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Change: Intrigues ahead of 1963 Independence fete



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This week 55 years ago, there was an atmosphere of exhilaration throughout Kenya as independence approached. But behind the scenes, there were intrigues ahead of December 12, according to archival materials pieced together by the Sunday Nation.

With the Colonial Secretary having set a definite date for independence after meeting a delegation led by the minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Tom Mboya, in June 1963, preparations began in earnest.

The new Kenya flag and Coat of Arms were introduced on July 27, at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and Mboya who was also the chairman of Cabinet consultation committee for independence celebrations.

While unveiling the flag, Mboya gave a stern warning that it should be treated with respect.

“We would like to appeal to the public not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth. We do not want to see it made up of some cheap material in River Road,” he warned.

Having a National Anthem is always one of the key priorities of any emerging nation not only to evoke a feeling of patriotism among citizens but also to act as a unifying factor. The method of preparing a national anthem was still new in Africa, and Kenya became the first country to entrust a group of local musicians with preparing the anthem for consideration.

Different versions were composed and played before Cabinet ministers at Kenyatta’s home in Gatundu, but selection proved to be difficult. In the end, Kenyatta appealed to schoolchildren who were nearby to decide for them. The tunes were played one more time and most children chose what is today our national anthem.

But even in such a carnival atmosphere, diplomatic politics and cold war intrigues still played out. Because of the respect and admiration Kenyatta had for Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, he personally invited him to the celebrations, and a fully furnished house was obtained in Muthaiga to accommodate the flamboyant leader. The British, fearing that the Emperor’s presence was likely to overshadow that of the Duke of Edinburgh, who was to be the chief guest, pressured Kenyatta to withdraw the invitation.

Colonial Governor Malcolm MacDonald, when asked how to withdraw the invitation without causing embarrassment, wrote: “I presume a suitable message is going from Prime Minister to Emperor.”

The Ethiopian delegation was eventually led by Iyasu Mengesha, the Minister of State for Defence.

Britain was also against the invitation of East Germany, which it did not recognise as a sovereign state.

“The point is that we are anxious East Germany should be kept out at all costs,” wrote the Governor.

Instead, delegates from East Germany and nationalist China were to be invited as individuals who were not to be accorded diplomatic status.

The American Consulate General was concerned over the omission of nationalist China, and made approaches to Mboya to have delegates from the country attend as official representatives, to no success.

One of the main difficulties was finding accommodation for the hundreds of invited guests. Despite the government’s public appeal to provide their houses, only a dozen people responded. As a result, a legislation giving the government emergency powers to take over houses or premises by compulsion was passed in Parliament. However, full compensation was to be paid to the owner or leaseholders of any requisitioned house.

Just two months to independence, a stadium with a capacity of 250,000 people was built by Dalgety and New Zealand Loan Ltd on a 195-acre site in Lang’ata for the celebrations. Most material came from Britain while others were ferried in from Uganda, where they had been used in the construction of Kololo independence stadium.

The site was erected with surprising speed in an area which hitherto had only been inhabited by wild animals, and is now known as Uhuru Gardens. Six miles of a new murram road were built to provide access, 6,000 feet of water pipe were laid, and 80 miles of electric cable connected to illuminate the stadium. In addition, there were facilities such as a telephone exchange, first aid posts and refreshment kiosks.

On the eve of Independence, Kenyatta and the Duke of Edinburgh were accorded Freedom of the City of Nairobi by Mayor Charles Rubia at City Hall, before heading to Uhuru Stadium for the midnight ceremony to usher in the new country.

Three hours before the midnight ceremony, Nairobi experienced one of its worst traffic jams at the time. Roads leading to the venue were jammed by cars and lorries up to a distance of six miles.

Inside the stadium, there was a spirit of great gaiety as an estimated crowd of 250,000 people watched magnificent performances, among them a display of dances by groups from all over Kenya. Kenyatta and the Duke were half an hour late after their cars got stuck in the mud.

One of the biggest thrills was a military tattoo by the massed bands of the Uganda Rifles, Tanganyika Army, and Kenya Army. They were joined by British Army bands of Staffordshire Regiment, Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. In total, there were about 300 musicians in the arena under the direction of the Band Master of 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment Warrant Officer l Roy Hunt, assisted by African and British Drum Majors.

They entered the arena playing the ‘Great Little Army’ before breaking into a quick march to the tune of ‘San Lorenzo’, and then a slow march to Saffroni’s ‘Imperial Echoes’. For the grand finale, they played ‘Voice of the Gun’ before marching off to the march past of the King’s African Rifles “Tufunge Safari.”

After an impressive display of marching, the most symbolic event of the ceremony began. The 3rd, 5th and 11th battalions of the King’s African Rifles became 3rd, 5th, and 11th battalions Kenya Rifles in a brief ceremony. The British Anthem was played as the Duke took the salute after which the old colours of the King’s African Rifles were trooped for the last time.

Prayers of dedication were said, and with four minutes remaining before midnight, Kenyatta and the Governor walked out of their Pavilion into the floodlit arena for the flag-raising ceremony.

The commander ordered the guards to present arms, and the British Anthem was played again. Europeans wept as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time reaching the ground just seconds before midnight. At the stroke of midnight the Kenyan National Anthem was officially played for the first time and the new flag hoisted above the stadium as the tense expectant crowd broke into jubilation.

The birth of the new nation was heralded by a magnificent fireworks display designed by Brock’s Fireworks Ltd of London. Prime Minister Kenyatta’s portrait was accurately depicted in lines of brilliant fire, ‘Glory of Kenya’ was depicted by three huge shells and the flag of Kenya carried out in lines of coloured fire.

In a wind of Change that was sweeping across Africa, a new nation was born. Kenya became the 34th country to break from colonial rule and was soon to be admitted to the United Nations as the 113th member.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London