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Socialismes en Afrique

Françoise Blum
Héloïse Kiriakou
Martin Mourre
et al.

Première partie : doctrines et corpus. 2 : en marge du pouvoir : contestations

“Not Yet Revolution!”: Socialism in Kenya from the 1960s to the 1990s

Stefano Bellucci

Texte intégral

1An often-overlooked aspect of Kenyan history is the history of socialism. By socialism, I mean social democratic as well as revolutionary Marxism. There is one historical reason for this historical amnesia: in Kenya, socialism, in all its manifestations, failed to materialize into a wider mass movement or avant-garde that was able to attain a position of political power. However, socialist movements have existed in the country’s recent history. These movements operated within a complex dialectical opposition between political forces—between those who promoted a communal, egalitarian or socialist path to progress, and those who supported an individualistic and ethnicized “crony” capitalist pattern of development. This essay seeks to shed light on the history of socialism in Kenya, looking at two particular aspects: the socialist movement’s historical failure to attain state power and its entanglements in internal and international politics.

Contested origins: peasant versus class struggle

2Some scholars indicate the Mau Mau revolt a necessary starting point when dealing with the history of contemporary socialism in Kenya (Maloba 1993). However, the Mau Mau rebellion defies any easy categorization, especially in relation to anti-imperialism or socialism. British colonial sources depicted the movement as an atavistic and tribal one (Rosberg, Nottingham 1966; Edgerton 1989). Due to the scarcity of sources other than those of the colonial oppressors, it is difficult for any historian to come to terms with a precise definition of what Mau Mau was. In Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory & Politics by Marshall S. Clough, the oral history of some of the protagonists sheds some light on the issue (Clough, 1998). Reading these life histories, it is possible to realize that the hasty equation between Mau Mau and class struggle made by some in the 1970s and 1980s was simply misleading and ultimately wrong (Wa Kinyatti 2008a; N/A, 1982: 259–266; Mazrui, Mphande 1989–1990: 47–58). Mau Mau has been considered a peasant, nationalist, class and tribal movement, and maybe it was all of these things, but it remains almost a mystery to these days. Many scholars nowadays, including Anderson and Elkins, see the movement as the prototype of African nationalism (Anderson 2005; Elkins 2005).

  • 1 Kenyatta did so even before formal independence had been declared, that is to say, when he was made (...)

3When it comes to its legacy, the Mau Mau revolt plays a different role in Kenyan political history. The name used by leaders of the movement was Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) (Kanogo 1992: 23–25; Baggallay 2011). As explained by David Hyde, the main issue at stake was the redistribution and ownership of land (Hyde 2010). In 1964, Jomo Kenyatta declared that the land confiscated during the British-imposed state of emergency related to the Mau Mau revolt would be returned to the free peasantry. This promise was not, however, honored, and matters remained as the British had left them. Jon Lonsdale and Eisha Stephen Atieno-Odhiambo describe this as a “political culture of orderly amnesia” (2003: 4), but these events took place during the Cold War, and Kenyatta chose to place Kenya in the camp of the West.1

4If Kenyatta chose the right-wing political camp, its political rivals chose the left. Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga, in 1966, declared, “I am deeply perturbed that in Kenya today those who sacrificed most in the struggle have lost out to people who played safe in our most difficult days” (Hornsby, 2013: 116). At independence, Odinga became a prominent figure within the radical or socialist camp of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party (Odera, Nyong’o 2010; Atieno-Odhiambo 1997; Odinga 1967). KANU was Kenyatta’s party as well as the party of those who considered themselves as “socialists,” regardless of the definition of the term (Grillo 1993: 41–44). It was a typical example of an all-embracing party, or congress party, of national unity. Initially, Kenyan socialists or radicals did not opt to create their own party and decided to fight their cause within KANU. In hindsight, this was arguably a political mistake.

  • 2 The legacy of the struggle also began to be misappropriated by Kikuyu’s elite, who claimed their sh (...)

