A Brief History of Kenya

Kenyan woman in traditional garb walking along dirt road.

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Fossils found in East Africa suggest that protohumans roamed the area more than 20 million years ago. Recent finds near Kenya's Lake Turkana indicate that hominids lived in the area 2.6 million years ago.

Cushitic-speaking people from northern Africa moved into the area that is now Kenya beginning around 2000 BC. Arab traders began frequenting the Kenya coast around the first century AD. Kenya's proximity to the Arabian Peninsula invited colonization, and Arab and Persian settlements sprouted along the coast by the eighth century. During the first millennium AD, Nilotic and Bantu peoples moved into the region, and the latter now comprise three-quarters of Kenya's population.

The Europeans Arrive

The Swahili language, a mixture of Bantu and Arabic, developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples. Arab dominance on the coast was eclipsed by the arrival in 1498 of the Portuguese, who gave way in turn to Islamic control under the Imam of Oman in the 1600s. The United Kingdom established its influence in the 19th century.

The colonial history of Kenya dates from the Berlin Conference of 1885 when the European powers first partitioned East Africa into spheres of influence. In 1895, the U.K. Government established the East African Protectorate and, soon after, opened the fertile highlands to white settlers. The settlers were allowed a voice in government even before it was officially made a U.K. colony in 1920, but Africans were prohibited from direct political participation until 1944.

The Mau Mau Resist Colonialism

From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the " Mau Mau" rebellion against British colonial rule. During this period, African participation in the political process increased rapidly.

Kenya Achieves Independence

The first direct elections for Africans to the Legislative Council took place in 1957. Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963, and the next year joined the Commonwealth. Jomo Kenyatta, a member of the large Kikuyu ethnic group and head of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), became Kenya's first President. The minority party, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), representing a coalition of small ethnic groups, dissolved itself voluntarily in 1964 and joined KANU.

The Road to Kenyatta's One-Party State

A small but significant leftist opposition party, the Kenya People's Union (KPU), was formed in 1966, led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former Vice President, and Luo elder. The KPU was banned shortly after and its leader detained. No new opposition parties were formed after 1969, and KANU became the sole political party. At Kenyatta's death in August 1978, Vice President Daniel Arap Moi became President.

A New Democracy in Kenya

In June 1982, the National Assembly amended the constitution, making Kenya officially a one-party state, and parliamentary elections were held in September 1983. The 1988 elections reinforced the one-party system. However, in December 1991, Parliament repealed the one-party section of the constitution. By early 1992, several new parties had formed, and multiparty elections were held in December 1992. Because of divisions in the opposition, however, Moi was re-elected for another 5-year term, and his KANU party retained a majority of the legislature. Parliamentary reforms in November 1997 expanded political rights, and the number of political parties grew rapidly. Again because of a divided opposition, Moi won re-election as President in the December 1997 elections. KANU won 113 out of 222 parliamentary seats, but, because of defections, had to depend on the support of minor parties to forge a working majority.
In October 2002, a coalition of opposition parties joined forces with a faction that broke away from KANU to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In December 2002, the NARC candidate, Mwai Kibaki, was elected the country’s third President. President Kibaki received 62% of the vote, and NARC also won 59% of the parliamentary seats.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "A Brief History of Kenya." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-kenya-44232. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, August 26). A Brief History of Kenya. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-kenya-44232 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "A Brief History of Kenya." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-kenya-44232 (accessed January 30, 2023).