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History and Politics

The Cradle of Mankind

As the oldest remnants of our distant ancestors have been found in the vicinity of the East African rift valley, in the opinion of most paleontologists, East Africa boasts the longest human history of all and righteously may claim the title 'Cradle of Mankind'. Fossilized bones suggest that upright walking hominids and apes started to develop separately as far as 5 to 10 million years ago. There are some indications that the development of man was triggered by the rapidly changing geological conditions in the Rift Valley. Volcanic eruptions as well as the lifting and lowering of huge tracts of land led to the creation of new ecosystems, which again provoked the fragmentation of existing animals and plants into new species.

The initial research of early human development was mainly carried out by the Leakeys, a legendary Kenyan family of paleontologist with Scottish roots. Mary and Louis Leakey started their excavations all over East Africa as early as the 1920s. Some of the couple's most significant findings were a 1.75 million year old Australopithecus skull unearthed 1959 in the Tanzanian Olduvai gorge and two years later that of a Homo habilis. However, the most sensational of all was the discovery of the Laetoli footprints in 1978. The 3.7 million year old fossilized footprints probably belonged to a family of three upright-walking hominids of the genus Australopithecus afarensis. In 1984, Richard Leakey, son of Mary and Louis, excavated the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus boy at Lake Turkana, which was euphorically termed as the missing link in the chain of species leading from the joint ancestors of apes and humans to modern man.

Currently, there are two major scientific schools about the hominid family tree. On one side, there are the 'unifiers' who perceive that all hominid bone findings belong to two concurrently existing genera, Australopithecus and Homo. On the other side, there are the 'splitters' who perceive there have been 22 pre-human genera and seven genera of early man. According to a popular theory by Richard Leakey, Homo habilis, 'the skilled man' who probably used the first tools and lived around two million years ago, as well as Homo erectus, 'the upright man', belong to our direct ancestry. Homo erectus owns a specific importance as it seems to have been the first hominid to migrate out of Africa and settling in other parts of the world as early as 1.6 million years ago.

Early settlers and migrations

Between early man and much more recent archaeological findings of the paleolithic period of hunters and gatherers still exists a huge gap. From about 2000 BC, East Africa became the scene of great migrations. The first outsiders to move into East Africa were cushitic peoples who came from the North. They were later assimilated by Bantu peoples who started immigrating from the West of the continent from about 500 BC. The last language group to arrive from around 2000 years ago were the nilots who are stemming from what today is Southern Sudan. Their descendants include the Maa-speaking people, like the Maasai and the Samburu, who immigrated in the beginning of the 16th Century, and managed to control large tracts of land within a short period of time.

The development at the Swahili coast

The East African coast was heavily influenced from the seaside. Although there existed trade relations with the hinterland, the coastal strip of East Africa developed largely independent. Culturally speaking, it still is a different world today. When the first Bantu groups reached the coast around 200 AD, merchants from the Mediterranean and the orient already visited it on their sailing expeditions along the East African coasts. However, traces of permanent settlements appear from the 5th Century AD which later developed into independent city-states under the reign of a sultan or sheik. The joint settlements of Bantu people and Arabs led to the creation of the Swahili culture. The term 'swahili' itself roots in the plural of the Arabic word for coast, Sawahil. The townspeople of the coast operated a flourishing trade with Arabia, India and even China, which led to the blossoming of Swahili culture from the 11th to the 14th century. Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama, who sailed the East African coast in the beginning of the 14th century as he searched for a sea route to India, was deeply impressed by the prosperity of the region. His colorful reports woke desires of European powers and in the centuries that followed, Omani sultans and the Portuguese crown wrestled for control of the coast until Sayid Sultan of Oman finally gained the upper hand. He reigned his coastal kingdom from 1837, with Zanzibar Town as its capital.

