Mau Mau: Did it bring independence?

Mau Mau fighters in a parade after Kenya attained political independence. They had to be persuaded to leave their bases.

What you need to know:

  • Some say the British Government was tired of administering colonies and would have gradually let them go, anyway. Others maintain that independence was never going to come on a silver platter, especially where there was a strong settler element like Kenya; that the Mau Mau slashed the colonialists’ wrists into freeing Kenya. The debate continues

Exactly 48 years ago, down went the Union Jack and up Kenya’s national flag at Uhuru Park. The country was free at last. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, preached reconciliation, urging people to forget the bitter past “because we all fought for freedom.”

Knowing how brutal the fight for independence had been, the old man reminded Kenyans on many occasions not to think about who was killed or who had killed whom in what fight.

But while he sought the support of everyone to push the nation forward, that part of history became documented elsewhere, and it has refused to go away.

Two government agencies today house objects that immortalise Kenya’s sharp ironic past. The Kenya National Archives along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue houses Kenya’s historical records and artefacts, while the National Museums of Kenya, on the other hand, houses archaeological findings.

At the Archives, shields, spears, home-made guns, animal-skin clothing and assorted war regalia remind you of how the Mau Mau war was fought.

Here you find books and journals on the warlords, colonial governors, loyal chiefs who ruled the land with iron fists and what happened to each of them.

Other documents tell you the number of people imprisoned or convicted at the time. There are also lists of punishment meted on those ‘suspected of consorting with terrorists’. ‘Terrorists’.

But while the National Archives is where you find almost all the information and files about the colonial period and who was involved, the National Museums gives you the brutal side of the story.

The agency has glassed a collection of bones said to be of human beings. One of the collection mimics that of a person lying flat on the back, facing the sky.

According to a caption below them, the bones were donated to the Museum by Kenya’s renowned archeologist Dr Richard Leakey.

The account further reads in part: “The skeletons are the remains of Africans who were killed during the great emergency of 1952-1960.”

The bones, according to a curator’s note, were exhumed by the police and used as evidence against the Mau Mau.

The collection is far less than the number of people who perished during this time. In fact, they were not just Africans, but Asians and Europeans as well.

The colonial government recorded that more than 1,800 African civilians were killed by the Mau Mau fighters, more others just vanished. Still, only 32 British settlers were killed by the Mau Mau.

Although there are no official records indicating the exact number of people who died in that war, consensus seems to be that, for every one settler killed, more than 600 Africans met their end.

In fact, some historians agree that more than the estimated 12,000 Mau Mau rebels were killed against just 200 British soldiers. These figures show how the colonialist used Africans against fellow Africans to pursue his cause.

In his book Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, David Anderson notes that “much of the struggle tore through African communities themselves, an internecine war waged between rebels and the so-called loyalists.”

In the end, he adds, “the rebels lost the war, and the loyalists won the peace. The struggle continues.” Loyalists were the chiefs and civilians who supported the colonial government. As a punishment, colonial courts also hanged about 1,090 Africans found guilty of supporting the Mau Mau.

But even with these figures, opinion is divided as to whether the Mau Mau was a worthy war. Besides the deaths and torture, the war cost over £55 million (about Sh8250,000,000 at current exchange rates), according to details from Imperial Policy and Decolonisation.

Jomo Kenyatta himself, after the end of the rebellion and subsequent independence, observed in his book, Suffering without Bitterness, that “Mau Mau was a disease which… must never be remembered again.”

“The fact that Kenyatta had to keep reminding Kenyans again and again not to talk about Mau Mau was in itself pregnant with meaning,” argues Prof Anderson.

According to Maseno University’s Professor William Ochieng’, the Mau Mau had no particular direction  and did not therefore play any significant role in the attainment of independence partly because it was not led “by university and high school graduates and hence lacked ideology.”

In A history of Kenya, Prof Ochieng’ has argued that the central economic and political problems which drove Kenyans to take up arms in order to drive out the British, mainly in Central Kenya, were influenced by the desire to have land by poor peasants, not to gain independence as has widely been thought.

So what was the meaning of this war? The story started in the late ’40s when a group of ex-World War soldiers became disillusioned after the colonial government declined to give them land or a source of livelihood.

With this, they started assembling into gangs to attack settlers who had taken over their land. One such gang was called the Forty Group.