5By the late 1960s and in the 1970s a powerful narrative had taken hold. The Marxist class-struggle interpretations of the Mau Mau insurgency, as incorrect as it was, became widespread. Kenyatta cronies—the government elite—began to be characterized by some on the left, in particular, as those who had betrayed the nation because they had betrayed the people, the masses, the peasants. Radical novelists and intellectuals began to praise the Mau Mau in novels, plays and essays, written in Kiswahili and in various vernacular languages. Notable among these writers is the famous intellectual, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who stopped working in English in order to adopt his Gikuyu language.2

Pio Pinto and the Lumumba Institute

6Pio da Gama Pinto, the most prominent Marxist figure in Kenya, was born in Nairobi, and his father was a colonial administrator originally from India (Nowrojee 2007; Pan African Press Ltd 1966; Pinto 2014). Asian-Kenyans were traditionally an educated social group but with little commitment to the socialist cause. Upon independence, they were the expression of a “petty bourgeoisie.” They typically made their living through trade or government posts. This had also been the case during colonialism. As a young journalist and intellectual, Pio da Gama Pinto chose Odinga’s camp within KANU. It became immediately apparent though that Pinto was much more committed to radicalism. Within the KANU radical camp, he was one of the most well-acquainted with Marxist literature. It was thus unsurprising that he immediately forged links with radical trade unionists in Kenya, and abroad with both China and the Soviet Union.

7A decade before independence, in 1952 and 1953, Pinto had been put under surveillance by British intelligence. He was detained in 1954 under suspicion of murder. In reality, the British authorities were worried about his alleged links to the Mau Mau movement and believed him to be involved in arms trafficking. Pinto was released in 1959.

  • 3 Two young people, in all probability innocent, were accused and convicted of the killing. Kamba Kis (...)

8The radical newspaper, Pan African Press, which Pinto directed, was open to communist ideas and authors. His election to parliament in 1964, with KANU, became a problem for the new KANU-led government. KANU was a typical African political party of the times: it was formed to coordinate the liberation struggle, and its nation-building agenda took precedence over any ideological inclinations. Until 1963, KANU members were united by anticolonial nationalism. Therefore, after independence, right in the middle of Cold War tensions, the issue of which ideological camp KANU should choose, capitalist or socialist, suddenly became a burning issue. Within the party, members professed a variety of different political ideologies, from left to conservative traditionalism. The party leadership decided to side with the West and capitalism. On 24 February 1965, Pinto was murdered outside his house in Nairobi. Although charges were brought against the alleged murderers, many suspect that, in fact, the Special Branch Police (national security services) was involved.3

9During the crucial passage from colonialism to independence, in the early 1960s, the avantgarde, radical movement within KANU consisted of Marxists as well as moderate socialists. The radicals—also referred to as backbenchers—had a clear vision of how to transform and reform Kenya. The radicals were ideologically well trained, and increasingly militarily equipped as well. Ideology and armed struggle were seen by contemporary Marxist-Leninists and Maoists as two key instruments for any “proletarian revolution” to be successful. Pinto was no exception in his vision. He realized that the creation of an avant-garde political movement was crucial, especially in a country, such as Kenya, without a proletariat and with big industrial districts. The peasantry could be mobilized and guided by this avant-garde movement. Hundreds of young Kenyans were mobilized for this purpose by Odinga’s faction within KANU. Many went to communist countries for training purposes—officially to obtain a technical education.

  • 4 The Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation published in 2010 declassified CIA documents on Kenya during the (...)

10During that period, it was common all over the world for political parties to set up schools of “government” to train their members to become future administrators. The Lumumba Institute for political training was founded by KANU in December 1964 with this very objective in mind. Although Kenyatta was a trustee of the Institute, the board of the Institute was soon dominated by KANU radicals, including Pinto, Bildad Kaggia, and Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi. Interestingly, Tom Mboya, the Secretary-General of KANU and a former trade unionist, was kept out. The reason behind this was that Mboya was suspected to have had at least loose links with American, and probably also British, intelligence (Goldworthy 1982: 159, 265–266).4 Regardless of whether these allegations were true or not, this says a lot about the political climate of the time, and it also sheds light on the very political nature of the Lumumba Institute and its board.

11The USSR and East Germany funded the Lumumba Institute. Some instructors were Eastern Europeans, some others were Kenyans trained in Eastern Europe. The Institute was short-lived and closed down about a year after its opening. During its lifetime a few dozen KANU district officials attended courses. Was the Institute set up to become a training ground for socialists and revolutionaries? Maybe. However, Odinga, when asked, always rejected the allegation of a hidden agenda behind the Institute. Today the compound that housed the Institute is home to the Pan Africa Christian University.

