Kenya had been under British rule since the 19th Century, and since becoming a colony in 1920 African demands for a greater role in politics had grown. In the early 1950s a group of Kikuyus, the largest ethnic group in the country, formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. Better known as the Mao Mao, they began a violent organised campaign against colonial leaders and white settlers that culminated in the Mau Mau Uprising. By 1956 over 12,000 Mao Mao militants had been killed by the British in an attempt to suppress the uprising, although it’s important to note that both sides committed ruthless acts of violence.
The Uprising did, however, persuade the British of the need for concessions. From 1957 natives were allowed to be elected to the Legislative Council and, by 1960, they held a majority of the seats. Britain subsequently worked with the African politicians to prepare the transition to independence and, in May 1963, the Kenya African National Union secured the majority in both houses of the new bicameral legislature.
Independence was formally declared on 12 December 1963 with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenya African National Union, became the country’s first Prime Minister despite having been imprisoned between 1953 and 1961 after being found guilty of being a Mau Mau leader. Historians have since cast doubt on his conviction.
Kenya’s independence is now marked in part by Jamhuri Day, a national holiday that celebrates Kenya’s admittance to the Commonwealth as a republic the following year.