Power, politics and public monuments in Nairobi, Kenya

For the Kenyan novelist, playwright and essayist, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, power through cultural subjugation was the principal tool of colonialism. The monuments of Nairobi can be read as a history of cultural artefacts used by the coloniser to dominate and subjugate the colonised.

Political Aesthetics Final_0.png

Laragh Larsen
18 April 2013

This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick this September. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instil in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.

The history of Nairobi’s public monuments has evolved in tandem with the changing political and cultural contexts of the capital. Drawing on theories of postcolonialism, an examination of public monuments in Nairobi illustrates how these sites of meaning in the landscape have been used to express both power and resistance.

Monuments were used in colonial Nairobi as a cultural tool in the project of imperialism until the achievement of independence in Kenya in 1963. The lifting of colonial rule created a space in the city’s symbolic landscape for the expression of resistance and the inscription of new voices.

©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.
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However, it is apparent that the shift of power that took place occurred at a very narrow level. As the coloniser used monuments as tools of domination, so too did the new political elite. Up until 1992, when Kenya became a multi-party state, Nairobi’s postcolonial monumental landscape very much reflects political domination by a political elite. It was not until after this period and the end of Daniel arap Moi’s presidency in 2002 that other groups slowly began to inscribe themselves in the city’s symbolic landscape.

A relatively young town, Nairobi was born with the construction of the Uganda Railway when, in 1899, the railway engineers decided to make a base on the site where the city now stands. Unlike other capital cities in East and West Africa, no form of settlement existed before the arrival of the railway. However, the site quickly developed to become an important colonial administrative centre, and successively the capital of the East African Protectorate, the Kenya Colony and independent Kenya. The story of Nairobi’s public monuments starts in March 1906 with the unveiling of the Queen Victoria statue, which begins the making of a monumental landscape intended visually to link Nairobi with the British Empire and to assert colonial and imperial power.

An imperial monumental landscape: a visual link to the British Empire

©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.

The Queen Victoria statue was one of three monuments to British monarchs that stood in colonial Nairobi, the other two being the King George V statue, unveiled in June 1945, and the King George VI memorial fountain unveiled in December 1957. These monuments to British monarchical figures contributed to the construction of a landscape of colonial power. Celebration of the monarchy was part of the process through which Britain linked its empire as a social entity, through the reproduction in its periphery of its own perceived domestic social hierarchy. From a postcolonial perspective, the inscription of these monuments into the landscape can be seen as a cultural tool in the project of imperialism.

The monuments were to remind Nairobi’s population of the link with Britain and with the British Empire. The empire was symbolised through these monarchical figures where the persons of the Queen-Empress and King-Emperors formed an imperial aesthetic. The head of the British monarch was chosen to embody the empire. Yet not only were these monuments used to assert colonial authority in Nairobi, but they were also used to assert Kenya’s place in the empire, to prove to the imperial power the country’s position as a loyal member of the British Empire. This is particularly evident in the unveiling ceremony of the Queen Victoria statue, the whole choreography of events surrounding the ceremony creating a particularly visual spectacle. The unveiling was carried out by the Duke of Connaught, the first royal visitor to the protectorate, and Kenya’s East African Standard newspaper described how Nairobi was ‘profusely decorated’ on the day of the unveiling, and how the streets following the Duke’s journey from the Nairobi Railway Station to the statue in the Jeevanjee Gardens were ‘thronged with enthusiastic crowds, and lined on either side by Masai warriors who gave a most picturesque effect to the whole scene, and were an excellent object lesson in loyalty to the more truculent members of other local tribes’. The unveiling of the statue was a means of highlighting, to Nairobi’s residents, the authority of the British in the town. But it was also used to illustrate, to the visiting Duke of Connaught, that British authority had been asserted. In addition, the aggrandisement of the young town allowed the colonial government in Nairobi to prove to the royal visitor Kenya’s status as a loyal country of the empire.

The visit of T.R.H. the Duke and Duchess of Connaught to Nairobi, 1906. Exhibit of Game Trophies en-route. McMillan Library, Nairobi. All rights reserved.

