Sabahi (Washington, DC)

Kenya Marks 50 Years of Independence, Taking Stock of Challenges Ahead


Nairobi — Kenyans marked 50 years of independence on Thursday (December 12th), celebrating the country's progress but also struggling to shake off a legacy of corruption, inequality and inter-ethnic violence.

Celebrations began at midnight Wednesday, with the Kenyan flag raised in Nairobi's Uhuru Gardens in a re-enactment of the moment 50 years earlier when Britain's rule since 1895 came to a close.

In another echo of history, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the crowds, as his father Jomo Kenyatta did in 1963, when he became the first Kenyan to lead the nation.

"On this night 50 years ago Kenyans gathered at these grounds... that night was at once the dusk of oppression and the golden dawn of liberty," Kenyatta said. "From that night, the empire waned and a proud new nation was born....finally Kenyans were masters of their own destiny."

Today, anti-colonial rhetoric is being drummed up again amid international pressure on Kenyatta ahead of his crimes against humanity trial early next year.

Kenyatta, who denies all charges of masterminding violence following contested elections in 2007, has campaigned hard to have his trial at the International Criminal Court suspended, appealing for support from fellow African presidents and the African Union.

At midnight, Kenyatta called for the honouring of the country's freedom fighters of the Mau Mau uprising, a largely ethnic Kikuyu insurgent movement in the 1950s brutally suppressed by colonial powers.

"I ask you this night to rededicate ourselves to defending that freedom and sovereignty that they secured at such great cost, and to resist tyranny and exploitation at all times," he said to cheers from the crowd.

Tens of thousands of Kenyans waving flags and singing gathered later at the main sports stadium in Nairobi for military parades and speeches, watched by Kenyatta and over a dozen other African leaders.

Mixed feelings as tribalism, insecurity and corruption persist

But many Kenyans expressed mixed feelings about the achievements Kenya has made in the past 50 years and the problems the country still faces.

Gado, one of Kenya's most famous cartoonists, drew an image showing a map figure of the country holding a list of challenges faced in 1963 -- poverty, illiteracy and disease -- and again in 2013, including the same problems with tribalism and corruption tacked on too.

Those challenges Kenya set out to tackle at independence persist, said 34-year-old Daud Kulmiye of Garissa town.

"Fifty years down the line, that has not been completely eradicated," he told Sabahi. "Instead, insecurity, tribalism and corruption have been added to the initial list."

Kulmiye said threats by al-Shabaab and tribal violence in some counties could derail the progress achieved in Kenya.

Last week, the army was forced to intervene in clashes between two rival ethnic groups near Kenya's border with Ethiopia that had spiralled into a wave of brutal killings.

Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants also remain a real threat following the group's Westgate mall massacre in September, in revenge for Kenya's two-year military intervention as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia.

Criticism was acute among residents of Kenya's north-eastern region, where insecurity and lagging development are particularly challenging.

Abdijabal Hussein, 53, a resident of Garissa county, said he saw no reason to celebrate a half-century of independence.

"Other parts of the country have tangible development to show for the 50 years, but in north-eastern region I personally feel like we are marking five years," he told Sabahi. "We are lagging behind in infrastructure, education and health."

Still, Hussein remains somewhat optimistic. "With the devolved government, we hope in five or ten years time we will have something to smile about," he said.

Lawmaker Aden Duale, who represents the town of Garissa, said in spite of past challenges from repressive leaders, the region has made significant progress in education, health and governance.

"There are more schools and hospitals," he told Sabahi. "The 2010 Constitution is a big bonus in safeguarding our rights as Kenyans. That alone is enough reason to celebrate 50 years."

Learning from past mistakes

Other citizens said Kenya's 50 years of independence was an occasion to take stock of the situation in the country, learn from past mistakes and set goals for the future.

"We need to look at our achievement with pride and to rectify our collective mistakes over the last 50 years, and lay foundation for the development of next 50 years," said Ahmed Hussein Mohammed, 38, a teacher at Mandera Secondary School who lives in Wajir.

Kenya has failed to end tribalism, corruption and impunity, Mohammed told Sabahi, but the country has achieved major progress in eliminating illiteracy through the expansion of the education sector, providing free primary and secondary education, and introducing the devolved system of government.

Going forward, the government should focus on empowering all groups, ensuring affordable health care and subsidising the cost of higher education, he said.

Ahmed Dukal, a 50-year-old cobbler in Wajir, said things may not have gone as Kenyans had wanted over the past five decades, but people need to take some personal responsibility for what happened.

Dukal also said it is important to look past the challenges and toward the future. "It is important to celebrate [for the sake] of unity," he told Sabahi.

Looking back, progress a 'mixed bag'

John Keen, 93, said independence day was an occasion to reflect on past challenges and honour Kenya's freedom fighters.

Keen served as an elected member for Kajiado to the Legislative Council before independence. He was elected to parliament in 1969, and represented Kajiado North for four terms until 1988.

Looking back, Keen said poor leadership and rampant tribalism have been major hindrances to Kenya's progress. The country's rising poverty levels and food insecurity are also a disturbing trend, he said.

"When we got independence we declared war on hunger, illiteracy and poverty, but today, 50 years later, we are still not done wrestling with these challenges," he told Sabahi. "In fact, they are taking toll on the people, meaning we have not made much progress."

Nonetheless, Keen said independence day should be used to engage young people and teach them about their history and national symbols.

"Teaching them about our history cultivates a sense of belonging and unity, as well creates a value system of what it means to be Kenyan," he said.

But for the youth hawking goods for tourists, jobs and more services are what matter.

"If they spent the money on clean water and hospitals, then that would be something to really mark independence," said George Odula, who lives in one of Nairobi's crowded slum districts.

"More speeches and a parade won't change anything for people like us," he told AFP.

"It is undeniable that progress has been made," Patrick Gathara, a media commentator and cartoonist, wrote in a recent article, adding that an honest appraisal of the past 50 years were "at best... a mixed bag".

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