1965: “African socialism” and Cold War politics

12Socialist and Marxist ideals were undoubtedly very attractive to many students and intellectuals. That part of the population engaged in politics—a minority—was split between pro-radicals and pro-Kenyatta supporters. Increasing polarization was potentially dangerous for Kenyatta; he also had to contend with circulating rumors that the army might step in. Caught between the mounting radical threat and an impatient army, Kenyatta opted for a strategy of inclusion of socialist ideas within his political platform.

  • 5 Government of Kenya, “African socialism and its application to planning in Kenya,” Sessional Paper (...)

13The famous Sessional Paper No. 10, entitled “African socialism and its application to planning in Kenya,” was published on 27 April 1965.5 The intention was to outline a new political and economic course for Kenya: from traditional ownership of land to modernization, from taxation to trade unions, etc. The Paper placed a focus on the thorny question of land —the nation’s main economic resource and principal political problem. Despite the word “socialism” in the title of the Paper, the document was in fact more of a capitalist manifesto. Kenyatta did not even envisage a mixed economy. Statements such as the following one prove this point:

  • 6 Ibid: 11–12.

African traditions cannot be carried over indiscriminately to a modern monetary economy. The need to develop and invest requires credit and a credit economy rests heavily on a system of land titles and their registration. The ownership of land must, therefore, be made more definite and explicit if land consolidation and development are to be fully successful.6

14This statement—like many others in the document—makes it clear that the land issue was not to be touched. The Paper was prepared by Tom Mboya, the then Minister for Economic Planning and Development, and drafted by an American adviser (Hornsby 2013: 147). Free market capitalism was to be challenged not by socialism but by African traditions (Ahluwalia 1996: 41–43). The Paper was meant to put an end to any future discussion on socialism, rather than implant socialism in Kenya. The economic laissez-faire and the openness towards foreign investors were issues that Kenyan socialists could not accept. Before its closure, students of the Lumumba Institute issued a press statement attacking the Paper (Wa Kinyatti 2008b: 399).

15Over a year before the disingenuous publication of the Paper, Kenya’s accession to the non-alignment movement had become another divisive issue. Skirmishes took place both in the streets and within institutions. In the end, Kenya chose to become part of the non-aligned movement, like most African countries. However, Tom Mboya claimed Kenya’s non-alignment choice—i.e., with a group comprising many socialist countries—would not alienate its relationship with the West (Maloba 2017: 87–88). Western countries were Kenya’s main trading partners and Kenya had received massive development aid from the United Kingdom, West Germany, and the United States.

16Within the ruling KANU, factionalism between conservatives and socialists continued to spread until it reached breaking point. The proclamation of “African socialism” was an astute move by Kenyatta as it provided a cover for his repression of Marxist and (some) socialist elements within the party, as well as within society at large (Barkan 1994: 85; Laidler 2013: 852–853; Grillo 1993: 38–41; Munene 2015: 118–120). By declaring itself “socialist,” Kenyatta’s camp could not easily be accused of the undemocratic politically repression of the socialist opposition within the context of the all-embracing KANU.

17Not surprisingly, the city port of Mombasa became a center for labor radicalism (Cooper 1987: 247–273). Militant trade unions were very influential, and their membership reached significant numbers. In this industrial city a proletarian class was in the making, and the socialist camp could act with relative discretion, protected as it was by unionists’ networks. Odinga’s camp arranged for a naval shipment of guns from the Soviet Block. His plan was, however, discovered by the secret services. An Anglo-American warship had to intervene to escort the arms-laden boat to international waters (Attwood 1967: 246). There were reports that arms had come across Lake Victoria from Tanzania into the Nyanza region. The government further increased its surveillance on radical and socialist elements within Kenyan society and at the same time further marginalized the radicals within KANU. The result was an increase in the radicalization of the socialist opposition.

