How the UK’s Propaganda Won Cold War Allies in Kenya

The British Foreign Office’s secret anti-communist efforts helped to shape the country’s post-independence elites

How the UK’s Propaganda Won Cold War Allies in Kenya
King Charles III walks past a guard of honor at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2023. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

On Oct. 31, 2023, King Charles III laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens. Bowing his head before the monument’s eternal flame, the British monarch paid respects to Kenya’s war dead — but also, significantly, to the men and women who died in the struggle against British colonial rule. The king then toured the Mashujaa Museum, an impressive new complex that tells the story of the campaign for independence, before stopping at the site where the Kenyan flag was first raised 60 years ago. In a speech delivered later that day, the king expressed “the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret” for Britain’s destructive colonial policy, condemning the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged … a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty.”

The image of a British monarch paying homage to anti-colonial freedom fighters is arresting — but it also has a surprising historical precedent. In the final years of colonial rule in Kenya, the British government became obsessed with communism and the threat it posed to their interests in Africa. In response, many British officials began producing clandestine propaganda with anti-colonial themes, hoping to turn audiences away from socialist politicians and toward more moderate forms of nationalism. Others reached out to prominent anti-colonial politicians, hoping to build strong personal relationships that could protect British interests after independence. In return, many Kenyan activists found that they could guide this support toward personal ends, using British resources to sabotage their opponents and strengthen their own political positions. After Kenyan independence in 1963, these ties helped the new nation to emerge as one of Britain’s most important Cold War allies.

Six decades on, Britain’s diplomacy in Kenya has changed dramatically — but it still relies on strategic partnerships with elite politicians. Charles’ recent state visit may have reckoned with an imperial past, but it also adhered to a nationalist vision of history supported by the Kenyan government. In response, activists and academics have begun to push for a more rounded understanding of the past, linking colonial injustice to its legacies in the present day. Charles may finally have spoken the truth about colonialism, they argue, but it was far from the whole truth.

Kenya’s colonial era was marked by violence. The region was incorporated into the British Empire from 1888 to 1895, with successive governments relying on force to collect taxes and suppress dissent. In the 1910s, influential settlers like Lord Delamere began encouraging European migrants to move to the region, hoping to create a “white man’s country” in the heart of East Africa, while Kenyans of African and Asian origin were forced into segregated communities. In the 1940s, colonial administrators began talking about “multiracial partnership,” justifying their rule as a way of developing Kenya’s economy and society. In reality, however, the British still relied on military strength to maintain control. After World War II, a group of rebels known as the Mau Mau began attacking white settlers and African communities believed to be loyal to the colonial regime. In response, the Kenyan government declared a state of emergency, arresting over 80,000 civilians and detaining them in prison camps across the colony. Many detainees suffered from malnutrition and poor sanitation, and suspected rebels, including Barack Obama’s grandfather, were tortured for information. Nationalist political parties were banned, and over 1 million Kenyans were forcibly resettled into villages under military control in an attempt to reform supposedly “backward” communities into modern colonial subjects. Colonial records suggest that over 12,000 Kenyans were killed by British troops over the course of the rebellion, but the historian David Anderson suggests that the real figure may be closer to 20,000.

By the early 1960s, the British government had become convinced that decolonization was the only way to prevent further violence. However, many officials were concerned that independence would drive disenfranchised Kenyans into the hands of their Cold War rivals. Colonial governments were particularly worried by the scale of anti-colonial propaganda pouring into Kenya from abroad, believing that radio broadcasts from socialist and communist states had the potential to mobilize Africans en masse against colonial rule. These fears only increased when the former political prisoner Jomo Kenyatta led the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) to victory in Kenya’s first free elections in 1961. Kenyatta proved to be a moderate nationalist, opposed to colonial rule but willing to sustain a close relationship with Britain after independence. Yet KANU also contained those with more radical views, like Oginga Odinga and Pio Gama Pinto, who demanded that independence be coupled with social reform and land redistribution. While he was not a committed communist, Odinga in particular saw the USSR and China as valuable sources of sponsorship and political support. In August 1960, he infamously returned from a tour of China with $10,000 in cash as a “gift” from his hosts.

