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NEWS > Obituaries > Oliver Knowles: soldier, colonial administrator and civil servant

Oliver Knowles: soldier, colonial administrator and civil servant

Oliver Knowles was one of the last of a distinguished and able generation of public servants who administered Britain's East African colonies through the birth throes of independence.
15 Feb 2023

Oliver Knowles was one of the last of a distinguished and able generation of public servants who administered Britain’s East African colonies through the birth throes of independence. As Development Secretary in the Treasury of the newly independent Kenya, he ran a programme that gave it the highest per capita aid in the world and made it one of the most flourishing of the new African nations.

As a young officer Knowles organised supplies for the Indian Army in the Burma Campaign and this experience led him to study economics; later in his career he was a pioneer of free-trade areas. When he was in Kenya he contributed to the establishment in 1967 of the East African Community set up to promote political, economic and social co-operation between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

Oliver Staniforth Knowles was educated at Mill Hill School and Oriel College, Oxford, and qualified for a war degree in law in 1940 before being called up and sent to India. Commissioned into the Royal Indian Army Service Corps in 1942, he served with the 17th Indian Division transport and supply column during the retreat through the malarial Kabaw Valley in 1942. He proved an outstanding organiser and was mentioned in despatches.

When the Japanese cut the Manipur road south of Imphal in March 1944 and, in parallel, advanced on Kohima, Knowles was flown with a small staff into Imphal to organise the forward air supply of the three divisions of IV Corps from the railhead at Dimapur, using US Air Force Dakotas diverted from the China airlift.

After Imphal was relieved by the British 2nd Division, Knowles was posted back to Allied Land Forces HQ where he devised a system that revolutionised the calculating of operational supply requirements using hand-held Marchant calculators.

Following the recapture of Rangoon, he was posted to HQ 12th Army and promoted lieutenant-colonel to take charge of feeding the army in Burma. On leave he trekked up the Gyantse trade route to Tibet by mule. Crossing the Jelep La pass at 16,000ft, he passed the frozen bodies of porters caught in a recent snowstorm and narrowly escaped being caught in another.

Demobilised in 1946 he went back to read politics, philosopy and economics at Oxford where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Watkins, a former WAAF cipher officer, while both were looking for the same book in the Bodleian Library. In 1949 he joined the Colonial Administrative Service, encouraged by his wife who came from a leading Kenyan family. Not being a cricketer, he was posted far from Nairobi in Turkana district under the celebrated District Commissioner Leslie Whitehouse. “Wouse” was subsequently to form a close friendship with Jomo Kenyatta during the latter’s internment in Lodwar — under Wouse’s supervision, an episode that appears to have helped to alter Kenyatta’s subsequent attitude to the British in Kenya when he became its first President. In Turkana, Knowles was one of a team of just three officials administering an area of Kenya larger than the United Kingdom. In addition he was gazetted a magistrate in Khartoum; by an administrative convenience of the Empire, the southernmost tip of Sudan, the Ilemi triangle, was run from northern Kenya.

After serving in Lodwar and Lokitaung, also in Turkana district, he was posted to Malindi, on the coast, where he found himself busy as town clerk, port officer, receiver of wrecks, lighthouse keeper, prison officer and ex-officio agent of the public trustee — a portfolio that he compared with that of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. He organised a piped water supply and the construction of a new hospital. As a magistrate he showed particular skill and sensitivity in bringing traditional African practice into law in a way that was acceptable to all parties. In Kiambu, in central Kenya, he handled land claims in Kikuyuland with sensitivity and gained a reputation for integrity and impartiality among the Kikuyu. Further work in Kisii in South Nyanza resulted in a paper in the Journal of African Administration on “Some Modern Adaptations of Customary Law in the Settlement of Matrimonial Disputes in the Luo, Kisii and Kuria tribes of South Nyanza”.

Also in South Nyanza, as district sports officer at Kisii, Knowles was impressed by the local runners and created a sinecure at the sports ground for Nyandika Maiyoro, the first of Kenya’s world-class long-distance athletes, so that he could train full time. Maiyoro’s resulting success at the Melbourne Summer Olympics in 1956 and elsewhere blazed a trail for future great Kenyan runners from the highlands.

Transferred to the Kenya Treasury in 1955, Knowles was then seconded as a “beachcomber” Principal to the British Treasury in 1957 where he made recommendations for Treasury funding for the Royal Society, the new Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the restoration of Roman villas and accepting country houses in lieu of death duties.

Returning to Kenya in 1959 as an Under-Secretary he was put in charge of development planning and foreign aid and was made Joint Secretary of the Development Committee of the Cabinet. He continued in these roles during the self-government stage and succeeded in getting for Kenya the highest level of aid of any developing country. He was appointed OBE in 1964 for his services to Kenya.

Remaining there after independence, he was promoted to Deputy Secretary and together with Tom Mboya, the Minister of Economic Planning and Development, they drafted a paper on “African Socialism” for President Kenyatta as an urgent counter to the Maoist “little red books” of President Julius Nyerere of neighbouring Tanzania and others in the cold war propaganda battle. The paper set out principles for an indigenous African capitalism. Knowles’s self-effacing and pragmatic approach was perceived as sympathetic and scrupulously fair both by Kenyatta and the new generation of young African civil servants whom he trained.

In his memoirs, Back Seat Driver (2008), Knowles expressed his disappointment at Kenyatta’s failure to sack corrupt ministers despite the evidence, as well as to deal with other corrosive practices such as permitting civil servants to enter business. Knowles resigned in 1969.

He then joined UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in Geneva as an inter-regional adviser on economic co-operation among developing countries. He had various assignments of which the most successful perhaps was as deputy team leader of the UN advisory team for ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), whose recommendations for the ASEAN free trade area were adopted in 1975, and led to the subsequent success of the “tiger economies”.

Knowles also advised inter alia the Regional Co-operation for Development secretariat of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, the Mano River Union (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea), the Communaute Economique des Grand Lacs (Ruanda, Burundi and Zaire), and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States).

He finally retired to Oxfordshire in 1983.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and four sons.

Oliver Knowles, OBE, soldier, colonial administrator and civil servant, was born on February 23, 1920. He died on August 22, 2008, aged 88

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