack of presence is now being felt, in terms of tourism, although our formal charge of Kenya and the systems we were/still are trying to impose on the country also cause so many issues. Either way, British influence, whether direct or indirect, is obviously still strong in the country.

But, saying all of this, undermining the self-reliance of Kenya would be one of the worst things that Britain could do, especially in order to shake off our colonial reputation. This reputation refers particularly to the horrible crisis of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. A British counter-insurgency to a rebellion

against colonial rule led to the deportation of thousands of Kenyans to transit camps, resulting in the deaths of 150,000 people – only 32 of whom were white.

And what about climate change? Does Britain have a role to play here? Kenya is suffering from drought, affecting its agricultural production, but Kenyan politicians are misusing much of the aid that is being sent to the country. It could be said that foreign aid is the reason for so much of the agony in Kenya. Foreign food aid feeds the country’s populations, whilst corrupt politicians spend foreign money for their own purposes. Africans need to get rid of these leaders who mismanage their own resources, neglect their citizens and instead encourage dependency on foreign aid.

It is a difficult situation; our conscience would be played upon if we were to simply sit back and do nothing, and let the Kenyans learn for themselves. But, as said before, undermining Kenya’s self-reliance would be devastating to a country that has already been interfered with so much. Again, politics and the country’s future seem inextricably linked, but how much is Britain – as a former colonist – still part of solving this link? Kenya is just one example of one country in part of this issue that is ever important in the still developing, post-colonial world.

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