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Lessons from the past

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Historian explores roots of Kenya’s current political upheaval

​W.O. Maloba is the author of two new volumes about the history of Kenya during the Cold War era and its founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.

With Kenya in the midst of political turmoil and facing a likely constitutional crisis because of its recently overturned presidential elections, a University of Delaware historian says there’s no better time to learn lessons from the past.

Wunyabari (W.O.) Maloba, professor and chair of Africana studies and professor of history at UD, is the author of two new books on the history of Kenya and its founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.

Today’s president of the East African nation is Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta — who won re-election earlier this year in a contest that has now been ruled invalid by the Kenyan Supreme Court. The candidate who successfully challenged the fairness and validity of the election, opposition leader Raila Odinga, is the son of Jomo Kenyatta’s longtime opponent, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Maloba’s book Kenyatta and Britain: An Account of Political Transformation, 1929-1963, has been hailed as the first serious political biography of Jomo Kenyatta in 40 years. It explores Kenyatta’s life as an anti-colonial activist through 1963, when he became prime minister of Kenya.

The examination of Kenyatta’s legacy is completed in Maloba’s second volume, Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya: British Imperialism and Kenyatta, 1963-1978, which follows Kenyatta’s years in power until his death. Both books were published this fall by Palgrave Macmillan.

Maloba, a native of Kenya who earned his doctorate in history at Stanford University, joined the UD faculty in 1988 and was the founder and first director of the University’s African Studies Program. He also served as assistant vice president for affirmative action and multicultural programs and Chair of the President’s Commission on Racial and Cultural Diversity at UD.

Maloba reflected on some of Kenya’s history and its current political upheaval.

Question: When you follow the news from Kenya today, with questions about how the discredited presidential election will be resolved and the sometimes-violent protests that are occurring, do you think about the history covered in your books?

Answer: I didn’t write these books to coincide with the elections; that’s just the way it happened. But I do think that the history I examine in my books can answer the question that many Kenyans, and others throughout Africa and the world, are asking: How did we get here? I think we’re all realizing that we can’t move forward until we understand what the problems are and how they came to be. So the books are very topical and relevant.

Q: Have you found that the issues that led to the current political problems stem from Kenya’s history?

A: They don’t just stem from the period of colonialism and independence, they’re really a continuation of the same issues. It’s a terrible mistake to look at Africa today and not understand the historical background.

Q: How did these issues develop? And how do they relate to independence?

A: I look at the background of Kenya, and other African countries, and the kinds of ideological struggles that occurred after independence and the choices the leaders of these countries and other countries made. It was the Cold War, and the newly independent nations had to choose sides, by working with the West or with communist countries. The consequences of those choices continued long after that period ended. There were people in Kenya who accumulated wealth and power by cooperating with the West, and they weren’t going to give that up just because the Cold War was over.

Q: Can you still see those consequences in today’s situation?

A: Absolutely. The group of people who benefited in the past from the West’s support, the elites in Kenya, are still fighting to hold onto what they have. The problems of today—inequality, communities being shut out of power, land rights, access to resources, education, health care—these are not new problems. And they continue to haunt Kenya, and all of Africa, today.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Jomo Kenyatta?

A: I spent 10 years on these books, doing research and finding primary sources and sources that hadn’t been used before. My goal was to really understand Kenyatta the man. He has a compelling story that includes studying in the Soviet Union in the 1920s—the same university where Ho Chi Minh studied—but rejecting communism. He was an anti-colonial activist, but as president he forged political compromises between Kenya and Britain.

The British did everything they could in the 1950s to keep him from coming to power, including jailing him, but they changed their policy completely and saw him as a legendary leader that the West could depend on to suppress radicals. Questions arising from this choice continue to haunt Kenya today.

He went from being the most hated black man in Africa [by the British] to the most beloved. So that’s a fascinating story to tell.

Article by Ann Manser; photo by Lane McLaughlin

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Lessons from the past