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History of Kenya

Kenya’s evolutionary record stretches back some 25 million years to a time when the ancient plateau of Africa was wrenched apart and forced upwards in a series of massive earth movements and volcanic eruptions that continued for millions of years. These caused the earth’s surface to rise into a dome, whereupon molten magma erupted from deep beneath its crust to form a series of huge volcanoes. Later, the continent split from north to south to form the vast crack of the Great Rift Valley, stretching from Jordan to Mozambique. The newly formed highlands then created rain shadows on their leeward sides and, as a result, the forest of the lower, hotter sections of the valley floor gradually began to disappear, to be replaced by savannah grasslands, the most recent of all major environmental changes. 

With the arrival of the savannah, the apes inhabiting the fringes of the fast-vanishing forests were eventually forced to descend from their arboreal homes and emerge into the glare of the plains, where they learned to hunt and become omnivorous. Over vast stretches of time, these same apes evolved into our earliest ancestor, the hominid ape man, who in turn evolved into Homo erectus and, eventually, into Homo sapiens. 

The Cradle of Mankind (6,500,000 BC - 50,000BC)

Known as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’, Kenyan history dates back to the dawn of time when Homo erectus, Homo habilis and other species of early mankind roamed the area. The first conclusive signs of human prehistory came in the form of fossils, most of which were found by the Leakey family on the shores of Lake Turkana (KoobiFora), and in the East African Rift Valley.  

Early Settlers (50,000 BC - 500 AD)

From around 50,000 BC onwards, Africa’s early humans lived as ‘hunter-gatherers’, learning how to make tools, communicate and use fire. From 2000 BC onwards, the hunter-gatherers were joined by huge numbers of immigrant communities, who travelled to Kenya from all over the African continent. The earliest distinct migration was of Cushitic-speaking people from Ethiopia, then in the first few centuries AD came the Nilotic-speaking ancestors of the present day Kalenjin peoples, and from the west and south came the Bantu speakers, forebears of today’s Kikuyu, Gusii, Akamba and Mijikenda peoples. 

The Swahili Coast Develops (500 AD -1498)

Arab and Persian migrants started to arrive from 500 AD onwards and the Kenyan coast rapidly developed as a vital trade link between the Mediterranean, Europe, West Africa and the East Indies. Trade rapidly expanded into the African interior, where goods were exchanged for ivory and slaves.  

The Arrival of Portuguese Rule (1498-1698)

The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed in Malindi in1498, and the Portuguese subsequently ruled the coast for two centuries of economic and religious oppression, building Mombasa’s Fort Jesus as their military headquarters in 1593.  

Omani Domination (1698-1837)

In 1696 the Omani Sultans challenged Portuguese rule and in 1698 Fort Jesus fell. The Swahili coast then came under the rule of Muscat until 1837 when the Omanis were finally defeated.

European Exploration of Kenya (1844-92)

In 1844, two German missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, became the first Europeans to venture into the Kenyan interior. They were followed by Richard Burton and John Speke; and Dr David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, all of whom came to Kenya in search of the source of the Nile. Joseph Thomson broke into new territory in 1882 and he inspired James Hannington, who discovered Lake Bogoria, and Count Samuel Teleki and Ludwig von Hohnel, who discovered Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana).

The Partition of East Africa (1856-91)

British interests in East Africa climaxed at the end of the European power struggle known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, and in 1885 the British government declared Kenya a protectorate and construction began on the Mombasa to Uganda railway, which was dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ (completed in 1901).  They also introduced a scheme allowing landless aristocrats, middle-class adventurers, big-game hunters, ex-servicemen and Afrikaners to settle the country.   

World War 1

By 1916 the Europeans had re-appropriated most of Kenya’s farming land and discontent between the settlers and Kenyans began. During World War I, one in four of the 1,200,000 African porters and soldiers conscripted died; those who returned were deeply influenced by the experience. Political associations began to spring up and by 1921 there were numerous protests and rallies calling for an end to colonial rule. 

World War II

During World War II the King’s African Rifles fought bravely in Ethiopia and Burma but returned to Kenya to find that while land was being awarded to British soldiers in recognition of their services, it was not being awarded to African soldiers; this considerably deepened the simmering discontent. Postwar African politics stepped up the pressure for independence with the formation of the Kenya African Union, which was headed by Jomo Kenyatta in 1946.

The Mau Mau Rebellion 

Rising discontent culminated in the largely Kikuyu-led Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. In 1952 the British government declared a state of emergency and thousands of British troops were sent to Kenya. A fierce guerilla war was fought and thousands of Kenyans were detained in concentration camps. The revolt ended in 1956 with the capture of DedanKimathi, Commander in Chief of the Land and Freedom Army. 

Independence 1963

By 1960 the British had accepted the need for Kenyan independence and preparations for the changeover began. On Madaraka day June 1st 1963, Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first prime minister and on December 12th, 1963 Kenya became formally independent. From then on, Kenya was viewed internationally as a model of stability and democracy, and with the blossoming of a vibrant tourist industry; the country seemed set for a bright and positive future. 

1978 Death of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta

In 1978 Mezee Jomo Kenyatta died, much to the surprise of the Kenyan people, who were overtaken by a nationwide outpouring of grief. Kenya’s vice president, Daniel Arap Moi, smoothly assumed power and introduced a philosophy of peace, love and unity, which was called ‘Nyayo’ or ‘footsteps’.  By the 1980s Kenyans had become disenchanted with one-party rule and demands for multi-party democracy began. It was not until 1991, however, that President Moi acceded to internal and external pressure for political liberalization and agreed for elections to be held in 1992 and 1997, both of which were marred by violence and failed to dislodge the ruling KANU party. In 2002 an opposition coalition called The National Alliance and Rainbow Alliance won a landslide victory over Kanu and President Moi gracefully conceded defeat. MwaiKibaki was sworn in as president and the National and Rainbow alliances were merged to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC).  The people were euphoric, there was dancing in the streets and it was thought that a new era in Kenyan politics had dawned. 

KIBAKI's NARC coalition splintered in 2005 over the constitutional review process. Government defectors joined with KANU to form a new opposition coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement, which defeated the government's draft constitution in a popular referendum in November 2005. KIBAKI's reelection in December 2007 brought charges of vote rigging from ODM candidate Raila ODINGA and unleashed two months of violence in which as many as 1,500 people died. UN-sponsored talks in late February produced a powersharing accord bringing ODINGA into the government in the restored position of prime minister.

Government and Politics

Kenya is governed under the constitution adopted at independence in 1963. Amendments enacted in 1964 made the country a republic with a president, who is elected for a 5-year term as both the head of state and head of government. Kenya’s form of government is based on the British parliamentary model with a national assembly (the legislature) made up of 210 directly elected members plus 12 members who are nominated by the president, and the speaker and attorney general as ex-officio members. Multi-party elections were first staged in 1992. Voters vote separately for a presidential candidate and an MP. The presidential candidate with the most votes nationally (who must also win 25% or more of the vote in at least 5 of Kenya’s 7 provinces and one area – to avoid a run-off) is invited to form a government, even if his or her party does not have a majority of MPs. A vice president and a cabinet are appointed, by the president, from members of the national assembly. Kenya is divided into one area (Nairobi) and 7 administrative provinces: Central, Coast, Eastern, Northeastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Western. 

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