18More concretely, in order to understand the debate and what it meant to be a socialist or a radical in Kenya in those years, it is necessary to look further at the question of labor radicalism. The 1960s is a period in Kenyan history in which a great number of strikes took place. Douglas Muir and John Brown registered over 1,100 strikes in the period 1963–1969 (Muir, Brown 1974: 488). More than once, Mboya condemned workers’ unrests. He did so in the name of development and growth, which is easier to be achieved with social peace and national unity. However, this resulted in almost unconditional support to Kenyatta’s government and policies, which were neither socially driven nor were they favorable to Kenyan workers (Mboya 1970: 66). Indeed, in 1965, the government approved the Trade Disputes Act to regulate collective bargaining. This was highly criticized by trade unions because its provisions did not improve the already very low bargaining power of Kenyan wage workers. Unions were also put under direct government scrutiny with the creation, by Presidential decree, of the Central Confederation of Trade Unions (CCTU) into which all unions were integrated. The right to strike was also limited and this determined a year-by-year decrease in the number of strikes in Kenya.

19An understanding of the labor question in the context of the political scene of the 1960s helps shed light on what it meant to be a socialist and a radical in Kenya after independence, beyond the nationalist and anticolonial struggle. Initially, the general policy in Kenya was that unionists did not enter into political competition, i.e., parliament. However, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) was formed in March 1966 by Oginga Odinga precisely to voice wage workers’ grievances. The party openly declared itself “socialist” (Oloo 2007: 96–97). Although it is probably true that ethnic politics played a part in the immediate growing support for this new political party, mainly amongst the Luo in the Western regions from where Odinga originated, as noted by Ochieng’, to look at the relative success of the KPU only in ethnic terms is rather reductive (Ochieng’ 1995). The appeal that socialism, and the KPU, had on urbanized workers is indeed another important reason why, in the mid-1960s, the KPU became a real threat for Kenyatta and Mboya. The radicals where “supported by urban workers, trade unions and students” who “advocated socialist policies” (Ochieng’ 1995: 98).

On April 1966, thirteen veteran trade unionists resigned from KANU to join the KPU. Among these were J.D. Akumu, O.O. Maka-Anyengo, V.G. Wachira, George Inguka and F.E. Omido […]. The KPU claimed that under the KANU government the peasant for most part remained as he always was and that the workers could no longer believe that the government was working on their behalf. (Ochieng’ 1995: 99–100)

From socialism to anti-Western radicalization

  • 7 Very likely murdered by Kenyan authorities (Goldsworthy 2008: 288).

20The KPU was banned in 1969, a few years after its creation, and some of its members were arrested by Kenyatta’s security forces. Mboya, probably the last remaining with a mild taste of radicalism within KANU, was murdered the same year.7 Odinga was among the detainees and was freed in 1971. The KPU experience, although short-lived, remains important in the history of socialism in Kenya. Not only did the KPU constitute a challenge to Kenyatta’s personal rule but it also opened up a debate on the nature of Kenya’s political system: independent Kenya was not a multiparty democracy. This rather obvious observation implied that Britain and the West, by siding with Kenyatta’s one-party government, were effectively repressing freedom and democracy in Africa. This is rather problematic for nations that based their foreign policy on promoting multi-party, representative democracy. In the 1970s, the African struggles against Portuguese colonialism and racist governments in Southern Africa affected the mindset of many educated Kenyans. The ambiguous position of Western powers put strain on pro-Western African governments, accused of siding with dictatorial, colonialist, and racist governments. Freedom and democracy became a cause for many Kenyan socialists (Goldsworthy 2008: 252–253).

  • 8 A leftist populism which called for a kind of socialism intended for ordinary citizens could be see (...)

21In the 1970s, alongside Marxism, there was a rise in “leftist populism.” The socialist camp was made of people seeking to establish a political and economic system that would mitigate the ever-growing social inequalities between Kenyan citizens; this socialist grouping was made up of people from disparate intellectual backgrounds. Within it there were educated elites, who read and understood Marx, but also leftist populists, descendants of the Mau Mau tradition. Leftist populism was more likely to capture the heart and souls the wananchi (ordinary citizens), because of its simple political premise, which was based on traditional egalitarianism and tribal anti-individualism and self-reliance (Wanjohi 1997).8 The populist messages were easier to be received by the urbanized masses, who often found themselves unrooted after having left the countryside and their traditional life to find opportunities in the cities (Ross 1980). Furthermore, scientific socialism was not an easy thing to understand for many Kenyans, proletarians and “lumpenproletarians” alike. To conceive of the world in materialist terms, outside religion and other socially constructed structures (the family, the lineage, ethnicism, etc.), was a difficult concept to grasp for poorly educated Kenyans.

