How the Cold War Shaped Kenyan Politics and Its Pursuit of African Socialism

After independence, Kenya’s political class understood that defeating socialism at home was the best way of securing Western support. Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, led a vicious campaign to take power by defeating his rivals on the Left.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during a 1972 visit to the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who cultivated a close relationship with the UK. (William Lovelace / Daily Express / Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

In the United Kingdom, the death of Queen Elizabeth II last month sparked a round of public discussions around the legacy of empire. In Kenya, these legacies have been particularly complicated. The last decade of colonial rule in the East African nation was dominated by the Mau Mau uprising. In October 1952, the colonial governor announced a state of emergency which led to thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of detentions, and torture and abuses sanctioned by Britain.

In 2013, Mau Mau veterans, who had sued the British government, received a settlement of £19.9 million. The British foreign and commonwealth secretary at the time, William Hague, announced that “The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place, and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence.” Nevertheless, the government continued to “deny liability” for these crimes.

The court case also led to the revelation that colonial officials had taken with them thousands of files and transferred them to the UK. These documents were not released into the National Archives but remained concealed at Hanslope Park, an obscure government-owned building near Milton Keynes, a small city more famous for its roundabouts than for hiding state secrets. The largest single collection of files came from Kenya. While prominent historians such as David Anderson and Caroline Elkins had already exposed Britain’s role in suppressing the Mau Mau uprising, the “migrated archives” provided written evidence of the extent of the UK government’s knowledge of the crimes committed in its name.

One would expect that these disturbing colonial legacies of torture and abuse would have cast a long shadow over the relationship between Britain and Kenya since independence. Despite the fact that Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta had been arrested and imprisoned by the colonial state for being the supposed leader of the uprising, the country maintained close ties with its former colonizer, as well as the West more generally. The main reason for this was that Kenyatta turned out to be far from the radical African nationalist leader which many had expected him to be.

To understand why a close relationship between former metropole and colony continued after independence, it is vital to look back to the period immediately after Kenya’s independence and the choices made by the nation’s first president. These must be understood within the context of the Cold War. No political contest existed outside of the broader global struggle between communism and capitalism; Kenyan politics was no exception.

Kenya Becomes a One-Party State

Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963. The independence celebrations were led by Kenyatta and attended by the UK’s Prince Philip. On coming to power, Kenyatta turned out not to be the extremist British officials had feared. Instead of seizing former colonial property, he preferred to continue ties with Britain, which he saw as Kenya’s main international partner. Kenyatta’s choice not to forcibly redistribute land, and instead to buy out white farmers with loans from the British, was one clear example of this. In a speech to a delegation of MPs a year after independence, he made clear that “Nationalisation would not serve to advance African Socialism.”

This choice secured ongoing relations with Britain and pacified Kenya’s white settlers. It was, however, a move which disappointed Mau Mau fighters. For them, gaining access to land had been one of the key aims of their struggle. Yet, it was partly Kenyatta’s ambivalent position toward the uprising that allowed him to dominate Kenya’s politics: on the one hand he was convicted for being its leader, on the other he actively undermined its aims once in power.

This does not mean Kenyatta faced no opposition in the early years of independence. He led the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which largely represented the Kikuyu and Luo — Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups — and favored a strong, centralized government. The opposition party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), led by Ronald Ngala, represented the smaller ethnic groups, and supported a policy of regionalism, or “majimboism.” Its aim was to delegate more decision-making power and resources across the country. This latter policy had been supported by the colonial government and written into the constitution, but Kenyatta and KANU opposed it. During the first year of independence, KANU acted to dismantle Kenya’s regional framework, moving power to the center and stifling the role of the regions.

KADU had little ability to resist. With power centering on the government, in November 1964, KADU’s members crossed the floor, dissolving their party and joining the KANU government. Several former KADU politicians were promoted to significant ministerial roles. In December, Kenya became a republic with Kenyatta as president. Despite having spent so much time working on the constitution, British policymakers did not object to KANU stripping powers from the regions, nor to the effective establishment of a one-party state.

