On Dec. 12, 1963, Kenya gained its independence from Britain. “With Britain’s Union Jack replaced by the black, red and green flag of the new states, political power in Britain’s last East African colonial holding slipped from the grasp of its 55,759 whites and was taken up by its 8,365,942 Africans,” wrote The New York Times.
The road to independence began in the 1950s with the Mau Mau Rebellion. The Mau Mau movement was a militant African nationalist group that opposed British colonial rule and its exploitation of the native population.
Mau Mau members, made up primarily of Kikuyu (the largest ethnic group in Kenya), carried out violent attacks against colonial leaders and white settlers. In 1952, the colonial government declared a state of emergency and arrested many Kenyan independence leaders, including moderates who had little or no connection to the Mau Mau, like Jomo Kenyatta, president of the Kenya African Union.
Between 1952 and 1956, the British defeated the Mau Mau through a brutal campaign of military action and widespread detention of the Kikuyu. However, the Mau Mau Rebellion also persuaded the British that social, political and agrarian reforms were necessary. In 1957, the British allowed for the first direct elections of native leaders to the Legislative Council and by 1960, Africans were a majority in the council.
Over the next several years, the British worked with African and white settler leaders to plan the country’s transition to independence. These conferences produced a constitution in 1963 that provided for the creation of a bicameral legislature with elections held that May. The Kenya African National Union won majorities in both houses and selected its leader, Kenyatta, who had been released from prison in 1961, to be the first prime minister of the new nation.
On the day of Kenya’s independence, The Times reported, “There is every indication that Kenya will evolve into a one-party state in the pattern of nearly every other black country on the continent.” Kenyatta indeed did consolidate; in 1964, he had the legislature create the position of president and grant him considerable executive powers. Later that year, the Kenya African National Union and its main opposition party united to form a party with near-complete control over the government, and in 1969 Kenyatta banned a new opposition party so he could run unopposed.
The strengthening of presidential powers exacerbated ethnic divisions in the country and “led to staggering levels of corruption,” according to the Times Topics: Kenya overview page.In 2010, Kenya amended its constitution so that it “curtails the powers of an imperial-style presidency, paves the way for much-needed land reform and gives Kenyans a bill of rights.”