British post-colonial relations with Kenya – not so different from the French?

Post-colonial policies of France and Britain are often described as different. Poppy Cullen qualifies this with a short case study on Kenya.

Dr Poppy Cullen is a lecturer in Commonwealth history at the University of Cambridge. Her research examines post-colonial imperial history and British engagement with Africa, and especially Kenya, during the final years of decolonisation and into the post-colonial period. She explores the multiple and multifaceted economic, military, personal and diplomatic networks which were sustained well beyond formal independence. 

Much of the research on France’s post-colonial relations with Africa has found that these are particularly close. These have been based on a common currency zone (the CFA Franc), military commitments, economic aid, and a strong network of personal contacts; France also intervened militarily in the continent more than other former European colonial powers. By contrast, Britain has typically been seen to disengage more completely at independence, not having formal military agreements or the same level of personal connections and very rarely intervening militarily. The emphasis these European countries placed on Africa within their post-colonial foreign policies also differed substantially, as Africa remained a key region of French focus in a way it did not for British governments. Africa played a much smaller role in ideas of British great power status and foreign policy goals.

These differences between the two former colonial powers are clear, but my research into British post-colonial relationships with Kenya in the years immediately after independence suggests that they were perhaps not as stark as has often been suggested. Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 and Britain continued to maintain multiple connections with Kenya thereafter. There was a clear British commitment to pursuing a close post-colonial relationship with Kenya, and Kenya remained closely aligned with Britain. These British interests included a significant military relationship; economic connections in aid, trade and investment; tourism and education; a stake in Kenyan security; and for Kenya to remain a partner in the Cold War. In pursuit of these interests, the policy-making methods used by the British government sometimes resembled those of the French rather more than the traditional image of the British in independent Africa.

Close post-colonial personal relationships were more obvious in French-African relationships than British. France’s personal networks were symbolic of the strength of their post-colonial relationships. French presidents were more involved than British prime ministers, and visited Africa with greater regularity, having closer relationships with African leaders. In the British case, the relationship with Kenya tended to be conducted at a lower level of civil servants rather than politicians. The British government had no Jacques Foccart, whose personal, informal networks with Francophone African leaders were so well established. But personal relationships were not only significant to France. British relationships with certain Kenyan individuals greatly affected their actions, and British officials often worked in informal and highly personal ways with leading Kenyans. In the case of Kenya at least, these personal relations were particularly significant to the style of British policy-making.

British diplomats, civil servants and politicians pursued informal and personal contacts. Indeed, when they ran into difficulties, these became the favoured way of interacting with the Kenyan elite. After formal ministerial aid negotiations between Britain and Kenya in 1970, the details were difficult to finalise and communication broke down. This was finally resolved by the British High Commissioner, Eric Norris, who invited the Permanent Secretary at the Kenyan Ministry of Finance, Philip Ndegwa, for ‘a private talk on where we go from here, what about a beer and a sandwich by my swimming pool next Tuesday[?]’.[1] Norris clearly recognised the value of informal and personal connections as a key strategy of policy-making. It is not clear if the two men met over ‘a beer and a sandwich by my swimming pool’, but Ndegwa and Norris did meet informally and it was at that meeting that the details of the aid agreement were finally agreed and signed. When more formal negotiations and procedures were not achieving results, personal connections were pursued.

This kind of personal interaction and informality was crucial to how this relationship worked. Despite his imprisonment as leader of the Mau Mau by the British Government in 1952, President Jomo Kenyatta had a close relationship with British officials after independence, who came to view him as the guarantor of stability and British interests in Kenya. Personal contact with Kenyatta and the elite group of Kenyans around him was particularly significant to British policy-making. By 1967, one British civil servant was ‘inclined to think that we shall come to look back on the President Kenyatta-era as the golden age in Anglo/Kenyan relations’.[2] Kenya’s post-colonial governance has frequently been described as ‘neo-patrimonial’, with individuals more important than official positions. Although the British system of government was bureaucratic, they did not find it difficult to work with the Kenyans in highly personalised ways. They engaged with Kenya’s elite as individuals, often bypassing Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or High Commission in London in preference for talking to certain people they had close relationships with. One former British High Commissioner to Nairobi recalled of the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that ‘any substantial matters between us and the Kenyan government passed through other channels’.[3] Kenya’s neo-patrimonialism was encouraged by this kind of interaction with the British.

These means of informal and personal policy-making were not as obvious or always favoured as they were among French policy-makers, and French officials were often more comfortable working in this way than their British counterparts. But in their relationships with Kenya, British actions bore some striking resemblances to the French.

[1] Eric Norris to P. Ndegwa, 21 January 1971, The National Archives, Kew, OD 26/277/213.

[2] M. Scott to Edward Peck, 20 July 1967, The National Archives, Kew, FCO 31/210/8.

[3] Edward H. Peck, Recollections 1915-2005 (New Delhi: Pauls Press, 2005), p. 219.