The East African Front of The Cold War

In the years that followed, although there was only one political party in Kenya, the political debates grew more intense. They also became more closely tied to the Cold War. Although commonly understood as a superpower conflict taking place mainly in Europe, in reality the Cold War’s greatest impact was in the Global South. Most colonies across Africa became independent when the Cold War was at its height in the 1950s and 60s, and while this confluence was constraining in some respects, it also offered opportunities. The superpowers and their allies on both sides of the Iron Curtain directed attention — and financial support — at newly independent countries as they sought allies in their global struggle. This opened access for African countries to gain money, arms, and diplomatic support on a scale that would not continue after the Cold War’s end.

In Kenya, Cold War rivalries played a significant role in domestic politics. The debate was most obviously articulated by two politicians: Tom Mboya and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The rivalry between Mboya and Odinga was both political and personal and had begun during the 1950s as they sought national leadership. Both were Luo, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, and members of KANU. Both argued that development was necessary, and that outside assistance was needed to achieve it. They differed as to how this development should look and whose help should be sought to achieve it.

Mboya made his name as a trade union leader in the 1950s, becoming minister for justice and constitutional affairs at independence, then minister for economic planning and development in 1964. He developed close relations with the United States, including American politicians, and organized an “airlift” of students to study there in the early 1960s (one of those students was Barack Obama, Sr.). Mboya’s pro-Western stance allied him with Kenyatta, but Mboya was closer with the United States, whereas Kenyatta preferred to rely on his links to Britain.

By contrast, Odinga pursued contacts with communist regimes. Having become vice president and minister for home affairs at independence, he visited China and the Eastern Bloc and argued in favor of accepting their financial support. He also supported land redistribution without compensation, rejecting a significant policy of Kenyatta. In 1965, the British deputy high commissioner in Kenya suggested that “the history of Communist penetration of Kenya is largely that of Mr. Odinga’s political activities.”

How sympathetic Odinga ultimately was to socialism was always unclear. In his 1967 autobiography, Not Yet Uhuru, he wrote that “traditional Luo farming was halfway to socialism.” However, he also declared: “I am not a Communist but I have been a constant target of anti-communist forces for all the years of my political history.” While some of Odinga’s policies were certainly further to the left than Kenyatta’s or Mboya’s, he was not necessarily an ideological convert. Looking to outmaneuver Mboya, he turned to the Eastern Bloc. Britain’s high commissioner in Kenya, Malcolm MacDonald, recognized in January 1965 that “it was likely that the West had handled him badly and pushed him into the arms of the Communists.”

Coup Plots and “African Socialism”

These debates came to a head in early 1965. In February, MP Pio Pinto was assassinated. Pinto had been a key ally of Odinga and had strong communist links. There were rumors that Kenya’s political establishment had orchestrated the killing. One man was convicted of the murder, but it seemed clear that there were more people involved who had not been caught.

The situation escalated again in April when rumors emerged that Odinga was planning a coup, supported by arms from communist countries. MP Thomas Malinda alleged in parliament that “arms and ammunition are continuously being smuggled from communist and other foreign countries into or through Kenya for the purpose of staging an armed revolution to overthrow our beloved Government.” Indeed, during the previous months, Czech and Polish arms had arrived in Kenya, and in April a Soviet ship arrived at the port of Mombasa loaded with weapons and military advisers. Arms were also found at the Home Office, Odinga’s ministry. It appeared to some observers that communist countries intended to provide Odinga with military support in order to overthrow Kenyatta.

Although historians have tended to downplay the likelihood of a coup, Kenyatta’s allies both at home and abroad were deeply concerned. With multiple military coups having taken place across independent Africa, the prospect looked plausible, and the arrival of weapons appeared to lend credence to the rumors. One of Kenyatta’s closest allies, Attorney General Charles Njonjo, asked Britain to make secret plans for a military intervention to support Kenyatta if it became necessary. British officials jumped at the invitation and drew up detailed plans to that effect.

No coup attempt took place, and it is unclear whether Odinga seriously intended one. However, Kenyatta rejected the Soviet arms and military advisors, signaling the wider rejection of Soviet influence in Kenya. Henceforth, Britain had an even more secure military foothold in Kenya.

