Kenya is marking half a century of freedom from British colonialist rule, and while many agree there is much to celebrate as it forges its path as an economic power, there is also a feeling that it is struggling to shed a legacy of corruption, inequality and violence.
Celebrations for Thursday’s anniversary began at midnight, with the Kenyan flag raised in Uhuru Gardens – meaning “freedom” in Swahili – in a re-enactment of the moment 50 years earlier when Britain’s rule since 1895 came to a close.
Climbers are also raising another flag on the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya.
President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed crowds, as his father Jomo Kenyatta did in 1963 when he became the first Kenyan to lead the east African nation.
“From that night [50 years ago], the empire waned and a proud new nation was born… finally Kenyans were masters of their own destiny,” Kenyatta said, as supporters sang and danced, as they had done to his father’s speech.
|Kenya celebrates 50 years of independence
The speech was heavy with anti-colonial rhetoric, amid international pressure on Kenyatta ahead of his international crimes against humanity trial early next year.
Kenyatta, who denies all charges of masterminding violence following contested elections in 2007, has campaigned hard to have his trial at the International Criminal Court suspended, appealing for support from fellow African presidents and the African Union.
At midnight, Kenyatta called for the honouring of the country’s freedom fighters of the Mau Mau uprising, a largely ethnic Kikuyu insurgent movement in the 1950s brutally suppressed by colonial powers.
“I ask you this night to rededicate ourselves to defending that freedom and sovereignty that they secured at such great cost, and to resist tyranny and exploitation at all times,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
Kenya’s former colonial rulers are supporting the building of a memorial for those who suffered during the uprising, a British minister said on Wednesday.
Britain’s Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds launched a competition for Kenyans to design the memorial, in collaboration with the Mau Mau War Veterans Association and other partners.
“Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of colonial administration, and we expressed sincere regret that these abuses took place,” Simmonds said.
As well as dealing with a violent past, many Kenyans want to focus on its current issues and struggles.
This week the World Bank has cut its growth forecast for Kenya for 2013 and 2013 to five percent, suggesting Kenya is drifting behind regional nations.
Gado, one of Kenya’s most famous cartoonists, drew an image for the Daily Nation newspaper, showing a map “figure” of the country holding a list of challenges faced in 1963 – poverty, illiteracy and disease – and again in 2013, including the same problems, but tribalism and corruption tacked on too.
Security remains a challenge, with Somalia’s al-Qaeda linked al-Shabab threatening Kenya with more attacks following its Nairobi Westgate mall massacre in September, in revenge for Kenya’s two year military intervention in southern Somalia.
On Tuesday, gunmen killed eight Kenyans including five policemen in an ambush in the troubled northeast border region close to war-torn Somalia.
Last week, on another border, the army was forced to put down bitter clashes between two rival ethnic groups near Kenya’s border with Ethiopia that had spiralled into a wave of brutal killings.