Cushitic-speaking people from northern Africa moved into the area that is now Kenya beginning around 2000 B.C. Arab traders began frequenting the Kenyan coast around the first century. Kenya's proximity to the Arabian Peninsula invited colonization, and Arab and Persian settlements developed along the coast by the eighth century. During the first millennium, Nilotic and Bantu peoples moved into the region and Bantu now comprise three-quarters of Kenya's population.
The Swahili language, a mixture of Bantu and Arabic, developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples. Arab dominance on the coast was eclipsed by the arrival in 1498 of the Portuguese, who gave way in turn to Islamic control under the Imam of Oman in the 1600s. The United Kingdom established its influence in the 19th century.
The colonial history of Kenya dates from the Berlin Conference of 1885, when the European powers first partitioned East Africa into spheres of influence. In 1895, the U.K. government established the East African Protectorate and soon after opened the fertile highlands to white settlers. The settlers were allowed a voice in government even before it was officially made a U.K. colony in 1920, but Africans were prohibited from direct political participation until 1944.
From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the "Mau Mau" rebellion against British colonial rule. During this period, African participation in the political process grew rapidly.
Kenya became independent on Dec. 12, 1963, and the next year joined the Commonwealth. Jomo Kenyatta, a member of the large Kikuyu ethnic group and head of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), became Kenya's first president. The minority party, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), representing a coalition of small ethnic groups that had feared dominance by larger ones, dissolved itself voluntarily in 1964 and joined KANU.
After the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, President Daniel Arap Moi took the reins of power and for the next 24 years presided over a regime that was generally characterized by corruption, massive poverty and repression of democratic rights.
In October 2002, a coalition of opposition parties joined forces with a faction that broke away from KANU to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In December 2002, the NARC candidate, Mwai Kibaki, was elected the country's third president.
Kibaki's NARC coalition splintered in 2005 over a constitutional review process. Government defectors joined with KANU to form an opposition coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which defeated the government's draft constitution in a popular referendum in November 2005. Kibaki's reelection in December 2007 brought charges of vote rigging and unleashed two months of violence in which as many as 1,500 people died.
In August 2010, Kenyans overwhelmingly adopted a new constitution, which introduced additional checks and balances to executive power and significant devolution of power and resources to 47 newly created counties. It also eliminated the position of prime minister following the first presidential election under the new constitution, which occurred in March 2013.
Kenya’s government continues to face huge challenges in tackling poverty, massive unemployment, corruption and poor infrastructure - legacies of misrule in previous regimes. The HIV and AIDS pandemic is a serious threat to nation rebuilding efforts. Kenya also faces periodic droughts.
Kenya is the regional strategic player and has brokered peace efforts in Southern Sudan, Somalia and around the Great Lakes. Developments in all these countries give a reason to hope that peace will hold.
Source: The World Factbook, 2014.