In response, British officials began a long campaign to protect their influence in Kenya and undermine their communist rivals. Government bodies like the Commonwealth Relations Office drafted ambitious proposals for technical assistance and aid campaigns that could outlast colonial rule. Cultural bodies like the British Council, too, sponsored academic exchanges and English-language teaching in an attempt to foster meaningful ties between Kenya and the U.K. Others turned to more subversive methods to protect against supposed communist influence. In London, a secretive government-controlled propaganda service called the Information Research Department (IRD) wrote articles criticizing the Soviet Union and China, then paid Kenyan writers and broadcasters to circulate them without attribution. In Mombasa and Nairobi, meanwhile, government-controlled radio services scheduled their programs to overlap with anti-colonial broadcasts and draw listeners away from supposedly dangerous ideas.

British officials were particularly interested in influencing young people, business owners, civil servants and teachers, believing them to be among “the small number of people who mold opinion” in Kenya. At the Colonial Office, Murray McMullen argued that “the countryfolk and the uneducated urban manual workers can at this stage be virtually discounted as viable information targets.” As a result, many propaganda efforts began presenting the United Kingdom as an ally to Kenyan nationalism and the country’s emerging political elite. “Colonialism is dead,” argued an influential Foreign Office report in 1962. “Our slogan for this period of world affairs should be from colonialism to co-operation.”

This secretive propaganda sometimes went to unusual extremes. Adam LoBue is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where his work focuses on the history of anti-communist publishing in East Africa. As independence approached, he explained in an interview with New Lines, the IRD began creating fake African nationalist publications to spread British propaganda and turn readers away from communist diplomacy. Some, like African Review, had no attribution. Others, like the Loyal African Brothers series, were attributed to anti-colonial groups that the IRD had invented entirely. Together, these British-made publications adopted the language of anti-colonialism to undermine Soviet and Chinese initiatives, praising the campaigns of Kenyan nationalists to remove foreign influences from its economy and warning readers about the dangers of predatory loans from communist states.

“There was a significant appropriation of African nationalist vocabulary and themes, often in a very superficial way, but in a way that tried to create an opposition between communism and Africanism in the minds of their readers,” LoBue told New Lines. At times, British propagandists even invoked the memory of colonial rule to warn Kenyans away from new international engagements. On the advice of the Foreign Office, pamphlets and broadcasts presented communist states as “new imperialists” with plans to undermine Kenyan nationalism just as Britain once had.

The pragmatic use of anti-colonial themes produced tensions between British publicists and surviving colonial governments. In 1961, LoBue’s research reveals, British officials in Central Africa intercepted a shipment of subversive pamphlets only to discover that they had been produced in secret by the British Foreign Office. Some publicists questioned whether it was worth lending support to African nationalism to undermine the Soviet Union and China, complaining that organizations like the IRD had become “disproportionately obsessed with communist themes” and failed to recognize the threat of African nationalist agitation from Ghana and the United Arab Republic, which encompassed Egypt and Syria at the time. Others worried that any response to Soviet and Chinese propaganda might inadvertently provide it with free publicity. IRD texts criticizing Soviet scholarships for East Africans, argued one sardonic information officer, risked providing African nationalists with evidence of “a splendid new free school, and anti-British at that.”

As Kenyan independence approached, however, these appeals to Kenya’s new elites began to prove useful. In the fall of 1963, for example, the Foreign Office began providing the Kenyatta government with transcripts of international radio services in the hope that politicians would be put off by the revolutionary tone of communist broadcasts. In one candid letter, the IRD agent John McMinnies suggested that it could be healthy for Kenyan elites to listen to the “honeyed phrases” of Chinese diplomats side-by-side with the “vinegary diatribes” about moderate politicians that dominated their broadcasts to East Africa. Kenyan ministers were impressed with the quality of the transcripts, allowing the British to continue operating a small listening post in Nairobi in exchange for reports of “subversive broadcasts” from the volatile Somali border.

However, sending clandestine IRD material to Kenya often served the interests of KANU leaders more than the British themselves. As LoBue explained, “KANU was interested in an orderly society … and resistant to any form of challenge.” By the mid-1960s, Western-leaning politicians like Kenyatta had learned to emphasize the communist threat to encourage British officials to provide information and material that could be used to undermine their own political opponents. Radical nationalists like Pinto and Odinga were frequent targets, especially as Odinga grew closer to the People’s Republic of China. These financial ties were particularly useful as propaganda, argued McMinnies, because they could persuade nationalist readers that, “Communist bribery [was] bound to bring the Cold War to Kenya,” unless they supported the moderate Kenyatta.

