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Kenyatta

By Ian Duffield | Published in 1980 
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by Jeremy Murray-Brown

To write a critical biography of a powerful living political leader – as opposed to hagiography, knock-about iconoclasm or bland instant journalism – is a difficult task. Nevertheless, this has been attempted in Kenyatta, first published in 1972, now reappearing after its subject's death. Kenyatta's life, beginning when the British presence was still scarcely felt in Kikuyuland, epitomised the brevity of white rule in most of Africa, which he was triumphantly to outlive. Yet he already seems an almost remote figure; he belonged to the transitory colonial era, and to that of 'transfer of power' (when, many now believe, the trappings rather than the reality of independence were conceded). Revolutionary martyrs like Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, tyrannical monsters such as Macias of Equatorial Guinea, Julius Nyerere with his protracted struggle to resolve the problems of creating a fully independent, humane and socially just society in a poor country, not to mention military rulers, seem more typical of modern African leadership.

Kenyatta was, and remains, a controversial man, beyond the degree inevitable among victors in a struggle for power. The heart of his controversiality is his relationship, with Mau Mau, although the old accusations, summarised by Governor Rennison's phrase 'leader to darkness and death', are now quite discredited. As this work makes clear, the Kapenguria verdict in 1953 was a legal travesty, a product of official and settler fear and hatred. Try as Kenyatta might, his repudiation of Mau Mau actions, both prior to and during his trial, could carry no conviction with the frenzied Kenyan whites. They were unable to see that the man they found ambiguous in his condemnation of the uprising was, to say the least, equally ambiguous in his support of it. After he came to power, matters became clearer, except to the most obtuse. Despite his well-publicised appearances with surviving Mau Mau leaders, it was not they, still less their rank-and-file, who were admitted to the charmed circle, enjoying wealth, privilege and influence, around the President. As for the white Kenyans, those who did not panic and flee found independent Kenya genial enough. Though shorn of political power, they continued to enjoy a high level of prosperity, and its concomitants of cheap servants. Club social life continued so long as the President's portrait hung on the club wall, his name was respected, and black Kenyans who could be bothered were eligible for membership. Much formerly white land was re-distributed (by purchase after compensation), but never free to the poorer peasants. Instead, a class of substantial African proprietors emerged, few of whom had any greater connection with Mau Mau than Kenyatta himself.


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