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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

The father of US President Barack Obama was a Kenyan national.

Kenyan athletes hold eight Commonwealth Games records and 19 world records.

Kenyan athletes hold eight Commonwealth Games records and 19 world records. Dennis Kipruto Kimetto, born in 1984, has won marathons all over the world, and currently holds the world records for the fastest marathon and the fastest 25 km.

Kenya hosts the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and a national chapter of the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council (CHEC).

G. Vassanji won the Commonwealth Best First Book Prize (Africa Region) in 1990, with Margaret A. Ogola being awarded it in 1995.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1963
Population: 44,354,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.6% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 147
Official language: Kiswahili, English
Timezone: GMT plus 3hrs
Currency: Kenyan shilling (KSh)


Area: 582,646 sq km
Coastline: 536km
Capital city: Nairobi
Population density (per sq. km): 76

Kenya lies astride the equator, extending from the Indian Ocean in the east to Uganda in the west and from the United Republic of Tanzania in the south to Ethiopia and Sudan in the north. On the east and north-east it borders Somalia.

The country is divided into eight provinces (Central, Coast, Eastern, Nairobi, North-Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, Western).

Main towns:

Nairobi (capital, pop. 3.25m in 2010), Mombasa (Coast, 917,800), Nakuru (Rift Valley, 275,300), Eldoret (Rift Valley, 251,900), Kisumu (Nyanza, 230,600), Ruiru (Central, 167,100), Thika (Central, 106,000), Malindi (Coast, 82,200), Kitale (Rift Valley, 81,300), Bungoma (Western, 76,700), Kakamega (Western, 71,300), Garissa (North-Eastern, 63,900), Kilifi (Coast, 63,900), Mumias (Western, 57,900), Meru (Eastern, 51,600), Nyeri (Central, 49,400), Wajir (North-Eastern, 41,400), Lamu (Coast, 32,400) and Marsabit (Eastern, 16,700).


61,950 km of roads, 14 per cent paved, and around 1,920 km of railway. The main railway line runs between Mombasa and Nairobi, and branch lines connect with Taveta on the Tanzanian border in the south and Kisumu on Lake Victoria in the west.

Mombasa is the chief port for Kenya and an important regional port, handling freight for and from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including a substantial volume of food aid. Ferries ply the coast between Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is 13 km south-east of Nairobi. Moi International is 13 km west of Mombasa.

International relations:

Kenya is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, African Union, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, East African Community, Indian Ocean Rim Association, Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

Kenya was a member, with Uganda and United Republic of Tanzania, of the East African Community, which from 1967 had a common market and many shared services, but collapsed in 1977. The three countries again embarked on developing regional co-operation in 1993, bringing about progressive harmonisation of standards and policies across a wide range of activities and launching a new East African Community in January 2001 and East African Customs Union in January 2005. The Community was enlarged in July 2007 when Burundi and Rwanda became members.

Kenya is also a member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which was established in 1986 by the six countries in the Horn of Africa to combat drought and desertification and promote food security in the region.

Kenya hosts the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi.


There are four main regions. The north-east plain is arid. The south-east region is fertile along the Tana river, in the coastal strip and in the Taita Hills, which rise to 2,100 metres. The north-west is generally low-lying and arid but includes Lake Turkana, 260 km long, and many mountains, including Nyiru (2,800 metres). The south-west quarter, a plateau rising to 3,000 metres, includes some of Africa’s highest mountains: Mount Kenya (5,200 metres), Mount Elgon (4,320 metres) and the Aberdare Range (4,000 metres). The Great Rift Valley runs across the plateau from north to south, 50–65 km wide and 600–1,000 metres deep. West of the Rift the plateau falls to Lake Victoria and eastward the rivers Tana and Athi (or Galana downstream) flow into the Indian Ocean.


The coastal areas are tropical, with monsoon winds. The lowlands are hot and mainly dry. The highlands are much cooler and have four seasons. Nairobi, 1,700 metres above sea level, has a mean temperature that ranges from a minimum of 13°C to a maximum of 25°C; Mombasa, on the coast, from a minimum of 23°C to a maximum of 29°C. Rainfall varies from a mean annual 150 mm at Lodwar in the north-west to 1,470 mm at Kisumu, near Lake Victoria in the west. Northern parts of the country were hit by severe floods in the latter part of 2007.