Even late in the day of the British Empire, Nairobi continued to illustrate a desire to express loyalty to the dissolving empire, as is evident through the unveiling of the King George VI memorial at the end of 1957, and also of the East Africa Memorial at the beginning of 1956. Both these monuments were erected and unveiled during Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Mau Mau challenged colonial rule and during this period of instability the erection of the King George VI memorial and the East Africa Memorial asserted and visualised colonial power. In addition, the then Governor of Kenya, Governor Baring, used the unveiling ceremony of the East Africa Memorial to stress loyalty to the emerging idea of the commonwealth.

First and second world war memorials: a landscape of assigned public memories

Nairobi’s East Africa Memorial commemorates all those who fought and died for the British Empire during the Second World War, including the Africans who died in this war. Nairobi’s First World War memorials tell a different story, however. The Great War marked a juncture in the commemoration of war and the war dead, and in response to the volume of casualties, the Imperial War Graves Commission created landscapes of collective remembrance in Europe.

Consistency in design allowed strong connections and links between these landscapes of remembrance, and this was also extended to East Africa through, for example, the Nairobi South Cemetery, in which there also stands a memorial naming the British and Indian officers and men who died in the First World War.

The Africans who died fighting for the British in this war were commemorated by the African War Memorial, which stands elsewhere in Nairobi. The figurative statuary of the African War Memorial strongly contrasts the form of the British and Indian Memorial and emphasises the different collective memory provided for the Africans as compared to that provided for the British and Indians. Through the East African Memorial in the Nairobi War Cemetery, the Africans who died in the Second World War were included in the empire’s wider commemoration of the war dead and thus became part of the symbolic landscape of remembrance created by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The unveiling ceremony of the East Africa Memorial was also consistent with those carried out elsewhere in the empire. So even as Africa was scrambling for its independence, the British continued to assert their cultural power and brand their imperial stamp on Nairobi’s landscape.

Settler monuments in colonial Nairobi: an identity rooted in the African land


Settler monuments in colonial Nairobi: an identity rooted in the African land.
©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.

The third group of monuments that stood in colonial Nairobi consists of settler monuments such as the Lord Delamere statue, the Galton-Fenzi memorial and the Hamilton fountain. In the creation of an identity for themselves, as read from these monuments, Kenya’s settlers retained a connection with Britain as well as drawing on the African land. Furthermore, examining these monuments uncovers the often uneasy relationship and battles of power between the settlers and the colonial government. The statue of Lord Delamere, arguably Kenya’s most famous white settler, was the first of Nairobi’s colonial-era monuments to be removed in the transition to independence in Kenya.


Statue of Lord Delamere in Nairobi.
Rob Bullock. All rights reserved.

Transition period: resistance and reinvention

Colonial Nairobi’s monumental landscape was inscribed by those who had the power to do so and they controlled what was written into the landscape. However, resistance by the colonised could be made apparent in the monumental landscape through other means. For example, at the end of 1958, the East African Standard noted that, ‘Vandals wrecked the Queen Victoria statue in Jeevanjee Gardens’. Colonial government concerns over the threat of possible defacement and damage to colonial monuments are apparent throughout the archival records. This awareness of an underlying resistance became frantic concern as Kenya approached independence. As soon as the country achieved its independence on 12 December 1963, the once-colonised removed monuments erected by the former coloniser. During this transition period, the Lord Delamere statue, the King George V statue and the bronze portrait plaque on the King George VI memorial were all removed.


Removal of the King George V statue.
Source: East African Standard. All rights reserved.

In independent Kenya, the new Kenyan government had the power to control what was forgotten and what was remembered in the landscape. The transition period in the lead up to and the attainment of independence saw the beginning of the reinvention of the city’s symbolic landscape when the colonial identities, memories and meanings inscribed into the landscape were overwritten with a new layer of postcolonial narratives. In History and Memory, Jacques Le Goff wrote that ‘Individuals composing a society almost always feel the need to have ancestors, and one of the roles of great men is to fill that need.’ New settler colonies were faced with the need to create a settler identity and in colonial Kenya, Lord Delamere had provided the country’s settler society with an ‘ancestor’ in the creation of such an identity. Now, the African political elite appointed Jomo Kenyatta, independent Kenya’s first president, as an ancestor in the making of a postcolonial Kenyan national identity – Kenyatta became the ‘Father of the Nation’.

