Phoebe Musandu, professor of History at GU-Q and a scholar of African history, was invited to discuss her research on Kenyan newspapers in the colonial and post-colonial periods during a CIRS Focused Discussion, titled “Serve . . . as Best as We Can:” A Local East African Newspaper v. the State and Market Forces,” on March 11, 2019. Musandu began by providing some historical background, explaining that Kenya had been a protectorate as well as a colony of the British from 1895 to 1963. The country was subject to drastic structural reforms from the 1960s, with the press, in general, and newspapers specifically, playing an important role in shaping the narrative of the day.
In her research, Musandu examines the extent to which mass media are vehicles for public opinion. In order to study “not just the information, but who produces the information, how they disseminate it, and the power inherent in the ability to disseminate information and influence people,” she focused on the first African-owned newspaper in post-colonial Kenya, the Nairobi Times, which was established by Hilary Ng’weno in the 1970s. At the time, two pro-government, foreign-owned newspapers dominated the market, the East African Standard and The Nation.
Musandu argued that the odds were against the Nairobi Times from the beginning. This was largely due to a restrictive political environment and to the meager capital base of its owner, Ng’weno. In the colonial era, she explained, Africans had started and successfully managed newspapers, but the market had changed in the post-colonial era, such that a significant amount of capital investment was necessary to establish a newspaper. Musandu argued that “this was another challenge Africans faced in the transition to independence, and in the early years of independence—international banks did not want to give loans to Africans.”
However, despite these structural setbacks, Ng’weno was able to obtain loans from the Industrial Development Bank and from the National Bank of Kenya, which was a parastatal—a business partially controlled by the state. This put Ng’weno in the delicate position of having to report on the government, even as it was the newspaper’s primary funder, Musandu said. Repayment of these loans required that the Nairobi Times generate significant income from advertising, which put it at a great disadvantage to its established competitors.
Musandu contextualized the environment of news reporting in Kenya in its transition to independence. One of the oldest newspapers was the East African Standard, founded by influential British settlers and sold to Lonrho—formerly the mining company London Rhodesia—in 1967. The CEO of Lonrho, Roland Rowland, had a great sphere of influence in the UK and in Kenya, which included members of the Parliament, and President Jomo Kenyatta and his family. Rowland strategically invested in business opportunities through Lonrho, and every investment he made, and his interactions with the president and his family members, were covered extensively in the Standard. This served to increase Rowland’s visibility and power.
“The newspapers for them, I argue, were not about public opinion, they were not an end—they were a means to an end. The end being the protection and consolidation of economic interests outside of the newspaper itself.”
The other major daily, the Daily Nation, was primarily owned by the Aga Khan—the spiritual leader of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam. At a turbulent time when racial minorities, including many Asians, were migrating from Kenya due to political and economic uncertainty in the years immediately before and after independence, the Aga Khan urged Ismailis to remain and make the country their permanent home. He led the way by investing his personal/Ismaili funds in profitable ventures to improve investor confidence in the country and in a bid to contribute to the stabilization of the economy. Musandu said, “He used this newspaper to essentially communicate to the state the necessity of preserving a political and economic environment that was favorable to everyone—the majority and the minority.”
The East African Standard and the Daily Nation both allied themselves with the state, Musandu said. “They were very afraid of contradicting the government, and I think this was done precisely because they were using their publications to defend their investments.” This behavior revealed a continued trend of newspaper owners engaging centers of power in the interests of capital that dates back to the British colonial era, she said. “The newspapers for them, I argue, were not about public opinion, they were not an end—they were a means to an end. The end being the protection and consolidation of economic interests outside of the newspaper itself,” Musandu contended.
Furthermore, opposing the government narrative had drastic repercussions, according to Musandu. She gave an example of a highly regarded newspaper editor who was fired after publishing an article that was critical of government detention of university professors and students. Subsequently, the newspaper ran a public apology to the government on the front page. Musandu found numerous documents in the archives that showed how the government would summon the editors and owners of different publications in order to interrogate them when they stepped out of line.
The title of Musandu’s talk, “Serve as Best as We Can,” comes from the first edition of the Nairobi Times, in which Ng’weno outlined his goals for the publication. Musandu argued that he used those words because he understood the political environment in which he was operating, noting that Ng’weno was intent on taking on the established newspapers. “He wanted to raise the level of political discourse in the country, and wanted it to be fiercely independent,” she said. In conclusion, Musandu argued the prevailing political environment, in which the dissemination of news was secondary to vested interests in other sectors of the economy, meant that Ng’weno’s experiment with a free press was short lived, and he was forced to shut down his newspaper due to bankruptcy. The government bought the newspaper from him and re-branded it as the Kenya Times.
Article by Khansa Maria, CURA Publications Fellow
Phoebe Musandu is a scholar of African history. She has research interests in African historical methodology, mass media and has published papers in women and gender history. Her last major research project resulted in a manuscript she is preparing for publication that examines the establishment and operations of various secular newspapers in East Africa between 1899 and 1990. As a consequence of working on this project, she has also developed an interest in the history of other forms of mass media as well as African commercial history which she intends to cultivate in the long-term. She is the author of Pressing Interests: The Agenda and Influence of a Colonial East African Newspaper Sector (McGill 2018).