How Kapenguria turned Jomo into political icon

Alberto Leny  @PeopleDailyKe

Jomo Kenyatta rose to the helm of the Kenya African Union(KAU) because of his power to pull crowds. Its leadership felt that to move masses towards the call for independence, they needed someone with the will and talent to champion a cause.

KAU was founded in August 1944 as the only political outlet for indigenous Africans at the height of British colonial rule.

KAU also pushed for independent schools and churches which would fight against the colonial government’s political and economic beliefs and the church’s spiritual domination that discriminated the majority Africans, rendering them inferior, extremely poor and mere spectators in the running of their affairs.

To actualise the dream of self-rule and self-actualisation, in June 1947, James Gichuru stepped down as KAU’s president and handed over the mantle to Kenyatta.

True to KAU’s belief, Kenyatta attracted large crowds as he traversed Kikuyuland propagating the clamour for independence.

However, he realised that the fight for independence could not be won by one community alone. It required the support of other communities such as the Luo, Maasai and other nationalists, who suspiciously regarded him as an advocate of Kikuyu dominance. So he sought inter-community representation in the KAU executive.

He adopted a gradual and peaceful approach to the struggle for independence, a sharp contrast to the Mau Mau uprising, whose young militants saw him as a hero of the liberation movement.

In April 1952, however, Kenyatta denounced Mau Mau, insisting that independence must be achieved through peaceful means. Despite his opposition, Mau Mau became more militant, demanded for Kenyan independence within three years and in January 1952 formed a central committee devoted to direct action. Kenyatta could not control their burning desire.


In October 1952 he was arrested in Githunguri and driven to Nairobi and onward to remote Lokitaung in Turkana where he was detained in the belief that his confinement would help quell the civil unrest. Historians say the authorities knew Kenyatta was not involved in the Mau Mau.

Together with Achieng Oneko, Paul Ngei, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai and Kung’u Karumba, Kenyatta was charged with masterminding the proscribed group. The trial that lasted five months in the remote town of Kapenguria gave rise to the phrase the “Kapenguria Six”.

Although the prosecution failed to link them to Mau Mau, they were found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labour. Kenyatta addressed the court, challenging the judge’s findings while accusing the colonial government of making them scapegoats.

The verdict was followed by a wider crackdown, the banning of KAU in 1953 and the closing down of most independent schools, including Kenyatta’s school in Githunguri. Kenyatta and the other accused were sent to remand in Lokitaung. Their lawyers successfully appealed the case in the Supreme Court, which freed them. The victory was, however, short-lived. They were immediately re-arrested.

The government took the case to the East African Court of Appeal which reversed the Supreme Court’s decision. The appeal process continued in October 1953 and in January 1954 the Supreme Court upheld the convictions against all except Oneko.

Kenyatta’s detention in Kapenguria transformed him into a political legend, elevating his stature as a symbol of Kenyan and African nationalism.

Within Kenya, Kenyatta was regarded as the ‘Father of the Nation’. He became a popular symbol of the nation itself, a complement enamoured by the similarities between the name of the country and that of the man, Njamba (leader). He was also bestowed with the unofficial title of Mzee, a revered Swahili reference to a “grand old man”.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was the first to publicly call for Kenyatta’s release from prison in Kapenguria, triggering a wave of calls for his freedom across the country and the continent.

With the British Empire dismantled throughout much of Asia, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government sought to transition Kenya to independence and majority rule.

Representatives of the anti-colonial movement were in 1960 invited to Lancaster House in London, where an agreement was reached for a 65-seat legislative council, with 33 seats reserved for black Africans, 20 for other ethnic groups, and 12 “national members” elected by a pan-racial electorate.

The evolution of Jomo Kenyatta had turned full cycle and he was soon to become the central figure in the future of Kenyan politics.

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