The Lanet Incident, 2-25 January 1964: Military Unrest and National Amnesia in Kenya

Article excerpt

During the last week of January 1964, the armies of Tanganyika, Uganda, and Kenya struck in rapid succession. Bound together by a common legacy of service in Britain's East African colonial army, the King's African Rifles (KAR), the soldiers demanded higher pay and the removal of expatriate British officers from the newly established national armies. In Kenya, the men of the 11th Battalion of the Kenya Rifles broke into the armory at Lanet Barracks and demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta to discuss their grievances. Although the askaris (Swahili: soldiers) made no direct attempt to seize power, the governments of all three East African nations needed British military aid to restore order. At the Lanet Barracks, British forces easily disarmed the rebellious soldiers. Only one askari was killed during the operation. However, Kenyatta's reliance on British troops exposed the fragile and uncertain nature of the postcolonial Kenyan state.

The Lanet incident is more than just a case study of civil-military relations in early postcolonial Africa. The new African rulers of Kenya considered it vitally important to create viable national memories after Uhuru (independence) in December 1963. With the transfer of power, they inherited a former colonial state that had come into being by conquest rather than the consent of the governed. Faced with the necessity of making a clean break with the colonial era, political elites had to find new sources of legitimacy for the independent African nation. Casting aside marginally relevant precolonial political institutions, they tried to create national identities based on a selective recollection of the past. Kenyan politicians and intellectuals based these identities on core myths that manipulated and smoothed over contentious memories of the colonial era. National myth making was therefore an explicitly political procedure that made the process of remembering a potentially subversive act as African leaders sought to suppress recollections that questioned their right to rule.1

The military unrest at the Lanet barracks threatened to subvert Kenya's new unifying ideology by exposing cracks in the nation-building process. Angered by the realization that control of the army would pass to better educated men from rival ethnic groups, the askaris of the 11th Battalion struck to challenge the new government's division of the post-independence spoils. In doing so they expressed grievances felt by many poor and disadvantaged Kenyans who expected Uhuru to bring land, jobs and better access to education. Kenyatta was concerned that the insubordinate askaris would undermine his new legitimizing ideology of inclusion by becoming spokesmen for popular discontent, and was determined to ensure that the Lanet incident would be remembered as an isolated soldiers' strike rather than a politically motivated mutiny. The contested representations of the Lanet troubles show how political stability and national consensus in postcolonial Africa often came at the cost of authoritarianism and repression.

Making National Memory in Kenya

In 1964, both local and international observers perceived the Lanet incident as a serious crisis.2 Yet the barracks revolt has essentially been deleted from Kenya's national memory. The collective amnesia regarding the mutinous behavior of an entire battalion of soldiers when the nation was in its infancy offers important insights into the nature of national memory in postcolonial Africa. Efforts to fashion national identities in newly independent African countries often involved the suppression of potentially subversive memories arising from the fractious history of the colonial era. European powers conquered and ruled African societies by exploiting ethnic and social divisions to convince select groups of Africans to participate in the colonial enterprise. It has therefore been difficult for the peoples of postcolonial Africa to romanticize an immediate past where acrimonious charges and counter-charges of "collaboration" and "resistance" with western colonialism remain dangerously submerged in the collective memories of formerly subject peoples. …

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