22Ten or fifteen years after independence, many Kenyans were still waiting for a positive change in their daily lives. The “racial element” also began to play a role in politics in Kenya (Browne 1983; Bigsten 1988). Whites and Asians, and other powerful families (including Kenyatta’s) continued to accumulate and enjoy great wealth (and land), very much like in the pre-independence times (Hornsby 2013: 655–657). The government was determined not to let these grievances turn into a class-based standoff. It therefore played the ethnic card. As explained by Malhotra, this was also the time when Kenyatta’s personality cult flourished (Malhotra 1990).

23At an institutional level, parliamentarian traditions and legal processes remained unchanged. This gave parliament relative independence for at least one decade after independence.

  • 9 See interview with Roger Tomkys (Cumming 2001: 264).

24Young, educated, and outspoken MPs entered the National Assembly by using KANU, the only option. Social and economic inequalities as well as the increasing reliance on Western aid were some of the most important issues brought to the fore by radicals in the 1970s.9

25Land to the landless and self-reliance or import-substitute economics continued to be two of the main pillars of the socialist program of “national salvation.” Corruption was rampant, but this was seen by the left as a “natural” consequence of the capitalist system, and this is why, according to them, Western donors closed a blind eye to the phenomenon. The idea of national salvation was an effective message, and it gave some impetus to KANU’s radical opposition (Mbithi, Rasmusson 1977). Another powerful message within the national salvation program was the rejection of foreign, mainly Western, assistance. KANU’s backbenchers were able to push the government to issue several decrees and laws in the direction of self-reliance (Mbithi, Rasmusson 1977).

26Kenyatta’s way of dealing with these socialist radicals was to remove them one by one from positions of power. The assassination of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, in 1975, showed the extent to which the government’s elite opposed the socialists (Dauch 1982; Wandibba 2004; Sabar 2002: 160; Durrani 2018: 65–66). Today, it has been proven that Kariuki’s murder was carried out by the secret police, but this was widely suspected even in those days (Ng’weno 2010). In the aftermath of the assassination, protests erupted. From then onwards, Kenya became closer to a typical right-wing dictatorship, with increasingly less tolerance of internal dissent. Media, universities, and trade unions became targets of harsh political repression.

27The closest to a communist party was the Workers’ Party of Kenya (WPK), which was founded, clandestinely, in 1974 by five people, among whom the historian, Professor Maina wa Kinyatti, author of Mwakenya: The Unfinished Revolution (Wa Kinyatti 2014). The risk of imprisonment, beatings, and detention was becoming ever more real for dissidents. MPs were not spared from such attacks. The police became a powerful institution that could enter Parliament in order to arrest its members. US and UK anti-communist services were not completely extraneous to the government’s anti-communist measures. In 1977, novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was also arrested following a pro-Mau Mau play in Gikuyu and the publication of Petals of Blood, which vehemently criticized the Kenyan socio-political system (Wa Thiong’o 1977). The collections of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, kept at the George Padmore Institute Archives in London, is filled with cases of people being arrested, tortured, and sometimes killed for political reasons.10

The Mwakenya: the last act of the socialist struggle?

28In the years before his death, Kenyatta’s popularity declined, and the old politician was no longer in full control of the country. Daniel Arap Moi became president after Kenyatta’s death in 1978 (and remained so until 2002) (Ahluwalia 1996: 81–85). Moi continued his predecessor’s policy of political repression and international alliances. President Moi’s anti-socialist and anti-communist strategy differed from Kenyatta’s inasmuch as it was even more intransigent and repressive, and included the deployment of the military for the repression of internal dissidents. The military therefore consolidated its prominent institutional role (Karangi, Ebo 2006).

  • 11 K. Opanga, “Kenya: Diang’a Speaks: Inside the Head of a Coup Maker,” The East African Standard (Nai (...)
  • 12 Ibid.