The most significant issues are water pollution from urban and industrial wastes; degradation of water quality from increased use of pesticides and fertilisers; water hyacinth infestation in Lake Victoria; deforestation; soil erosion; desertification; and poaching.


Thornbush and grassland are characteristic of much of the country. Varied forest covers about 13,000 sq km of the south-west quarter, at 2–3,500 metres above sea level. Forest covers six per cent of the land area, having declined at 0.3 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises ten per cent and permanent cropland one per cent of the total land area.


Kenya’s wildlife is probably the most famous in the world. Wild mammals include lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, antelopes, gazelles, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, baboons and many kinds of monkeys. There are 359 recorded species of mammals, of which 28 are endangered (2012). Reptiles include crocodiles and more than 100 species of snake. There is a rich variety of native birdlife and the country is visited by migrant birds which breed in Europe. There are 344 species of birds, 34 of which are endangered (2012). Wildlife is protected in reserves extending to 45,500 sq km, or some eight per cent of the total land area.


Archaeological evidence suggests that Kenya may be the birthplace of the human race, as 3.3 million years ago the Rift Valley was the home of Homo habilis, from whom Homo sapiens descended.

Little is known of the early history of Kenya’s interior, except that peoples from all over the African continent settled here. Arab merchants established trading posts on the coast during the seventh century. The Portuguese took control of coastal trading from the early 16th century, but by 1720 they had been driven out by the Arabs. For the following century, the coastal region was ruled mainly by the Arabian Omani.

Around 1750 the Masai, a people of nomadic cattle-herders whose young men formed a military elite (el morani), began entering Kenya from the north and spreading out southwards, raiding and rustling. At the end of the 1850s there were Masai by the coast near Mombasa. During the 1860s, the Masai drove back Europeans attempting to penetrate the interior of the country. Two outbreaks of cattle-disease in the 1880s, an outbreak of smallpox in 1889–90 and internecine fighting between supporters of two rival chiefs weakened the Masai considerably by the 1890s.

The British were invited to the coastal region during the 1820s by the Omani Mazrui Dynasty, to help it with a local power struggle. By the middle of the century, Britain and Germany were competing for control of the coast and its hinterland. A British protectorate was declared in 1895 over what is now Kenya and Uganda and, following a survey made by Lord Delamere, European and European-descended settlement took place until the start of the 1914–18 war.

A railway was constructed 1895–1901, linking the port of Mombasa with Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Many Asians arrived during this period, in particular to work on the construction of the railway. Nairobi became the headquarters of the British administration.

A legislative council for whites was formed in 1907 (first election 1919). Local native councils were introduced in 1925. White settlers moved increasingly into the fertile lands, displacing African peoples, including the Masai and the Kikuyu. By the 1940s, the Highlands were monopolised by whites.

In 1944, the Kikuyu-dominated Kenya African Union (KAU) was established, part of the first African nationalist movement in East Africa. The KAU demanded access to the Highlands. Jomo Kenyatta, who had spent much of the 1930s and 1940s campaigning in Europe for territorial, economic and political rights for Africans, became President of the KAU in 1947. The KAU came into increasing conflict with the European settlers. A guerrilla war for independence and land resettlement was waged 1952–56 by the nationalist Land Freedom Army, the so-called ‘Mau Mau’.

A state of emergency was declared 1952–60, during which more than 80,000 people were detained. During the fighting, large numbers of people were killed, sometimes in fights with settlers, sometimes in internecine fights. The KAU was banned in 1953 and Kenyatta was imprisoned. However, wider African representation followed and in 1957, African members were elected to the legislative council. A transitional constitution, introduced in 1960, allowed for political parties and gave Africans a majority on the legislative council.

The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was then formed. Its leaders, while Kenyatta was in prison (1953–61), were Tom Mboya (a Luo trade unionist), Oginga Odinga (a distinguished Luo) and James Gichuru. Other African politicians formed the Kenya African Democratic Union, led by Ronald Ngala and Daniel arap Moi. Released in August 1961, Kenyatta formed an all-party African government and accepted the KANU presidency. Elections were held in May 1963, as a result of which KANU took power at independence in December 1963.

