Archaeological evidence suggests that Kenya may be the birthplace of the human race, as 3.3 million years ago the Rift Valley was the home of Homo habilis, from whom Homo sapiens descended.
Little is known of the early history of Kenya’s interior, except that peoples from all over the African continent settled here. Arab merchants established trading posts on the coast during the seventh century. The Portuguese took control of coastal trading from the early 16th century, but by 1720 they had been driven out by the Arabs. For the following century, the coastal region was ruled mainly by the Arabian Omani.
Around 1750 the Masai, a people of nomadic cattle-herders whose young men formed a military elite (el morani), began entering Kenya from the north and spreading out southwards, raiding and rustling. At the end of the 1850s there were Masai by the coast near Mombasa. During the 1860s, the Masai drove back Europeans attempting to penetrate the interior of the country. Two outbreaks of cattle-disease in the 1880s, an outbreak of smallpox in 1889–90 and internecine fighting between supporters of two rival chiefs weakened the Masai considerably by the 1890s.
The British were invited to the coastal region during the 1820s by the Omani Mazrui Dynasty, to help it with a local power struggle. By the middle of the century, Britain and Germany were competing for control of the coast and its hinterland. A British protectorate was declared in 1895 over what is now Kenya and Uganda and, following a survey made by Lord Delamere, European and European-descended settlement took place until the start of the 1914–18 war.
A railway was constructed 1895–1901, linking the port of Mombasa with Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Many Asians arrived during this period, in particular to work on the construction of the railway. Nairobi became the headquarters of the British administration.
A legislative council for whites was formed in 1907 (first election 1919). Local native councils were introduced in 1925. White settlers moved increasingly into the fertile lands, displacing African peoples, including the Masai and the Kikuyu. By the 1940s, the Highlands were monopolised by whites.
In 1944, the Kikuyu-dominated Kenya African Union (KAU) was established, part of the first African nationalist movement in East Africa. The KAU demanded access to the Highlands. Jomo Kenyatta, who had spent much of the 1930s and 1940s campaigning in Europe for territorial, economic and political rights for Africans, became President of the KAU in 1947. The KAU came into increasing conflict with the European settlers. A guerrilla war for independence and land resettlement was waged 1952–56 by the nationalist Land Freedom Army, the so-called ‘Mau Mau’.
A state of emergency was declared 1952–60, during which more than 80,000 people were detained. During the fighting, large numbers of people were killed, sometimes in fights with settlers, sometimes in internecine fights. The KAU was banned in 1953 and Kenyatta was imprisoned. However, wider African representation followed and in 1957, African members were elected to the legislative council. A transitional constitution, introduced in 1960, allowed for political parties and gave Africans a majority on the legislative council.
The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was then formed. Its leaders, while Kenyatta was in prison (1953–61), were Tom Mboya (a Luo trade unionist), Oginga Odinga (a distinguished Luo) and James Gichuru. Other African politicians formed the Kenya African Democratic Union, led by Ronald Ngala and Daniel arap Moi. Released in August 1961, Kenyatta formed an all-party African government and accepted the KANU presidency. Elections were held in May 1963, as a result of which KANU took power at independence in December 1963.
Kenya became a republic in December 1964, with Kenyatta its first President. In 1966 Odinga resigned from the vice-presidency to form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Throughout the 1960s, radical elements within KANU challenged the moderates, who were led by Mboya (assassinated 1969 in unclear circumstances) and Moi (who with the entire membership of the Kenya African Democratic Union had earlier joined KANU). Following a dispute, the KPU was banned and Odinga detained. Kenyatta was elected unopposed to a third presidential term in September 1974. He died in 1978, aged 82. The presidency passed to Moi.
There were numerous constitutional amendments under Moi’s presidency. In 1982, KANU became the sole legal political party. In 1986, control of the civil service was transferred to the President’s office, and the President was given power to dismiss High Court judges and the Auditor-General. Also in 1986 the secret ballot for parliamentary elections was replaced by public queue-voting.
Moi was returned to power in the 1988 elections. Ethnic tensions increased in some rural areas. Aid was frozen from 1991, as a result of the dissatisfaction among donors over human rights and economic conditions. The government then began to reform the political system. The secret ballot had been brought back in 1990, the tenure of office of judges and the Auditor-General was restored in 1992, a multiparty system was introduced and the government called elections for December 1992.
Several new opposition parties to KANU emerged for the first multiparty elections in December 1992. They included the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD–Kenya), led by Oginga Odinga until his death in 1994, the Democratic Party led by Mwai Kibaki, and FORD–Asili led by Kenneth Matiba. A Commonwealth observer group at the elections concluded that they were flawed, but sufficiently free and fair for the results to be acceptable as the democratic will. KANU led by Daniel arap Moi won, against a divided opposition. In 1993 aid began slowly to flow again.
Despite the reforms of the early 1990s, the constitution remained the focus of political discontent; the opposition arguing that centralisation of power weakens the multiparty system. Some prominent figures within KANU were calling for the restoration of majimbo features of the independence constitution, to strengthen the rights of ethnic minorities. In September 1997 the National Assembly approved electoral reforms, including abolition of the anti-sedition laws that the government had used to suppress the opposition, granting equal broadcasting time to all political parties and presidential candidates, and giving the opposition representation on the Electoral Commission.
In the December 1997 presidential election, Moi was re-elected with 40 per cent of the votes, Kibaki of the Democratic Party received 31 per cent, Raila Odinga of the National Development Party (NDP) 11 per cent, Michael Kijana Wamalwa of FORD–Kenya eight per cent and Charity Kaluki Ngilu of the Social Democratic Party eight per cent. In the simultaneous National Assembly elections, KANU took 109 of the 210 seats, the Democratic Party 39, NDP 21, FORD–Kenya 17, and Social Democratic Party 14.
In November 1999, a further constitutional amendment was enacted to reduce the powers of the President to control the National Assembly, powers that were originally introduced by Kenyatta.
In June 2001, Moi forged the country’s first governing coalition when he appointed to the cabinet two members of the opposition NDP – including Raila Odinga, son of Oginga Odinga, the country’s first Vice-President and a presidential candidate in 1992, and in March 2002 the NDP was merged with KANU. However, Odinga then left KANU and formed the Liberal Democratic Party and in October 2002 joined with Kibaki in the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In late 2001, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first President, was nominated as an MP and appointed minister, emerging in 2002 as KANU’s presidential candidate, replacing Moi, who by the end of the year would have been President for 24 years and who was bound by the constitution to stand down.