Meike de Goede  is a lecturer in African History & Anthropology at the Leiden University Institute for History. She works on silenced history and memory in Congo-Brazzaville and former French Equatorial Africa. This paper is based on interviews with witnesses in Congo-Brazzaville and archival research in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence.


Just before the Presidential elections of June 1959, several Matsouanist leaders, a religious-political movement, were rounded up from their homes in Brazzaville’s townships of Poto Poto and Bacongo and taken to an empty factory building in M’Pila. In the weeks following, the youth wing of UDDIA, a political party, launched a violent campaign against the Matsouanists because they refused to support Fulbert Youlou, the leader of UDDIA. Many Matsouanists sought refuge in the factory building as well. On the early morning of 29 July 1959 the Matsouanists were put on transport to places far away from the native land of the Lari, the ethnic group to which the Matsouanists belonged. The process of deportation was chaotic and violent; 35 people died and at least 100 were injured. Only in 1965, after the toppling of Youlou’s regime, were the Matsouanists granted amnesty so they could return home.


The Matsouanists were followers of André Matsoua, who had founded an Amicale in 1926. When Matsoua and several other leaders of the Amicale were arrested in 1930 and tried for swindling, the people of the Pool region, where Amicale had many supporters, started a campaign of passive resistance. They ceased all forms of collaboration with the authorities until Matsoua would be released: they refused to pay taxes, to carry identity cards, to produce cash crops, and refused to accept material gifts such as food and drink at festivities. Their resistance did not end after Matsoua died in prison in 1942. From that moment on, the Matsouanists framed their support for Matsoua in messianic terms, thereby transforming Matsoua into a prophet who would eventually save the people of Congo. Until that moment, the Matsouanists would put their life on hold, and became politically apathetic. In the late 1950s, their resistance no longer only frustrated the French colonial administration, but also Fulbert Youlou, the rising political star who would become the first President of independent Congo. Youlou was a Lari from the Pool himself. In a political context in which politics was (and still is) based on a North-South division, the Matsouanists were Youlou’s natural support base, and their apathy thus a threat to his pursuit of power. It was not the French colonial authorities that finally crushed the Matsouanists, it was Youlou and his political movement.


The sad story of the Matsouanists is often framed in ethnic-regional violence. Political conflict between MSA (Opangault) and UDDIA (Youlou), between Northerners and Southerners, between M’Bochi and Lari did indeed occur in the context of run-up to full independence. However, the aggression against the Matsouanists did not come from the M’Bochi or the MSA supporters, but from within UDDIA, in other words, people with the same regional and ethnic identity. Youlou had previously drawn much of his support from the Matsouanists. Many of the agitated youth wing members that attacked the Matsouanists must have had relatives among them or even roots in the movement themselves. (Former) Matsouanists told me how they were attacked in their houses. For instance, a man told me what he experienced as a child:

“It was very tragic, they were treated so badly. I was only a little boy then, but I have seen what has happened to my father and mother. They came to the house. They went from house to house, looking for Matsouanists. When I came home from school, I saw that. They found my father and took him. He fell, and he was bleeding from his head. They beat him. I found my mother crying in a room in the house. They had taken all her clothes and left her naked. She was crying. She had wrapped a mosquito net around her naked body to cover-up her nakedness. My older brother quickly declared that he was the owner of the house; otherwise we would have lost the house as well. I have decided to always stay in this house, on the soil where my parents had suffered so much. I still live there.” (author’s interview, Brazzaville August 2015)


With fathers sent to prison, leaving behind their wives who were banned from the market so they could not support their children, and with children being banned from school, the violent campaign against the Matsouanists ripped families apart and left injuries which still affect people today.


What the story of the Matsouanists tells us, is that the transition to independence in former French Equatorial Africa was not so smooth and peaceful as has often been assumed. The Matsouanists became casualties of this not-so-peaceful transition. Paradoxically, the political apathy of the Matsouanists made them into an unlucky focal point of a complex political process that they tried so hard to steer away from. Even more so, the violence they suffered was actually not about them and their ideas. Neither was it about anti-colonial resistance, which is how the Matsouanists have often been framed. The Matsouanists pursued a different political project then the nationalists that were scheming in preparation for full independence. The latter was a political project that was not defined in their terms, and thus they refused to cooperate. A general feature of nationalist politics in the era of independence in Africa is that it was mass-based and mass supported, at least, that is what history books tell us. Youlou could not tolerate those that did not join in. But the events also suggest a generational conflict, with many youth actively disengaging from the political objectives and tactics of their parents’ generation, and embracing political modernity that independence promised. The case raises questions about how we understand the politics of the era of independence in Africa beyond ethnic politics, mass based nationalist discourses, and indeed beyond anti-colonial resistance. To what extent does our interpretative framework on social, political and religious movements in the age of independence in Africa reproduce – and reify – colonial (and Youliste) imaginaries. We have for long overlooked dynamics and details, such as those surrounding the fate of the Matsouanists in Brazzaville. It seems we have only begun unravelling the history of the End of Empire in Africa – much, much work remains to be done.