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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Disrupting ethnic politics and imagining alternative futures in Kenya, 1975 : the J.M. Kariuki assassination Harms, Jake


“We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars,” J.M. Kariuki, the popular Kenyan politician, famously declared. The statement struck at the heart of President Jomo Kenyatta’s post-independence government and rising economic inequality in Kenya in the 1970s. By March 1975, Kariuki was dead, assassinated with suspected government involvement. News of his assassination promptly sparked protests in Nairobi. This thesis explores these immediate responses to Kariuki’s assassination. Although scholarship has established that ethnic politics was entrenched in Kenya by 1975, this thesis intervenes in this historiography and trajectory of ethnic politics by highlighting alternative means of political mobilization. It points to the agency of ordinary Kenyans who, in 1975, mobilized against the Kenyatta government not through ethnic affiliations, but rather through collective grievance with Kenya’s trajectory since independence. Those involved in this opposition denounced authoritarianism in Kenya, unequal wealth distribution, and what they suspected was neo-colonial interference in their country. In so doing, they highlighted an alternative sort of national political mobilization in Kenya, one built around socioeconomic and political ideals. These events in the spring of 1975 also highlight the powerful possibilities of commemoration and the agency of ordinary citizens. In 1975, in tandem with movements against many of the first independence-era African governments as well as continued struggles against imperialism on the African continent, Kenyans rallied against the Kenyatta government around a memory of Kariuki as a martyr who represented the possibility of a more just future. In defiance of the authoritarian state, they exposed the fragility of the Kenyatta government. Although little ultimately came from these protests in the spring of 1975, they nonetheless remind that Kenya’s post-independence trajectory was not inevitable.

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