NAIROBI- Kenyans marked half a century of independence from Britain on Thursday, celebrating progress of the regional economic powerhouse but also struggling to shake off a legacy of corruption, inequality and ethnic violence.
Celebrations began at midnight on Wednesday, with the Kenyan flag raised in Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens — meaning “freedom” in Swahili — in a reenactment of the moment 50 years earlier when Britain’s rule since 1895 came to a close.
Climbers were also scaling the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya to raise a flag there too.
In another echo of history, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed crowds, as his father Jomo Kenyatta did in 1963, when he became the first Kenyan to lead the east African 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, as supporters sang and danced wildly, as they had done to his father’s speech.
“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 international crimes against humanity trial early next year.
Kenyatta, who denies all charges of masterminding violence following contested elections in 2007 in which over 1,00 died, has campaigned hard to have his trial at International Criminal Court suspended, appealing for support from fellow African presidents and at 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.
The president is due to address regional leaders later on Thursday, echoing recent speeches vowing to defend Kenya from her “enemies”. Thousands braved heavy rain to gather at the main sports stadium for the military parades and speeches, waving flags and singing as they waited.
‘Mixed bag’ of achievements
But for many Kenyans, the anniversary is a date to rather look forward to build their nation rather than dredge up the ghosts of the past.
Many are critical.
“This will be a season of hagiography,” wrote Patrick Gathara, a well known media commentator and cartoonist in a recent article.
“Kenya will put on its Sunday-best gear and apply some patriotic perfume to cover the stench of the last five decades.”
This week the World Bank cut its growth forecast for Kenya for 2013 and 2013 to five percent, suggesting Kenya is drifting behind regional nations.
Gado, one of Kenya’s most famous cartoonists, drew an image for the Daily Nation newspaper, 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, but tribalism and corruption tacked on too.
Last week, the army was forced to put down bitter clashes between two rival ethnic groups near Kenya’s border with Ethiopia that had spiralled into a wave of brutal killings, a stark reminder of the challenges that remain to reconcile deep ethnic and political divisions.
Security too remains a challenge, with Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab threatening Kenya with more attacks following its Nairobi Westgate mall massacre in September, in revenge for Kenya’s two-year military invention in southern Somalia.
In central Nairobi, special bunting has been placed on the statue of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, striding out carrying a rifle with the fighters’ trademark dreadlocks flowing.
“It is good to remember those that brought this country to freedom,” said Mary Wambugu, a teacher.
But for the youth hawking goods at the tourists, important matters are for jobs and more services.
“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, tightly packed shacks of corrugated iron, which rub shoulders with luxury estates heavily protected with razor wire and guards.
“More speeches and a parade wont change anything for people like us.”
The bitter legacy of the grabbing of land by privileged elite soon after independence angers many too.
“It is undeniable that progress has been made,” Gathara added, but noting that an honest appraisal of the past 50 years were “at best… a mixed bag.”
“Less will be said of the fact that Kenya is actually one of the most unequal places on earth, that much of the progress, especially the growth in incomes, has largely been concentrated in the top five percent of the population,” Gathara added.