Missionaries and 'discoverers'

Two German missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, were the first Europeans to advance inland on behalf of the British Church Missionary Society, into what is known as Kenya today. Their descriptions of snow covered mountains on the equator were first ridiculed, but later spurred the race between the colonial powers attempting to stake their claims. The Scotsman Joseph Thomson was assigned by the Royal Geographic Society in 1883 to find a way through Maasai land to Lake Victoria. He is considered the most important pathfinder for the British into Kenya and in fact, the rails of the Uganda Railway largely follow his route.

The colonization of Kenya

During the second half of the 19th century the British empire had to wrangle with the Germans, its major competitors for influence in Eastern Africa. A first understanding was reached at the Congo Conference in 1885, where today's border between Kenya and Tanzania was drawn. With the famous Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890, Germany refrained from any claims of Zanzibar which became part of the British Empire. As did Uganda and Kenya which were turned into the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895. In the very same year, the construction of the controversial railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria began, which was completed in 1901. The monstrous project not only cost a fortune but also many of the 32,000 Indian construction worker's lives.

The Kenyan peoples resisted the forwarding Britons fiercely over years. Yet, they lost their best land to white settlers who immigrated to the country in growing numbers. In most cases, it were Maasai, Kikuyu and Kalenjin people who were dispossessed of their land and translocated into small reservations.

Between the World Wars

During World War I, many Kenyans served in the British Army to battle with German East Africa. The number of casualties was high and yet nothing changed in the lives of African Kenyans. On the contrary, the number of settlers continued to increase to 9000 when Kenya became a colony of the crown in 1920. Ultimately, this led to the birth of the first African political movement, which the colonial government try to suppress by sheer force. In 1928, a young man joined the Kikuyu Central Association, who would later be known as the first president of independent Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta. World War II hardly shook the country as the campaign against the Italians in Abyssinia was soon won. In the contrary, the supply of the British forces in South East Asia and elsewhere spurred Kenya's agriculture and industry.

The road to independence

After the war, the political situation in Kenya remained largely unchanged, political concessions to the African population were merely cosmetic. Overcrowded 'native reservations', a constant stream of new white settlers and the bitterness of the black soldiers who risked their lives in southeast asia during World War II yet being denied more rights, heated up the political climate in Kenya. A trade union by the name Kenya African Union (KAU) developed into a political movement of a new African nationalism. In 1947, Jomo Kenyatta became its chairman and soon after demanded voting rights for Africans. From 1951, a secret Bund known as Mau Mau began committing attacks which were responded by the colonial government in 1952 with declaring the state of emergency. Kenyatta was arrested. Until the collapse of the uprising in 1956, the British were overwhelmed by the guerrilla war of the Mau Mau. Only through detention of 90,000 young men and the re-settling of around 830,000 people into so called defensive villages, the colonial administration finally succeeded in suffocating the resistance. But the death toll – especially on the African side – was shocking. According to official numbers, 13,500 Africans were killed during fighting! Contrary to the defamatory image spread by the British media about the supposedly bloody Mau Mau, only 32 white civilians and 63 employees of the security forces died.

Although the resistance lost the armed struggle, it succeeded in its political goals as the government started making serious concessions. During the Lancaster House Conference in 1960, Africans were granted political participation and the independence of Kenya under an African government. In the first general elections held in 1961, the then centralist KANU (Kenya African National Union) grabbed a landslide win, as the party was dominated by the two largest communities, the Kikuyu and the Luo. With their majority in parliament, the release of Jomo Kenyatta from detention could finally be enforced. After the legal self determination, on the 12th of December 1963 the Republic of Kenya was proclaimed and Kenyatta became its first president. Nearly 70 years of British colonial rule were history.

