The Imperial Inheritance: The Legacies and Consequences of Empire for East Africa, the West, and the Wider World

Building on a comparative project on empire and bureaucracy that I co-edited with Peter Crooks of Trinity College Dublin and collaborative work with Mike Rowe of the University of Liverpool, my current book project aims to document precisely the continuities and divergences that took place before, during, and after the transfer of power to the Kenyatta regime.

The story of how the Kenya Colony and Protectorate became the Republic of Kenya reveals both continuities and ruptures between colonial and national institutions and practices in the first decade of Kenyan independence.  In hindsight, the conventional area studies analytical framework was ill-suited to explain how the dynamic processes of decolonization were part of western administrative policy, cold war politics, and the global push for development on the capitalist model.  Put another way, we need to better understand the messily intimate mechanics of governance from the perspectives of those who tried to get "other" people to do things that they did not want to do and those other people who did not always do what they were told.  This more holistic approach broadens the story of the transfer of power in East Africa to better explain how liberal western democracies developed illiberal methods of governing, policing and developing peoples they deemed to be different, marginal and potentially threatening.  This then is an alternate history of the twentieth century that recounts the story of modernization, development and nation-building.  In doing so it shows that the long-departed twentieth century empires were not exceptional short-lived aberrations but in fact extensions of the western nation state.  This is how "imperial" methods that were developed and refined in the laboratory that was colonial Africa are still in use in both contemporary African and western societies.

The book operates on the premise that the broad narrative details of imperial conquest, administration, and the transfer of power are fairly well understood, but the abstract models that are supposed to explain these processes obscure key insights into how they functioned on a day-to-day basis. It takes the lived experiences of actual people, both the rulers and the ruled, to fully understand the origins, evolution, modifications, and current manifestations of imperial systems of governance and control. Theoretical studies of African state formation, political instability, state failure, ethnic strife, and corruption fail to explain the agendas of individual actors. Paying close attention to individuals exposes important nuances, unexpected actions, motives, and compromises that are often missing from more abstract treatments of the key events of the twentieth century.

The lived experiences of administrators, development experts, policemen, and most importantly ordinary people reveal the largely unseen, both inadvertently and intentionally, inspirations, goals, and consequences of administration and development. It is these consequences that are central to actually understanding, if not remediating, the very real problems confronting contemporary Africa. Journalistic sensationalism underpins the “Africa as basket case” stereotype that is often really nothing more than an excuse to ignore the continent altogether, while turning actual people into social science abstractions produces generic explanatory models that are virtually useless in explaining how the continuities between the colonial and national eras are at the root of some of the most fundamental problems confronting contemporary African societies. 

“The Imperial Inheritance” focuses on the people whose lives intersected in specific places and institutions that were part of the larger narrative arc of the histories of Kenya, the wider empire, and metropolitan Britain. These sites of “competitive imaging,” to invoke Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation, ranged from the elite Alliance High School, which produced most of the first generation of Kenyan political elites, to the barracks of the King’s African Rifles, where ordinary soldiers nurtured a more populist vision of the new Kenya. The residents of Kibera, who have become prototypical development subjects in the popular global imagination, also had a vision of the new nation that was not in keeping with the plans drawn up by expatriate advisors in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development or the Kenya that the members new emerging elite eagerly anticipated. The interests, agendas, and biases of the actual people whose lives intersected in these imaginative spaces were both representative of larger processes and ideas and distinctly unique. In weaving their stories together into a larger narrative, the book employs a “six degrees of separation” strategy to show how the lives of all sorts of people -- elite and ordinary, urban and rural, expatriate and national, native and settler, ruler and ruled -- intersected during key periods in Kenyan, imperial, and indeed metropolitan British history. 

Timothy H. Parsons - Professor of African History - Washington University in St. Louis