Last-Chance Conference

In London’s splendid Lancaster House,* where constitutional conferences compete with a baroque painting of Venus and the Graces, sat three graces from Africa, attired in tribal costumes of lion and monkey skins. Together with 62 other delegates from Kenya and ten British officials, the chiefs were attending what was already billed as “the last-chance” conference. Its aim: to prepare the way for Kenya’s independence.

Of more than a dozen countries on three continents that have won independence from Britain since World War II, none has seemed so ill-prepared for nationhood as Kenya. Yet British officials fear a bloody resurgence of Mau Mau savagery if Kenya does not get its freedom from British rule in the near future —possibly by the end of this year. Thus, once again, Africa’s remote and bizarre tribal politics were thrust at puzzled European officials who were trying to give a colonial country freedom without chaos.

Land for Everyone. Kenya’s bitterly divided leaders have their own proposals for a constitution after independence; their plans seem irreconcilable, yet each faction warns that, unless its ideas are accepted, the rival tribes will revert to spear and poisoned arrow in Congo-style civil war. The conflict involves Kenya’s two major parties and their bosses: KANU’s grey-bearded, rheumy-eyed Jomo Kenyatta, 71, and restrained Ronald Ngala, 39, president of KADU† and Kenya’s leader of government business. After eight years’ detention for his ringleader’s role in the Mau Mau uprisings, Kenyatta is still a hero to millions of Africans; he insists on a strong centralized government with a one-house legislature and an elected head of state. KADU urges a Swiss-style federation of six largely autonomous regional constituencies, divided along tribal lines, with a two-house federal parliament and a coalition cabinet.

Each plan reflects the fears of either party. KANU’s strength comes overwhelmingly from Kenya’s three most powerful tribes: the Kikuyu (Kenyatta’s kin), Luo and Kamba, who represent nearly half of Kenya’s entire African population.

KANU also commands the allegiance of most detribalized urban Africans, who devoutly believe Kenyatta’s pledge that there will be work or land for everyone when his party has won independence on its own terms. KADU, on the other hand, draws most of its support from the Masai, Baluhya and other smaller tribes who, though a minority, occupy a far bigger area than the land-starved peoples represented by KANU. KADU’s majimbo (regionalism ) plan is thus aimed at protecting minority rights of the smaller, often nomadic tribes against political and territorial domination by the big tribes.

Hope for Moderation. Though KANU has countered with reassuring proposals for a strong bill of rights and an independent judiciary. KADU leaders remain deeply apprehensive: impartial administration of justice, they argue, will be hampered for years by Kenya’s almost total lack of trained native lawyers and the reluctance of white officials to stay on. Last year alone, 3,000 whites—5% of the white population—left the colony, where they are outnumbered 100 to 1.

Urging his followers to sharpen their spears, KADU’s fiery William Murgor warned ominously last fortnight: “If it’s clear that KANU has succeeded in bamboozling the British against our plans for a future Kenya, I’ll blow a whistle from London and you will know there must be war.” Opening the conference, Britain’s Colonial Secretary Reginald Maudling insisted that Britain will not free the colony “unless we can be sure that we shall be handing over authority in Kenya to a stable regime, free from oppression, free from violence, free from racial discrimination.” If Britain can stick to its pledge, despite a $50 million annual bill to keep Kenya’s ailing economy from total collapse, the most hopeful prospect for the future is that a moderate third party will emerge to break the deadlock and agree on a constitution acceptable to big and small tribes alike. Already touted as its leader is KANU’s astute, ambitious Secretary Tom Mboya, 31, who has already impressed responsible Africans as offering the most promising alternative to Kenyatta’s erratic leadership. Meanwhile, as one African put it: “The melon is split wide open. We can only try to cover it with gauze.”

* Now owned by the government, it was once a private residence. Once, when Queen Victoria visited, its splendor moved her to say to the owner’s wife, the Duchess of Sutherland: “My dear, I come from my house to your palace.”† KADU stands for Kenya African Democratic Union; KANU, Kenya African National Union.

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