On his recent state visit, the king took time to praise the close partnership between Britain and Kenya in the decades since independence. After his speech in Nairobi, Charles visited trade fairs and national parks, praising the two countries’ cooperation in the fields of commerce and conservation. As in the 1960s, the British paid particular attention to the next generation of Kenyans, with the king noting the “remarkable strides” taken by young people in business and education. However, the king’s visits to marine training exercises in Mombasa also emphasized the increasing importance of security ties in the wake of the two countries’ recent commitment to closer cooperation in the fields of defense and counterterrorism.

“We are living in volatile times,” wrote James Cleverly, then foreign secretary, in a Kenyan newspaper, “but the U.K.-Kenya partnership is an anchor of stability and has never been stronger.”

The king’s comments on colonialism, too, were framed as a new element of this partnership. “By addressing our history with honesty and openness we can perhaps demonstrate the strength of our friendship today,” the king suggested in Nairobi. However, it is worth asking whose history the state visit ultimately addressed. Kenya’s postcolonial governments have long tried to mobilize history for their own ends, emphasizing the struggle for independence at the expense of campaigns for economic and social change which moderates like Kenyatta helped to suppress. Uhuru Gardens and the Mashujaa Museum have been criticized in particular as an attempt to recast the past in a convenient form, commemorating selected heroes and emphasizing the continuity between anti-colonial figures and the current administration. Significantly, one of the most prominent sponsors of the Mashujaa Museum was Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta and president of Kenya in his own right between 2013 and 2022. By paying respects to the struggle for independence at nationalist memorials, the king engaged with a rich historical past — but only within the narrow terms of engagement set by his Kenyan hosts.

The limits of this nationalist history are particularly clear in Charles’ approach to the history of Mau Mau. In some respects, the tour made an unprecedented effort to engage with the difficult history of emergency rule. On Nov. 1, the king met with the family of Dedan Kimathi — a prominent Mau Mau leader who was executed by the colonial government in 1957. He also engaged with the histories of Mau Mau rebels in the Mashujaa Museum’s “Tunnel of Martyrs,” and his references to those who died for “independence and sovereignty” are almost certainly intended to refer to Mau Mau. However, this too plays into a form of nationalist history. While some rebels were inspired by a desire to overthrow the colonial government, others rejected missionary culture or fought to secure advancement for their own ethnic group. Land reform was among the most important motivating factors, especially in areas in Kenya’s Central Province where Maasai and Kikuyu land had been expropriated for white settlement. This theme, however, may have proven inconvenient to the king’s Kenyan hosts, who have previously been accused of illegally dispossessing Maasai and Ogiek peoples from their traditional lands — supposedly to secure property for the conservation areas and carbon credit initiatives which the king praised as an example of Kenya’s world-leading environmental policy.

Mau Mau has also emerged as a symbol of protest against Kenya’s close ties to the British military. On the same day that Charles visited the family of Dedan Kimathi, a group of protesters gathered under Kimathi’s statue in Nairobi’s central business district to lay roses at the statue’s feet. Their symbolic gesture was directed against the British Army Training Unit Kenya, a permanent military mission based north of Nairobi which is currently under investigation following allegations that soldiers within the unit abducted and murdered a Kenyan citizen in 2012, but they were quickly dispersed by Kenyan police on the grounds that they were breaching the peace. Intentionally or not, therefore, Charles’ commemoration of Mau Mau as a nationalist movement played into a narrow vision of the past that ignores the uncomfortable legacy of Britain’s cooperation with Kenyan elites.