Kenya became a republic in December 1964, with Kenyatta its first President. In 1966 Odinga resigned from the vice-presidency to form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Throughout the 1960s, radical elements within KANU challenged the moderates, who were led by Mboya (assassinated 1969 in unclear circumstances) and Moi (who with the entire membership of the Kenya African Democratic Union had earlier joined KANU). Following a dispute, the KPU was banned and Odinga detained. Kenyatta was elected unopposed to a third presidential term in September 1974. He died in 1978, aged 82. The presidency passed to Moi.

There were numerous constitutional amendments under Moi’s presidency. In 1982, KANU became the sole legal political party. In 1986, control of the civil service was transferred to the President’s office, and the President was given power to dismiss High Court judges and the Auditor-General. Also in 1986 the secret ballot for parliamentary elections was replaced by public queue-voting.

Moi was returned to power in the 1988 elections. Ethnic tensions increased in some rural areas. Aid was frozen from 1991, as a result of the dissatisfaction among donors over human rights and economic conditions. The government then began to reform the political system. The secret ballot had been brought back in 1990, the tenure of office of judges and the Auditor-General was restored in 1992, a multiparty system was introduced and the government called elections for December 1992.

Several new opposition parties to KANU emerged for the first multiparty elections in December 1992. They included the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD–Kenya), led by Oginga Odinga until his death in 1994, the Democratic Party led by Mwai Kibaki, and FORD–Asili led by Kenneth Matiba. A Commonwealth observer group at the elections concluded that they were flawed, but sufficiently free and fair for the results to be acceptable as the democratic will. KANU led by Daniel arap Moi won, against a divided opposition. In 1993 aid began slowly to flow again.

Despite the reforms of the early 1990s, the constitution remained the focus of political discontent; the opposition arguing that centralisation of power weakens the multiparty system. Some prominent figures within KANU were calling for the restoration of majimbo features of the independence constitution, to strengthen the rights of ethnic minorities. In September 1997 the National Assembly approved electoral reforms, including abolition of the anti-sedition laws that the government had used to suppress the opposition, granting equal broadcasting time to all political parties and presidential candidates, and giving the opposition representation on the Electoral Commission.

In the December 1997 presidential election, Moi was re-elected with 40 per cent of the votes, Kibaki of the Democratic Party received 31 per cent, Raila Odinga of the National Development Party (NDP) 11 per cent, Michael Kijana Wamalwa of FORD–Kenya eight per cent and Charity Kaluki Ngilu of the Social Democratic Party eight per cent. In the simultaneous National Assembly elections, KANU took 109 of the 210 seats, the Democratic Party 39, NDP 21, FORD–Kenya 17, and Social Democratic Party 14.

In November 1999, a further constitutional amendment was enacted to reduce the powers of the President to control the National Assembly, powers that were originally introduced by Kenyatta.

In June 2001, Moi forged the country’s first governing coalition when he appointed to the cabinet two members of the opposition NDP – including Raila Odinga, son of Oginga Odinga, the country’s first Vice-President and a presidential candidate in 1992, and in March 2002 the NDP was merged with KANU. However, Odinga then left KANU and formed the Liberal Democratic Party and in October 2002 joined with Kibaki in the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In late 2001, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first President, was nominated as an MP and appointed minister, emerging in 2002 as KANU’s presidential candidate, replacing Moi, who by the end of the year would have been President for 24 years and who was bound by the constitution to stand down.

Ghana's History / The Gold Coast (Colonial Independence From Britain)

Learn more about Kenya on The Commonwealth site
Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

By Norman Leys, M.B., D.P.H. with an Introduction by Professor Gilbert Murray (Second Edition) (1925) (pdf)

Snips Without Snaps of Kenya
By Emilie Delap-Hilton (pdf)

A Country Study (1983) (pdf)

Kenya From Within
A Short Political History by W. McGregor Ross (1927) (pdf)

Kenyatta (1973 Documentary)

End of Empire (1985), chapter 12: Kenya

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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