According to historians, this group later changed and hid behind political organisations such as the Kenya African Union, then under the leadership of Kenyatta and the other Kapenguria Six.

With time, the Forty Group grew into a guerrilla army, even after political parties were later banned. Today, it is difficult to get first-hand information because most of those who were on the frontline in the Mt Kenya and the Aberdare forests have since died.

But interviews with those we could find reveal a deeper division. More than 50 years later, each side insists they were right and the opponents were wrong.

Tim Symonds was only 17 years old when the Emergency began. At that time, he was working on a dairy farm in Timau, Nanyuki. Then he joined an elite tracker team; a special military squad of the police. What did he see?

“The subsequent claim by some partial elements, that the Mau Mau was a movement struggling for Pan-Kenyan rights and independence is simply untrue,” he tells DN2.

“They were an unsettling aspect of Kenya’s last few years as a British colony and the resort to extreme violence distorted, even prolonged, the path to independence,” says Symonds.

According to Symonds, while the Mau Mau claimed to fight for freedom, the killing of their own people rather than targeting the British was a “terrible mistake.”

“Here is how,” he explains. “The British Government had got sick and tired of the (White) Kenyan Administration that appeared entirely oblivious of African aspirations.

But the suppression of the rebellion was equally brutal, often perpetuated through courts and the colonial fighters themselves. Being the leader of the tracker team, Symonds admits that they would often cut off the hands of killed Mau Mau as trophies.

So why didn’t the British not just move out?

“The British Government in the late 1940s promised Kenya independence in 20 years. They believed 20 years was sufficient time to train an efficient and honest civil service… and allow for an orderly withdrawal. The Mau Mau simply ignored all these factors in a pre-emptive strike,” says Symonds.

The Mau Mau, however, refute this claim. Gitu wa Kahengeri, spokesman of the Mau Mau Veterans Association, argues that the gun was the only language the colonialists understood.

“They never told us they would leave, but they continued to deny us land rights. They even banned political parties, the only channel through which we could raise grievances,” he says, admitting that some of the older participants had initially preferred dialogue. “But these talks were never successful because the colonialists kept on mistreating us.”

Kahengeri admits that he never actually fought, but was a “strategist who travelled all over the region looking for support.”

His father, he claims, was one of the warriors in the bush and was at one time detained in Lamu and Hola, where he was tortured by the British.

Mathenge Iregi claims he fought in the rebellion and alleges that captured Mau Mau supporters were castrated, beaten senseless or denied medication.

The story of torture was also captured in Wambui Otieno’s autobiography, Mau Mau’s Daughter: A life History, where she claimed women were raped.

A group of Mau Mau survivors have since sued the British Government for compensation.

But both sides admit that they did whatever they did to survive.

“We all played by different rules. I have not developed any sympathy for the Mau Mau,” says Symonds.

“Those of us who fought in the war could not go to England to sue because it would seem funny. Of course I had a gun and the colonialists had a gun too. Anyone could do anything to in defence,” says Iregi, who was 20 when the rebellion started.

So what was the relevance of a war which, in itself, did not bring independence to the country? Weren’t the British already creating reforms through the Littleton Constitution that allowed commercial farming to Africans?

No, retorts Moi University Chancellor Prof Bethuel Ogot. “The aim of these colonial reforms was to… undermine the support of the Mau Mau freedom fighters,” he writes in his essay The Decisive Years, 1956-63.

Iregi adds that “the war compelled the colonialists to come to the table for negotiations.”

According to Prof Hilda Nassimi, a historian from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, the Mau Mau war lingered on the minds of colonialists and the experience forced them to leave fast to avoid further losses.

“The Mau Mau ghost influenced each such factor, playing a part in constructing the ‘liberal state of mind’ that is said to have made the British leave Kenya,” she argues in an article published in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies.

“As a vanquished movement, the Mau Mau left behind a legacy of terror that proved more enduring than the actual struggle had been.”

Was the Mau Mau, therefore, an example of the influence of a movement on policy changes beyond the armed conflict? It remains a debate on who deserves credit.

TUESDAY: In a gripping flashback, a former prison guard speaks about his time with the jailed Kenyatta in Lokitaung and attempts to harm or — even kill the man who would be president.