Within Kenya, however, some activist groups are trying to reclaim the inconvenient parts of Kenya’s political history. The Nairobi-based podcast Until Everyone Is Free, for example, uses Pio Gama Pinto’s story to explore political and social issues in the present. To the podcast’s co-founders, community organizer Stoneface Bombaa and journalist April Zhu, Pinto embodied a form of engaged radical nationalism that subsequent Kenyan governments have tried to ignore. Printing radical pamphlets and writing commentaries for anti-colonial broadcasts, Pinto worked closely with working-class Kenyans in campaigns for land rights and wealth redistribution. However, these ideas isolated him from KANU moderates after independence and opened him up to sharp criticism from British officials. Ultimately, Pinto was assassinated by an unknown assailant in 1965.

To tell his story, Bombaa and Zhu combine episodes from Pinto’s life with interviews and reports on the impoverished informal community of Mathare. Unlike the elitist diplomacy of the 1960s, Until Everyone Is Free aims at a wide audience by broadcasting in Sheng, a mixture of Swahili and English which is widely spoken in urban Nairobi. To expand access to communities without steady internet access, the campaign has also hosted sessions where people can gather and listen to podcast episodes over a loudspeaker. “The guys really enjoyed it,” explained Felix Omondi, a poet and translator who contributes to the podcast. “Someone said his grandfather used to tell him [Pinto’s] story, and he always thought that it was just a story. For them to listen to the podcast, and to confirm the stories that their grandfathers told them, was really important to me.”

Speaking to New Lines, cast members of Until Everyone Is Free were highly critical of attempts to reframe colonial history. “Kenya tries to uplift the respectable, sanitized version of the struggle,” explained correspondent Wairimu Gathimba. “You know — the people who went to court, who formed parties, who wrote petitions. That’s the idea of the struggle which Kenya wants to uplift.” Radicals like Pinto, Bombaa added, were suspicious of nationalists who advocated for independence but without widespread social change, arguing that they would only replace “the white Lord Delamere with a black Lord Delamere.” The podcast hosts were also skeptical about the king’s attempts to reckon with Britain’s imperial past. “There are other things they need to be doing — not just telling us about our painful time,” Gathimba said. “We need to see actionable pledges, not just an acknowledgment of pain.” However, both are reassured by the public interest in their own attempt to recover the lost history of Kenyan radicalism. In February, Until Everyone is Free held a gathering commemorating Pinto’s death featuring live music and poetry, and in August they partnered with the Kenyan Gallery in Nairobi to produce a photographic exhibition on Pinto’s life and legacy. At the time of writing, the team is preparing a second series of the podcast about the history of trade unionism in Kenya.

In Britain, new archival sources have also allowed researchers to reassess the history of colonialism in Kenya. Official records about the Mau Mau rebellion were initially tightly controlled. In an initiative codenamed “Operation Legacy,” colonial and intelligence officials vetted Kenya’s archives for any material that could embarrass Britain after independence, destroying some files and transferring around 1,500 others to unmarked boxes at the Foreign Office archive. In 2011, however, a group of Mau Mau veterans took the British government to court on the grounds that they had been illegally tortured in detention camps. After historians requested to see the sequestered files, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office elected to release all the transferred files, including colonial intelligence records, private communiques and propaganda leaflets, alongside sensitive files from some 36 other colonies. Since 2018, the British government has also begun declassifying a wealth of new records about Britain’s clandestine information work in Africa. “The field has changed monumentally,” LoBue said. “The first documents on information work focused on Western and Eastern Europe, and what’s come out since 2018 is the rest of the world. It’s added an entirely new geography to this kind of work.” While sensitive documents can still be redacted, historians now have a much clearer idea of how British information workers used clandestine propaganda and pragmatic appeals to nationalism to win favor in the postcolonial world.

Charles’ statements reflect how far popular understanding of British colonialism in Kenya has changed in recent years. Britain’s role in suppressing nationalists, imprisoning civilians and abusing detainees can no longer be ignored. However, the state visit was also significant for the history it omitted. By focusing on the successful campaign for independence, the royal delegation presented a limited vision of Kenyan history that pays respects to nationalist heroes but ignores ongoing campaigns for social change. The king’s state visit thus drew on the precedent of Britain’s earlier diplomacy in Kenya, which looked for pragmatic alliances with nationalist elites to serve its own political interests. In both the U.K. and Kenya, however, academics and activists are challenging this view of the past and pushing for a more complete account of the final years of colonial rule.

“The struggle of the people is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Gathimba said, paraphrasing the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. “Who is Kenya for, if not for us?”

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