29Within the military, there were however some “progressive” elements. A certain group of military officers were relatively well educated. In the 1980s, “progressive” military regimes existed in Burkina Faso with Thomas Sankara and in Ghana with Gerry Rowlings. In 1982, Corporal James Waore Diang’a of the Kenya Air Force (KAF) masterminded a coup (Diang’a 2001). He was a charismatic figure within the army, who, while not a rigorous socialist ideologue, did espouse some left-leaning ideas. Diang’a was motivated more by “moral” sentiments than by socialist ideology.11 He pragmatically used grievances within the military, for example over irregularities in the procurement of Air Force equipment, in order to rally fellow soldiers around his project to stage a coup d’état.12

  • 13 J. Borrell, “Attempted Coup Mars Kenya’s Image,” Wall Street Journal, 6 August 1982: 19.
  • 14 K. Opanga, “Kenya: Diang’a Speaks: Inside the Head of a Coup Maker,” op. cit.

30Many junior officers of the KAF believed that the moment had arrived to topple Moi and to instate a socialist, progressive government in Kenya: a salvation government.13 Hundreds of people died in the half-day coup attempt on 1 August 1982 (Gutto 1986). The coup was not successful primarily because the government Special Branch Police knew about it in advance and so did the military command—they were therefore able to quell the rebellion. However, this episode showed that dissatisfaction with the regime was not confined to students and trade unionists—there were elements of the military who were also looking for a new political direction. Diang’a was arrested but managed to flee to Sweden, where he was employed in the Gothenburg Municipality and became active in the Social Democratic Party.14

  • 15 “The December Twelve Movement,” Race & Class, vol. 24, no. 3, 1983: 322–325; “Pambana: Organ of the (...)
  • 16 Apart from Pambana, the DTM set up another press organ called Mpatanishi (Reconciler), in which DTM (...)

31The attempted coup took place two months after the arrest of several members of a new clandestine socialist movement, the December Twelve Movement (DTM).15 The name derives from the date of the flag independence of Kenya. The link to this date symbolizes the importance that the movement gave to anticolonialism and to the fight against neo- colonialism. This anti-imperialist or anti-Western brand of socialism was anchored in traditional Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thought.16

32Another wave of political, anti-communist repression took place immediately after the attempted coup. In tandem came a reorganization of the political and institutional apparatus with more powers being given to the president. Progressive lawyers, intellectuals, journalists, scientists, and especially university lecturers were arrested or were forced to flee the country for fear of retaliation (Wa Thiong’o 1983).

33In this climate, a new movement was formed, the Muungano wa Wazalendo wa Kukomboa Kenya (Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya), best known as Mwakenya (Wa Kinyatti 2014). Formed in 1985, Mwakenya surfaced within the Kenyan political scene in March 1986, when some of its members were arrested. These were students, teachers, and intellectuals.

34The story of Mwakenya is also a controversial and very interesting one. There were significant differences between it and the DTM in terms of their structure and system of allegiance. For example, unlike the DTM, members of Mwakenya were required to take an oath. For the DTM, there was no support for the idea of such an oath as it could have placed individual members under threat from being identified by infiltrators. The oath, therefore, by marking out clandestine activists, made the task of national security forces and secret police easier.

  • 17 Mwakenya [political movement], Mwakenya Minimum Draft Programme, Nairobi 1987, available at the Uni (...)

35The oath was supposed to resemble the Mau Mau’s practice. But in those earlier days of the anticolonial struggle, the oath made sense since many insurgents could not write or read, and it represented a moment of bonding and even indoctrination. The tradition of the DTM was different. DTM’s strategy favored informal membership of committed activists. This was done through indoctrination via Marxist clandestine publications. Some members of the DTM disagreed with Mwakenya’s strategy of accepting funding from leftish Western organizations, on the grounds that it brought it closer to the model of other African non-governmental organizations.17

  • 18 The 34-page Minimum Draft Programme is available in various libraries, including Indiana University (...)
  • 19 “Mwakenya’s Stand” (interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Spokesperson for Mwakenya), Africa Events(...)

36A few workers and Kikuyu farmers started to mobilize themselves against the government with Mwakenya’s support. This occurred especially in Nakuru and Nyeri. These were focal points of Kikuyu anti-government dissent. In 1987, Mwakenya published its opposition magazine, Pambana (Struggle), and released its manifesto, the Mwakenya Minimum Draft Programme.18 This reflected anti-capitalist, anti-Western, and egalitarian stances, again in continuation of the Mau Mau tradition. Intellectuals such as Kaggia, Kariuki, and wa Thiong’o were Mwakenya sympathizers.19 This is also in light of the fact that the land issue in Kenya was never properly addressed.

