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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

2 - From Prison to Party Leader, an Ambiguous Ascension (1958–1961)


Chapter 2 narrates how the campaign to release Kenyatta from jail, launched in 1958, culminated with him taking over the leadership of the nationalist party, the Kenyan African National Union, in 1961. Using the new “migrated files” from the British National Archives, it argues that Kenyatta emerged as a national figure out of a deeply divided and inimical political scene. This chapter shows that Kenyatta’s rise to power was largely accidental. His name was merged with the myth of the father of the nation, which his comrades had created, and wrongly thought they could manipulate and control. In fact, no politician who campaigned for Kenyatta’s release expected that he would dominate the political scene and frustrate their own political ambitions. No one had anticipated how the power of this ambiguous Mau Mau past managed to unite a fragmented electorate. Once released, Kenyatta chose to remain silent, refusing to speak publicly. His almost unexpected political rise would have a profound impact on Kenyan decolonisation: he became the “sole spokesman” of a nationalist elite he could not trust, and yet he alone could unite.