April of 1965 saw the publication of Sessional Paper No. 10 on African Socialism. Largely written by Odinga’s rival Mboya, its title was a nod to the variants of African Socialism being formulated around the continent. Many newly independent governments saw in socialism a better prospect for their future but aimed to articulate versions that suited themselves rather than directly adopting Soviet or Chinese models.

Kenya’s African Socialism, despite its name, was not especially socialist. Nominally, it rejected both capitalism and Marxism, and stressed African “traditions,” but in practice it advocated a managed capitalist economy. Odinga and Pinto had planned to write a competing paper and lead a no-confidence vote in the government. Before this happened, Pinto was murdered. The majority in Kenya’s parliament did not favor Odinga’s policies and increasingly opposed him as he became more critical of Kenyatta and the government. Meanwhile, Mboya and other Kenyatta allies maneuvered Odinga’s supporters out of positions of power.

By 1966, Odinga’s isolation in Kenyan politics had dramatically increased. In February, he walked out of parliament in a clash with MPs. The tension increased at the Limuru party conference in March, when Odinga’s role as vice president was abolished and replaced by eight regional vice presidents. All those selected were allies of Kenyatta and Mboya who opposed Odinga. In response, Odinga quit KANU and set up a new political party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Thirty-one MPs resigned from KANU to join the KPU. The intention was to create a left-wing opposition to the conservative policies of KANU and its Western connections.

MPs who had defected to the KPU were forced to recontest their seats as members of a new party in a series of by-elections known as the “little general election” in June 1966. (Curiously, when KADU MPs switched parties to KANU in 1964, they had not faced this hurdle.) The election campaign was unfairly fought. KANU had the resources of the government behind it, including much of the media, and the KPU was frequently banned from holding meetings or campaigning. There was also a significant amount of violence. Unsurprisingly, the KPU struggled to compete and won only nine of the twenty-nine available seats. During the KPU’s lifetime, it was weakened by its inability to access state resources.

Meanwhile, the power of the presidency increased, with Kenyatta becoming the lynchpin of the political system. The KPU as official opposition was significantly outnumbered, had limited ability to hold the government to account, and could not bring about changes to policy. After the KPU’s poor performance in the 1966 election, it was never in a position to pose a serious threat to KANU. Odinga’s challenge to Kenyatta had perhaps been more powerful when they were both members of KANU.

The two-party system lasted until 1969, when the Kenyan political landscape again changed dramatically. On July 5, Mboya was assassinated. Once more, the political establishment was widely believed to have been involved and the assassination sparked immediate violent protest. Some of this protest was aimed at Kenyatta, and the political situation appeared unstable once again. In October, Kenyatta went to a public event in Kisumu, Odinga’s home region. Odinga showed up uninvited with a loyal crowd. Kenyatta abused Odinga from the stage. A riot began and dozens were killed, many shot by the presidential escort. In immediate response, Kenyatta banned the KPU, and ordered the arrest of Odinga and all other KPU MPs. Twenty-two were detained without trial. Kenya returned to a single-party state, securing Kenya’s place in the pro-Western camp of the Cold War.

With Kenya’s independence, many observers expected that the experiences of the Mau Mau uprising would shape the new government’s policies. In fact, Kenyatta preferred not to reflect on the Mau Mau past, or prioritize the demands of the Mau Mau fighters. Instead, he opted to pursue close relations with Britain and limit the possibility of radical politics. In the relationship between Britain and Kenya, the most important colonial legacy was thus not the brutality of the British government’s response to the uprising, but rather an ongoing partnership.

Odinga offered a competing vision of Kenya’s future, leaning toward communist nations. His views, however, were not popular among Kenyan MPs, and he was eventually ousted. The politics of these years speaks, perhaps, to another colonial legacy of political violence. This developed during the Mau Mau emergency and continued during Kenya’s early post-independence years, involving detention without trial, political assassinations, and persecution of opposition. Kenyatta would remain president of a single-party state supported by Britain until his death in 1978. Odinga remained in prison until then.