The reign of Jomo Kenyatta

Contrary to the fears of the remaining Europeans in the country that Kenyatta would take revenge, he formulated the 'Harambee' policy of reconciliation of all population groups. He knew how important the contribution of the whites to build independent Kenya. But the longer the reign of Jomo Kenyatta lasted, the more corruption and tribalism became serious issues in Kenya. On 5th of July 1969 the charismatic opposition leader Tom Mboya was assassinated in Nairobi, which led to the outbreak of riots. The land repossessed from white settlers was not always justly distributed and many freedom fighters and landless poor were denied the promised possession. In its foreign policies, independent Kenya became a firm and reliable partner of the West during the Cold War. When Jomo Kenyatta died on the 28th of August 1978, the whole country, led by former freedom fighters, mourned his death. Even today, Jomo Kenyatta is referred to as 'Mzee', an honorary title that is perhaps best translated with 'grand old man'.

The Moi era

The transfer of power to the former vice president and designated successor Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was unspectacular. As an advocat against corruption and tribalism, Moi initially earned substantial sympathies. But after an attempted coup d'état in 1982, he transformed Kenya into a one-party state that was growingly ruled by corruption and torture. After the end of the Cold War, the Western donor countries were no longer willing to overlook human rights violations and mismanagement of donor funding. Instead, they tried to support the evolving democratic movement by applying political pressure on the government. Kenya finally returned to multi-party system and free elections indeed. Nevertheless, Moi's government survived thanks to a completely fragmented opposition and masterful intrigues for two more legislative periods.

Mwai Kibaki as the third president

In December 2002, a broad alliance of diverse parties won a landslide victory over Moi's KANU. When Kenyans voted for the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) under the leadership of Mwai Kibaki, they hoped for an end of rampant corruption and mismanagement, the scourges which had plunged Kenyan economy into recession. Supported by euphoria and a vigilant public, noticeable change took place: Security improved, the dilapidated infrastructure was attended to, Kenya's economy started to recover and the introduction of free primary education resulted in record enrollment numbers in primary schools all over the county.

But not long after, various scandals were unearthed and proved that the new government had failed to establish a culture of integrity. NARC got into further trouble, when a number of defectors successfully campaigned against the approval of a new constitution, one of the major promises made during the campaigns in the running up to the 2002 general elections. The defectors, who had chosen an orange as their symbol for the referendum campaign, were excluded from government by president Kibaki. As a result, the 2007 elections were hotly contested between Kibaki's PNU and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), the party under leadership of his former ally, Raila Odinga.

Counting of votes for the presidential election was accompanied by massive irregularities and Kibaki was hastily sworn in for a new term. When Odinga called his supporters to the streets to protest, fierce riots broke out across the country, pushing the country into its most severe crisis since the Mau Mau. When former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan finally brokered a peace deal, 1,300 people were dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, having lost all their possessions. A government of national union was declared and the post of a prime minister created for Raila Odinga, as Mwai Kibaki stayed president.

Although Kenya struggled to recover from the economic setback inflicted by the election mayhem, and the new government was hampered by competing interests of the two coalition partners, vital projects have made significant progress during the grand coalition's reign. A new constitution was approved by a two-third majority of the electorate in August 2010 which will change Kenya towards a federal set-up. Also, the implementation of the strategic plan of Vision2030, notably the improvement of the country's infrastructure and the diversification of Kenya's economy, got ahead significantly.

The Presidency of Uhuru Kenyatta

As Mwai Kibaki had to step down after two terms as a president, the presidential race of the 2013 general elections, the first ever held under the new constitution, was majorly between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the late founding father. Uhuru Kenyatta won with slightly over 50 percent of the cast votes, but his government is facing various challenges, too. The past five years have seen deepened tribal resentments, it is the first term under the new constitution which limits the president's powers in favor of 47 newly created county governments and lastly, the president and William Ruto, his deputy, are facing a trial at the International Criminal Court on accusations in connection to the election riots of 2007. However, as the elections were held peaceful, the Kenyan economy is showing a promising development. Furthermore, recent gas and oil findings nourish the hope of Kenyans that the fruits of democracy and continued economic growth will eventually turn the country into a middle income country by 2030.