Kenya’s independence from colonial rule: How the British off-loaded compensation costs on the poor

As it dawned on the British colonial authorities that their African colonial enterprise wasn’t working for them anymore, and it became clear that they would have to end colonial rule, they faced a tricky situation. Having invited English and South African whites to settle in Kenya left them with an inescapable obligation to compensate white settlers who did not wish to cast their lot with African majority rule.

Potentially, costs of compensation could have been enormous. Writing in the London Times, Margery Perham, a revered academic with extensive African experience, declared that the United Kingdom had “an inescapable responsibility, which cannot be unloaded upon Africans.” At least one reason for the government’s failure to accept her view can be deduced from her own figures. She estimated that it would cost £130 million to “underwrite the settlers’ land value.”

The British government had no intention of paying that bill, and centuries of experience in colonial rule had taught it that it could avoid paying up by exploiting divisions within the subject population. As I explain in more detail in Land and class in Kenya (chapter 4), those divisions were not far to seek. The two dominant ethnic groups, Kikuyu and Luo, and minority groups (Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu) had already become rival political parties, KANU (Kenya African National Union) and KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) respectively.

The colonial government’s strategy involved progressing toward African majority rule, with the support of the KADU minority, and letting KANU leaders taste the fruits of exclusion from government. Two policy areas were at play: regional governance and land transfer from whites to Africans. With the support of KADU, the colonial authorities established a governance scheme that benefitted the regions at the expense of the centre, and started buying up large-scale European farms, subdividing them, and settling African smallholders on the resulting smaller farms.

KANU had taken the position that land transfer should not take place before independence. Now KANU leaders languished in opposition as the colonial authorities and KADU formulated plans for settlement and established a scheme of governance, which appeared, initially at least, to seriously truncate the powers of the central government. Faced with the prospect that minority groups and colonial authorities might control both land transfer and the establishment of the regional governance scheme, KANU capitulated, endorsing both the evolving plans for settlement and the regional governance scheme.

Thus, as Land and class in Kenya (chapter 4) shows, KANU, in effect, accepted a bad deal in return for the ability to exercise significant control over the implementation of the deal, and eventually to become the government of independent Kenya. While KADU lost power and KANU accepted a bad deal, the British government came up smelling like a rose: The settlement of the land question cost £9.6 million instead of the £130 million that Margery Perham considered to be Britain’s “inescapable responsibility.”

It was Africans, and especially landless people, who really paid the bills. Much of Land and class in Kenya is devoted to a detailed assessment of the land transfer scheme that came to be known as the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, of its place in Kenya’s history, and of the way Kenya society and politics were shaped by it. The account includes a careful analysis of how the costs were offloaded onto African smallholders, who had to commit themselves to a schedule of repayments in return for gaining possession of a small piece of the former White Highlands.

For a minimal cost, therefore, the British government not only pulled off a compensation scheme for European settlers, but also succeeded in portraying it as a development program so credible that both the World Bank and the West German government contributed development aid. The portrayal was not entirely baseless. Smallholders who received viable farms — many did not — had a chance to prosper, but, considering that the British acquired the land in the first place by dispossessing Africans, the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme deserves to go down in history, not as African agricultural development, but as a classic case of neo-colonial sculduggery.

3 responses to “Kenya’s independence from colonial rule: How the British off-loaded compensation costs on the poor

  1. Clever rascals, those British imperialists. Not surprising, though.

  2. Like most commentators determined to paint a black picture of colonialism you fail to place events in the context of the times.
    Land was not ‘dispossessed’ in Kenya. The Crown Lands Ordinance 1902 specifically stated that the land occupied by whites was unoccupied land. It belonged to no-one because no system of land tenure existed and what is now Kenya was simply a hotch potch of tribes. If the Kalenjin had occupied empty, unoccupied land between the Masai and Kamba would you say the Kalenjin had ‘dispossessed’ the land from the Masai or Kamba?
    My grandfather turned 22,000 acres of water-less, unoccupied scrub and bush in Kenya into a vibrant economic unit that, over 60 years, put food into the mouths of 1000s of local Kenyans. When he left those same families were given titles to plots, at the UK government’s expense, which they would never have got otherwise. The water infrastructure he built, at considerable personal expense, is still to this day supporting 100’s of people living subsistence lives in the area he farmed.
    He and his family lived in complete isolation from outside help for 60 years. If the locals had not liked what he was doing they could have forcibly ejected him at any time. The fact was there was a real symbiosis between the Kenyan colonial farmer and the local people which both sides accepted as being good for stability, prosperity and security.
    I am afraid that an academic study from the National Archives in Nairobi will never reveal to you the nuances of colonialism in Kenya.
    And, to be less polite, the whole tenor of everything you write is so rabidly biased against colonialism that no reader can possibly believe it is a balanced view.

  3. Neither you nor the Crown Lands Ordinance are wrong in saying that some of the land occupied by European settlers was unoccupied, but both of you oversimplify. In the earliest days of settlement, there were few compunctions about taking land that Africans claimed as theirs, but in time the colonial authorities adopted a policy of limiting European occupation to supposedly unoccupied land. Their problem, and yours, was that they didn’t understand African society. For example, Kikuyus accommodated population growth by occupying vacant land adjacent to their land. To them, land adjacent to theirs was the heritage of their children and grandchildren. Some of those areas of expansion were appropriated by Europeans who, iike you, regarded Africans, contemptuously, as a hotch potch of tribes, whose “savage” ways were of no concern to Kenya Europeans.

    Your grandfather may have been a fine man. Some colonials learned Swahili, or even Kikuyu, and treated their African labourers with respect. Others were viciously abusive, and virtually all of them took for granted, as you do, that their conceptions automatically trumped those of Africans. Your suggestion that your grandfather’s land was subdivided into African smallholdings sounds right, but the suggestion that Britain picked up the tab is wrong. Britain and Germany lent money to the smallholders, who were obligated to repay.

    My book, Land and Class in Kenya, on which I based the blog post you criticize, is not propaganda, as you suggest, but a careful, scholarly study. If you’re genuinely interested in understanding what your grandfather did, and what happened to him, you’ll learn a lot from my book, and from other books and articles cited in my book.

    A bit of free advice: Don’t assume that you have all the answers. A little bit of humility is a big help in reaching well-considered conclusions.

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