Madaraka Day is Kenya’s forgotten national holiday: neither is it glamorous nor conveniently dated as Jamhuri Day, or as directly resonant as Mashujaa Day.
It doesn’t help that it’s the most directly political and state-centric of the three; that the official rhetoric isn’t easily distinguished from Jamhuri Day; or that it’s hard to remember why it was ever such a big deal.
At least, hard to remember until one thinks about the decades of clamour for devolution, or remembers how keenly contested elections have been through Kenya's independent history. Kenyans, it is fair to say, take the business of self-government seriously.
The colonial government was convinced that we were neither able nor interested in it. Its reasoning wasn’t entirely consistent: it long resisted African involvement in national politics, insisting that Africans had to learn to govern themselves in the local native councils first, even though those who did govern themselves effectively didn’t find themselves invited into national politics, which remained mostly a White preserve.
The time came when the minority that held national political power made a series of decisions which impoverished the majority and led to war, murderous atrocity and the end of the old colonial state.
The development was marked by the arrival of British troops under General Erskine’s command, not Governor Evelyn Baring’s but the colonial government did not conclude the minority was unfit for self-government: it did everything it could to retain power for them.
If the old order couldn’t be retained, the second-best was to keep as much of it as possible, hence the constitutional wrangling that began in the mid-50s.
A decisive loss came early: In 1954, under the Lyttelton Constitution, Kenya’s Africans won their very first Cabinet seat. It might not have seemed much, but Cavendish-Bentinck, the settler leader, acknowledged to Michael Blundell, another settler leader, that the seating of just the one African member of Cabinet destroyed what he had fought for all his life: a white dominion in East Africa.
If that was the core of the old order, its enemy was KANU: a party implacably committed to the end of white dominance, and to a strong government under African leadership. The old order did not yield without a fight: not entirely cynically, it allied with the rival KADU both to protect its privileges and to prevent the complete domination of minorities by KANU.
The contest for control of the state rumbled on into 1963, to be decided at the May elections.
KANU fought a campaign that impressed even its enemies: Keith Kyle’s “The Politics of the Independence of Kenya” records one settler’s view that he first heard sense about Kenya’s economy at a Mwai Kibaki speech.
Kanu won a decisive victory: a majority in the lower house, with 72 seats to KADU’s 32; and in the Senate with 20 of the 38 seats. Governor Malcolm MacDonald ‘immediately delegated full responsibility for defence, external affairs, and internal security to the prime minister’ writes Charles Hornsby in Kenya: A History Since Independence.
There is a photo taken on May 27, of Kenyatta, Kibaki, and Mboya, faces alight with joy. Kenya’s Africans had, at long last, captured the state, and on their own terms. For a people who had been ruled without their consent for a lifetime, this was a truly momentous turn of events.
Madaraka survives because it commemorates that very first experience by the African majority of this country of running the state.
But if Madaraka is to mean something for us, we can’t rest contented with commemorating the achievements of the mighty dead. It’s up to us to celebrate Madaraka by renewing our commitment to self-government, not least in devolution which is now the centre of self-government as it was not in 1963.