37Under the repressive regime in place, possession of seditious literature became an offence that was used to jail dozens of intellectuals, as well as students and even peasants and trade unionists in the 1980s. Interrogations and detentions by the secret police took place in Nairobi’s Nyayo House, the designated place of death for many political opposition members, a reality that existed in other Western-supported dictatorships worldwide. Under Moi’s legislation, the police and its Special Branch could detain people without trial for twenty-four hours for interrogation. This was when most of the abuses against socialist and Marxist sympathizers took place. The trials that normally followed “interrogations” were usually a farce. Many detainees, especially if from more humble background, remained in jail for years. By the 1990s, many opposition MPs had passed through the hands of the police. Being accused of communism or atheism was a serious matter. Christian fundamentalism, like ethnicism, was instrumental for the government’s repression within Kenyan society (Karanja 2008: 84–85).

  • 20 This also emerges in the pages of Pambana, the movement’s newsletter. The DTM managed to publish on (...)

38It is quite difficult to measure to what extent Mwakenya represented a threat for the government in power or if it was used by the regime in order to consolidate its grip within state structures and society. Moi and his cronies used the supposed threat of the movement and the fear of communism as an excuse to repress unwanted opposition and keep the population and the workers subjugated. At the same time, two other problems arose: ethnicism and religion. Terror created a sense of generalized paranoia and betrayal. Mwakenya was mainly a Luo and Kikuyu movement and instances of ethnic positioning occurred even within this movement (Sabar-Friedman 1997; Kollman, Toms 2018: 79–80). Socialist universalism, ingrained in the movement’s program could not withstand deeply rooted elements of ethnicism. The movement was atheist and anti-traditionalist (Hornsby 2013: 414–417).20 It condemned tribalism and religion as factors use for controlling and repressing Kenyan peoples. This was exacerbated by the fact that Christian fundamentalist churches were allowed to open and encouraged to do so in Kenya. In the 1990s they flourished among the lower classes as well as the petit bourgeoisie. The socialist alternative seemed incapable of countering this trend. Getting rid of the country’s colonial legacy and its heritage of injustice and misery was subjugated to the greater calling of religious belief.

  • 21 O. Namwaya, “Fera Had Its Origins in Oginga Odinga’s KPU,” The East African Standard (Nairobi), 19  (...)

39Other “revolutionary” groups which existed between the 1980s and 1990s, such as Uwake or Fera, the Kenya Revolutionary Movement, and the Kenya Patriotic Front (KPF) found themselves in a much worst situation than Mwakenya (Ogot 1995: 197).21 These movements came into being during the decline of the Soviet Block, and never managed to seriously pose a threat to the regime. In many ways, their militant atheism put a barrier between them and the disillusioned Kenyan society, which was increasingly lulled into the comforting arms of religious fundamentalism, especially Christian. On the one hand, socialism represented an effort by a few to change the material conditions of the people, through the pain of social and political struggle, on the other hand, the many fundamentalist churches (which still wield great influence today) offered a placebo for the suffering of the Kenyan masses, seeking wellbeing through hope and belief (rather than through struggle). This religious fervor has signaled the death knell for the socialist effort to reach the Kenyan masses.

Final remarks

40From the 1950s to the 1990s, Kenyan socialists of all sorts—from moderate reformists to revolutionary Marxists—fought many battles on many fronts. They fought organically to conquer the cultural elite of the newly independent nation; they fought for land rights; they fought within Kenyan state institutions. By deciding to fight from within KANU, the ruling party, Kenyan socialists effectively renounced the armed struggle or the revolution. They accepted the single-party system of government because “tribalism” and ethnic factionalism was a real, concrete threat. Therefore, the initial strategy was to prioritize the building of a unified Kenyan nation. When, from the mid-1970s and well into the 1980s, it was clear that the socialists had no hope of attaining power from within, “entrism” was abandoned. With Kenya transforming into a de facto capitalist dictatorship, socialists followed two paths: radicalism and populism.

