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How Majimbo discourse was used to derail constitutional changes

By Macharia Munene | May 31st 2021
The late Ronald Ngala [Courtesy]

As we celebrate 58 years of Madaraka Day in the midst of growing political campaigns and court judgments that have deep electoral ramifications, it is worth reflecting on the divisive issue before the first Madaraka Day on June 1, 1963.

Majimbo and majimboism were the predominant issues in colonial Kenya’s last election. In the May 1963 election, voters killed majimbo at birth only for majimbo and majimboism to evolve into a myth of a glorious would have been governance system.

The May 1963 election was important because it determined who inherited the government once the British officially left. The combatants were Jomo Kenyatta leading Kanu on a nationalist central power platform and Ronald Ngala championing Majimbo fractionalism as outlined in the British-imposed 1962 Lancaster House document.

The September 3, 1963, Lancaster House meeting whittled down stringent provisions in the 1962 document, which made the December 1963 independence a substantially different one. Kadu then joined the dismantling by dissolving itself in 1964. The issue was the death or survival of Majimboism and all sides knew it. Its death at birth developed into a myth of how glorious Kenya would have been if only majimbo governance was not stillborn.  

Kanu won. Subsequently, Kenyatta and Kanu believed they had mandate of the people to get rid of majimboism. They had three reasons. First, majimboism was part of British mischief to make independent Kenya hard to govern. Second, the British created the intended majimbo in 1962 to perpetuate ethnic hostility.

Third, majimbo was a code for instilling and spreading fear by whipping up emotions and ethnic violence, killings, and evictions. The example of ‘wana firimbi’, then an assistant minister, blowing his whistle for followers to pick up panga and rungu to evict people from their homes in the name of majimbo was vivid. For those, and other reasons, Kanu made it clear majimbo was to cease with independence; voters agreed.

As a code for rousing emotions and ethnic violence, however, majimboism did not die because retrogressive politicians and aspiring academics kept reviving it.

In the initial constitutional debates, the term majimbo filled the air to romanticise an eve of independence that never existed and to threaten other Kenyans. The revival of the majimbo discourse, therefore, was a fear instilling reactionary move to derail positive constitutional changes. As it was in the early 1960s, the call for majimbo was anti-reform and retrogressive towards the end of the 20th Century.

Majimbo fear mongering and colonial romanticising generated its own counter force that produced new thinking -Ugatuzi- meaning devolution. Since it was clear that majimbo champions wanted mayhem to visit the country, that majimbo was synonymous with violence, the language of majimbo disappeared and the more acceptable ugatuzi replaced it.

The difference between the two is that majimbo was socio-communal destruction in the name of autonomy and ugatuzi is empowerment of the locals by carefully crafting governing units that are still answerable to the national government through the Senate. As dignitaries and the dignified assemble to celebrate Madaraka Day on the ugatuzi empowered Kisumu lakeside city, the last thing on their minds is romanticising colonialism and fanning the myth of majimbo.


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