The Journey of the Nation: 1960 – 1969 –
By Gerry Loughran
By any measure, 1960 was an epoch-defining year. At a time when the Cold War between the Kremlin and the West held a fearful world in its grip, American spy pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory. France tested its first atomic bomb, Fidel Castro nationalised industry in Cuba and Nikita Khrushchev angrily pounded his shoe on a desk at the United Nations. Africa was in ferment. The Sharpeville massacre in South Africa brought demands for national independence to boiling point all over the continent. In French West Africa, colony after colony demanded and secured its sovereignty.
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan signalled that the same course must follow in Anglophone Africa when he declared, first in Accra then in Cape Town: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, the growth of national consciousness is a political fact…our national policies must take account of it.” Africa’s restlessness was mirrored in the United States, where Afro-American students began a series of sit-ins at lunch counters, demanding an end to segregation and recognition of blacks’ civil rights. But two young Americans hinted at a new era ahead.
At the Rome Olympics, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won a boxing gold medal, and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy first suggested a peace corps be formed to help the less-favoured nations, an idea that came to fruition after his election the following year. It was into this turbulent world that, on March 20, 1960, The Nation was born. Describing itself as “East Africa’s newest, liveliest Sunday”, a leading article declared: “Very briefly, we intend to live up to our name and do everything in our power to help the various communities of East Africa to build nations where people of all races can live freely and peacefully under the rule of law. Beyond this, The Nation accepts the desirability of the transfer of power to African majorities in the three territories of East Africa within the next few years.”
Just as Macmillan’s “wind of change” statement to South Africa’s white lawmakers in Cape Town was met with stony silence, The Nation’s declared support for African majority rule provoked a similarly hostile reaction from many in Kenya’s white settler community.
Although Mau Mau activities had long ended, a state of emergency was still in force, the economy was fragile, land values were plummeting and the talk among farmers was of selling up and fleeing south. On the day after The Nation’s birth, a Johannesburg township became an international byword for atrocity and the newspaper’s second issue carried the heading, “Black Monday at Sharpeville”. A spread of smuggled photos showed the scattered bodies of some 69 South African blacks gunned down by Sten gun-armed police during a demonstration against that country’s draconian pass laws. Ten of the dead were children and eight were women; 180 others were injured. “There was no warning,” reported The Nation’s special correspondent, “no shots over the heads of the crowd, not even firing at the feet. It was a concentrated, coldblooded burst after burst into the packed crowd.”
The massacre prompted widespread outrage and international condemnation and became a turning point in South African history, driving the regime deep into isolation until the fall of apartheid many decades later. But, first, another South African sensation grabbed headlines in Kenya. Just two weeks after Sharpeville, a pro-empire, antiapartheid white farmer shot Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd twice in the face. The tough old Afrikaner survived and soon returned to power but, in 1966, he was stabbed to death in the Cape Town parliament building by a messenger who was later declared insane. Few new newspapers could have feasted on such a significant diet of events of immediately relevant import.
The Nation was a Sunday paper, changing its title to Sunday Nation shortly before the Daily Nation was launched seven months later. It was not the sort of newspaper Kenyans were accustomed to read. For a start, it was produced using the then revolutionary web-offset method of printing, a new technology which provided quality far ahead of that available to other publishing houses. Also, unlike the broadsheet East African Standard, which dominated the market, it was what is now known as a compact. The shape alone reminded expatriates of the popular British tabloid, Daily Mirror, which they considered sensational and unreliable. In fact, while it may have been guilty of sensationalism and self-aggrandisement, the Mirror reported aggressively conscientiously on issues of importance and had its own network of correspondents around the world. The choice of newspapers in colonial Kenya was limited.
For English speakers, in addition to the Standard, there was the Sunday Post and a small number of weekly magazines, prominent among them the Kenya Weekly News published in Nakuru. Ethnic newspapers were available, mainly Asian, but including Baraza and Jicho in Kiswahili. To these had recently been added Taifa Leo, the first Kiswahili daily and the Nation Group’s first publishing effort, which it developed in 1959 from a weekly bought from private interests. There were also publications devoted to specific African community interests and written in the languages of those communities. There was no doubt where Kenya’s established English language publications stood politically — four-square behind the Governor and the colonial government which in turn acknowledged the authority of the British government in London.
Indeed, the East African Standard carried Britain’s coat of arms on its front page until the day before Kenya achieved independence. The Nation’s support for majority rule “within the next few years”, as declared in its launch issue, not only proclaimed where the group’s sympathies lay but also boldly challenged the establishment’s accepted scenario for the path to independence. This, even among many sympathisers, foresaw that if Africans were ever to rule Kenya, it would be many, many years in the future. Commercially, however, The Nation’s stance made it a hostage to fortune, since illiteracy among its target African audience was high, while most of those with consumer power found its political stance too radical by far. It was evident that if the new paper was to succeed, it would be a long and punishing journey. It proved to be so.
The commitment to African majority rule was no accident. Back in 1957, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims worldwide, had been talking with young African nationalists such as Tom Mboya and Julius Kiano about what lay in Kenya’s future. The Aga Khan assumed leadership of his community at the age of 20 on the death of his grandfather. Having lived in a Nairobi suburb as a boy, his association with the country was no accident. This young man was well aware that most newspapers in East Africa tended to be mouthpieces of the colonial governments, denying any platform for the aspirations of upcoming African politicians. Believing they were entitled to a full say in the independence debate, he determined to start a newspaper that would be open to all voices. The Aga Khan’s media aide at the time was Michael Curtis, a former editor of the News Chronicle in London, and it was he who became the architect of a group which grew eventually to dominate the East and Central African publishing market.
In the straitened circumstances of the time, however, outside investment proved impossible to secure and so funding of the venture, with all its concomitant risks, came exclusively from the Aga Khan. John Bierman was hired from Fleet Street to be editor and editorial and production staff was recruited, mainly from Britain because of the paucity of trained African journalists and managers. The stated and much repeated aim, however, were to create a newspaper that would be “written and managed by Africans for Africans”. Curtis rented a former bakery on what was then Victoria Street in central Nairobi. It was adapted for newspaper production and the foundations of the group were laid.
Source: Nation Media