The Kenyatta statues: continuity with the colonial monumental landscape

Two statues of Kenyatta were the first to be erected in the independent country. Kenyatta is depicted very differently in both monuments. The earlier statue, erected in December 1964, celebrates Kenyatta’s role in the achievement of independence, while the second statue, unveiled in December 1973, confidently depicts him in his role as the established leader of Kenya. However, the erection of both monuments fulfilled the same purpose: a celebration of Kenyatta and a political tool in the assertion of his power. The monuments were intended to symbolise independent Kenya. Yet through the artists chosen to sculpt them – both statues were designed and sculpted in England – and through their figurative forms, the two Kenyatta statues show continuity with the colonial monumental landscape.


Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya.
Source: East African Standard. All rights reserved.


Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya.
©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.

However, the examination of this long transition period in Nairobi’s monumental landscape suggests that only a tentative attempt was made to create a Kenyan national identity. The two Kenyatta statues were the only two erected in Nairobi during Kenyatta’s presidency and through their figurative form both relied on Kenyatta’s authority as Father of the Nation. No other ideals or ideologies were drawn upon. It was not until the Nyayo era that a more concerted effort to use monuments to create a postcolonial identity can be seen through Nairobi’s symbolic landscape, where the Nyayo-era monuments are also strong statements of power.

The Nyayo-Era monuments: a postcolonial aesthetic

Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who was officially installed as Kenya’s second president on 10 October 1978. As president, Moi developed the Nyayo philosophy. A Kiswahili word meaning ‘footsteps’, the Nyayo slogan emphasised the continuity Moi intended to implement as he followed in the footsteps of Kenyatta, equipped with the new foundational tenets of love, peace and unity. As well as promoting Nyayoism as a nation-building ideology, Moi employed the philosophy as means to assert, advertise and legitimise the authority of his ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and his own power as leader of KANU. According to Moi, ‘there are three important factors in the Kenyan style of nation-building: the vehicle, the force and the philosophy. KANU is the vehicle, Nyayo is the moving spirit or force, and Nyayoism is the philosophy’. In order to achieve ‘the Kenya we want, in peace, love and unity’, Moi demanded, ‘all Wananchi must pledge undivided loyalty and commitment to the nation, the Head of State, the ruling party and the Government’. Moi’s presidency became known as the Nyayo era, and an era of state repression.

Nairobi’s Nyayo-era monuments were erected in a highly charged political context and common to most of them is their large, imposing size and their dominating presence in the landscape, claiming solidity and stability. Evident in their design is the manner in which the political elite claimed the memory of the moment of independence to validate their authority and to associate themselves with the independent country. While the form of the city’s colonial-era monuments are to a great extent figurative and literal, that of its Nyayo­-era monuments can be described as more abstract and metaphorical. They are highly symbolic, both in size and form, and they create a postcolonial aesthetic through their mixture of symbolic images and concepts, ‘as befits the palimpsestual tension in postcolonialism’ described by Richard Werbner in Memory and the Postcolony. These monuments employ symbols that can be read as African, such as the sculpture of Mount Kenya, a symbol of the country, and the KANU cockerel, representative, in African culture, of a leader (Nyayo Monument); symbols that are more universal, such as the dove and the colour white for peace (National Monument), and the image of a family as a metaphor for the nation (Nyayo Monument); symbols that are more explicitly ‘western’, such as the raising of the flag - this imagery made famous through the iconic photograph of the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima (National Monument); and symbols that draw on socialist-style imagery, such as the machine cogs in the ‘Industry’ medallion (Nyayo Monument). The different symbols and images of the Nyayo-era monuments are strung together in a collection of abstract shapes and forms, curves and lines.


Nyayo Monument, Central Park.
©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.


National Monument, Uhuru Gardens.
©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.

In addition, these monuments were designed to be ‘interactive’. By their very nature, all monuments are of course intended to be viewed. But Nairobi’s Nyayo-era monuments include structures and space, such as surrounding benches or steps, to allow for the leisurely viewing and reflection on the monuments. This highlights the grand ideals embodied by the monuments, and also the expectations that these grand ideals would be engaged with and accepted by the wider public. In addition, through the construction of such public space the public are being invited to participate in the celebration of the nation-state. The constellation of ideas embodied in these monuments attempts to legitimise, as well as assert, KANU’s authority. Furthermore, they seek to demand loyalty to the ruling party and, through a national identity, to the nation-state.