41The problem for socialists in Kenya was who to fight against. The economic system was such that the state always played a fundamental role in the economy. It managed directly and indirectly a great deal of the national production. Despite the presence of foreign multinationals the key problem in Kenya was “crony capitalism” and the predatory activities by Kenyan politicians and Swahili elites. Because Kenya’s economy was not fully capitalist, due to the omnipresent state, the socialist program of the state controlling the economy was difficult to justify with the people, who saw in the state the major cause for their impoverishment.

42After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a capitalist economic state, Kenyan Marxists were left without any bearings. For the Kenyan people, it is an obvious statement to make that other forms of “socialism,” i.e., movements that seek material justice for the dispossessed, could again become a political imperative. The technological and capitalist transformation of Kenyan society, following the structural adjustments and the state’s retreat from the economy, normally should bring with it a process of individualization in the neoliberal sense of the term. Communitarianism, which is still not dead in Kenya, could offer the basis to dialectically confront this process. The problem is that while communitarianism could, as a concept, follow the socialist tradition, it is also one that is prone to the ghost of ethnicity, xenophobia, and racism.


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1 Kenyatta did so even before formal independence had been declared, that is to say, when he was made Minister of State for Economic Planning and Constitutional Affairs in 1962 (Maloba, 2017: 219–221).

2 The legacy of the struggle also began to be misappropriated by Kikuyu’s elite, who claimed their share of nationalist glory.

3 Two young people, in all probability innocent, were accused and convicted of the killing. Kamba Kisilu Mutua, a vegetable seller who had been arrested before for minor offences, was one of them. He has always denied these allegations and accused police officers of murdering Pinto and of setting him up as their fall guy.

4 The Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation published in 2010 declassified CIA documents on Kenya during the Cold War. M. Mutinga, “CIA documents offer insights into how the Cold War shaped politics in Kenya,” Daily Nation, Nairobi, 13 March 2010.

5 Government of Kenya, “African socialism and its application to planning in Kenya,” Sessional Paper No. 10, Nairobi, 27 April 1965.

6 Ibid: 11–12.

7 Very likely murdered by Kenyan authorities (Goldsworthy 2008: 288).

8 A leftist populism which called for a kind of socialism intended for ordinary citizens could be seen already in Kenya People’s Union (1967: 13).

9 See interview with Roger Tomkys (Cumming 2001: 264).

10 The digitized documents can be seen on this web site: [last accessed December 2020].

11 K. Opanga, “Kenya: Diang’a Speaks: Inside the Head of a Coup Maker,” The East African Standard (Nairobi), 19 March 2004, available on [accessed on 26 May 2018].

12 Ibid.

13 J. Borrell, “Attempted Coup Mars Kenya’s Image,” Wall Street Journal, 6 August 1982: 19.

14 K. Opanga, “Kenya: Diang’a Speaks: Inside the Head of a Coup Maker,” op. cit.

15 “The December Twelve Movement,” Race & Class, vol. 24, no. 3, 1983: 322–325; “Pambana: Organ of the December Twelve Movement,” Journal of African Marxists, vol. 2, August 1982: 83.

16 Apart from Pambana, the DTM set up another press organ called Mpatanishi (Reconciler), in which DTM’s political inclinations and program are clearly defined.

17 Mwakenya [political movement], Mwakenya Minimum Draft Programme, Nairobi 1987, available at the University of London Senate House Library. See also, Durrani (2004: 96–102).

18 The 34-page Minimum Draft Programme is available in various libraries, including Indiana University Library, but it is not available online. For a listing of these underground publications, see “Facing Mwakenya,” Africa Confidential, vol. 28, no. 1, 1987: 4–5.

19 “Mwakenya’s Stand” (interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Spokesperson for Mwakenya), Africa Events (London), vol. 8, no. 2, 1992: 30–31.

20 This also emerges in the pages of Pambana, the movement’s newsletter. The DTM managed to publish only one number on May 1982, in both English and Swahili.

21 O. Namwaya, “Fera Had Its Origins in Oginga Odinga’s KPU,” The East African Standard (Nairobi), 19 April 2004: 3; Amnesty International, Kenya: Silencing Opposition to One-Party rule, archive: EXTERNAL/AFR 32/28/90 Distr SC/CO/GR, London, 1990, [accessed on 19 February 2019].

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