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Poppy Cullen

November 20th, 2023

How Kenya turned a colonial army into an independent military

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Poppy Cullen

November 20th, 2023

How Kenya turned a colonial army into an independent military

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In the run-up to independence, the British overturned its policy of racialised command structures in the Kenyan army to actively pursue Africanisation which opened opportunities for Kenyans that were previously unattainable, writes Poppy Cullen.

In Kenya, the transformation of the colonial army into an independent army was a rushed process. When Kenya became independent in 1963, less than half of its officers were Africans. For those who became officers, however, the opportunities were substantial, as career prospects and promotions opened up for the first time. These first officers commanded Kenya’s military for decades after independence.

Creating an independent army

The question of how you turn a colonial army into a national military was not seriously asked by British colonial officials in Kenya until the end of the 1950s. The Kenyan colonial military, the King’s African Rifles, had been set up to protect colonial interests. The rank-and-file askaris (soldiers) were Africans, but all the officers were British, on secondment from the British Army.

As it became clear independence was approaching, British military officers began to plan for the future. Their priority was to ensure that Kenya would have a stable military which remained friendly to Britain. This would help ensure the security of the country and its white settlers. The British also hoped it would limit communist involvement and keep British influence after independence.

The British were not looking to reshape the army’s priorities for independence, or at that stage remove overall British command. Instead, they intended to promote some African officers. By doing this before independence, they hoped to avoid creating African resentment post-independence. The policy was termed Africanisation: replacing white British officers with Africans.

Until the 1960s, the British had refused to commission African officers. Their reasoning was simple: the military was organised along racial lines, and officers were white. Colonial officials did not want white British soldiers to have to salute Black African officers. This would have challenged the racial hierarchy that structured the military, the colony and the empire. The highest rank Africans could achieve was the effendi, a rank between non-commissioned and commissioned officers. British officials did not expect effendis to become officers. As one British official wrote in 1958, ‘effendis are not suitable for commissioning (that is why the rank was introduced)’.

Only when independence was imminent did Africans become officers. On 15 July 1961, the first eight African Kenyans were commissioned as officers. All of them were effendis, as the British had had to change their priorities.

From then on, a rush of promotions took place to create an African officer corps. At independence on 12 December 1963, Kenya had 80 African officers out of a total of 165. This was less than half, but a much higher proportion than in neighbouring British colonies Uganda and Tanganyika (Tanzania). The African officers were mostly at low ranks with little officer experience and British officers remained in Kenya after independence to fill the other military roles, including the highest ranks.

Who became officers

Three groups of men became Kenya’s first African officers. First, those who had joined the colonial King’s African Rifles as askaris were promoted to non-commissioned officers and then effendis, before becoming the first commissioned officers. These men had long experience, sometimes for more than twenty years, in the colonial army.

The second group were those who had also joined the King’s African Rifles as askaris and been promoted to non-commissioned officers but not to effendis. This was likely because they lacked the necessary educational qualifications. They were sent to Mons Officer Cadet School in Britain for training. They took a six-month course and were commissioned. These were men who had not been judged educated enough to be effendis, but with the need to quickly create an officer class, the army had reduced its requirements.

Third was a different type of officer. These were young, secondary school-educated men recruited in the early 1960s to become officers. They were sent either to Mons for six months or to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst for two years of officer training. They had no experience of serving as askaris in the colonial army and would not have to move through the ranks. As one such officer wrote in his autobiography, “Opportunities were opening up to join the army and Africanisation became a buzzword, with junior ranks rising fast … I was thrilled”.

There were three very different types of officers in Kenya’s army at independence. There were officers who had over a decade of military experience. They had risen slowly through the ranks when becoming a commissioned officer had not been possible. Then there were the young and educated, who joined the army as officer recruits. They would spend their entire careers with command responsibilities and promotion opportunities.

All of them had minimal officer experience. However, promotions came quickly so that Africans could take over some of the higher ranks from the British. Ranks were sometimes skipped, with some promoted from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant the day after finishing their training at Mons. British officers stayed at the top for several years, but Africanisation policies meant that the new African officers progressed through the ranks much faster than usual.

Continuing leadership

The men commissioned in the years before or just after independence held command of the military for decades. They were the main beneficiaries of military decolonisation and Africanisation.

The first two groups of officers, the ex-askaris with long experience in the colonial army, became the first military commanders in independent Kenya. These were men like Joseph Ndolo, who had joined the colonial army in 1940 with no prospect of becoming an officer. He became an effendi then an officer and later became Kenya’s first African Army Commander 1966-9 and Chief of General Staff 1969-71.

The recruits also benefitted. They spent their entire careers as officers, mostly in the independent army. They included men like Daudi Tonje who joined the King’s African Rifles as an officer recruit and was commissioned aged 22 in January 1963. Tonje was promoted to Captain less than three years later. He became Army Commander in 1993 and Chief of General Staff 1996-2000.

Turning Kenya’s colonial army into an independent one was not well-planned by the British, but a rush job to create an officer corps but for those involved, the process was extremely beneficial. Positions and promotions that had not previously been available opened. The men who became Kenya’s first officers took on the leading roles and held leadership of the Kenyan military for decades.


Photo credit: US Army used with permission CC BY 2.0 DEED

About the author

Poppy Cullen is Lecturer in International History at Loughborough University. Her research focuses on decolonisation in East Africa, especially the relationship between Britain and Kenya.

Poppy Cullen

Poppy Cullen is Lecturer in International History at Loughborough University. Her research focuses on decolonisation in East Africa, especially the relationship between Britain and Kenya.

Posted In: History

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