Jomo Kenyatta’s Legacy

The Day Kenyatta died

On August 22nd 1978, the nation was stunned by a lunchtime broadcast that Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had died in his sleep at State House, Mombasa.

By the time the announcement was made, Kenyatta’s body was already in Nairobi, and Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi was just about to be sworn in by Chief Justice James Wicks.

Western media predicted that Kenyatta’s death would trigger a power struggle in Kenya and that State House insiders Njoroge Mungai, James Gichuru and Mbiyu Koinange could, with the support of the security forces, turn the tables on Mr Moi, who was considered a weakling by the political standards of the day.

Although the Constitution and a few anti-Mungai and anti-Koinange politicians who would have loved to tame their egos (both were Kenyatta’s relatives) were on his side, Mr Moi lacked charisma and seemed a dull replacement for the haughty Kenyatta.


Hours before Kenyatta died, Mr Koinange, who was always by his side, had been called — some say lured — to Nairobi to meet an investor who had dropped by the city.

It was a call that changed the course of Kenyan politics for, had Kenyatta died with Mr Koinange by his side, pundits say, he would not have called Mr Moi to take over.

Luckily, it was Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu — a bosom friend of Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki — who would play a critical role in the transition by deciding whom to call that August morning.

Although he ruled for 15 years, Mzee Kenyatta’s legacy is sometimes underplayed, perhaps eclipsed by Mr Moi’s 24 years in power.

When Kenyatta became Prime Minister in June 1963, he promised to fight poverty, ignorance and disease.

But as he soon realised, the economy he had inherited was based on European settlers and collected only £2.5 million through taxes, against a demand of £56 million needed to revamp the health, education and other sectors.


With James Gichuru as his Finance minister, Mzee Kenyatta knew that good management of the resources would ensure his survival, alongside a balance between settling the landless and Africanising the economy. Both went wrong — for different reasons.

Kenyatta took power at a time of political uncertainty for both industry and agriculture, which were dominated by White-settlers.

These investors were afraid that his government might not protect their investments and markets, and many left.

Kenyatta had also inherited business regulations that had been crafted to prevent excessive competition among indigenous traders and limited the number of retail outlets in the so-called African reserves.

As a result, his government decided to build a powerful African-led retail sector, which saw the emergence of African businessmen.


Although this was a hasty move, it gave the government a chance to build a new economy based on indigenous Kenyans, which later became the bulwark of the new economy.

But the settlement of the landless in the White Highlands later triggered tribal animosity in the Rift Valley, where land is still an emotive issue.

Besides, the Kenyatta administration not only encouraged domestic and foreign private enterprise but also created large, public sector corporations and invested heavily in physical and social infrastructure.

Most of the parastatals collapsed after his death, but those that survived were turned into cash cows by the political elite, a corruption battle that Kenyatta’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta, is fighting.

Kenyatta was also lucky. The economic growth rates were high, averaging 6.6 per cent between 1963 and 1973.


But by the early 1970s, it had become clear that growth alone was not a panacea for the intricate problems of economic development as evidence mounted that regional and social inequalities, poverty and unemployment not only persisted but were growing.

In the first decade of independence, Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, which was partly the brainchild of Economic Planning Minister Tom Mboya, became the answer to the pressing problems facing Kenyatta’s administration.

Caught between socialists and capitalists, and ideologies of the East and West, Kenyatta adopted African Socialism, a high-sounding nothing, as the blueprint for development. The paper called for the Kenyanisation, and development, of a mixed economy. Its final theme was the development of a capitalist economy.

A coffee boom that had been occasioned by crop failure in South America had boosted the Kenya shilling and created a new middle-class.


While this was badly managed, it was soon wiped out by the 1973 oil crisis, occasioned by the decision by Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), to impose an oil embargo on countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

After the crisis, the government deliberately started encouraging the establishment of heavy industries, including a British Leyland assembly plant in Thika.

The plant was to assemble Land Rovers, Leyland Trucks and Volkswagens for the local market. The enterprise — a joint venture between the Government, CMC Motors and British Leyland — was to fill the gap left by the 1971 closure of the short-lived Leyland Albion (East Africa) plant.

Politically, Kenyatta built a unitary state under a central government, having abandoned the division of services espoused in the Majimbo constitution of 1963.

But he was heavily criticised for high-handedness by his colleagues, which led to the assassination of politicians Pio Gama Pinto (1965), Tom Mboya (1969), Josiah M Kariuki (1975).


In Eastern Africa, and within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Kenyatta was highly respected and, despite his limited travel abroad, was constantly consulted to broker peace. He had survived the secessionist troubles with Somalia and managed a bitter war.

Kenyatta was instrumental in founding the East African Community (EAC). Although the original EAC collapsed in 1977, it left East Africans with an idea of how regional markets could be harnessed.

Jomo Kenyatta holding his son, Uhuru Kenyatta’s hand in November 15, 1965

It was Kenyatta, more than Ugandan President Milton Obote or Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere who supported the sharing of resources and knocking down trade barriers since Kenya’s industries were more developed than theirs. He reasoned that Kenya would gain and expand its industries by reaching a market with close to 27 million people.


When Nyerere ordered the EAC headquarters in Arusha closed in August 1977, sounding the death knell for the 10-year-old organisation, Kenyatta was left to build new institutions for Kenya.

By stopping a divisive campaign spearheaded by Nakuru North MP Kihika Kimani to change the Constitution to bar his vice-president from automatically taking over for 90 days, Kenyatta dictated the politics of the nation after his death.

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