Why formation of East Africa Federation rattled London

President Jomo Kenyatta shakes hands President Nyerere at the State Lodge Nakuru, February 1973. [File, Standard]

London was aghast. How could a people who had fought for more than 70 years to set themselves free give away that freedom after only a few weeks?

The idea that Kenya was thinking of surrendering its sovereignty and its leaders surrendering the trappings of power to a new entity, the East Africa Federation was unfathomable to the lords in London.

For 40 years, the British colonial government had tried in vain to set up a larger federation in East Africa so as to expand their hegemony but such efforts had spurned. It had even sponsored the establishment of East Africa Federation in 1948, birthing the creation of East Africa Ports and Harbours, East Africa Airways among others. Yet, the East African Uganda and Tanganyika feared the creation of a federation would give British settlers in Kenya an opportunity to dominate them.

The colonists could not understand how Julius Nyerere had effortlessly convinced his brothers in Kenya and Uganda to form the federation soon after getting independence while countries in Europe had struggled for centuries to form a federation with little success.

Uncertainty about what would happen to thousands of Europeans who had called Kenya and East Africa home for decades dominated political debate in 1962 as Kenya geared towards independence.

50 years later, political union evades East Africa

However by July 1963, when it became apparent that the idea of forming a federation being championed by Nyerere was now a reality, Britain was forced to act quickly. First, Kenya had to be granted independence by December 12 of that year so that it could join the federation and become a member of the United Nations.

William Hare, the Earl of Listwell crystalised the amazement in London during a debate on July 15, 1963:

“I do not suppose there is any example in history of any other country that has been willing to give up its independence within a week of getting it; and here again the noble Lord, Lord Colyton, paid a well-earned tribute to the statesmanship of the leaders of the Kenya Government.”

But there were concerns of British interests especially what would happen to holders of British passports, the military bases in the country and the fate of Somali speaking people since a dispute between Somalia and Kenya had already arisen.

The colonial government wanted United Nations to hurriedly deploy peace keeping force to North Eastern Kenya before Kenya got independence and was strongly campaigning for Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and Zanzibar to be admitted into the new East Africa Federation.

After centuries of betrayal and bloody wars Europe finally formed a union in 1993, but it seems Britain’s fears about loss of identity in a federation have transcended generations for the British have since bolted out of European Union after only 23 years. Meanwhile, the East African Community lives on.