However, the construction of such monuments also inadvertently creates the symbolic space for the ordinary public to make its voice heard and to resist such embodied ideals. Celebrating ten years of Nyayo, Nairobi’s Nyayo Monument has been particularly targeted over the years. For example, in February 1990 it was damaged by student demonstrators hurling stones, dustbins and other objects at the monument while in October 2004 members of the Release Political Prisoners Pressure Group (RPP) demanded that a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission be established in Kenya and defaced the monument.

Nairobi’s public monuments through a postcolonial lens

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan novelist, playwright and essayist, considers power through cultural subjugation to be the principal tool of imperialism. Drawing on the postcolonial scholarly writings of wa Thiong’o, and as is evident in the examination of colonial Nairobi, monuments can be seen as cultural artefacts used by the coloniser to dominate and subjugate the colonised.

With the achievement of independence in Kenya, wa Thiong’o describes how the transfer of power from the coloniser to a small African political elite groomed by the coloniser ensured the continued domination of the ordinary public. He asserts that independence was not necessarily accompanied by cultural decolonisation and that a form of neo-colonial domination persists in Kenya in which the state ‘identifies with the imperialist heritage, colonial and neo-colonial, and it sees in imperialism the motive force of Kenya’s development’. This is also apparent in Nairobi’s monumental landscape where the erection of monuments by the new ruling elite in post-independence Kenya continued to be used as a tool in the assertion of power and where the postcolonial state used the western tradition of monuments as a means of writing their version of history into the landscape.

In colonial Kenya, the subaltern was composed of the colonised, the Africans. With the achievement of independence, a section of the former colonised became the dominant group and the stratification of Kenyan society shifted from being one divided along racial lines to one organised by class. Up until 1992, Nairobi’s postcolonial monumental landscape very much reflects domination by Kenya’s political elites. It was not until after this period and the end of Moi’s presidency in 2002 that other voices slowly began to make themselves heard in this landscape. As the lifting of colonial rule created a space in the city’s symbolic landscape for the expression of resistance and the inscription of new voices, so too did the lifting of Moi’s authoritarian regime. This was illustrated, for example, through the political vandalism of the Nyayo Monument in 2004, while in February 2007 a statue of Mau Mau freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi was unveiled.

Identifying heroes: a Kenyan identity or just another political tool?

This statue of Kimathi was the first official monument to the Mau Mau rebellion, the pre-independence war that witnessed horrific torture, the detention of hundreds and thousands of Kenyans, and the deaths of tens of thousands. Official memory of the Mau Mau had been suppressed through decades of state-endorsed amnesia but was finally given a place in Nairobi’s monumental landscape 47 years after the end of the rebellion, and 50 years after Kimathi’s death. Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi as Kenya’s third president, and unveiling the Kimathi statue, President Kibaki stressed that his government was committed to honouring Kenya’s national heroes and heroines. Rather than the generic (male) hero commemorated in the Nyayo-era National Monument, ‘real’ heroes, in the sense of named individuals given hero- or heroine-status by Kenyans, were to be identified.

The most recent identified hero to be honoured in Nairobi’s monumental landscape is Tom Mboya, a prominent politician, trade unionist and nationalist who was assassinated in 1969. Mboya’s statue was unveiled on 20 October 2011, on Mashujaa Day – or Heroes’ Day. Kibaki’s ‘hero phase’ in Nairobi’s monumental landscape indicates a desire to create a Kenyan national identity through the identification and celebration of national heroes. But with presidential elections scheduled so close to the unveiling of both statues – in 2007 and 2012 (which were delayed to 2013) – it is not difficult to identify the broader political motive behind these statues.

In March 2013, Kenya’s fourth president, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta, was elected. It remains to be seen how this new president and his government will shape Nairobi’s monumental landscape.


Kimathi statue, Nairobi.
©2013 Laragh Larsen. All rights reserved.


Tom Mboya statue, Nairobi.
Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Permission must be obtained from the author before any of the photos marked ©2013 Laragh Larsen can be re-used.


This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament research programme at the University of Warwick and the Leverhulme Trust.

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