Today, we mark 54 years since Kenya’s independence from the British on December 12, 1963.
The story of the first Independence Day began with intense haggling for the date, with concerned parties playing a hidden card.
Jomo Kenyatta who had been sworn in as Prime Minister when Kenya attained internal self-rule or Madaraka on June 1 the same year, wanted full independence almost immediately.
Only a week after his installation, he dispatched to London his three trusted ministers — Tom Mboya, Mbiyu Koinange and Joseph Murumbi — to lobby for October 20 as the date for independence.
Besides political expediency, the date had sentimental value to him being the day he and other freedom fighters were arrested and imprisoned by the colonial government 11 years earlier.
Colonial Secretary in London, Duncan Sandys wasn’t amused to receive Kenya’s delegation and telephoned the Colonial Governor in Nairobi Malcolm MacDonald to complain.
“Why is the old man in such a haste for independence? He has been in prison for close to a decade. Can’t he just wait for one more year?” Sandys asked.
In London, the colonial secretary was blunt to the Kenyan delegation that the October 20 date was unrealistic “and too much rush”.
He told the Kenyans that he would have difficulties convincing the House of Commons to accede to such an early date when the mood in British parliament was that independence for Kenya be delayed for at least a year – which would have been from June 1964.
Sandys told the three ministers that a 1963 date “was open to criticism of indecent haste.”
But the Kenya delegation was not about to leave for home without the day they had in mind.
Mboya telephoned Kenyatta to tell him of the difficulty his team was having extracting a 1963 date.
Kenyatta dashed to Government House — now State House — and convinced Governor MacDonald, with whom he had a good chemistry, why a 1963 date would be good for him and for the British interests in the new Kenya.
The governor bought Kenyatta’s views and phoned British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who too, saw the need for a 1963 date for Kenya’s independence.
MacMillan actually agreed to a December 30 date.
But Mboya, a skilled negotiator, was not done just yet.
He convinced the colonial office that for Kenya to be a member of the United Nations in 1963, she had to apply at least two weeks before expiry life of that year’s General Assembly, which was December 31.
A compromise date turned out to be December 12, and so it became our Independence Day.
They considered that first major step in the machination to outsmart Minister of Home Affairs Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, so far the biggest threat to Kenyatta’s grip on power.
With the latter granted the instruments to lead the new independent nation, he could deal with Odinga from a point of strength and eventually politically cripple him.
Related to that was the desire by Kenyatta’s insiders to sabotage the dream of creating the East African Federative state, a pet project of the ideological trio of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote of Uganda and Odinga.
In the envisaged East African Federation, Kenyatta would be the President, Nyerere Vice President and Minister for Interior and Obote the Vice President and Prime Minister of Uganda.
At home, Odinga would be the substantive prime minister of Kenya and Mboya the Foreign Minister of the East African State.
In the arrangement, Kenyatta’s inner circle saw a plot by Odinga and his ideological brethren to reduce him to a figurehead president while making Odinga the substantive head of government in Kenya.
In the power equation, the pro-Kenyatta Mboya would be some roving ambassador with not much say at home, according to the Jomo handlers.
The plan was actually to finally interest Mboya to aim for an international job, perhaps the first African United Nations secretary general.
With a hurried independence for Kenya, the Kenyatta inner circle was in a position to nip in the bud the idea of a federative state, which they did with much relish.
Three other worrying goings-on of the day made Team Kenyatta to want to bag independence without much further ado.
First was the threat of secession posed by the opposition Kenya Africa Democratic Union or Kadu.
Kenya Africa National Union had beaten Kadu in the first independence election and declared it would do away with the Majimbo (federal) independence Constitution.
That did not go well with the Kadu rank-and-file.
The opposition then explicitly stated that it would declare secession should Kanu bulldoze the scrapping of the Majimbo constitution.
But with independence granted and Kenyatta in power, Kanu envisaged it gradually would use carrot-and-stick tactics to outsmart majimboists and politically swallow them, which is exactly what happened.
But an even bigger headache for Kenyatta was the leadership in the Rift Valley which had threatened war if “outsiders” were allowed to buy land or settle in the vast province after independence.
Again with independence and Kenyatta in power, the Rift Valley leadership was gradually assimilated into the Kanu government, temporarily ending tension in the volatile province.
The last was the Northern Frontier District (what is today Mandera, Garissa, Wajir and Isiolo counties) question.
The area had voted in a referendum to be part of Somalia, not Kenya.
Worse, area leaders and residents had resorted to killing government officials and their kinsmen opposed to the greater Somalia dream.
The greater Somalia encompassed Somalia itself, the NFD, Djibouti and the vast Ogaden province in Ethiopia.
Here again, Kenyatta was in a hurry to have state power tackle what became known as the Shifta war in the early years of independence.
Finally the big day came on December 12, 1963.
Torrents came but that could not stop hundreds of thousands of Kenyans from competing with rains to flood Uhuru Gardens on Langata Road, the venue of the first independence celebrations.
Queen Elizabeth II of England was represented at the ceremony by her husband Prince Philip.
Driving with Kenyatta from Government House, their convoy got stuck in mud on Mbagathi Road.
It took a detachment of the British Army to dig the vehicles out, delaying the celebrations for an hour.
In the meantime, security agents were busy looking for Mboya.
He had last been spotted leaving City Hall where the inaugural pre-Jamhuri Day party was held.
Security officers found him with South African songbird Miriam Makeba.
What the two had been doing together was never relayed to the public.
Rumours had it that Kenyatta had demanded that he be the one to lower the Union Jack — the British flag.
Other reports had it that the wife of executed Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi and other liberation war veterans would do it.
But come midnight, the lights went off as Uhuru Gardens exploded in ecstasy.
When the lights came back, there was no Union Jack. The Kenyan flag fluttered in the wind.
And the heavens broke into a deluge amid shouts of “Uhuru, uhuru.”