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Kenya celebrates 50 years of freedomPublish Date: Dec 12, 2013
Kenya celebrates 50 years of freedom
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A Kenyan man painted as a national flag arrives at the Kasarani stadium in Nairobi on December 12, 2013. PHOTO/AFP

NAIROBI - Kenyans marked half a century of independence from Britain on Thursday, celebrating progress of the regional economic powerhouse but also struggling to shake off a legacy of corruption, inequality and ethnic violence.

Celebrations began at midnight on Wednesday, with the Kenyan flag raised in Nairobi's Uhuru Gardens -- meaning "freedom" in Swahili -- in a reenactment of the moment 50 years earlier when Britain's rule since 1895 came to a close.

Climbers were also scaling the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya to raise a flag there too.

In another echo of history, 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.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the public at the Kasarani stadium. PHOTO/AFP

"On this night 50 years ago Kenyans gathered at these grounds... that night was at once the dusk of oppression and the golden dawn of liberty," Kenyatta said, as supporters sang and danced wildly, as they had done to his father's speech.

"From that night the empire waned and a proud new nation was born....finally Kenyans were masters of their own destiny."

Today, anti-colonial rhetoric is being drummed up again, 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 in which over 1,00 died, has campaigned hard to have his trial at International Criminal Court suspended, appealing for support from fellow African presidents and at 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.

Kenyan troops parade past the presidential dias. PHOTO/AFP

Kenyan military helicopters fly past the presidential dias. PHOTO/AFP

Eritrea's president Isaias Afewerki (L) sits next to Kenya former president Mwai Kibaki. PHOTO/AFP

"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.

Tens of thousands of Kenyans waving flags and singing gathered later at the main sports stadium in Nairobi for military parades and speeches, watched also by Kenyatta and over a dozen fellow African leaders.

'Mixed bag' of achievements

But for many Kenyans, the anniversary is a date to rather look forward to build their nation rather than dredge up the ghosts of the past.

Many are critical.

"This will be a season of hagiography," wrote Patrick Gathara, a well known media commentator and cartoonist in a recent article.

"Kenya will put on its Sunday-best gear and apply some patriotic perfume to cover the stench of the last five decades."

Rwandan dancers perform at the Kasarani stadium. PHOTO/AFP

Traditional dancers from Burundi present a traditional song and dance. PHOTO/AFP

President Kenyatta (R) shakes hands with his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO/AFP

This week the World Bank cut its growth forecast for Kenya for 2013 and 2014 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.

Last week, 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, a stark reminder of the challenges that remain to reconcile deep ethnic and political divisions.

Security too remains a challenge, with Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab threatening Kenya with more attacks following its Nairobi Westgate mall massacre in September, in revenge for Kenya's two-year military invention in southern Somalia.

As celebrations took place in Nairobi, attackers hurled a grenade at British tourists in the coastal city of Mombasa but it failed to explode, a rare attack specifically targeting the foreign visitors who are key to the economy.

In central Nairobi, special bunting has been placed on the statue of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, striding out carrying a rifle with the fighters' trademark dreadlocks flowing.

"It is good to remember those that brought this country to freedom," said Mary Wambugu, a teacher.

But for the youth hawking goods at the tourists, important matters are for jobs and more services.

"If they spent the money on clean water and hospitals, then that would be something to really mark independence," said George Odula, who lives in one of Nairobi's crowded slum districts, tightly packed shacks of corrugated iron, which rub shoulders with luxury estates heavily protected with razor wire and guards.

"More speeches and a parade won't change anything for people like us."

The bitter legacy of the grabbing of land by a privileged elite soon after independence angers many too.

"It is undeniable that progress has been made," Gathara added, but noting that an honest appraisal of the past 50 years were "at best... a mixed bag".

"Less will be said of the fact that Kenya is actually one of the most unequal places on earth, that much of the progress, especially the growth in incomes, has largely been concentrated in the top five percent of the population," Gathara added.

The national monument that stands in Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, where in 1963 the Union Flag was lowered and the Kenyan standard raised for the first time on independence day. PHOTO/AFP


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