Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Kenyan independence movement, is released by British colonial authorities after nearly nine years of imprisonment and detention. Two years later, Kenya achieved independence and Kenyatta became prime minister. Once portrayed as a menacing symbol of African nationalism, he brought stability to the country and defended Western interests during his 15 years as Kenyan leader.
Kenyatta was born in the East African highlands southwest of Mount Kenya sometime in the late 1890s. He was a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group–Kenya’s largest–and was educated by Presbyterian missionaries. In 1920, Kenya formally became a British colony, and by 1921 Kenyatta was living in the colonial capital of Nairobi. There he became involved in African nationalist movements and by 1928 had risen to the post of general secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association, an organization opposed to the seizure of tribal land by European settlers. In 1929, he first went to London to protest colonial policy, but authorities refused to meet with him.
Kenyatta returned to London several times over the next few years to petition for African rights and then remained in Europe in the 1930s to receive a formal education at various institutions, including Moscow University. In 1938, he published his seminal work, Facing Mount Kenya, which praised traditional Kikuyu society and discussed its plight under colonial rule. During World War II, he lived in England, lecturing and writing.
In 1946, he returned to Kenya and in 1947 became president of the newly formed Kenya African Union (KAU). He pushed for majority rule, recruiting both Kikuyus and non-Kikuyus into the nonviolent movement, but the white settler minority was unyielding in refusing a significant role for blacks in the colonial government.
In 1952, an extremist Kikuyu group called Mau Mau began a guerrilla war against the settlers and colonial government, leading to bloodshed, political turmoil, and the forced internment of tens of thousands of Kikuyus in detainment camps. Kenyatta played little role in the rebellion, but he was vilified by the British and put on trial in 1952 with five other KUA leaders for “managing the Mau Mau terrorist organization.” An advocate of nonviolence and conservatism, he pleaded innocent in the highly politicized trial but was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.
He spent six years in jail and then was sent to an internal exile at Lodwar, where he lived under house arrest. Meanwhile, the British government slowly began steering Kenya to black majority rule. In 1960, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) was organized by black nationalists, and Kenyatta was elected president in absentia. The party announced it would not take part in any government until Kenyatta was freed. Kenyatta pledged the protection of settlers’ rights in an independent Kenya, and on August 14, 1961, he was finally allowed to return to Kikuyuland. After a week of house arrest in the company of his family and supporters, he was formally released on August 21.
In 1962, he went to London to negotiate Kenyan independence, and in May 1963 he led the KANU to victory in pre-independence elections. On December 12, 1963, Kenya celebrated its independence, and Kenyatta formally became prime minister. The next year, a new constitution established Kenya as a republic, and Kenyatta was elected president.
As Kenya’s leader until his death in 1978, Kenyatta encouraged racial cooperation, promoted capitalist economic policies, and adopted a pro-Western foreign policy. He used his authority to suppress political opposition, particularly from radical groups. Under his rule, Kenya became a one-party state, and the stability that resulted attracted foreign investment in Kenya. After he died on August 22, 1978, he was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who continued most of his policies. Affectionately known in his later years as mzee, or “old man” in Swahili, Kenyatta is celebrated as the founding father of Kenya. He was also influential throughout Africa.